Maximum effort: why Maxim Van Gils is content to fly under the radar in his quest for greatness

Belgium's potential new superstar on football style, a superb spring, and big ambitions

When Maxim Van Gils, Lotto Dstny’s breakthrough star of the season, is asked about the rider he most admires, the 24-year-old Belgian with floppy blonde hair doesn’t even hesitate. “Julian Alaphilippe,” he answers. “The only rider I really look up to is Alaphilippe. He is still super good, but in his prime… woah, he was incredible. It’s a dream to be like Alaphilipe.”

Amid the same small group of riders winning most races this season, Van Gils’s performances have gone somewhat unnoticed. In 11 one-day races, he’s finished in the top-five in all but two, winning Eschborn-Frankfurt, and standing on the podium at Strade Bianche and La Flèche Wallonne. His consistency is only bettered by Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel.

Yet as he prepares to ride the Tour de Suisse ahead of his second successive Tour de France, little is still known about the rider who spent the entirety of the spring muscling his way into the conversation as one of the sport’s best one-day riders, helping to power his team back towards the WorldTour as he did so. And perhaps more pressingly, no one knows if it's a flash in the pan or a sign of what’s to come.

Belgian unlike Beckham

Like so many kids, Van Gils grew up idolising footballers rather than bike riders. “But I was absolutely not good at football,” he laughs. “I had the nicest boots on the pitch but really sucked at it – my coach said it’s better if I stopped playing.” One of those boots was a pair of Nike Tiempos worn by Brazilian great Ronaldinho, and he also copied David Beckham in wearing a headband. “I had long, blonde hair and I looked super good,” he chuckles.

Van Gils conceded from a young age that football wasn’t for him, but accepting defeat never came easily, regardless of the activity. “We stopped playing games at home when I was around 14 because I had too many fights with my brother who is also extremely competitive,” he recounts. “I was often crying after playing some games.”

As a junior cyclist racing the Belgian kermesse scene since he was eight, he wasn’t a standout talent. “But at 17 I went outside of Belgium and raced in Switzerland and France with the national team and found that I was better on the climbs. It was my first good season and then things got better and better.” He signed for Lotto-Soudal’s U23 development team in 2018, and a smattering of promising results in various races in the Alps and Pyrenees was enough to see him promoted to Lotto’s senior squad in 2021. “I was again the new boy,” he remembers, but not for long. Since then, his progression has been one of a steady upward trajectory, and after serving a six-year apprenticeship with the same employers, he is now tied down on a longer-term contract and paraded as one of the Belgian team’s main riders. But he says he hasn’t even got started.

Two-way trust

There’s one overriding takeaway from speaking with Van Gils: his self-assuredness. He’s cheeky, a little mischievous, and knows exactly what he wants. Take, for example, how he approaches probably having to permanently relocate away from Belgium and the French city of Grenoble where his girlfriend lives. “It’s difficult because my girlfriend wants good weather and I don’t want to pay too much tax [because] you have to save as much as possible for after the career,” he says. “For sure people will judge, but you need to find a place where you can feel at home and train well. Andorra is quite good: good mountains, weather, little tax, but it’s a long way to the airport every week. So we’ll have to see what’s next.”

Strade Bianche 2024 podium

A third place at Strade Bianche started a superb spring for Van Gils

He’s not as frequent a flyer as some of his teammates though. “Everyone in the team knows who I am: if I race a lot, I get mentally soft and race badly.” It was decided last year that he’d spend more time at home, and less time on the road. “I said it’s the best for me and it’s worked out super well. I can go to every race and be ready for a big battle, and then after the race I know the war is finished and I can relax.”

2024 has been his breakout season: he got off to a flyer at Strade Bianche and was in contention at Milan-Sanremo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. “Seventh [at Sanremo] doesn’t sound crazy, but with the riders I finished with it was super great,” he reflects. “At Liège I finished fourth and I was one of the best riders in the race. It was also a Monument so it was big.” A contract extension until 2026 to stave off other interested teams came just days after Sanremo. “It’s good for my mind to have a safe place, and I’m happy to be here,” he says. “The team trusts me, and I trust the team. I don’t feel like the development has finished – we have a lot to come in the next few years.”

Tour target acquired

Which direction his career will head off in, Van Gils has no doubt. “I’m definitely a one-day racer, it’s what suits me best,” he says. “One week races I can adapt to [but] three weeks is too long.” His ideal race would be Strade Bianche-esque, only longer: “220km and more climbs at the end,” he proposes.

Maxim Van Gils Fleche Wallonne

With ambitions set high, the Belgian is happy to remain inconspicuous

He has circled five stages at the Tour de France as potential days for him, including the mountainous first day in Florence. “It’s a nice one, but a lot of people will be interested,” he accepts. I propose stage eight and its undulating parcours could also suit him. “All day up and down, a hard finale. I have to go in the break on stage eight, then,” he smiles.

On his Tour debut last year, he finished second on the Grand Colombier, and even despite his frequent high-placings in 2024, there’s still an element of Van Gils being unknown. And that’s just the way he wants it. “I’m a little bit under the radar, that’s true,” he acknowledges. “But I like it. It’s nice not to go to a race with a lot of pressure. I’m cool with it.”

Win at the Tour, though, and he’ll really arrive on the big stage. The challenge for Van Gils is turning a flash of brilliance into consistent excellence. “I’ll always keep improving myself, always searching for new details and working on myself,” he promises. “I’ll never settle for the minimum.”

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