'I have to do things a little differently to win' - The Flying Dutchman: Taco van der Hoorn

Intermarché rider Taco van der Hoorn has ploughed his own furrow in the professional ranks, using an innovative and intelligent, as well as idiosyncratic, approach to racing and training

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There is no poster of Graeme Obree on Taco van der Hoorn’s wall. Two years ago, the Dutchman upped sticks from a house shared with former team-mate Jan-Willem van Schip – you may remember him from the 2021 Belgium Tour, where he was disqualified for riding with narrow handlebars that the UCI deemed breached its technical regulations – and moved to Andorra. The picture, along with a clipping of a Dutch newspaper feature on Obree that hung above the toilet, stayed in the Netherlands.

There. Now that’s out of the way, we can get on with the story.

Because Taco van der Hoorn had certainly become known as ‘that guy in the peloton with a picture of Obree on his wall’, a disciple of the maverick innovator and former world Hour Record holder. And why not? Van der Hoorn was the rider with the tucked-in handlebars and the aerodynamic leg warmers that merrily circumvented the UCI’s rule on sock length. He was the kooky outlier, the grinning Dutchman who channelled the spirit of the Flying Scotsman. The guy who planned for three months to be in the breakaway at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, two years running. The guy who almost quit the sport after two years as a domestique for Jumbo-Visma’s various galácticos had left him high, dry and unemployed, but who then came back five months later and won the third stage of the 2021 Giro d’Italia.

That he did so as the sole survivor of a long-distance breakaway that upset the sprinters (a guaranteed crowd pleaser) without wearing sunglasses (he has never liked riding in them) created an instant connection between racer and fans. Here was a visible human being, a throwback, a reassuring proof that modern cycling still had room for romance. Van der Hoorn’s standout wins – stages in the BinckBank/Benelux Tour in 2018 and 2021, the gravelly one-day race Schaal Sels and the 2022 Brussels Cycling Classic to go with that Giro stage – have always been triumphs of madcap ambition over cold-hearted statistical probability. Taking nothing away from Van der Hoorn’s talent, they are wins that shouldn’t have happened. And whenever he crosses the line first, Van der Hoorn’s face always expresses genuine disbelief that they actually did.

“I’m always thinking, ‘How can I win this race?’” explains Van der Hoorn. “I haven’t got the engine of a lot of the WorldTour guys. I’m good over five hours of endurance but in 20 or five-minute tests, all these tests we do in the WorldTour, I really suck.

“If I wait until the last five kilometres to battle with the other guys, they’re all going to beat me. So I have to find some other things that mean I can still win the race. That’s why I’m always busy with that, with the capabilities I have, doing things a little differently to still get that result.”

So it has always been for Van der Hoorn, a late bloomer who truly began to flourish when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human movement sciences from university in Amsterdam and joined the second-tier Roompot team at the age of 23. To the outside observer, second place in the Dwars door het Hageland one-day race sandwiched between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert in that debut 2017 season suggested that great things were coming Van der Hoorn’s way. He himself knew differently. He was never a precocious talent, bereft as he was of the sort of generational turbo charge that defined the likes of Van der Poel, and as such Van der Hoorn’s pathway to stardom has never been straightforward. Specific attempts to improve his top-end power when he joined Jumbo-Visma in 2019 backfired; he gained little over short bursts and lost much of his endurance. The experiment was logical, but it didn’t work for him. He also discovered that racing the WorldTour for one of the biggest teams left him even fewer opportunities than before.

“Races are much more controlled, much more focused on the one point in the race where it’s going to explode,” he says. “Everybody knows that, so in the Tour of Flanders they go up Kwaremont as fast as possible. I know that if I go up the Kwaremont as fast as possible, I won’t even be in the first half of the peloton.

“If it comes to a hill then I have to anticipate it and do something else. Get ahead of the race. But anticipation is really difficult. Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pogačar wait until the Kwaremont but other top guys – riders like Dylan van Baarle, Stefan Küng, those guys – try to anticipate it, too. More guys are trying to do it, which makes it even more difficult to do. Once you see it can be successful, everybody wants to do it.”

Such is the experience of the majority of the peloton, it seems, against the star riders who have the kind of physical advantages against which there is nothing doing. Well, almost nothing. Van der Hoorn realised he could keep up if he could stay one step ahead. It’s a tad romantic to imagine that he only drew inspiration from the Scot on his bathroom wall; as a student he worked alongside a team of engineers from Delft University in their annual attempt to break the human powered vehicle speed record and learned first-hand the importance of aerodynamics.

