Episode 2 - 20 years of Norwegian cycling education
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
20 years ago, Gino Van Oudenhove (°March 1972) moved from Belgium to Norway. The deal was that for one year he'd be sports director of a Norwegian elite cycling team. He never left, but became U19 coach of Norway and soon started his own Team Maxbo-Bianchi, now known as Joker Fuel of Norway. He gave his Belgian knowledge of bike racing to Norwegian talents going from Alexander Kristoff and Boasson Hagen to Kristoffer Halvorsen and Oskar Svendsen. After almost twenty years, he reached a step higher and became sports director for Team Dimension Data.
Sports director of former youngsters Boasson Hagen and Kristoff
In the past, amongst others, Alexander Kristoff, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Kristoffer Halvorsen have been educated by your Norwegian development team Maxbo-Bianchi, later known as Team Joker. Your project to put Norway on the cycling map has succeeded.
“The first talent we delivered to a pro tour team was a big one: Boasson Hagen. Others soon followed. We built up a reliable reputation, because we would never go from door to door to the World Tour teams to promote our riders. We only informed those teams when we were certain to have a big talent in our ranks. We delivered on average one pro rider every year. Some years four, others none.”
At the beginning of his career Edvald Boasson Hagen was known as the new Eddy Merckx. While you were U19 coach of Norway, he was in his first year as a junior.
“He was a big physical talents. He originally mountain biked and did cross-country skiing back at his home in Rudsbygd, Lillehammer. I was coach of the Norwegian junior team when he came over from the national mountain bike team. He was no Evenepoel [Remco Evenepoel, Deceuninck-Quick-Step – Ed.] and didn’t win all of his races, but he won a lot. The most impressive was how he won those races: As a first year in the U19 category, I took him with me to Belgium to the big race Ledegem-Kemmel-Ledegem. I told him the following: ‘On that hill, you'll ride away from the others. On the top of the next hill, you’ll lie first in first position. There you wait for about four others to join you. And that was exactly what happened. On that day he won seven out of eight KoMs. But he didn’t win, he came in fourth. On top of that, the week before he had won the KoM jersey [King of the Mountains jersey – Ed.] in the GP Géneral Patton and a criterium in Belgium.”
Two years later, Boasson Hagen was part of your new team, then called Team Maxbo-Bianchi.
“What he showed back then was incredible. He could finish solo, win sprints, time trial... There was nothing he couldn’t do. He also had a good team around him, with Gabriel Rasch [now Sports Director at Team Sky – Ed.] as the team captain. In his first year as an U23, Boasson Hagen won 8 UCI races, the second 12. Then he became a pro with Team Highroad.
Alexander Kristoff was born in the same year, 1987.
“Yes, and he joined our team one year later than Boasson Hagen. Right away, he became Norwegian Champion in the pro category. In a sprint of four, he beat Thor Hushovd. Kristoff was a real fighter, but next to Boasson Hagen, he almost never won. I think he only won one race in our ranks, but he collected around twenty second places. Kristoffs talent was his fighting spirit.”
What else do you remember about him?
(grins) “In July 2007 he had become Norwegian champion. The year after in May, we rode Ringerike GP, which is now known as the Tour of Norway. The first stage finished on a big hill, not Kristoffs cup of tea. So I ordered him to lead the peloton and work for his teammates. He was angry and said he’d never seen a national champion lead the bunch.”
Team Dimension Data in 2019 – a step forward
Now, you are Boasson Hagens Sport Director again, at Team Dimension Data. What can we expect of him this year?
“We have seen his results of this winter, and I can assure you that you haven't seen the last of Boasson Hagen. I wasn’t surprised by his TT [Time Trial – Ed.] win in the Tour de Valencia. This year he's different: his motivation level is a lot higher than when I first arrived at Team Dimension Data, one year ago. Last year, he had a bad winter with pneumonia, had his galbladder operated and suffered from coeliac disease. [an autoimmune disorder with gastrointestinal problems as an allergic reaction to gluten – Ed.] Now everything is under control, and his results are hopeful for the Belgian races.”
Opposed to what everyone would have thought at the marvelous start of his career, Boasson Hagen is now 31 and has only once been in a pole position to win one of his favorite races: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Why is that?
