As my time at CyclingTips comes to an end it’s time to look back. In this series of ten things, I don’t have a lot of new things to add. I have a new fancy bike but it’s the same Trek Domane geometry as the previous one, only in a different colour. I am not a tech geek or gizmo collector. I just ride my bike and if it works it works, and if it doesn’t, I call a mechanic.
No, I wanted to use this space to highlight some of my favorite features and the process behind creating them: from the very first one to the longest and the most memorable ones. The privilege to be able to ask top athletes questions and to get answers, is something I cherish even more now that this phase has ended.
Talented people trusted me with their story, opened up and were honest in their answers. It taught me a valuable lesson about who I am and how people perceive me. Being truly honest and sincere is the most important thing in my life and the fact riders and readers saw the honesty and sincerity still makes me happy.
The first one
I have known Maike van der Duin since she was eight years old. Since 2010, I have volunteered at the European Junior Cycling Tour Assen, a week-long stage race for riders from 8 to 18 years old. She won when she was eight and she won when she was 18.
When she made the step up to the elites, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was her first race. It was my first onsite assignment for CyclingTips. I had now also become one of those journalists holding an iPhone underneath someone’s nose. Maike never finished that first race (nor did she over half the field) but she will forever be the winner of the ‘first article award’ from me.
The last one
Over three years, I evolved into a different writer. I went from race-oriented pieces to more personality driven features, from women only – I was hired via Veloclub funds to focus more on women’s cycling – to both men and women later on in my career. My aim was to show the person behind the rider. Athletes are often normal people but they also are sometimes not. There is a strong character in each and every one of them to survive the hardest of races, the harshest of weather circumstances and the most gruesome of injuries.
This May I got to meet Gage Hecht on a trip to Girona. He was just back from a race in France where he injured his hip. My goal for this trip was to write three pieces on faith in cycling from the Athletes in Action branch in Girona. Alison Jackson was one of those pieces and Gage the second. The one with Reverend Todd Henriksen never materialized although we had a wonderful hour-long chat.
What I love about this last feature I did for CyclingTips is that Gage opens up about his insecurities, his doubts and his faith in God. It really shows the man underneath the helmet. It was a wonderful conversation where we discussed what God means in both our lives and that resulted in an open and honest feature that I am very proud of. Writing that final piece this December gives me the confidence God will show me new opportunities as well.
It’s pretty special that CyclingTips became a place for me to share my feelings on what the bike means in my life. It’s the ultimate ‘tips’ and I think they were so appreciated because there were so recognizable to many of the readers. I got the most reactions to these pieces and that means a lot to me.
My favorite personal piece is the Gorges de la Nesque one. I got to travel to Strade Bianche, and from there to Paris-Nice. On the way back I stayed at Camping le Ventoux to write about my favorite road. I was lucky. It was bitterly cold during the nights in March, but the day I planned the ride the heavens smiled at me and gave me gorgeous weather. I rode the climb, sometimes recording voice messages of what I felt and thought. At night the story came out in one go. I think this is one of the best things I wrote.
José tries things
After the euphoria of that bike ride in France I texted Caley that I wanted to try and ride the cobbles of Roubaix for a fun piece. The date was set in April of this year. My friend Chris who works at SRAM brought the equipment and made the route. He knows every single road in northern France with a cobble in it so it would be alright.
I asked my colleagues Magnus Bäckstedt and Servais Knaven for advice and set out on the mission. I will never have the talent for humor of Iain or Johnny but this article still brings a smile to my face. That day in Roubaix is one of those fond memories that I could make thanks to my time here at CyclingTips. We had planned some more ‘middle aged woman does things’ articles but they unfortunately never materialized. Who knows her, in a next life, with some more courage and a more flexible body…
The woman behind the rainbow
The media attention in women’s cycling has skyrocketed in recent years. When I started in 2020 you could still send a direct message to a rider to ask for an interview but that is not the case anymore with the professionalization of the sport and the introduction of press officers.
This article with Annemiek van Vleuten came about pre-press officer and the interview took place in my car. Annemiek needed a ride to the national championships and I was going there as well for my job with the AG Insurance-NXTG team. I positioned my phone between us and while we drove to the VAM-berg she talked for almost one and a half hours straight. Because we weren’t looking at each other she opened up and it became a really interesting insight into one of the most amazing women this sport has ever seen. This was my first big feature on the site and also the reason Caley asked me to join the staff and write some more.
