Velon spoke to Lotto Soudal's breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt as he prepares to begin his 2018 European racing campaign following a stint at Tour Down Under:
Have you always been a naturally attacking rider?
It was always my style. When I look at races from almost 20 years ago, I always did the same. When the flag went down I started attacking and I’d try to win from the break. The only time I didn’t race like that was the 2013 season. All the other times I have attacked. I got this far with this style of racing, so I’m not going to change it now.
I've answered a lot of questions recently about how to get in a breakaway. Maybe I shouldn't have answered them, because now a lot of guys will know my secrets, and it will be harder for me!
Some days are harder than others. At the Tour Down Under it was relatively easy to get away. At the Tour de France, when it’s a hard day but not hard enough for the GC guys, then it’s really difficult and you will be battling 50 or 60 guys. Or you might find yourself in a 50-rider breakaway.
A lot of the guys know they can’t win from the bunch, just from the break - guys like Rui Costa [UAE Team Emirates]. He tries to win from breakaways and that makes it harder for me.
Of your three career Grand Tour stage victories, do you have a favourite memory?
The stage on the Stelvio [at the 2012 Giro d’Italia] will always be my number one. It was one of the hardest stages I’ve ever done. More than 6,000 altitude metres and 220km - almost seven hours of racing. If they ever said to me: ‘You can only keep one memory of cycling,’ then it would be that one.
Did you target a victory before that Giro stage?
No [laughs] - I was just aiming to be inside the time limit. We had to do the Mortirolo first, and the Mortirolo is steep. I thought I’d get dropped there. From the Mortirolo it was still 65km to the finish, but I managed to stay in the group of favourites.
In the last kilometre of the Mortirolo climb I attacked that group of favourites to get a head start on the descent, and then I was gone. Sometimes these things happen without a lot of planning. It turned out OK.
More recently, people remember your Mont Ventoux victory at the 2016 Tour …
I didn’t plan to attack that day, either. We thought the GC guys would go for the stage. It was mostly flat until the start of the Ventoux climb, so there were a lot of opportunities to start a chase and catch the break with their heaviest riders. That’s why I didn’t plan to attack, but I was having a good day, and when the flag went down I saw a lot of good riders attacking on the first climb.
So I tried anyway and we got 18 minutes' gap. We were a bit lucky with the wind, and they were scared there would be echelons, and that’s why we got 18 minutes with a nice group. But I hadn’t planned to be in the break. André [Greipel, team-mate] wasn’t planning to go in the break either, but he didn’t want to fight for his position the whole day in the bunch.
So he said: ‘I’ll go in the break the whole day, I won’t have to fight for position, and I’ll have a little head start on the Ventoux and I can go up easy.” That’s why André was there. It’s one of those days you don’t plan but turns out one of the best.
We only had to do half the climb, we were lucky we didn’t have to go all the way up … but we had the steepest 10km. But it’s still not a victory on Ventoux in my eyes. It’s a victory at Chalet Reynard, but not on Mont Ventoux.
But you must have targeted the break on Stage 19 at last year’s Vuelta?
Yes, that was planned - even if the last climb was a bit too steep for me. I tried to save myself a little bit more the days before. The day before I won, [Lotto Soudal team-mate] Sander Armée was in the break and won, and I’d wanted to be in the break on either Stage 18 or 19. That’s what I said to my sports director.
I just said I don’t want to go in the first two - those were the harder ones I think. I said: ‘I only have Stage 19 left, so I need to be there in the break.' The plan was simple, get in the break, follow the green jersey and the mountain jersey. We knew they would be in the break so I had to aim for them a little bit. And after two kilometres, we already had the right guys, and we were off …
Looking at this season: what’s your programme for the next few months?
My next race is Le Samyn [Tuesday 27 February], then I’ll do Paris-Nice and Catalunya. Those are the main goals for the first part of the season. My first time pinning on a number in Europe is Le Samyn. That’s more to get into the rhythm, and at Paris-Nice and Catalunya, I’ll be trying to go for stage victories.
Are there any key differences to last season?
My programme this year is exactly the same. I was always in good condition when I needed to be [in past seasons], the races I use as preparation turned out OK, so I don’t want to change a lot. It’s good the way it is.
I’ll probably do the Vuelta again but we’ll have to see how the Tour goes. I would like to go to the World Championships [in Innsbruck, Austria], and our national coach said he prefers riders who will do the Vuelta as preparation. So I think it’s not a bad option to start the Vuelta.
If I have a good day and I get my weight a little bit down just for that race, it could be good for me. I don’t know if I can get a good result, but I’ll try my best to be there for as long as possible. I don’t think Belgium has a really good climber, so I think we need to start attacking early - 70, 80km from the finish - and try to break open the race and make it hard for everybody. Then we will have a chance and I think that way of racing will suit me.
I’ll be training here in Calpe for three weeks, and I’m looking forward to Paris-Nice and Catalunya. I’ll watch all the Classics on TV - aside from La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which I’ll ride.
When Paris-Nice comes round that’s always the time when I have my first condition peak. I’m really looking forward to those races, and hopefully I can get a stage victory again.