• Yob Hillewaert

Bjerg and Zijlaard - Hagens Berman Axeon

Updated: May 1, 2020

The American team Hagens Berman Axeon is one of the strongest U23 teams out there. At Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, they rode as a team and that payed off well. Finishing 1 and 2 in the GC with Mikkel Bjerg and Ian Garrison and with high results in every stage, they can look back on a solid three days of Belgian racing. We had the opportunity to talk to two of their biggest international talents. The 20 year old Danish World Champion TT Mikkel Bjerg, looking for a good test at the Tour of Flanders this afternoon. And the 19 year omd Maikel Zijlaard, ex-winner of the Tour of Flanders U19, who is chuffed not to get selected by the Dutch national team.

Mikkel Bjerg wanted all his teammates (including Maikel Zijlaard) to sign his first yellow jersey - Copyright The Young Peloton

Mikkel, you just won the Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux. Is this your first GC (general classification) win in the U23 ranks?

Mikkel: “Actually, it's my first GC win in any category.” (smiles) “As I didn’t win the time trial in this Triptyque, it means a lot to win the GC.”

By how much time did you lose that time trial?

Mikkel: “It was only by two seconds. But losing in that rainbow jersey is never fun.”

Do you afterwards think about where you lost those two seconds?

Mikkel: “No, no, I think that in the end you need to focus on the next race. I just focus on getting the training in my legs after a pretty tough winter.”

Brent Van Moer, who won the time trial, is not a stranger for you. He came second at the World Championships that you won.

Mikkel: “I know. It was still a decent result and I only pre-rode the course that same morning. Maybe he did it differently.”

You actually didn't win the GC in the time trial, but in the first stage, what happened there?

Mikkel: “With six kilometres to go, my Hagens Berman Axeon team took the lead of the peloton. We showed how strong our team was. Sadly, there was a big crash in those last kilometres, on a narrow bridge. Then after the crash the peloton actually split again. In the end, there were only fifteen riders who finished at the same time. I was one of them. That made the GC very hard to win for guys who weren’t in that first group. But I guess that’s racing in Belgium, you always need to be in the front. If you want to win, you can’t sit in the back.”

I read somewhere that you want to become more than only a time triallist, and it seems your succeeding in that.

Mikkel: “When you’re a time triallist, everyone thinks you’re only that and you’ll always be stuck in that box. I’m trying to come out of that box. This GC win was really more than just doing a good time trial. ”

Mikkel Bjerg came three seconds short to beat Brent Van Moer at the time trial - Copyright Sophie Richez

Bradley Wiggins also started out as a time triallist. Later, he focused more on climbing. Is that something you want to do as well? You’re quite light.

Mikkel: “I think I’m too heavy right now. I would have to lose 5-6 kilograms to do well in a mountainous GC. I don’t think my girlfriend would like that. She would find me too skinny, I think. Girls always want a guy that is bigger than them."

How many races did you win last year that weren’t time trials? Dorpenomloop Rucphen and...

Mikkel: “That was probably the only one.” (laughs) “And then last week at Settimana Coppi e Bartali I was second. I really hoped to get my first win as a pro there, but I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer.”

This year, you appear at the start of the classics. What is your aim there?

Mikkel: “This year, it’s all about getting better and better. I didn’t have the best winter and spring, so I couldn’t get the training that I wanted. That makes a difference. I wanted to do well in Drenthe and Rucphen, but Rucphen was cancelled and I had some problems with my knee.”

The Flemish classics can be pretty dangerous. Are you sometimes scared?

Mikkel: “I think if you start getting scared, you might as well just go home. But if you want to be a good bike racer, you have to win a race in Belgium.”

I heard the same from your teammate Maikel Zijlaard, who tried to follow Tom Pidcock in the descent yesterday and finished second in the stage.

Mikkel: “Pidcock is unbelievably good on the bike. And technically, Zijlaard is probably one of the best guys on the bike that I know, so if Pidcock could drop him in a corner, he must have gone really really fast. Crazy.”

In Belgium, Victor Campenaerts’ world hour record attempt is at the centre of attention. You are only 20 years old, but you already hold the unofficial second place in the hour record statistics.

Mikkel: “I needed 794 metres more. I finished with 53.7 kilometres. I did some aero testing this year, for the first time. I think I found some really important gains, so hopefully I’ll beat Victor’s hour record this year.” [Victor Campenaerts does his hour record on the 16th or 17th of April]

Are you doing it in Odense, where you did it last time?

