Arnaud De Lie has had a pretty wild year. He began the season as a 19-year-old neo-pro, focused on learning and anxious to compete alongside his heroes.
He ended the season as the joint-third most winningest sprinter, the rider who has accrued the sixth highest number of UCI points, and remembered as the part-time farmer who became the leading light in Lotto Soudal’s ultimately futile fight against WorldTour relegation
“It’s just been incredible for me,” smiles the softly-spoken Belgian. “I knew it was possible to take a win, but one win or nine wins are not the same thing. Incredible.”
It really has been a remarkable 10 months for the prodigy, with only Fabio Jakosen on 13 and fellow youngster Olav Kooij on 12 able to count more wins amongst sprinters. On occasions, he made sprinting look easy. “Yeah, huh” he giggles. “Sometimes when you win races, and the team is really trusting you and you are in good shape, it’s a little addictive. Like this year when I won three races in a row.”
He adds a note of realism, though, referencing the fact that all but one of his victories were in UCI 1.1 races where most competing teams are from the third-tier Continental level. “A big sprint, like in the Tour de France, is different to a 1.1.
“But when I won a race against Mark Cavendish [at June’s Heylen Vastgoed Heistse Pijl, with Cavendish in third] it was an important victory for me because it was the first against the likes of Cavendish who I think has been the best sprinter in the last 20 years. It was a big step in my career because now I know it’s possible to win maybe any race with my sprint.”
I first spoke with De Lie in early March, just a few days before he won his second race as a professional. He was noticeably nervous, fearful of his English proficiency. “My English isn’t so good,” he warned me in a WhatsApp message before I rang. “Is it OK for you?”
It really wasn’t that bad at all, but seven months on, there is a marked improvement in De Lie’s fluency. “In cycling it’s very important to speak English and I try,” he tells Rouleur. “Sometimes I do a fault but it’s always funny. When I do a fault, a teammate always has a smile! But it’s good for me because I am not afraid to make mistakes.”
Arnaud De Lie (right) alongside teammate Philippe Gilbert (Image: Getty)
It’s quite endearing listening to De Lie. Take, for example, the moment when he’s speaking about his family’s cattle farm business in Wallonia. “The first time I did cow, I don’t know the word,” he says, moving both of his hands left and right and up and down. I assume he’s talking about driving, so I interject by asking if he wants to say he was driving a tractor. “No,” he laughs, with his press officer then saying the word he was looking for: milking. “Yeah the milk, yeah. Milk. I think I was seven- or eight-years-old the first time I did it.
“When I was young I’d help on the farm and now when I’m home from training I also work as a farmer doing the milk. Sometimes I’m there at 7am and then I’ll help more on recovery days.
“I really like it and it’s really easy. You have to stop with cycling sometimes as it’s always cycling, cycling, training, training, and sometimes you are thinking so much with so much information in the brain. If for one or two hours I can work with the cows, I am really, comment-dit-on, focused on the job, and not on cycling.”
The whirlwind year has transformed De Lie’s profile: twelve months ago he was just a talented teenager from the French-speaking province of Belgium, unknown to many people outside of his local area and the national cycling scene. Now he’s one of cycling’s most prolific winners.
How has home life altered? “My friends are really happy with my,” he pauses and turns to his press officer again to ask for clarification for a term. “My new job!” he laughs loudly. “My new job! They look at me in a new way now I am professional but with my best friends it’ll always be the same relationship. It doesn’t change anything.”
I wonder if he would consider a move to one of cycling’s hotspots, such as Monaco or Girona. The smiling, cheeky farmer roars a loud laugh. “I don’t think I’ll move,” he confirms. “I like this ambience, this environment here. I like my area. I don’t like big countries. I like the little village - like mine!”
Look at him, and he’s a picture of contrasts, is De Lie. He still sports a baby face, it looks like he’s never moved the shaver away from his legs to his chin, and he’s racing with adults who are old enough to be his father.
Yet he’s had to adapt to instructing the older crowd and learn how to throw his weight around in a bunch sprint. His legs, meanwhile, are huge, not so dissimilar to a track rider’s, in the same vein as Chris Hoy or Grégory Baugé.
“Sprinter legs,” is how he describes them, a wide smile emerging. “I don’t like the track. I’ve never tried it.”
De Lie wins the Grote Prijs Jean - Pierre Monseré 2022 (Image: Getty)
De Lie began cycling with his mountain bike but it was when he transitioned to the road that he found out where his immense talents were. He was a regular winner on the junior circuit and exhibited his prowess in his first year as an U23, prompting Lotto to promote him from their club development team.
His success has been down to his enormous power and faster speed, but it would be remiss, he tells us, to forget the work of his leadout men, principally Roger Kluge and Jasper De Buyst, 16 and 18 years De Lie’s senior, respectively.
“Sometimes I don’t have the experience but with these men it’s always possible to be in a good position,” he says. “One year with these guys has been very good for me because they trust me and I always have a good feeling with them.”
The sky's the limit
Even though Lotto have been demoted to a ProTeam licence, they have earned wildcards to all WorldTour events meaning that De Lie will get the opportunity in 2023 to add to his tally of participating in just four WorldTour races.
“Everybody says when you are in the WorldTour it’s the best in the world,” he continues, “but I think a lot of people have forgotten that Mathieu van der Poel has not been in a WorldTour team. For me it’s OK that we will be a ProTeam because we will have the wildcards so maybe it’s better.
“Next year the goal is to improve in the bigger events like 1.Pro. It will be step by step as I don’t want to go too fast, but also why not in the WorldTour?"
Can he go even further and beat the likes of Fabio Jakobsen and Sam Bennett next season? “I am really motivated for that,” he says. “I think it’s possible. The team and I all have the same goal so it’s possible.”
Cover image: Getty