“It has taken him a while to master those races. Races until 200 kilometers were never a problem, he could always do as he pleased. In the big races of 260 kilometres, where every rider is in top shape, one has to pay attention to the details to remain fresh at the end. I think he forgot to do that during the last years. Probably his career start went too easy. [he won 29 UCI races before his 23rd birthday, such as the GC and three stages at the Eneco Tour, the GC and seven stages at the Tour of Britain, Gent-Wevelgem and a stage in the Giro d’Italia – Ed.] There have always been voices that said he couldn’t cope with the long distance, but that can’t be true. He namely rode the final at different World Championships of the same distance. [Edvald finished eighth in 2011, second in 2012 and sixth in 2016] It also has to do with how he's always considered one of the favorites. Even though he had never been in the final of a cobblestone classic, he was seen as a potential winner when he was in the front group at Paris-Roubaix 2016, even though Boonen and Vanmarcke had proved a lot more on that terrar. I think his colleagues know that when he attacks in the last kilometer, it will be hard to get him back.”
This year, Team Dimension Data has made a lot of big transfers. It seemed about time, as the team finished last in the World Tour ranking.
“We learnt our lesson last year. With Cavendish, Boasson Hagen and Cummings, we only had three riders who could win big races. If they fell away due to sickness or injury, the gap behind was very big. Okay, Ben King won two stages in the Vuelta a España, but youngsters as Ben O’Connor [now 23 years old – Ed.] weren’t expected to take over that leading role. We want to give talent time to grow. With all due respect, but it's hard to ride Paris-Roubaix with riders as Jay Robert Thomson, Johann Van Zyl, Jaco Venter and Nic Dougall and aim for the win. They are strong, super dedicated riders who do a great job, but still, you know they may lack a bit of experience or talent. This way, the team leader might be isolated in the final. And when he himself is not 100 percent, your team rides an anonymous race. Now we wanted to get rid of that last place in the standings, so we reinforced the team without losing the South-African identity. [Incoming riders 2019: Kreuziger, Gasparotto, Nizzolo, Bak, Valgren Andersen, Wyss, Mäder, De Bod and Tiller – Ed.] Up to now, we have been in the mix a lot more than last year.”
Scandinavian brotherhood of Boasson Hagen and Valgren Andersen at Team Dimension Data
This year, Boasson Hagen will feel competition for the leading role in the classics. The winner of the Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Amstel Gold Race joined the team: the Danish Michael Valgren Andersen.
“Exactly. I think it will stimulate Hagen. When he will go out training, he will realise he has to be good enough this year, as Valgren Andersen is also on the team. Valgren is a very special rider. I was talking about his programme for this year and if you wouldn’t stop him, he would ride everything. He has a desire to go to the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta. For now on, regarding the classics, we let him decide. He doesn’t ride all of the cobbled classics and skips Paris-Roubaix, not to risk getting tired before taking on the Ardennes. Then he rides those hilly classics, from Flèche Brabançonne to Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
What kind of person is Michael Valgren Andersen?
“He’s Danish, so there's certainly dynamite in him.” (laughs) “After a team meeting with him and Lars Ytting Bak, everyone always knows what they’re up to. He is also someone who values the team atmosphere very highly, something he attributes to as well. For example: he rode for Ryan Gibbons in the Tour Down Under, but he also expects his teammates to be 100 percent when they have to ride for him.”
That Danish dynamite seems a bit more explosive than Edvald Boasson Hagen’s character, who in interviews doesn’t give away too much of what he thinks.
“No, he doesn’t work like that at all. He expects the same as Valgren of his team mates, but he keeps the job to establish that to the sports directors. He’s always been careful about what he says.”
Gino’s former pupils Halvorsen, Svendsen and Grøndahl Jansen: specialised at sprints, engineering and languages
Your former rider at Joker-Merida, Kristoffer Halvorsen, didn’t have his best year on the bike in 2018. Becoming pro with Team Sky seems to have been tough so far.
“Halvorsen also has an interesting story. As a junior, he lost an entire year because of a virus. Still unable to race, we supported him in his first year as a U23, in 2015, and gave him a bike of the team. At the end of the year, we took him to Belgium. In 2016 he was healthy again and immediately finished second in Nokere Koerse: as a 19 year old between the pro’s. The rest of the year went perfect: he won GP d’Isbergues between pro riders, won stages in Tour de l’Avenir and Olympia’s Tour and won the World Championship U23 in Qatar. [in front of Pascal Ackermann, Jakub Mareczko and Phil Bauhaus - Ed.] He’s a very nice guy. When Mark Cavendish stops, I’d love to work with Halvorsen again.” (smiles)
Was Team Sky the best choice for him? He won a stage at the Herald Sun Tour a few weeks ago, but didn't win last year.
