VICTORY KING RUTGER WOUTERS AIMS FOR OVERALL WIN IN BURKINA FASO
It is also the fifth time in a row that he became victory king of Belgium. The list looks as follows: 2019:30, 2020:3 – a year in which there were almost no races by corona -, 2021:20 – by corona only races from June to October -, 2022:32, 2023: preliminary 25 wins .
In Cyclelive Magazine issue 72 we had a conversation with Rutger and wondered then why no pro team came up with the idea of offering this classy rider a solid pro contract. Now that the 2023 season is (almost) complete, we took another look at Rutger Wouters. He is now another year older and has apparently put his quiet dream of becoming a pro rider away. That dream lies somewhere at the bottom of a closet in the attic.
ROUND OF BURKINA FASO
On Oct. 22, the season is normally complete for riders in the elite category without a contract but not for Rutger.
“I am currently in Burkina Faso , for the round of the country that starts Friday, Oct. 27 and lasts until Sunday, Nov. 5. Another ten stages full steam ahead. I’m happy to participate and stretch out my season. I’m very excited to start and give the best of myself in this 2.2 UCI race,” Rutger told us over the phone.
How did you get there Rutger?
“We’re here with Guy Smet, Niels Vandyck, Sam Van de Mieroop, Wannes Heylen, Stef Rogier, Herman Beyssens as team manager and Pascal Van Cauwenberghe as caretaker, a cool gang with potential for some good results. Sport director Herman Beyssens has been coming to Burkina Faso for 25 years and always does so with a composite team. Guy Smet is an ex-winner and is participating for the 8ste time. We all ride in jerseys from team Thielemans-De Hauwere and ride with sports nutrition from Concap.”
So what are your ambitions in this 2.2 UCI race Rutger?
“We have a very strong team and I think at least 4-5 riders will or can win a stage. So our ambition is to win as many stages as possible and also have a shot at the overall victory. Hopefully we will be spared many punctures and other bad luck, then I definitely see that happening.”
What are the ambitions for yourself?
“I also participated two years ago and then I won the first stage, rode eight days in the yellow jersey and nine days in the green jersey. If I could roughly repeat this would already be very nice. Still, I secretly hope a little bit to be able to bring home the yellow jersey after the last stage.”
Those are nice ambitions that will therefore no longer be sneaky after the publication of this article Rutger….
“Oh dear, so now I have saddled myself with quite a bit of pressure then,”,…. laughs exuberantly.
On paper that does indeed look like a “solid little team,” is the real team atmosphere there?
“Yes! We are here with four riders who have ridden the Ronde already at least once and two new riders – namely Wannes Heylen and Stef Rogier, also two strong and super nice guys who also quickly felt at home here. Add team manager Herman Beyssens and caretaker Pascal Van Cauwenberghe and the atmosphere is always super good. It’s just a super cool group and it’s an incredible adventure for all of us. Even for Herman, this is a celebration every year.”
Would you then be willing to do a post-ride report every day and give us some anecdotes from the belly of the peloton and the team? Then we will post a nice story of you in Burkina Faso on our website every time….
“Of course I want to do that, very much so!”
That’s agreed then!
Can you also briefly tell us how your 2023 season went, are you satisfied yourself or did you expect more?
“In the end, I did still get satisfied with the cycling year because the end of the season was still very good. I got very sick at the end of June with eight days of fever and 13 days of splitting headaches, which kept me off the bike for two weeks. I had to sit out the whole month of July and rebuild. August was also difficult, but as of September I was happily back on the bike.
As a teacher, July and August are normally my top months because I am on full leave then. I can train and race as much as I want. Of course you can get sick, but the rider in me would rather have planned it differently if it had to be that way. But that too is of course racing, you don’t always have it under control and the luck-luck factor also plays a part.”
You turned 32 on August 10 and looking at your full palmares you are clearly a late bloomer, tell us a bit about your evolution as a rider.
“I only started racing in the juniors at 17de and it wasn’t easy at first. That first year it was mainly trying to finish a race. Until the pledges I had to develop more strength and above all develop more race insight, because I was totally lacking that. I won my first race as a sophomore, but the lack of tactics prevented me from winning more. And the fact that my studies didn’t allow me to train a lot also hindered my progress. At 23, I became a teacher and that combination of work and training is actually ideal. I could devote many more hours to training than when I was a student and I felt myself getting much stronger in a short period of time. However, course vision was still my shortcoming. From late 2016 when I turned 25, there was actually a sudden click and I did feel when to accelerate and when not to. Suddenly the tactical aspect in the race also became one of my assets and I really started winning regularly. As of 2017, I really stood out.
