Lorena Wiebes: Winning for fun

When it comes to pure power, none of Lorena Wiebes’ rivals can touch her. Here DSM’s speed queen and serial winner reveals what it feels like to lose, her love of kickboxing and how she plans to get even better

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When Lorena Wiebes is sprinting, it’s like a dream. She doesn’t feel the pain in her legs. She doesn’t hear the shouts of the crowd. She doesn’t see the parked cars at the side of the road.

She is bent over in the drops, a little more aerodynamic than her rivals, a little more violent in her body movement as she accelerates – and a lot faster. She is like a technicolour flourish against the rest in black-and-white, 1,400 watts of power taking her away.

Any flattish race is her fiefdom: the Ronde van Drenthe, the RideLondon Classique, Women’s Tour, Giro stages. She is winning more regularly – one run of WorldTour results in May and June 2022 went 1-1-1-1-85-1-1, the anomaly caused by a crash – and those victories are more emphatic than ever, aided by a high-powered Team DSM unit. Wiebes is already the worst nightmare for her fellow fast women – and the scary thing might be that she doesn’t want to stop at pure sprinting either.

It started with, of all things, a breakaway. It was April 27, 2015 – Koningsdag, King’s Day – in the Dutch village of Dalen. Amid a sea of orange on her country’s national holiday, this 16-year-old got up the road and outsprinted rivals two years older, on restricted youth gears, for her very first win.

Wiebes had preferred cyclo-cross before that; it was less scary. But the more road races she won with her fast finish, the more she liked them. The need to succeed was already inside her. “Team DSM never really put pressure on me. It always comes more from myself,” she says. “If they say it’s a sprint for you, I want to win. And I will be really disappointed if I don’t.”

Wiebes deliberates but doesn’t know where it comes from; her mother and father never did high-level sport. “If I lose, I can be a bit grumpy for a few hours – not at my team-mates, more like, ‘Ah shit, I should have done it like this.’ I really think about it and then it’s fine afterwards. But I know from when I was a junior: on the drive back home with my parents, it was possible I didn’t say a word at all.”

She turned pro in 2018 with the Dutch development squad Parkhotel Valkenburg. It was the right team at the right time for her. “It was more having fun and playing around,” she says. This was epitomised by the giant tub of Nutella on the table at their first training camp, which riders made a beeline for every morning. “At the next one, they decided to not have it. We were taking too much, they needed to go to the shop to get more.”

The relaxed atmosphere suited Wiebes, particularly when it came to training. “I’m enjoying it a bit more now, the longer rides. But I like racing more than training. In Parkhotel, I only did group training: we did a lot of town sign sprints, sometimes 20 in one day. And I was also sprinting against the DS Raymond [Rol], having fun, playing music on the bike. And then we’d go to McDonald’s after a race,” she says, laughing. “Team DSM is way more professional but I think I needed the less professional team first to grow. It’s helped me now to get my development in the right way.”

She did not expect to be closing in on 50 professional wins before reaching 24. Wiebes only hoped to get some top-20 finishes in her debut year, but she was already 11th at her second race, the Omloop van het Hageland, legs locked with cramp. She went on to win four races in 2018, bagging her first biggie at the BeNe Ladies Tour, ahead of Jolien D’Hoore. Beating the top sprinters was essential for her confidence. “I think it would be way different if I came from juniors to the elites now,” adds Wiebes. “The level is higher now. It’s even more of a struggle for juniors to do that. In 2018, it was a bit easier.”

She met her manager André Boskamp, one of the biggest influences on her career, soon after turning pro. “She’s so focused on racing. She does it for her pleasure, racing. She does it for her pleasure, not for the money,” says Boskamp, a former Dutch national road and track coach. “Mentally, she is very tough. She is playing in the race; that’s special and it works. She needs to fight somebody else, that makes her strong.”

Ask Wiebes for her most special win and the answer comes quickly: the 2019 national championships. It was a brawl between Dutch doyennes, as Wiebes ended up away with Marianne Vos, Amy Pieters, Ellen van Dijk and Annemiek van Vleuten in the closing 10 kilometres. She outlasted them all, outsprinting Vos only six years after shyly posing for a selfie with her. Not only did it show she’s no one-trick pony, but it was a tremendous win for the underdog outfit with an approximate €600,000 budget. Demi Vollering broke through there, challenging for WorldTour races. Wiebes became a regular winner of WorldTour stages in 2019, ending the year ranked first in the world after 15 victories.

That’s when it got messy. Often left freelancing in finales, she wanted to move up a level. “Parkhotel could not give her what she needs,” explains Boskamp. However, she had agreed a three-year con - tract in 2018 and the management intended to hold her to that. As she considered several offers, Parkhotel Valkenburg accused her of breach of contract. They reached a settlement at the eleventh hour, avoiding court.

It pleased neither party: a transfer could only go through when the window next opened on June 1 2020. “Maybe I’ll do kickboxing then, I like that, too,” Wiebes said at the time. It sounded throwaway, but Boskamp confirms Wiebes was genuinely close to quitting cycling. “That’s Lorena. Because she’d be happy and she doesn’t want to have problems,” he says. Wiebes still kickboxes in winter. “I like the technique, power and also sometimes a bit of aggression in it. Smash things out,” she says. “It’s a bit on my bucket list to do a kickboxing competition. That would be fun.” (Curiously, her other hobby is boating, a tranquil opposite.)