“I had liked to see him join Team Jumbo – Visma. Of course, the right to decide was up to him, and I respect that. The most important thing for him is to stay motivated, which is essential for a sprinter. After a year without winning a race, some sprinters would have stopped.”
Also, Team Sky often seems to let their sprinters Halvorsen, Doull and Lawless compete in the same races. Isn’t that frustrating?
“That's to keep the intern competition going. Riding at World Tour level is something completely different from riding in the U23 ranks. It’s a hard world: you have to keep proving you’re worth the support of your team.”
Do you know Oskar Svendsen personally as well? [the talented Norwegian stopped cycling after winning the World Championship TT and a fifth place as first year U23 in The Tour de l’Avenir of 2013 – Ed.]
“Of course.” (smiles) “He rode for the Joker Team as well. He had an unbelievable physical talent. Oskar was a top sportsman, but wasn’t made for cycling. After his world title as a U19 rider, his first race as an U23 rider was the Tryptique des Monts et Chateaux. He couldn’t manage to stay in the peloton and pulled the brakes after 20 kilometres. He thought cycling was only numbers, and that a high FTP [Functional Threshold Power – Ed.] and VO2max [maximal oxygen consumption – Svendsens holds the world record for highest VO2max: 97.5 - Ed.] was enough to make it in cycling. After that first year as an U23 rider, he immediately wanted to become a pro and kept going on about what team he could go to and how much money he could make. Eventually, after that fifth place in Tour de l’Avenir, he wanted to stop."
With all that talent and those results, why would he want to stop?
“He was not the only Norwegian with that story, Ole Haavardsholm is another example. Some Norwegians start wondering about the future, and in Norway there are a lot of opportunities to earn good money outside cycling. A lot of those talents who stopped did it very well at school and university. Because they are intelligent, they ask themselves the question that soon. [Svendsen now studies Engineering at the NTNU in Trondheim- Ed.]”
How about Amund Grøndahl Jansen? He is another Norwegian talent who was in Team Joker. [25 year old who now rides for Team Jumbo – Visma – Ed.]
“I believe Amund can become the third best Norwegian classics rider. In a couple of years or sooner, he could be able to finish top five in the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. I don’t think he’ll win five classics, as Tom Boonen did in the past, but he might win one. Amund is a very intelligent rider, the only one who learns a new language within the span of one month: what other rider fluently speaks Dutch, French and Catalan? He was transferred to our Joker team to ride his last year as an U23 with us, where he won a stage in the Tour de l’Avenir and the ZLM Tour."
(Too much?) professionalism in Norwegian cycling education
I have always seen a lot of Norwegian cyclists at the start of Belgian U19 races. How does that come?
“That's the advantage of Norwegian welfare. Their parents have the money to come to Belgium at the weekend. I've seen it more and more during the last ten years, I’m not sure if it has something to do with me.” (laughs) “Especially during the Easter school break, I've seen Belgian lists of participants where 36 of the 70 starting riders were Norwegians.
You already spoke about taking Halvorsen to Belgium as an U23 rider to try out Belgian races. Is it really necessary to go there as a Norwegian?
“Before his illness, in his first year in the U19 he had already won two races there, so it wasn’t his first experience. The advantage of Belgian races is they are always at a high level, with a good level of competition. And it’s not difficult to enter one, just like the Belgian riders, you just register and get your number. All of the riders of Norwegian cycling schools make the transfers to Belgium. Halvorsen and lots of others come from these schools, where they don’t only race in Belgium, but also in France.”
There are a lot of Scandinavian riders in the top of the U19 and U23 results of world cups. Not all of those riders keep racing at the top. Is it possible that the Scandinavian professionalism in training is already too high in the youth categories, so that they grow tired of cycling before they even reach the senior level?
“Actually, in Norway and Denmark, there is a discussion going on about that. You have a good point there: because is it really necessary to go to a cycling college at that young age? When you’re still a student, it asks a lot of you. Their students go to Spain for fourteen days in December, then they go to Belgium and afterwards they have to come back home to take exams. Before their career has even started, some of them have already grown tired of it."