Did you receive any comments after our article last year in Cyclelive Magazine?
“Yes, had a lot of positive reactions, both from colleagues and supporters and sponsors. Everyone liked the fact that for once serious attention was paid to a rider from a lower category than professional cycling.”
Still no one to make you a serious offer from profwielerland?
“No, that won’t come again either I think, of course you never know but at least I don’t hope for it anymore.”
Do you still enjoy the many training sessions?
“Yes, I am still enormously driven. As soon as that drive is gone, I think I’m done with racing. I do try to shorten the winter by looking for challenges abroad just after or just before the Belgian season. That’s why I’m now in the Tour of Burkina Faso.”
What still drives you to make so many sacrifices?
“I always want to do as well as possible and win as many races as possible. For that, I have to do everything for it. I don’t want to regret that I didn’t do everything I could at this level. If then you are also allowed and able to do such great things as here in Burkina Faso, it gives a boost of motivation every time.”
Where do you set the bar for next season?
“Winning as much as possible, putting a number on it is always difficult. Get seriously sick and you can already scrap four, five or more wins. So at the end of the season we’ll take stock.”
So what does your dream season look like for next year? Dreaming is allowed for a while!
“Becoming Belgian champion on the road race so I can ride in that beautiful tricolore jersey for a year and win more than 20 races.”
If you could choose which pro team would you go to?
“Jumbo-visma, they seem the most professional to the outside world and I could definitely get a lot better there, and of course also Soudal-Quick Step!”
What did you yourself think was the most remarkable fact in the pro world of 2023?
“Pogačar riding off Mathieu van der Poel on the cobblestones of the Oude Kwaremont, wow what was that!…. What a champion who is just one of the best or even the very best on every terrain.”
And for you, which was the best race of the season in the pros?
“The Ronde Van Vlaanderen. I am a fan of attractive races and both Pogačar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Wout van Aert always race with an open visor. Blessed to see such races where then also the best of the day clearly wins.”
What did you find to be the absolute highlight of yourself this season?
“There wasn’t really one race that stood out, although I made it a big catch-up race in a number of races. By sometimes being more than two minutes behind the leading group in a third or fourth group and still winning the race. Those are races that stay in your memory. An example of that was the race in Geel.”
“It was a lot above 30 degrees that day. I felt there was a bit much watching me and so I ended up in a third and final group two minutes behind a leading group of seven.
I can handle the heat quite well and at 40 km to go I noticed that my opponents in the last group didn’t have much energy left. So I tried to jump to a group of about ten riders who were about 40 seconds ahead of us.
Once I joined that, a lap later, with the support of three other riders, I rode from the second to the first group. The four of us closed a gap of more than a minute.
So at ten km from the end we were able to connect. Right after that Olivier Godfroid of Baloise Trek rode away alone, I rode to it, went up and over on the last lap and won solo.
The high temperatures that day will undoubtedly also have played in my favor, because I can handle the heat well and you could feel that for most riders the lights went out quietly after halfway through the race, while I was able to keep riding.”
Who was/is your most feared opponent in the elites without a contract?
“Elias van Breussegem was without a doubt the strongest opponent in years. He won 23 races and very often won solo. In recent years I won the title of victory king relatively easily, but now it was a huge struggle. Even though both Elias and I didn’t see this, we weren’t really concerned with that ourselves. It’s really just a crowning achievement with nothing else attached to it.”
Is there much mutual respect between the riders in your peloton?
“Yes, among good riders yes. By lesser riders there is sometimes envy or jealousy. You never hear this directly, but always behind the back or afterwards. This is unfortunate, but probably part of it. I also realize myself that I am not the “easiest” in the peloton. I don’t let myself be done and can’t stand tugs. Then sometimes emotions run high, … that is still a work point with myself!
But my competitors do know that I always ride for it and don’t like mutual agreements. Just ride for what you’re worth. That’s the way I think it should always be!”
Where do you see yourself in the pro peloton?
“I think I would be a good domestique and attacker who could still finish it sometimes. I can ride hard for a long time and still be fast. Although of course it is very difficult to say what my real place would be, since I have never been able to ride at this level.”
Text: P. Van Gansen
Photos: Unless otherwise noted in the photos – Glenn Hofkens