“In the end cycling is about speed, not about power,” says Van der Hoorn. “Fortunately, it’s no Zwift race yet. I think that he [Obree] really saw that. He saw that he was not as strong as Chris Boardman, at the time, but if he could do this or that, then he could get a little more advanced on the other guys, and although he couldn’t push as much power as those guys, he could be faster.

“There are a lot of guys in the peloton who can put out way more power than me. But if I’m really smart, if I have good tactics, if I’m smarter in aerodynamics, then maybe I can beat them sometimes. Graeme Obree is a real example of that.”

The difference between the world of cycling in the mid-90s and the peloton of the early 2020s is that there is no longer room for the amateur at the kitchen table. Turning a chance of victory from negligible into statistically significant (albeit still small) requires more than hit and hope. Luckily Van der Hoorn, now 29, knows the sport and he knows himself. Take his sprint style, because every breakaway rider needs to be able to sprint, if not against the fastest in the peloton then certainly against whoever else makes the break. He concedes he might not be the most aerodynamic but his nodding-dog style is far from thoughtless.

I’m not explosive,” he says. “Peak power is not good, but for 20 or 30 seconds after a hard race, I can go quite well. I really need a heavy gear. I need power and to stand on the pedals for 20 seconds, and stay at 900, 1,000 watts. I can’t do a lot more, but I won’t do less.”

Watch a video of the finale of the 2022 Brussels Cycling Classic for an illustration: a half-a-kilometre, 35-second-long stomp to an unlikely victory. Van der Hoorn crunches that 58-tooth chainring in training, too (it’s mechanically more efficient, he notes). One month later it looked like he would repeat the feat when the fifth stage of the 2022 Tour de France clattered over the cobbles from Lille to Arenberg. Coming into the finish line after 11 secteurs pavés and 138km in the break, Van der Hoorn banged his head like a metalhead at the climax of a scuzzy pub gig (he actually prefers techno and went raving in the 2021 off-season in Kiev, but that’s another story). Somehow, the veteran Australian Simon Clarke came around and pipped him to the line by the width of a deep section rim.

“I really was devastated after that one. Thinking what I could have done better to get the victory,” he says. “I think I didn’t do so much wrong. We were pretty equal.” He pauses. “I am doubting whether I want to say this... if I want to make an excuse,” he says. “But actually, I looked at the power file later, and my gear was shifting. My power went down, my cadence went up, and my speed went down. So then you could see, my gear was shifting from the 11 to the 12 [sprocket].

“I didn’t want to say it out loud after the race because I didn’t want to make an excuse that I wasn’t correct about. But that’s what you see in the movie of the sprint, that I had to sit down because my cadence went up. I can only keep on standing when my cadence is low. I sat down, my speed dropped, and Simon passed me.

“For sure, I could have sprinted harder and then I would have won even with a jumping gear, but that I wasn’t capable of. But even now, these are things I think about.”

In elite sports it’s not uncommon to get the sense that what sets athletes apart from normal human beings is that what may be desires to you and me – a desire to win, a desire to succeed, a desire to be popular – are actual ‘needs’ to them. They need to win. They need to succeed. They need to be popular. One gets the sense that Taco van der Hoorn has a need to know and a need to understand, both about the sport and his own performance. How it works, what went wrong, how it could be better.

“In the first few days [after the Tour stage] I really focused on the explanation,” he says. “If I could have done nothing differently, and Simon was just stronger than me, that was okay. But if I could have done something different in the sprint, if it was something with my equipment... In my head I wanted to have an explanation. Once I figured that out, then I could calm down.

“Maybe it’s not fair because Simon was also just really strong and we were really even, and in the end, he beat me. But it gave me a little bit of rest in my head, to find some answer for myself.”


The breakaway is one of the most fluid aspects of professional cycling. Working out the who, how, where and why of getting up the road is part Rubik’s cube, part jigsaw, part tarot reading. It is emphatically unpredictable and certainly not the sort of thing you can bank on. And yet, Taco van der Hoorn made it his ambition to get in the breakaway at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne not once but two years running. Remarkably, he succeeded.

Such soothsaying is a masterpiece of forward thinking. Firstly, Van der Hoorn looked at what courses suited his skills. He spent a month in the off-season before his WorldTour debut exploring the roads of all the spring classics, testing tyre pressure on the Roubaix cobbles, in his VW campervan. More on that later.

“Tour of Flanders, you can try for the breakaway but it’s never going to happen. The final is too difficult, and they will catch you anyway,” he says. “Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad] is also too difficult – the hill zone is too close to the end, so you will probably get caught by then. If you get caught then you will probably get dropped on the Muur by the top guys.”

