‘I’ve always been in the shadow of Remco’ - Behind Lennert Van Eetvelt’s breakthrough UAE Tour victory

The Belgian rider took the biggest win of his career after starting the race as an underdog, and he hopes the best is still yet to come

“I believed in it today, but not only because of myself, everyone was sending me messages before saying: today is going to be your day, you can do this, believe in it, don’t be afraid to risk it. On the climb I was just thinking about how I should go for it and not have any regrets after the finish line.”

Lennert Van Eetvelt’s voice wavered with emotion as he spoke to press atop the sun-baked mountain of Jebel Hafeet. At 22 years old, the Lotto-Dstny rider had, just a few moments before, secured the biggest victory of his young career by winning solo on the queen stage of this year’s UAE Tour. All talk was about the likes of Ben O’Connor of Decathlon-AG2R La Mondiale and the trio of UAE Team Emirates climbers ahead of the stage – few expected the plucky, brave move from Van Eetvelt that he launched in the closing kilometres.

“I looked at the race over the last couple of years and I was looking at where they went, I knew I became little bit steeper with three kilometres to go,” Van Eetvelt said when asked what his preparation for his assault of Jebel Hafeet had entailed. “That was my last chance to go and to go for the GC. I just gave it my all. My legs were really, really good today and I can still not believe it.”

While Van Eetvelt might have been a relative underdog ahead of the UAE Tour compared to favourites like Jay Vine and O’Connor, the Belgian rider certainly hasn’t come from nowhere. In 2023, he secured victories in lesser-known races like the GP Alpes Isère Tour and Sibiu Cycling Tour, and he’s also won this year already in the one-day Spanish race, Trofeo Serra Tramuntana. Van Eetvelt’s progress, has, however, gone somewhat under the radar, perhaps in part due to the trend in modern cycling of riders performing at a higher level at a younger age. Riders like Remco Evenepoel and Josh Tarling winning races as soon as they enter the professional ranks has, to an extent, skewed expectations and dominated the headlines.

“It’s crazy seeing my name on the list of riders who have won this race. When I came here, I came for a good result on GC, I didn’t come here to win this race. I was thinking top five would be amazing, to win it is so much better than I expected,” Van Eetvelt gushed. “Belgium is getting more and more GC riders nowadays. I’ve always been a bit in the shadow because of Remco, but I really hope that now I can do good in the Grand Tours as well and get on the list of the greats.”

It’s not just Van Eetvelt’s physical prowess that impressed this week at the UAE Tour, his hunger and eagerness to race was also clear – a trait seen in riders like Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogačar, too. The young Belgian was the only general classification contender who got in a breakaway during one of the three consecutive sprint stages in the days leading up to Jebel Hafeet. It was on Friday that Van Eetvelt catapulted himself out of the bunch and into the move of the day, despite it being virtually guaranteed to end in a bunch kick.

At the time, many scratched their heads at Van Eetvelt’s choice to be in the break, arguing that he should have saved energy for the Queen stage two days later. In the end, however, the six seconds Van Eetvelt won in time bonuses that day made the difference, ensuring that the Lotto-Dstny rider took the general classification win at the UAE Tour ahead of O’Connor, as well as the final stage victory.

“When I got in the breakaway that day, I was hearing on the radio, what are you doing? Not everyone in the team was too happy about it then, but now I can just be really happy I did it,” Van Eetvelt explained with an accomplished grin. “It started off as a joke, the doctor told me in the car, shouldn’t you do some training today? I thought, ah, why not try? I didn’t think it would give me any time but in the end I got six seconds and no one is complaining now, I don’t think!”

The importance of Van Eetvelt’s victory at the UAE Tour should not be understated. While the race in the Middle East isn’t one of the biggest WorldTour races on the calendar, a look back down the list of previous winners gives an indication of the quality of riders who can win it. Van Eetvelt has added his name to the UAE Tour honour roll which includes the likes of Pogačar, Evenepoel, Primož Roglič and Adam Yates.

“This is by far my best result, but of course I’m still young and there is a lot more to come I hope,” Van Eetvelt explained.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Van Eetvelt’s win in the UAE is what it means for the future of the Belgian rider. That Van Eetvelt can perform at such a high level when still only in his second year as a professional is proof of his quick progression and shows him as a rider who could potentially be in the fight for Grand Tour wins in years to come. There can be no doubt that his UAE Tour victory will attract contract offers from WorldTour teams, too, so it will be intriguing to see if Lotto-Dstny is able to retain Van Eetvelt on their roster – his current contract runs out at the end of this year. 

Before that, however, there’s a whole season ahead for the 22-year-old to tackle with races like Strade Bianche, the Tour de Romandie and the Vuelta a España on his calendar. Van Eetvelt explained after the UAE Tour that he’d been trying new training techniques during the off-season, and it’s clear that these are paying dividends. The future is bright for Van Eetvelt and the scope he still has for improvement is exciting for the sport as a whole.

“Last year I tried different ways to train, I trained longer and harder. I also took a lot more rest days and when I trained, I trained really hard. I think it worked out really well, just went perfectly for the last two to three months. I haven’t gotten sick at all,” Van Eetvelt said. 

“Everyone knows I made a big improvement in my power, I was just waiting for the season and hoping that I could show myself and perform at the highest level. Today I did that, so I couldn’t be happier.”

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