Q&A: A decade and a half at De Ronde
Our Dutchman talks about his decade-and-a-half-long relationship with the Flemish classic
Sebastian Langeveld talks about his relationship with the race that has meant so much to him
He hasn’t missed an edition of De Ronde since he first stormed the Flemish classic in 2008. We sat down with our Dutchman to ask him about his relationship with the race that’s meant so much to him.
Sunday is going to be your 15th Tour of Flanders, Sebastian. Tell us about your first one.
The first one was in 2008 with Rabobank. It was on the old parcours with the Muur van Geraardsbergen and then the Bosberg. I actually rode a really good finale. In the Opening Weekend, I was second in Kuurne. I raced Sanremo. In Flanders, I went on the offensive with 60 kilometres to go. In the finale, Devolder was away, and I almost bridged across to him. He won the race. I got caught. I think I was still in the top 20. It was kind of a big day. I was stamped to be the next Dutch talent. That first one was a really good memory.
How old were you then?
I’m 37 now, so 23. My first year as a professional was 2006, but I started a bit later that year because I was doing cyclocross, so I only did Roubaix. In 2007, I broke my hand, so I missed the classics.
Did you always want to be a classics rider?
My father used to be a rider, and he was always watching the bike races, so I grew up with the sport from a pretty young age. As soon as I started cycling myself—when I was 12 or 13—it clicked. It’s not that there was pressure to be a professional or anything. It was a natural progression, but in the end, it was a dream come true.
Do you have memories of watching the races as a kid?
Yeah, definitely. Rolf Sorenson was my idol. He won the race in ’97. I am a little bit old school. I really respect the old riders. Every generation has their favourites. I always liked watching the races. You almost do a recon when you watch them on TV, because 70% or 80% or 90% of the climbs in the race are the same, even though the parcours of Flanders has changed over the years. The Kwaremont is still the Kwaremont, you know.
"These races are tricky, but they are still the most beautiful races that there are."
And when you were an espoir, coming down from Holland to race in Belgium on those same roads, was it always your dream to come and do the big one one day?
Definitely. My first Flanders was a big day. My first Roubaix was a big day. It was sort of surreal. I was talking to Marijn van den Berg, the young Dutch guy in our team, at UAE. He is sort of a sprinter type, and he reminded me of how I felt back then. “It’s so weird that now I’m riding with Cavendish in the same race,” he said.
Who were the top guys that impressed you when you first came into the sport?
Boonen. I actually raced with Armstrong as well. And there were a couple of Dutch stars that I had grown up watching. Michael Boogerd was from the older generation. I had watched him on television and all of a sudden we were teammates. It is how it goes, but it’s not given to everyone.
What makes De Ronde so special?
It has a lot to do with the spectators, the atmosphere, the whole vibe of the race. As soon as you come back to Belgium after Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico people only talk about De Ronde van Vlaanderen. The other races are important and hard and it’s gold if you win them, but if a guy who dominated E3 and Gent-Wevelgem is not there in Flanders, that’s what people will remember. It’s the biggest one. In Belgium, it’s almost like a national holiday. Everybody is out on the road. It is a really big day.
How has the race changed over the years?
Of course, the parcours has changed a little bit, but the finale has been kept the same for a couple of years now. The level is just higher. Whereas ten years ago, or 15 years ago, there were only 60 or 70 guys who were focused on the classics, everybody is now on good material and everybody is well-prepared. That’s not to take anything away from the top guys from that era, but you used to have a team like Euskaltel who would come to Flanders because they had to do the race. Now all of the teams are well-prepared and they have good classics riders. I won’t say it’s a new cycling, or it is different cycling, because the game is still the same, but the level just keeps getting higher and higher.
Flanders is a race where you have to take a lot of risks…
It is dangerous on the small roads. Even the big roads are also not always that good. You have to be there at the right moment and be in good position to actually take part in the race, because if you are turning into the Kwaremont in 60th or 70th position, and the favourites are going—you are not superman, you cannot jump over other riders. These races are tricky, but they are still the most beautiful races that there are.
After doing 14 of them, do you still find it as easy to take those risks?
No, definitely not. I was never a real risk taker, and now I’m getting older and have kids and stuff, it’s easier to put some things into perspective. Sometimes in the race you have to make a decision. At which point are you going to take the risks? Definitely, as I get older and am not as competitive as I was a couple of years ago, I pick my moments.
What are your favourite moments from De Ronde?
Two. The finale of 2008, when I made the jump on the Bosberg. I have got some nice pictures of that. It was my first Flanders. I was eight, nine seconds from Devolder. That was a moment I will never forget. And then 2019, when we won the race with Alberto. I think I played an important role in that race. I rode the finale, and I think I did a good job for the team. To win a monument like Flanders, one of your dream races, even though you didn’t win it yourself, was a big, big day. I think 2011 was my best result. I was fifth and was riding for the win. I did an attack in the last three kilometres. It was a good attack as well, but it didn’t happen. Still, a top-five in Flanders is nice. I have a lot of nice memories of this race.
What are your worst memories?
I crashed really hard in 2012 on the descent towards the Kwaremont. I hit a spectator. In the end, it was pretty bad, but it could have been a lot worse. Also, in 2018, I was basically in the perfect position to podium. I was away with Dylan van Baarle and Mads Pedersen at the right moment, when Niki Terpstra, who won the race, passed us right at the bottom of the Kwaremont. I didn’t have the legs anymore. My preparation was good, but I crashed really hard in E3, and missed the finale there, and I missed Gent-Wevelgem because of that, so I was good in Flanders, but I missed the extra rhythm. I definitely won’t say I could have gone with Terpstra, but I would have been close to racing the finale and getting another result. It was the perfect situation, so that was pretty painful. But in the end, it’s cycling. It’s not a video game.
"It’s cycling. It’s not a video game."
What does it take to take part in those finales?
A lot of hard work. Everybody works towards it. You have some exceptional guys like Van der Poel or Van Aert at the moment, maybe Sagan in the past, and for them it is a little bit different. But for a rider like me, everything has to fall in the right place. For me, my preparation for Flanders and Roubaix starts the moment I start training. Sometimes that is half-November. Sometimes that is the first of November. From then on, my whole programme leads towards those big races. It takes a lot of training. It takes a lot of planning.
And what about in the race itself? It’s one thing to be strong, but it is also a super technical, tactical race too.
It starts the moment you step out of the bus. In Flanders and Roubaix, you have to be careful with your energy. Where are you going to spend it? Where do you have to be in position? You have got to have a strong team. You have to plan and pace yourself, and then at the end, you just have to have the legs. Flanders is a really honest race. You can be in position, but if you don’t have the legs, you are going to get dropped sooner or later.
And how does it feel to take part in those finales?
It’s crazy. There are so many spectators, and they are all excited. The Kwaremont is a wall of noise.
Do you still get nervous?
Yeah. Not nervous, nervous, but I have to say Flanders, Roubaix, the World Championships—those races still mean a lot. It’s not that the other races don’t matter, but at the end of the day those are the big ones.
What are your hopes for Sunday?
I don’t want to say that we have had bad luck as a team, but we haven’t had the result we were chasing. You can come up with excuses or whatever, but it would be nice if we can finish off our Belgian classics campaign with a great result. We want to be visible in the race, and then if it’s a top-ten with Michael Valgren, or a win with Michael, or if it’s a good finale and we end up 25th, it is what it is. I think the team deserves that. And for me, I just want to be a part of the group and try to help Michael as much as possible, and just enjoy the race. Who knows when I’ll race my last one? It is important to enjoy the races now too.