‘They call him the Leopard’ - Olav Kooij, Visma-Lease a Bike’s unassuming 22-year-old sprinter beating the world’s best

The young Dutchman achieved one of the biggest wins of his career at the UAE Tour, and his sports director says this is only just the beginning 

Leopards are notoriously shy and elusive animals, known to spend time in the shadows of the forest. At the same time, they are also cunning and dangerous predators, with an unmatchable speed when fighting for something they want. 

Olav Kooij might not be an established sprinter in the peloton yet, but at only 22 years of age, the Visma-Lease a Bike rider is well on his way to becoming one. His recent stage win at the UAE Tour was perhaps Kooij’s most impressive showing yet – the Dutchman weaved his way through messy lead out trains to unleash a sprint that took him to victory by just over half a wheel length ahead of two-time UAE Tour stage winner, Tim Merlier.

It’s not just Kooij’s age that makes him a lesser known fast man compared to his more experienced rivals. His demeanour off the bike is unassuming and quiet – watching a softly spoken Kooij answer questions in his post-race interviews after the UAE Tour makes it hard to believe this is a rider with the ruthless streak necessary to reach the top level of the sport.

“He knows exactly what he wants. He’s really quiet, he’s not a typical sprinter. He’s shy and second lane when he is in the group,” Visma-Lease a Bike’s sports director, Maarten Wynants, told Rouleur after Kooij’s stage win. “When the moment is there in the last kilometre of a race when he starts to sprint, he changes his mindset to that of a real sprinter. Before and after the race, he is really easy. They call him ‘the Leopard’ of the town he comes from.”

Kooij’s success in the infancy of his professional career – he secured 13 sprint victories in 2023 alone – has inevitably raised his profile. Rumours have swirled in the past that Kooij could be considering leaving Visma-Lease a Bike, but the Dutch rider eventually extended with the team for an additional two years at the end of 2023. It seems that the methodical, scientific and regimented approach that Visma-Lease a Bike has become known for is well-suited to the Kooij’s laid-back persona that his sports director speaks of.

“The fact that he was staying [at the team] when everyone thought he was leaving, he knows what support he has in the team and what the structure gives to him,” Wynants affirmed. Kooij himself echoed the sentiment of his sports director in his own post-race interview, reiterating that Visma-Lease a Bike is the best place for his career to continue to develop.

“It’s the team where I started – in the development team – and I feel really comfortable and in a good environment here,” Kooij said. “I think the performance is on a super high level and I think every rider in the team benefits from that. In races like this, we go in a team committed to sprints.”

Kooij added that the relaxed mindset which has earned him the nickname of ‘the Leopard’ is an asset while sprinting, allowing him to make calm and calculated choices in extremely hectic situations.

“I think in the final you need to stay quite calm, you need to make decisions and not panic,” Kooij said. “I think you get a bit sharper in the final and get more on top of things. Off the bike, I’m quite relaxed.”

The fact that Kooij is able to feel at home within Visma-Lease a Bike is especially notable when considering that this is a team now largely known for competing for the general classification at stage races. The Dutch squad won all three Grand Tours in 2023, and the likes of Jonas Vingegaard and Sepp Kuss certainly take up plenty of the team’s focus throughout the season. Where does a sprinter fit into all of this? Wynants argues that Kooij needs to be patient and take time when it comes to gaining a place in the Visma-Lease a Bike Tour de France squad. 

“A Tour de France space is one of the hardest spots to earn in this team,” Wynants said. “He has a lot of confidence already – if you’re 22 and you win 10 plus races every year, the confidence is there. He will work hard to achieve the Grand Tour victories – they are really magical for a sprinter to achieve. It really counts when you are a sprinter in a Grand Tour. He’s growing because he’s still young. He will make his debut in the Giro d'Italia this year. Let’s see him survive a Grand Tour and he will go up another level.”

Wynants also notes that even if Kooij achieves that elusive Grand Tour stage win when he takes part in the Giro later this season, it will only be the beginning for the young sprinter.

“When you’ve won a Grand Tour stage in the Giro then people ask if you can win in the Tour. If you win in the Tour then they ask if you can win one-day races. He is on the right track and he’s still young and can improve,” Wynants said.

Kooij is an example of Visma-Lease a Bike’s ability to find and nurture young talent, and it’s unsurprising that the Dutch team wanted to continue working with the 22-year-old for the next couple of seasons.

It will be important to Kooij’s continued development that the team offer him ample opportunities to go for victories on the highest stage over the coming years – especially if they want to keep him on their roster. But Wynants believes that, for now, the team in yellow is the perfect place for Kooij to keep excelling.

"Sprints like this are so chaotic that the most important thing is that we have to bring him in a position where he can sprint. That’s the most important, we’ve learnt from the mistakes we made last year and adjusted a little bit this year,” Wynants commented after the race. “It’s really nice we have this one in the pocket.”

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