Since he last answered some questions for CyclingTips, Koen has finished a couple of Grand Tours (the Giro and the Tour de France), played a part in many great wins for his team (not least Marcel Kittel’s four wins at the Tour de France) and, sadly, broken his collarbone for the second time this year.
The injury occurred in a crash at the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Hamburg, Germany; a race his teammate John Degenkolb would go on to win. Koen’s spent the month since the crash recovering at his home in Girona.
What is the difference between your form now and five years ago when you did your first Tour de France? Are you stronger now? Are you able to manage the load better now?
I have no doubt that I am stronger at the moment. I know my body better and I know exactly what to train to have the best possible shape at the start of the Tour de France. I have certainly not just changed physically in the past five years but have worked a lot on entering races with the right mindset.
Five years ago I did my first Tour de France and it was all very overwhelming — the media, the spectators, the knowledge there were three weeks of hard racing coming up and basically fulfilling my lifelong dream of ever doing the Tour de France.
This year I knew what to expect and I wasn’t there to just enjoy the races and be in awe of what was happening around me. I was there to show what I could do, race hard and put Marcel Kittel in the right position to make him win stages.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen happen in a bike race?
I have seen my fair share of strange things in bike races, from horrible crashes to funny crashes. From millions of people on a single mountain to a strange dude standing by himself on the side of the road with a stuffed wild boar under his arm.
The strangest thing I have ever seen though was during the Vuelta a Espana in 2012. It was a mountain stage and I was in a group about 20 minutes behind the leaders and there were a lot of people on the side of the road cheering us on.
Obviously a few were drinking heavily but two guys took it to a whole new level and were sleeping in a ditch on the side of the road with cars, motorbikes and riders passing within an inch of their heads. I wonder if they even saw any riders that day — they were most definitely fast asleep!
What is the worst place you’ve ever had to race a bike?
The worst place is a tough one. I tend to remember the nice places and forget about the bad ones. I’ve raced in many beautiful or special places but I guess the worst place I raced is during the most beautiful race of the year — Paris-Roubaix.
Between Paris and Roubaix there isn’t much: old houses, farms and an altogether sad landscape with the most horrendous roads you can imagine. I know the cobbled sections look bad on TV but the first time you see a Paris-Roubaix cobbled sector you can’t believe your eyes. Everybody I know says the same thing; they are so much worse than you can imagine.
Horrible ‘roads’ in combination with a landscape that would make anyone sad makes it the worst place to race … but it’s still so beautiful.
What is exciting you already about next season?
At this moment in time everything about the 2014 season excites me. I have had a 2013 season with highs and lows and unfortunately ended the season on a big low by breaking my second collarbone for the season.
My season preparation got severely disrupted by breaking my right collarbone at the start of the season. I managed to get my form back after surgery and very hard work for the Tour de France but broke my other collarbone in only the second race after the Tour. This injury ended my season so I’m really looking forward to getting this year over and starting next year.
I’m looking forward to training properly in Australia when I arrive in a few weeks. Hopefully I’ll have no crashes or illnesses at the start of the season so I can finally do a whole classics period in my best possible shape.
I’m sure I can be really good at the classics but have only been able to show my capabilities in other races and just snippets in the classics because of various crashes and injuries. Next season should be the season that I can finally show my true possibilities.
What’s the strangest prize you’ve ever won at a race?
I have won my fair share of strange trophies, from huge cups to ugly aluminium plates but the strangest will have to be my body weight in apple flavoured carbonated water. They love this kind of drink in Austria and after winning a stage in a race there I had to sit on one side of a huge balance scale and they put a huge amount of bottles on the other side.
Clearly they didn’t think I’d be weighing so little so the organiser had to lean on my side of the scale to keep it somewhat even. The team drank apple flavoured fizzy water for a long time after that.
What are one of the strangest diets you’ve seen other pros do (or yourself) to try to lose weight?
I think I’m lucky I’m on a ‘sprinters team’ and the strange things I’ve seen happen on other teams don’t happen that much on my team. Obviously everyone is still really skinny but for sprinters bodyweight isn’t one of the most important factors.
A kilogram more or less isn’t going to change all that much for us so I think everyone is just losing weight the normal way without trying out the ridiculous diets. Maybe it’s the just the Dutch culture of ‘act normal, that’s strange enough’.
My first two years as a professional cyclist were with a Spanish team and I was amazed by what happened there. Other riders and staff were staring at anyone finishing a normal-sized plate of food; you just never finished everything on your plate. Fair to say I nearly starved myself in my first years as a pro cyclist.
The only diet I see on my team is the one I use myself: eat well and eat enough, but not too much. We have a dietician on the team who helps us with our diets but we don’t have a set plan of things we have to eat except for some guidelines on what to eat on race days, hard training days, weight training days and recovery days in regards to energy, fats, protein etc.
Who would you say is the “most improved cyclist” in the peloton for 2013 and why?
The most improved cyclist can be interpreted two ways. Some riders have improved a lot and that was to be expected because they are young and very talented. Someone like my teammate Warren Barguil, for example. I have rarely seen a rider that talented (and an all-round great bloke on top of that) but I didn’t expect him to win two stages in the Vuelta already at 21 years of age. I would be very surprised if he doesn’t continue winning many big races in the future.
The other way of answering the question is to mention a cyclist who has improved a lot but I didn’t expect that happening anymore. Someone like Chris Horner for instance. Winning your first Grand Tour at 41 is at least unexpected and certainly a major improvement but it shows that you can still improve by working hard and loving your job despite your age.
I know a lot of people have questioned Horner’s performances and unfortunately that’s something we have to deal with as cyclists. To be honest, that’s fair if you see what has happened in recent years. In the case of Horner I do believe in him; we were in the same team for a while and he just loves riding his bike and I think he has never focused on trying to win a Grand Tour himself, despite his talent.
If anything I think it’s encouraging that it’s possible for older riders to win as well. For many years riders would ‘blow up their engines’ at a very young age but this certainly didn’t happen to Horner.
Who is your tip for the men’s world championships road race and why?
My tip is Robert Gesink. First of all he is Dutch and a great bloke and it’s about time the Dutchies win a worlds title again! But mainly because he was Dutch hope for Grand Tour success for many years but this year he planned his season differently.
Bauke Mollema was the main rider for Belkin during the Tour de France and Gesink worked really hard for the team and did a great job without any pressure, a strategy that has paid off for him. Ever since the Tour he has been really strong and it resulted in a very impressive win in Quebec in Canada and I’m sure he’s eager to show more at the World Championships.
He may not be one of the main favourites for the race but that suits him the best as he doesn’t have any pressure that way.