Mikkel: “The problem is the track isn’t UCI approved yet. I’ll probably have to find another track. The problem is you need to pay UCI to go to the track and get it approved, that costs about 10,000 euro.”

You already said you hope you’ll beat Campenaerts’ record. So you think he'll beat Wiggins’s record?

Mikkel: “If he doesn’t beat it, something must have gone wrong.”

Can you ask him for advice? Or he won’t say give away any clues about his strategy?

Mikkel: “No, no, no. I actually sent him a funny message on Instagram, but he didn’t reply. I told him he shouldn’t do more than 58 kilometres, cause that would be getting too hard to beat. He saw the message, but didn’t reply." (laughs) "I think he’s really focused on beating the record and he doesn’t want to fool around too much.”

Are you aiming for good results at Tour de l’Avenir as well, this year?

Mikkel: “I don’t think I’ll participate, because the Tour of Denmark is in the same period.”

The strong Hagens Bergman Axeon at Triptique (Berg on the left, Zijlaard fourth from the left) - Copyright Sophie Richez

Maikel Zijlaard is Leontien van Moorsel's nephew and hints at a career in the classics

Maikel, are you happy with the three days here at Triptyque? You finished second and fourth in two of its sprint stages.

Maikel: “I’m certainly happy, yes. Of the four stages, I was never outside the top 20. And then on the second day, I came really close to a victory.”

Talking about that stage where you came second and Pidcock won, I heard the descent was pretty fast and tricky? Speeding with more than 70 km/h and with two corners in the last 350 metres.

Maikel: “It actually went really good. I know it's one of my strengths to take corners at a very high speed, I'm pretty technical. That’s what I showed on Saturday, stage 2B. I saw him go with 350 metres left and knew I had to follow. I was pretty much the only one in the pack who could follow Pidcock’s wheel in the corners. He did the last corner a little bit faster, so I get one metre behind and then it gets hard to catch him.”

You ride for Hagens Berman Axeon, one of the absolute best U23 teams. Ian Garrison did the first sprint of the week, you did the other two and Bjerg won the GC, ahead of Garrison.

Maikel: “Yes, it’s a very talented team, but everyone gets their chances. We finished first and second and showed we’re a really strong team.”

Do you know how much Bjerg is focusing on that world hour record?

Maikel: “You don’t want to know how much he’s focused on that.” (laughs) “I don’t know the details, but I know that when he’s going to make an attempt, he won’t do it for a second place. The guy is incredibly strong. It wouldn’t surprise me if he astonishes everyone and takes it.”

Zijlaard (on the right) was happy to come second and fourth in two Triptyque stages - Copyright Cliché Floor Cauwelier

In the past, you won the Tour of Flanders as a junior. Can I describe you as a talent for the classics with a good sprint?

Maikel: “I’m not sure about how I would describe myself. I like tough courses with short hills, though. Today for example was great, with hard racing, some climbs and a small peloton at the end.”

How did you start bike racing? Was there cycling blood running through your veins?

Maikel: “Yes, the Zijlaards are a bit of a cycling family. My grandfather is a retired derny who did a lot of six days on the track. My aunt is Leontien van Moorsel, she is together with my uncle Michael Zijlaard, sports director at Pro Conti team Roompot - Charles.”

Would you want to turn pro at that team?

Maikel: “I would definitely think about it, but I think being ambitious is never wrong. Of course, from a pro continental team as Roompot, you can grow. It’s a team with a really good programme and they can offer riders a lot of advantages. But it goes without saying that I’m also really fortunate to be part of Hagens Berman Axeon. The team is very professional.”

Your jersey looks well designed, the cars look nice, it looks like a dream.

Maikel: “Nice, isn’t it. But you can have nice jerseys, in the end you still have to push the pedals hard enough."

What are your next goals?

Maikel: “From the third to the fifth of May, we’ll ride the Tour of Yorkshire. I hope to get selected. Right now I’m first reserve for the Tour of Flanders U23, so maybe I can ride it. Otherwise I’ll plan some very good training blocks.”

Was it a big disappointment not to get selected? Here, you showed that your shape is really good and you belong in that peloton.

Maikel: “Of course, it’s never nice to hear they chose not to select you. But it’s the coach’s decision.”

How did Ghent-Wevelgem go last week? Only 36 riders finished.

Maikel: “I was going really well for the first three hours. I was trying to bridge the gap to the leaders together with Pidcock and the Kemmelberg he and some others dropped me. I don’t have an explanation why, but I couldn’t follow. I really don’t know the reason.”

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