The language barrier
English-spoken media tend to focus on English-speaking riders a lot. In my case I could add the Dutch language to that but when it came to other languages it’s pretty hard to do a good feature-length interview. I did one in French with Guillaume Martin that he kindly read before publishing to make sure I had it right. I also did one in Spanish with Mavi Garcia.
Remember that hot Strade Bianche that happened after the 2020 Covid lockdowns? The one Mavi almost won? I was adamant I wanted her story about her. I had her phone number but was just not confident enough to do an interview in Spanish. Luckily, I know many kind people from Spain through my twitter account and so Yolanda helped me out.
Mavi sent me voice messages in Spanish of which I understood 50%. Yolanda filled in the gaps and together we managed to publish this feature not long after the finish of the race. This has become one of those ‘get to know’ articles that was clicked on often because there was not a lot available on Mavi García in English.
The new kid
I always tried to find riders that were new on the scene and – in my opinion – would do something really big later on in the year. These articles don’t generate a lot of attention when they are published because these are very unknown riders but they tend to go viral afterwards.
Biniam Girmay was one of those. On Zoom I met the kindest man, soft spoken but wise beyond his years, while he was at home in Eritrea. He was open about his background, so down to earth about his talent and honest about the struggles he faced as an African rider. It was a lovely interview and I was an instant fan. Later that year Bini won Gent-Wevelgem and the article on Cycling Tips was one of the first long features on him. It got a lot of ‘late hits’.
I had the opportunity to interview a lot of Belgians because I was the only one at CyclingTips speaking Dutch. Some great names from the past like Peter Van Petegem and Johan museum (who rightfully scolded me for not knowing all of his big wins) appeared on my Zoom screen.
One of the best interviews I did – and most certainly the longest – was with youngster Cian Uijtdebroeks. He had just won Tour de l’Avenir and despite the media attention he received, he took all the time to talk with me. We had scheduled 15 minutes, which is a standard amount you get with the big riders, but we had such a lovely time that I eventually had to tell him the Zoom limit of 40 minutes ran out. Just like Biniam Girmay he is at the start of a grand career and still has that openness and candidness that you often don’t get with the biggest stars anymore.
The big stars
I didn’t interview a lot of big stars although there were and are many on my list. First, because it has never been my aim to feature the riders who already had many articles written about them, and second, because it’s just very difficult to get them for a one-on-one interview. I also need that personal touch to be able to write what I write so a group interview just doesn’t work, either.
Tadej Pogačar was different. I approached him via direct message during that Flèche Wallonne where he couldn’t start because of Covid. I asked him if I could do a duo interview with him and his girlfriend, Urška Žigart, who had just won her first race. He agreed as long as the majority of the piece was about her. After some back and forth with Alex Carrera, the manager of many super stars, the Zoom call happened. It’s one of my best-read features about two very normal young people who really love each other and try to stay normal in a rather crazy world.
And so much more
Scrolling through my author page makes me realize how amazing these three years were. I got the freedom and the means to write what I wanted, from very personal pieces to the French history, culture and cheese bits for the Tour de France podcast. I wrote stories about people who mattered to me personally like Jolien Verschueren, Stig Broeckx and Antoine Demoitié. I highlighted those riders who selflessly work for others like Lauretta Hanson, Tim Declercq and Emily Newsom.
But all in all, these stories connected me with you, the readers and fellow fans of this sport. You have always been so supportive in the reactions below the articles and on Veloclub. You made me feel I had found a new talent and that you appreciated my writing. It’s that connection that made my time at CyclingTips so special so thank you.
I need to thank Caley and Wade for hiring me but the biggest thanks goes to the man who was the backbone of this website, the man who always made my writing better, listened to my doubts and fears, and gave me heaps of self-confidence . He was never at the front of the stage but Matt deNeef himself was the very foundation of the stage that was Cycling Tips for me.
What’s next for me? Who knows. I am sure we will meet again somewhere in real life or online. Until then: tot ziens!
I’ll just go ahead and speak for everyone at CT – past and present – that your talents and personality will both be sorely missed, José.