For now, her powerful legs are used to win races and the Parkhotel Valkenburg palaver appears to be water under the bridge. She is friends and training partners with some of the riders. “It was a strange scenario,” she says. “I learned from it, but the team also learned from it.” What did she learn? “To handle the situation in a differ - ent way. To communicate more. And don’t throw shit at each other. Try to fix it in a normal way without all the media.”

Don’t mistake Wiebes for a troublemaker from the sole controversy in her career. Many sprinters need and exude confidence, but with her, there’s no bravado or external signs of ego. Just a dry sense of humour and quiet strength. Through her whirlwind rise, Wiebes has also been part of a private battle: her older brother Enrico’s cocaine addiction.

“At the time I was reaching the pinnacle of my cycling career, he was on his way to rock bottom,” she told Het Nieuwsblad. She looked up to Enrico, following his lead into taking up football as a kid and supporting Ajax. A greater maturity has come from supporting him.

“When Lorena was young and a junior, there were big problems at home because of the brother,” says Boskamp. “I think that’s also a point in her career when she worked on herself to be strong, to focus on cycling and not the family situation.”

Wiebes kept quiet in the peloton about Enrico’s problems for a long time. Her brother featured on the Dutch TV show Verslaafd [Addicted] in late 2020, which documented his journey to sobriety. But with addiction, you are never out of the woods and there have been difficult times since then. Understandably, she currently prefers not to talk about it.

Team Sunweb won the battle for Wiebes and have given her the support she desired: aside from a team racing around her, there are chefs, a nutrition plan for the races and a mindset expert (DSM’s own term) with whom she has occasional sessions. She spends much of the season living in an apartment at their cutting-edge Keep Challenging Center (KCC) in Sittard, alongside several team-mates and men’s development riders.

Given her one-second peak power of 1,400 watts, she would give them a run for their money. “When we had no races in 2020, we did a small competition with them,” she says. “I think they would still beat me. But it would be fun to see in a town sign sprint.” In the Limburg hills close to Sittard, she does training accelerations uphill, going hard off a downhill, akin to resistance training. She’ll engage in head-to-head sprints and training races with team-mate Charlotte Kool for self-improvement, too. Kool is another important piece of the puzzle, brought on board for 2022 from NXTG Racing, as her last lead-out woman.

They are still getting to know one another, but Kool’s explosive power regularly stretches out the single-file line of sprinters before Wiebes delivers the coup de grace.

Time to meet Kool and the gang. Team DSM give me a chance to observe their briefing before stage two of the Women’s Tour and see how all the cogs in the Wiebes win machine mesh. As we went to press, Wiebes had won 11 of her 13 sprints in 2022, including those for lesser placings. Little wonder the disappointments stick out in her mind like spiky weeds in a pristine garden.

There’s the concussion she suffered at the Simac Ladies Tour in August 2021, the long recovery leading to an abandon at big goal Paris-Roubaix. Or the bitter disappointment of last summer’s Lotto Belgium Tour: while leading, she was involved in a crash on the final day, then her chain came off while she was furiously chasing back on.

Wiebes wants to develop a hardiness for the hills and be more than ‘just’ the sport’s No1 sprinter. “Seeing Lotte Kopecky winning Flanders gives me a bit more hope,” she says. “But for now, she’s way stronger on the climbs. But of course, yeah, I hope to win the Tour of Flanders in my career. And Amstel Gold, it would be nice to still be there in the final, if I can survive the climbs.”

For all the race wins, her public profile does not match her status. There are few endorsement deals and she possesses a modest 11,000 Instagram followers. She doesn’t appear to even have a personal website. Wiebes, it seems, does not particularly care about being famous.

“She doesn’t want to be the superstar,” her then-team manager Esra Tromp told Rouleur in 2019. “She wants to be one of the girls, to blend in with the team. It’s okay for her to be in the background.”

If she wins a world or Olympic title, as is her burning ambition for Paris 2024, celebrity will come with the territory. More money would probably just mean she can buy more toys for her beloved Staffordshire Terriers or get a bigger boat. Given she can’t hit the water or kick-box during the racing season, how does Wiebes find peace on the road?

She is reading in earnest and shows me her latest book: “Humankind: a hopeful history” by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, which examines the idea that we are innately self-serving and driven by egotistical goals. “Because most people think people are bad, but at the end, there’s something good in them,” she says. She sounds like an optimist. “Maybe after this book, yes. For now, not really. I think I’m a bit in between.”

A realist, then, who is aware that her career has started exceptionally. How long it continues like that is down to her. Can she see herself still racing at the age of 35? “As long as I have fun in cycling. If I lose it, I will stop racing. But for now, I still have a lot of fun,” says Wiebes.

“The only thing I’m thinking is it would be perfect to end my career on the team where it started. I hope they’ll still be there in 10 years,” she says of Parkhotel Valkenburg. “But I don’t know how I would react if I win less or have a year without any wins. Mentally, that would be really hard. For now, I don’t want to think about it!”

We finish with the question that usually stumps her adversaries: how do you beat Lorena Wiebes? “It’s hard for me to say. Getting more watts on the pedals? Just surprise me,” she says, smiling. “But I would say: don’t do it.”