It should be said, such conclusions aren’t always enough to stop him trying. Van der Hoorn spent 206km in the break at Flanders in 2022, 130km in Strade Bianche earlier in the season, and 269km out front in Milan-San Remo in 2021. But Kuurne-Brussels- Kuurne, he realised early on, could have the most potential.

“Flat start, hilly part in the middle, flat end. I’m good on the flat, especially after a hard day, so I know that I will be good in the final of Kuurne, also with the top guys.

“I would struggle to get over that hill zone with the top guys. So okay, I need to go in the break, try to survive the hill zone, then they will catch me after that. Then I can just hang on and ride the final.”

Van der Hoorn deliberately tailored his training around hitting peak performance in late February, returning from altitude camps in Colombia in time for that window of peak rebound to fall on the Sunday of Kuurne. He then identified the optimal locations to attack, although understandably remains coy on where exactly they are.

“You never know of course – it’s not an exact science – but you can make an educated guess,” he says. “I have some tactics I apply to go in the break... but I think I’m going to hold them for myself. I noticed that sometimes it’s getting a little bit difficult for me to go in the break. People are watching. Now I have to work around that in order to still get in the break. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.”

What he will say is that in 2023 he went away on a narrow street with a slight incline. “All-out effort from bottom to top on a small hill, and then we were away,” he says. “Some people think we have an eye for the breakaway. But take Thomas De Gendt. I did a few races with Thomas and one time he went full gas on the front of the peloton on a flat road with just a slight hill, and he just kept on going. Two minutes, full gas. If he has good shape, he just drops everybody and he’s in the break.”

Then there’s equipment. Lower tyre pressures suit performance on the cobbled bergs, higher pressure suits the flat tarmac. “Kuurne, I can ride a little higher pressure because the race will be decided on the flat,” he says. “I will be in front before the hill zone, so if I am a little bit less fast on the hills, it won’t make a huge difference. I want to be fast in the last 20km when I have to ride the final.”

As for the rest of his bike, there’s nobody riding anything quite like Taco’s. His setup exists on the far end of the spectrum of what is possible with a road bike. His narrow bars are just 30cm wide at the tips of the hoods (and those inward tilting hoods are now being copied by even the youngest riders in the junior ranks). The shifters are aggressively tilted down, à la Sean Yates. Van der Hoorn has a zero offset seatpost to optimise his body geometry in an aggressive riding position, while there is an aerodynamic rear mech and an aerodynamic Cube frameset, actually one of the most slippery in the peloton.

It’s no coincidence that Van der Hoorn’s style reflects that of a track specialist; he pays close attention to technical developments on the boards and tests his tweaks in both the velodrome and wind tunnel (old buddy Jan-Willem became Madison world champion a few days after our interview). The only thing that isn’t optimised for aerodynamics are his wide tyres, however the decreased rolling resistance more than make up for the drag penalty. Van der Hoorn’s current home of Intermarché-Circus-Wanty are surprisingly supportive of his solo marginal gains, allowing him the kind of holistic freedom he thrives on. Their faith was repaid in full when he won them a stage of the 2021 Giro.

“You try to be a little bit ahead of everybody else, but it’s sometimes difficult in the world of cycling,” says Van der Hoorn. “It’s actually very easy in this team. If I suggest something, they really think about it, they listen to it, I can discuss everything with them and they will help me.

“I try to get a little bit ahead of the rest, find something new. Maybe some people will copy it, maybe not, but then I try to find something new again and stay a little bit in front.”

If the next question is obvious, then so is Van der Hoorn’s answer.

“Am I going to tell you what’s next?! Err...I’m busy with Cube to gain some things, especially looking at handlebars, how we can do that to make it a little bit better. I’m not going to say too much. It looks quite promising but we have to do a little bit more testing.

“I feel that a lot of people focus a lot on the time-trial bike but in road cycling, I think there are a lot of gains that nobody really cares about so much. There’s still room, if you just think a little bit outside of the box.”

If technical development in the sport of cycling is an arms race, then some of its riders still resort to the nuclear option. Take Mathieu van der Poel, a rider so gifted that he can attack with gratuity and bulldoze his way through the air with a shrug of his broad shoulders. For him, optimising every single aerodynamic aspect just isn’t necessary. Van der Hoorn, therefore, can still find something of a laser-guided edge. Take his leg warmers, for example, developed with kit supplier Nalini over the off-season to incorporate that recognisable pinstriped aerodynamic lycra.

“Nobody thought about this earlier?” asks Van der Hoorn, rhetorically. “Everything on the body and the bike is getting more aerodynamic, and I was surprised that they say the aerodynamic leg warmers should be banned. You wear normal clothes, and you put on aerodynamic clothes to make yourself faster.”

