Monday, January 28, 2013

Bart Wellens discusses his new attitude toward racing, his reality show, American embrocation, and the financial realities of being selected for the world championships team.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition
For the first time ever, the cyclocross world championships will take place in North America this week. As the cycling world turns its attention to Louisville, I thought it would be an ideal time to share this interview with Telnet-Fidea's Bart Wellens. At the time when we spoke, Wellens still hadn't been selected to represent Belgium at the world championships, with that in mind, I wanted to know just how difficult and expensive it would be for him personally to travel all the way to Louisville to compete, should he be chosen. 

Financial realities aside, we also discussed his reality show, American embrocation, and the 2011-2012 season. A season that saw him struggle with ongoing stomach problems, a terrible crash, as well as a serious health scare that required him getting rushed into the intensive care unit of an Antwerp hospital. All this while he was investigated for doping by the authorities, and his home was raided. 

Eventually, the investigation cleared Wellens of all accusations, but the crash and frightening heart problems, prompted him to re-evaluate both his career and his approach to cycling in general. Today, Wellens finds himself feeling re-invigorated, something that can be seen in his more laid back approach and friendly demeanor. 

How will this new attitude play out in Louisville? I'm sure Wellens himself wants to know.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Last season was tough for you. Everything seemed to go wrong at once. How is this season going in comparison?
It’s much better now. Last year, it was good. In the beginning, I was in the United States, I won three times and things were good. Then I came here, started out okay, but every week things started to get worse and worse. I was not feeling good, had lots of problems with my stomach. Then I had this really bad crash in January before Nationals, then my heart problems. So I had like three or four months that were very hard. But in a way, that’s time you can use to think a lot about different things. Not just about cycling, but also your life outside of cycling. Your family, for example.

So, as odd as it may seem, did you appreciate having that time away from the bike?
Yes. It was good because it helped me see how much I love my family, how much they mean to me. It also showed me how much I really like and need cycling. It helps you realize how you want to approach cycling, how you want to make cyclocross part of your life. It helped me see where all these things fit into my life.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
 
Did that experience help you figure out a better balance in your life between cycling and family then?
It helped me see that I don’t need stress leading into a race. I still worry, and I care about a race, but it’s different. On a race today, the difference between third or twelfth…it doesn’t matter to me. It’s nice to be third, sure. But it’s not important. What’s important to me is that I like racing, I like training, and I like everything that goes on around the sport. That’s the most important thing to me now, that I enjoy myself, and I enjoy cyclocross.

Do you think maybe overtime; you’d lost sight of why you first got into cycling? Did it get to a point that it was just a job to you?
Yeah, for sure. It all goes full circle. First you get good results, and then you don’t get good results. Okay, so now you have to train more to get good results again. So you start to train more, too much. Then you have people say that you’re being too serious, that you need to laugh and enjoy yourself before a race, that you’re too stressed. Then some people say that your weight is not ideal for racing. Okay, so then you listen to those people. But then others will say that you seem to be having too much fun, that you’re not taking your job seriously.

So I also learned that I was listening to too many people. Now, I have my people who I trust. I have my doctor, my psychologist, my kinesiologist, and my mechanics. The rest is all shit (laughs dismissively). Now, I’m enjoying racing so much more, and things are going really well. At first, I thought I’d have to see how it would go this season. I really thought this could be my last season. But now, the way I feel, and the way things are going, I think I could race two, three, four or maybe five years more.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Do you think the lesson you learned during last season, remembering to have fun and reminding yourself why you enjoyed cycling, is something even amateurs could learn from?

Yeah, many people take it too seriously. Having fun is the most important thing. I’ve always said that if I wake up tomorrow, and I don’t like training anymore, I’ll just stop right away. And right now, that hasn’t happened.

At one point, you had a reality TV show in Belgium called “Wellens en Wee”. Would you consider doing something like that again now that you have a family?
You know, that was a lifetime ago. I did it for three years, and back then I had no family of my own. I was free to do whatever I wanted. Now, it would be different. Those were three great years; I really enjoyed them very much. I did the show together with teammates, with my family, my parents and my brother. But now it would be difficult to do it. It’s different now with a wife and kids. Then, if they filmed me laying around in bed, that was no problem. Now, if I’m there in bed with my wife, it’s different. I can’t say I won’t do it again for sure, but it would really be hard to do it now.

Fidea riders discover that one of their teammates travels with his own toilet paper. You can see this episode and others from Wellens en Wee in this site.

Is there anything you dislike about your profession?
Training in the rain is never fun. But you need to do it because you’re a professional. There are times when you don’t like what you have to do, but I think that’s true for any job. It’s not really any different for me as a cyclist I think.

Conversely, what’s your favorite thing about the job you have?
That's easy: my free time. The amount of it. I love riding my bike, I love racing and training on the road. But my free time is great. For most people, they must begin work at 8am, and then leave at 5pm. For me, if it’s raining, I’ll just wait until 10. Then I’ll have two or three free hours, so I’ll spend that time with my kids, or my wife. Or I’ll just sit and be lazy. That freedom, to me, is the best. Yes, I need a certain amount of hours on the bike every week. But I can choose when those hours happen.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

You’ve now spent time racing in the United States, so you probably noticed that some people bring Belgian flags and Flandrian flags to races. They sell Belgian beer and waffles in some races. There are even Dirk Hoffman Motorhome signs at American races. Does that seem odd or funny to you?
Yes, it’s weird to me! Because here in Belgium we look over at the great big United States. Big country, big buildings, big cars. When we were there last year for three weeks, everyone wanted to talk to us, to be close to us. They were all like, “Hey there are the Belgian guys! Yeah!” Everyone wanted to know every detail about Belgium, they all had questions about living and racing here. They all wanted to help us, and they were so nice to us too, which was great. It was interesting how cyclocross fans there wanted to know about races here, and they all said they dream of coming to see races here, or to come here to do a race in Belgium (laughs).

