In between the hushed tones and the soft laughs, Ilan Van Wilder has been talking with a level of assurance and ambition that belies his age and boyish looks. He’s rebuffed suggestions that he’s primed for a Sepp Kuss-esque role, and has made it abundantly clear that he’s not content being in the shadow of Remco Evenepoel, the other 22-year-old Belgian climber and GC star.
There’s a feistiness to him, an I'll-tell-you-what-I-feel vibe. Then the conversation softens and it turns to the act of riding uphill; not the power he can push out or how many people he can ride off his wheel (answer: a lot), but the feeling that comes with climbing ever higher, the landscape becoming more vast and more impressive.
“Even when I’m on a vacation without a bike, I look at mountains a lot,” the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider tells Rouleur. “I’ll see one and I’ll imagine a road going up there; if I can see a road I’m wondering what it would be like to ride on it. It's a passion, climbing.
“Each winter I go to Gran Canaria, not only because it’s good training, but because there are so many mountains nearby. I love those climbs where there’s lots of hairpins and you’re just riding left and then right. It’s super nice and the views are always amazing. I’ve done some really nice climbs in my life.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am living the dream that I had when I was a kid. It’s easy to forget sometimes. There’s not a lot of young riders who make their dream come true so it’s important to remind myself from time to time of the situation I am in and to be thankful.”
There is one location, however, where Van Wilder isn’t so appreciative of: Asturias in northern Spain. It was there in late August that the blonde-haired climber earned widespread plaudits for his work in teeing up his long-time friend Evenepoel to take control of the Vuelta a España that he eventually won.
Van Wilder was exceptional, hence the comparisons to Jumbo-Visma’s Kuss, but he was in a world of pain. “You can ask every pro cyclist, even those who are specialist climbers, and they will say that they don’t enjoy those steep climbs. Not in training, not in races - not ever!” he insists.
“They’re just too steep and you can’t focus on the view. No, for me I like longer, steady climbs with some hairpins and corners. And nice views, of course. That’s where my passion for the bike comes from.”
The Vuelta was Van Wilder’s first full Grand Tour (he started the 2020 Vuelta but abandoned during stage one) and he was instrumental in Evenepoel’s win. Like his friend who played football until he was 17, Van Wilder also took up cycling later in life.
“I was a swimmer until I was 14; it was my life,” he says. “I cycled from the age of nine but it was just for fun, like all Belgian kids do. Then when I quit swimming I started competing in cycling and I kept progressing.”
As second year juniors, both Van Wilder and Evenepoel rode for the Acrog-Pauwels Sauzen team, with the latter winning almost every race that he entered. While Quick-Step signed Evenepoel, Van Wilder took a more traditional route, spending a season with the club team of Lotto-Soudal. His talent was also so obvious though that Sunweb (later renamed to DSM) signed him on a pro deal aged 19.
It was, however, a difficult two years until he moved to Quick-Step last winter. Van Wilder won’t go into details, but there is a pattern of certain faces not fitting within the strict parameters that DSM operate in. “I have to say I am really young but I have had a lot of obstacles already on my part,” he says. “It’s not been easy, especially the last two seasons. It was not easy with DSM.”
The first half of his debut season with Quick-Step was plagued with issues, too, sickness and crashes acting as obstacles. “I had the feeling that every time I was building towards a certain goal, something would happen and completely disrupt me,” he bemoans.
Then came the Vuelta and all changed. Van Wilder had emerged. He recalls: “It was the first time I have had a full-time supporting role and I could take my first Grand Tour without pressure, helping as much as I could. I think I did pretty good and it was a big step in my career.
“There were some days when you think you’re the only one suffering but actually the whole bunch is. There was one tough stage - I don’t remember which - and I was at the front doing my job for Remco. I looked behind, expecting a lot of guys, and there were less than 10 left. It was like, ah, nice job.”
“It didn’t surprise me,” he continues. “Because I know I have some certain talents to also be a GC rider. I need a bit more time to develop myself, to gain experience, to develop a big engine, and to become a better rider, but I wasn’t surprised. I know I can do this because it’s where my future will be.”
So speculation of him being Evenepoel’s permanent right-hand man are wide of the mark? “That’s just what came out of people’s mouths because I did a good job. People now think this will be me for the rest of my career,” he says.
“No one is saying that: not me, not the team. The answer is probably not because I have too much ambition myself. I think I can still progress a lot and, if I can say it, I think I have too much talent to take on this role at such a young age. First, I want to try [to be a GC leader] and see how it goes.
“If I try it and it’s not possible, then when I am older I can make the switch to being a helpful rider. I would be happy to do that. But I want my own ambitions first.”
It’s refreshing to hear a rider publicly speak in such unambiguous terms, and the message he’s delivering cannot be interpreted any other way: he’s a winner, not a super-domestique, and soon, if life pans out how he wants it, Belgium, and Quick-Step, will have two blonde GC sensations.
Does this declaration mean he won’t be alongside Evenepoel at next year’s Giro d’Italia? “Honestly, we haven’t talked about my program yet,” he says. “But in general the plan is that I will have my own chances in one week races and then go to a Grand Tour. Probably that will be with Remco again to be his best supporting rider, or maybe I’ll go to a Grand Tour and have a free role. That’s also possible.
“I will do the same helping role next season in certain races, but for sure I will have my own chances. The team have promised me this as well.”