At this very moment, I’m more eager than ever to ride my bike. Just a few years ago though, I was close to giving up. Let me tell you what happened and how I went from racing on the Dutch national scene to almost taking the leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour.
In 2014, I had a bad season with Belkin. I had crashed several times and had many setbacks and as the team was getting smaller for the next year, there was no room for me to stay on. Without any big results to leverage, I ended up signing with the Dutch continental team, De Rijke.
Going from racing on the big scene to a lower level was difficult. When I was younger, I won a lot of races on that level but this time around it wasn’t easy. Mentally, it was also hard. Just because you find yourself at a lower level, it doesn’t mean that you can lean back and take it easy. You need to keep training hard and give your very best every day. For me, it was good that I was already living in Girona, Spain, at that point. It really saved my career to be honest. Had I been living in Holland, having to endure a long and cold winter, for sure there would have been days where I would say “nah, not today. I’m a former pro. I don’t need to”. Luckily, I had the ideal set-up in Girona. Here, there are many strong guys to train with and if you go out on the bike with somebody like Robert Gesink, it’s definitely not going to be easy.
However, the biggest challenge for me was to get back to the top level again. I needed to find a team that was willing to give me a second chance. My team at the time, De Rijke, was getting smaller and they didn’t have the budget to keep me on. I didn’t have a huge contract but at least I could still call cycling my profession. The team leader advised me to talk with a Spanish manager and I thought: “okay, let’s give it a try”.
I found out that the Colombian team, Manzana Postobon, really wanted to get a couple of European riders on board for the next season. The problem was that the people on and around the team only spoke Spanish. Luckily, seeing how I was living in Spain and my wife, Nancy, is Mexican, I got the benefit of the doubt. So at the meeting, I just pretended to understand, saying “Sí, sí, sí, claro, claro”.
On the second rest day of the Vuelta a España 2016, I had a meeting with my manager and he made it clear that if the team got a Pro-Continental license, they would sign me. From that moment on, I started to study Spanish like crazy. I did it my own way. I had my iPhone and the Duolingo app and that’s basically how I learned it. I think my mom would have wished that I had been this dedicated back when I was still in school.
Every day, I studied for at least one hour. Sometimes even two or three hours. My manager told me that I really had to go for it because the other guys on the team really didn’t speak any English. From my past, I knew how difficult it was for the riders on my previous teams who didn’t speak Dutch. They mostly ended up being alone. I didn’t want to be in that position so I continued to study hard and I started to follow Spanish Twitter accounts. Instead of reading the cycling news in Dutch or English, I made an effort to read it in Spanish to improve.
It worked! Now, I get the basics and I can talk with my teammates and understand the team meetings. My grammar may not be the best but it’s not like I have to write any letters to the president. It’s also great for when I go to Mexico with my wife to visit her family. For example, this winter was the first time I could really talk with Nancy’s grandmother.
On a professional level, I also stepped up my game. I always knew that I wasn’t a bad cyclist and that I was much better than I had previously shown. However, the level I reached last year also surprised me a little. When I signed with Manzana Postobon, my manager told me that it would be best to get a Spanish coach, who could communicate well with the team. I agreed. I knew this was my last chance so I had to get the most out of it. It worked out very well and I’m really happy with that decision. I invested some money in it but it really made me a better rider. My coach looks after me in every single way and it’s clearly working out well. He checks every little detail about everything.
I’ve got a funny story from Volta ao Algarve last year. On the final stage, a steep uphill finish to Malhão, I finished around Top20 just a minute down from the winner and I was super happy. I thought it was a great result for a rider like me but when I talked with my coach, he asked me: “Jetse, what happened?! I saw your file and the watts you were pushing. Why did you only finish down there?” Many other coaches would probably have been happy to see their rider get a result like that but not him. That was really an eye-opener for me. It was still a good result but maybe I shouldn’t be satisfied with just that. Thinking back, I realized I had started the climb too far back so I told myself that next time, I would make an effort to start the climbs much further up front.
In Vuelta a Burgos, I made Top10 in the first two uphill stages finishing around some really good climbers. But again, my coach just told me “every time I see you in the peloton, you’re around 30th position. You can still do much better”. It’s not easy though, to be near the front all the time if you’re not one of the star riders or on a big team, but I’ll continue to work on it. Also, I’m not used to be climbing with guys like Mikel Landa but it was a really nice experience. I’m 28 years old now but it feels like I’m searching for my limits again.
“I know that if everything comes together on the right day, I can win a big race”.
Given the improvements I had last year, of course, there are always skeptical people, mostly hiding behind fake names on Twitter, who instantly start talking about doping. However, they can think what they want. I know I work my ass off every single day. Look at my files. At De Rijke, my 20 minutes record was 430 watts, which is the same as what I did in Burgos last year. The only difference is that before I was at 75 kg and in Burgos I was at 69 kg. That makes a huge difference. I had worked really hard on losing the extra kilos and now, I know what I’m capable of when I’m leaner and that’s a huge motivation.
In the past, I was more like “let’s see what will happen” but after last year, I know that if everything comes together on the right day, I can win a big race. Heading into the Vuelta a España last year, I thought to myself “I can win a stage here” and I actually came close a couple of times, being in the right breakaway fighting for it. I was even the virtual leader of the Vuelta on stage 5. Sometimes, I can’t believe how things have changed so much. It’s crazy to think about.
To me, the biggest change has been my mindset. I’m more focused now. I’ve seen what I can do and I believe in myself. I mean, why would I go to a race if I didn’t believe I could do something there. It’s not that I’m saying I will win every race I go to, but I need to believe I have what it takes. If I don’t believe I can win, why should anybody else believe it?
This year, it doesn’t look like the team will be doing any Grand Tours but it may also be good for me. Now, I can focus on some smaller races and really try to win because, despite everything, I still haven’t really won anything yet. However, last year’s season was an eye-opener and now I know what I have to do. I have re-discovered my love for the sport and how fortunate I am to call cycling my job. I nearly got out of the sport a few years ago but now I’m back and I’m ready to give everything I have in me to succeed.