The slight controversy arose because Van der Hoorn’s warmers seemed to circumvent the UCI regulations that stop riders wearing the sort of stripy stockings that grace the British domestic time trialling scene and elite Ironman competitions. Some of the mumbling, it must be said, had a distinct whiff of ‘wish-I-had-thought-of-that’ rather than genuine belief that they should be banned.

“I always ride with leg warmers in those temperatures. So... better make them fast,” says Van der Hoorn, an impish grin spreading across his face. “That was the approach. Okay, so I maybe made them a little bit thinner so I could also ride them in warmer temperatures... but still, I’m not going to race them in 25 degrees.”

For now we can celebrate the fact that cycling still has space for both the brains and the brawn. The independent thinker, the guy who grins when he crosses the line in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, not because he was first (he was tenth in 2022 and fourth in 2023) but because his plan worked. It all means a lot for Van der Hoorn, who has held off on using some of his technological innovations in the past for fear of their reception in the peloton.

“I had it before with older guys when I was younger, coming to me, asking, ‘Why the fuck are you riding with this kind of handlebar,’ and that kind of stuff. I was always thinking: what’s socially acceptable in the peloton?

“Now, I don’t care as much about whether it’s socially acceptable, actually, because I know I have my place.”

That’s what happens when your approach nets you a Giro stage win and comes within an inch of victory at the Tour. Such self-belief also extends to his private life away from the races. Van der Hoorn loves a bivvy bag adventure in the Andorra back-country, loves getting caught short in hailstorms and finding salvation in a friendly bartender who lends him the keys to the local church for the night. He loves bikepacking across Australia before the Tour Down Under, jumping into a creek every few hours to stay cool. Perhaps not surprisingly that a man with a singular approach to his sport enjoys being alone – Van der Hoorn is a self-confessed disciple of Svein Tuft, another rider renowned for ploughing his own furrow, as well as Graeme Obree – but these are aspects of his life that he had also been reluctant to expose.

“That’s who I am. I like that. I like the adventure. Being in nature, going bikepacking, going in the van. These are things that I enjoy,” says Van der Hoorn. “But sometimes I thought, is it still professional to do this? I know that a lot of times it is: I’m training 35 hours a week and getting my rest. But from the outside world, people sometimes judged it a little bit. But now I have less problem with it.

“My team knows that I try to do my best and that I am really serious and I want to perform. I just do it a little bit different. They give me the space for that, and I am really thankful for it.”

Unfortunately, Andorra vehicle licensing authorities looked less kindly on his original old-timer VW van and refused to allow such a rust-bucket to besmirch their land of swish SUVs. So Van der Hoorn bought a new old timer.

“I was looking into new ones, and then I thought; I don’t want a new campervan. I want an old campervan. So I bought a new old campervan. Just in better condition.” And he happily continues his escapades. “If I plan to start at A and arrive at B, I will generally arrive at B, so that’s already something of an improvement,” he says. “It’s 4x4, I can take it on the off-road tracks here in Andorra, I can also use it for altitude camps; instead of going to a hotel for three weeks, perhaps I can do one and a half weeks with the van and then go to a hotel for the remainder when you have to train really hard. Something like that.”

For the moment all that is on hold as Van der Hoorn continues a slow recovery from concussion sustained at the 2023 Tour of Flanders. Four months on from the crash, at the time of our interview, Van der Hoorn struggles to put together three rides of 15 minutes duration each day. It’s not the first time such a debilitating injury has put his life on hiatus; in 2017 after a serious head injury in a mountain-bike crash, it took seven months of recovery before he could rejoin the peloton. When he did, he won a stage of the Binckbank Tour almost immediately. These days it’s Paris-Roubaix that occupies his thoughts. A strong 16th place in 2022, plus that near miss in the Tour stage, proved to Van der Hoorn that Rou- baix could provide him the ultimate test of forward thinking.

“Roubaix really suits my capabilities. Though I’ll still be facing guys who are much stronger than me, I always have the feeling that I can do a really good result there,” he says. “You also need a lot of luck. Maybe that is the plan: every year I want to be good in Paris-Roubaix, in as good shape as I can be, with all my equipment and tactics planned out, and then maybe in the next five years, one time I’m gonna be top five.

“I’m not under the illusion that I can do that every year, I’m not like Van Aert or Van der Poel, but if everything falls into place, maybe I can do that once.” Van der Hoorn deals in possibility and potential, in success against all the odds. His is an individual rebellion against the system. And maybe that’s why he’s so likeable. But nobody can predict the future, and if we take anything away from his story, it’s that none of this makes any sense without that one last magic ingredient. Taco van der Hoorn would be nowhere without hope.

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