The legend of Eddy Merckx looms large over the world of cycling. That's particularly true for Belgian professionals that exhibit good form in the mountains at grand tours. Both the press and fans start to wonder out loud: could this rider be the next Eddy? Might this be the next Belgian rider that others will fear at Tour or the Giro? For Jelle Venendert, these questions are not merely hypothetical. After his stage win at the Tour last year, the press started to ask him exactly these types of things. To his credit, he seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing. At this year's Tour, he returned to his initial role of riding for teammate Jurden Van Den Broeck, while looking forward to the hilly classics of 2013. Meanwhile, his brother Dennis has now joined him at Lotto-Belisol.
At only 23 years old, Dennis is a promising neo-pro. Early seasons performances earned him a coveted spot riding alongside Jelle in the spring classics. What’s more, he quickly secured a spot in the team's Giro squad, finishing the Italian grand tour on his first attempt.
I spoke with both Jelle and Dennis on the eve of this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. With Jelle leading the team in the famed race, both riders were understandably serious and focused after their team dinner. They sat at a long table, nervously checking their smartphones while resting them on their laps. But once we started talking, I quickly realized how outgoing and happy they both are. And when you think about it, why shouldn't they be this happy? They grew up dreaming of racing professionally, hopping to one day compete in a race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They're getting to live out their childhood dreams, and are doing so together. How many of us will ever get to do something like that?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I attempted to ask both Jelle and Dennis the full questionnaire that James Lipton uses in the Inside The Actor's Studio TV show. I thought it would be interesting and somewhat comical for all involved. In reality, the results were not great (downright embarrassing for me, actually), so I've omitted that portion of the interview.
What's it like having your brother in the same team? Does it strike you as unusual to look over your shoulder and see your brother there in the middle of the peloton?
Jelle: For me, it’s easy to have him as a teammate. I know he’s going to do everything for me, and that he’ll give his all for me during the race, so it only makes me more confident.
Dennis: It’s very special. This is my dream race [Liege-Bastogne-Liege], so to be here is already very special. But to be here in the same team as my brother, and to be working for him is just a great moment.
Do you feel like you have a special bond since you are brothers? Do you have a sense for what the other is feeling during a race, more than you would with another teammate?
D: Yeah, it’s a bit like that. I can look at him and know how he’s feeling instantly. I know what he needs. I always know if he’s having a good day or a bad day. I can just see it. I can also tell when he’s more confident. I notice it from his behavior, his body language. Even more than I would with another teammate. I’ve known him my whole life, so I know how he reacts in different circumstances. With any other rider you just don’t have that, it’s a special bond.
Siblings are often competitive. How do you deal with that, and balance it in a way that benefits you and the team as well? Is there any room for you two to be competitive in any way now?
J: We are competitive yes, but not in races. That’s the time to be professionals, and think about the team’s goals, of course. We always train together if we are home at the same time. He lives with our mother, and I live with my girlfriend, but we’re only 8 kilometers away. We don’t really have other teammates that we normally train with. So in training, we always try to beat each other
D: Yeah, he tries to beat me at his strong points, but I do the same. I try to win at those things that I’m best at. So we’re still competitive, that always continues.
It’s unusual for a family to have one, let alone two professional cyclists. What role did your family play in the fact that you are both riding at this level?
J: Our father raced as an amateur, but never turned professional. He was a very good amateur. My grandfather always wanted to race as well. We always saw that they had a love for the bike. We weren’t pushed into racing, but our love for the bike comes from them.
Are you roommates when you travel with the team?
D: Yes, we’ve already been roommates for this whole week.
How is it sharing a room with your brother? Does he do anything that annoys you?
J: Yeah! The night before Fleche Wallone he was snoring very loudly. The rest of the time he sleeps quietly, but that night it was very bad (laughs).
D: There’s really nothing about him that annoys me…but in the mornings when we wake up, he’s very moody. So he needs a bit of time in the morning…
Maybe he just needs some coffee before you really start talking to him, or interacting with him in any way?
D: Yeah, you have to give him time, and wait a bit!
Aside from Jelle being moody, and Dennis snoring a bit before Fleche Wallone, what is your least favorite part about your jobs?
D: When you’re going like shit, and you have bad legs. Especially if you don’t know why. You trained the right amount, the right way, you did everything like you were supposed to and it still doesn’t work out. That’s the worst feeling you can have.
J: For me, it would have to be training in the rain and the cold. That’s when it feels like a job, like you have to go and do your job. Those are the only days when I feel like that about riding my bike.
What about racing, versus training, in the rain and the cold?
J: That I don’t care about. Racing is never a problem.
What do you like the most about being a professional cyclist?
J: That you’re your own boss. It’s your responsibility to be good in a race. Even if you set a certain goal with your team, it’s still your responsibility to be good and to do the best for the team. Even when you’re training, you’re on your own. So I like I’m responsible for myself, but the team sees the results.
D: My favorite thing would have to be something like the results we had at Fleche Wallone. We prepared and worked very hard to be good in that race, and he [Jelle] finished second. You come into the team bus and you have a very good feeling after something like that. You know that you did well, the team was good and your leader was good. That’s the best part.
Cyclists sometimes have unusual superstitions, or become methodical about certain routines. Are either of you superstitious, or are there perhaps things that you always do, or avoid doing the day of a race?
J: I never shave my legs the day of a race, or even the day before. For a big race, I always shave my legs two days before. Aside from that, I don’t really have anything special that I do. I’m not really sure why I do this, but it’s how it’s always been.
D: I don’t have any special rituals or anything, but I always like eating something right at the start of the race. In the first couple of meters I have to eat something. I’ve always done this, and it’s important that I do that.
Jelle, what went through your mind as you approached the finish line in stage 14 of the Tour last year. Do you remember much of that last kilometer, or was the whole experience just a blur?
J: I only remember a bit. When I think about that stage, I actually think of the years before and everything leading up to it. It was really hard, I spent a lot of time injured, especially in 2010. I was out for almost a full year, and had two operations on my knee. For me, it was very hard to come back. So that year, I did well in the Classics, working for Philippe Gilbert…but winning a mountain stage at the Tour, and how I won it, was great. Yes, I had some luck, and I was not doing well in the general classification. But I dropped the favorites that day, and I won the stage. I don’t remember many details, I was trying to finish and go as quickly as possible. When I crossed the line, I thought about the whole year before.
J: Yeah, Liege Bastogne Liege.
D: It’s the same for me, but also becoming world champion, because you get to wear a special jersey for the whole year. So yeah. ■
This interview was originally published in Road Magazine.