Thomas De Gendt may be racing the Tour of Oman right now but the Belgian breakaway specialist is keeping more than half an eye on the spectacular progress that his young teammate Arnaud De Lie is making back home in Europe.
The Lotto-Dstny sprint phenomenon won nine races last year, his first as a professional and this season he has already taken another three. At only 20 years of age, the Belgian has a long way to go before hitting his upper limit.
De Gendt likens his compatriot to no less a star than Peter Sagan in his earliest days.
“He’s playful on the bike, a bit like Sagan was in his young days. So he still has some margin to improve but for now, it’s still all playing and having fun attacking even when he doesn’t have to, and that’s nice to see,” De Gendt told Cyclingnews during the Tour of Oman.
“I remember when Sagan was with Cannondale and Liquigas, he won a stage in Paris-Nice by attacking with more than three kilometres to go, because even if he was the fastest, he attacked like that just because he could.
“It’s nice that Arnaud still has that sense of fun.”
De Lie is also impressive “because of the way he can hold his own in tough sprints against guys like Mads Pedersen”, who, like Sagan, is a former World Champion – “in race finishes as hard as the Etoile de Bessèges.”
After winning two stages in Besseges and the Clasica Comunitat Valenciana 1969 already this season, De Lie is the odds-on favourite for the Clasica de Almería on Sunday. Further down the line, he’ll be heading into the unknown at the WorldTour Monuments, with debuts in Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.
“He’ll be doing the Classics this year to learn and improve,” De Gendt said. “If in San Remo he can get over those climbs with the front group, and if he can, then he’ll have a chance to win. But he has to see what they’re like first.
“It’s safe to say that he’s still very young and still has a few years to learn, and in a few years’ time he’ll go there with the objective to win.”
Apart from his ability to have fun and win races at the same time, arguably what impresses De Gendt is that De Lie is making his mark against hardened Classics fast men like Pedersen in races where the Dane was clearly in flying form.
“It’s good he’s winning in the smaller races, but that stage he took against Pederson and the way he won afterwards was really exceptional,” De Gendt said. “A good sprinter can win 10 bunch sprints a year if they are normal ones, but to be able to do something like De Lie in these hard ones – that’s very different.
“He’s set himself up to be a really good rider in the future, probably one of the big stars.”
No Giro d’Italia
While De Lie is making his Classics debut this year, De Gendt himself will be forced to switch season goals as his original aim of the Giro d’Italia is no longer on the Lotto-Dstny program.
“I wanted to do the Giro and Vuelta, but I understand why they opted out of the Giro, and I’ll try to find another goal,” De Gendt said.
Ideally, his alternative Grand Tour would be the Tour de France, De Gendt says, before warning that “it’s hard to get into that selection because everybody wants to go there. So I’ll just have to show myself somewhere first and take it from there.” Maybe not in Oman, but hopefully sooner rather than later.
De Gendt still wants to add to his tally of wins before heading for a different Grand Tour, either with a third stage win in Paris-Nice and/or a sixth stage in the Volta a Catalunya, the race where he’s taken most victories in his career.
The Tour of Oman is De Gendt’s first stage race of 2023, but the off-season has gone well for the breakaway specialist. With his aims further into the future, he is working for his teammates in Oman.
“I had a seven-week training camp in Calpe, Spain, nice weather and a good atmosphere in the team. I did not have one training ride that I had to shorten or cancel,” De Gendt said regarding his winter.
“The training was a bit different, it was all a bit more back to basics. I did more endurance training for the first three or four weeks, and afterwards, I started to do more intervals.
“For the last three years, I’ve switched it wrong, done more intervals and trained for less and now I went back to a 25 hours a week schedule. Just to try to get the good feelings back again.”
If his training schedule was partly new, De Gendt is riding Oman for the first time in his 15-year career. Compared to the UAE Tour “where it’s just mostly flat, this has got a bit more colour and atmosphere” he says, but the pace has been more intense than he expected. “They told me it’s different to UAE, where it’s so flat you’re always going at 170-180 Watts the whole time,” he observed.
“Here we got as far as the first climb, and it was actually quite hard, and we never slowed down after that.
“After this, I’ll go to the UAE, probably to race for Caleb [Ewan] and make sure it’s a sprint every day. It’s not my choice but there are not that many options at this part of the season.”