I think this [looks around the race parking lot and venue in Zonhoven] is more popular and famous there in the United States than it is here! Okay, so here we have more spectators, but there you have more cyclists. Over there, you can even have races with more than one hundred people. Here, it can maybe be thirty-five at most. Here in Belgium, cyclocross is a sport you watch. In the United States, cyclocross is something you do. But it’s so popular there. I mean, if I go to a shop there, no one will know who I am. They won’t know Bart Wellens or Sven Nys. But it’s very popular in the United States I think. Although I met an American cyclist in Mallorca, and he didn’t even know the cyclocross championships were happening in his country!

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

So how was it for you to see all the Belgian flags, and bikes companies with Belgian-sounding names in the US?
In the last race we did in the United States, I saw this guy racing with a Van Dessel bike, and I thought, “Oh, he must be Belgian!” So it’s very funny to us.

Another aspect that Americans have really taken to from the world of cyclocross, or European cycling in general, is embrocation. Do you use it much? Many Americans have been led to believe that it’s a necessary part of riding here in Belgium.
Not very much, and not today, no. It’s not very cold today [it was in the low 40s with a light drizzle]. I may have some oil from the massage, but it won’t have any heat to it. If a lot of rain is expected, maybe just a little bit.

You know, in my last race in the United States last season it was raining a lot. And some people gave me some of this embrocation. They said, “you have to put this on your legs!” It was called…Mad Alchemy. So I put that on [motions hands rubbing furiously up and down his legs]. During the race, it was okay, but after in the shower, oh shit! It hurt so much! I actually used that again this week, because I had to train slowly, and it was raining. So I used very, very little of it, mostly around my knees. So when you train, you don’t really feel it, and after…arrghhhhhh! But yeah, I use it and Mad Alchemy sponsors my brother too.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

In the United States, there’s a significant amount of talk regarding the use of disc brakes in ‘cross. What are your thoughts on disc brakes?
In my mountain bike I’ve used them for many years of course, but on the cross bike never. I don’t know. I’m not really for them or against them. The biggest question for me is: is the frame stiff enough for the brakes? Especially in the front. On a mountain bike, you have big suspension forks. But on a ‘cross bike, they’re so small. I already have a lot of vibration when I brake now, so with a disc brake, this is important. But it’s also a big investment for our wheel sponsors, and after a single race, we’d probably need all new pads as well. 

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Having been in the United States for three weeks racing, what do you think North Americans can do to improve their level of competition at this point?
Riders like Powers and Trebon coming here to race is the first part in improving. But it’s a big investment for those guys. It would be good if some American guys came here, and raced in Belgian teams for the full season, or if some did long blocks of racing here. They could start in the US, come here, and then back again to the United States. But doing that is very hard, and very expensive. We can see that now for us, with the world championships being in Louisville.

If you are selected to go to the World Championships in Louisville, how does that trip work out? How far ahead of the race do you go?
If I’m selected, I would go ten days before with the national team. No racing, just training. We would stay somewhere far from Louisville. Staying in Louisville is too expensive for the Belgian team, so we are not too close.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

What would the expense be if you are selected to go to the world championships?
If I’m picked, personally it would cost be between ten and fifteen thousand Euro. Because I need certain things, and I need other people to come with me. My mechanics, for example, they’ve been with me for twenty years. So now, all of a sudden I can’t say to them that because the race is in the United States, they can’t come with me.

So if you’re selected, you have to pay for your mechanics, their flights, hotels and everything yourself?
Oh yeah. Yes (laughs)! The only thing that the national team will pay for is my flight, hotel, our bikes—three of them—and some wheels. The rest we have to arrange for ourselves. My wife, my kids, my mechanics…I pay for everything. So if I go to Louisivlle, I’ll have to come back a world champion just to break even!

So not just to make any money, just to break even?
Yeah!

Other European riders give their take on the world championships taking place in the United States


Do you stick to a certain routine on race days? Are you superstitious at all?
No, not superstitious. But every race day is the same. We have a routine, and we do it the same always. Three or four hours before the race, we’re at the course. Then, at that time, we eat. We all eat. Then we see after what category we’ll be able to use the track. That differs by race, but the routine is more or less the same. One hour before the race we change, we do a massage, and forty minutes before the race we go out and ride. Most guys do it on the trainer, I go out on the road just around the course. Then fifteen minutes before the race starts, we go to the line. That’s the routine.

And having fun, and enjoying yourself is now part of the routine?
Yeah, that’s very important. I’ve learned that now.


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Other matters:

If you're interested in a Cycling Inquisition cap you better order quickly. They are going much faster than I expected. Winter ones are already sold out. Socks are also going pretty fast.

Lastly, you should check out the latest episode of my brother's podcast, which features yours truly. 

3 comments:

  1. It's interesting for me to read about Bart's pre-race routine -- it is very important to certain riders to follow that routine to a tee, as I found out recently when interviewing Logan Owen during the American cyclocross nationals. Everything needs to go off as planned pre-race.

    Also interesting to see what his expenses are to travel here...maybe explains why many of the Euros' Worlds teams are so slim...

    Great photos, too, thank you.

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  2. SO nicely written boss like your writing

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  3. Nice 4th place by Mr. Wellens at the CX Worlds! Certainly didn't expect him to place that high, but then again all the Belgians always do very well. All the races were great, and the snow at the end of the men's elite race made it even more awesome!

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