After a weak season last year due to a cytomegalovirus, two-time world champion Bart Wellens only asks for one thing this season – to be back on top. The first few races saw him finish just outside the podium with two fifths and a sixth, but he assures Cyclocross Magazine that those results are all part of his master plan.
“I said before the season I want to ride better and better and at this moment it is like that. Erpe Mere was half good, half bad. I thought it needed to be a little bit better. And today at Neerpelt it was good. Next week is the first big race in Namen [he finished fifth] where it’s the moment of truth. It is the beginning of the season, and there we need to be very good,” explains Wellens.
Similar to many of his competitors, Wellens opted for road competitions during the offseason, feeling positive about its outcome. “My condition is like it would be in the beginning [of the season], so I’m satisfied at the moment. Over the summer we did everything we wanted to do. I did three or four stage races, and training camps in Mallorca and St. Moritz. I was not sick. Everything was good…so I hope it stays like that!”
While he may not have had much success on paper from his offseason efforts, he did have the opportunity to work hard for his Telenet-Fidea Team’s triumphs. The Tour of Slovakia is a prime example, where his team had to take the lead from the start when they landed six riders in the first 11 with Zdenek Stybar taking the early yellow jersey. Wellens describes, “With Styby in the jersey I had to ride for full ‘a bloc’ ahead – every day for 160-170 kilometers. As I worked very hard for him, I had the feeling I was working very good for next ’cross season.”
No matter the level of success Wellens achieves this season, his nickname of Karate Kid will continue to follow him – although it is definitely fading since 2005 when he earned it by attempting to side kick a spectator.
“After the fateful race in Overijse, I saw a video game on the Internet where I was kicking to the public. I had a very bad punishment from the UCI – a one month suspension, I was stripped of the win and had to pay more than 3,000 euros. It’s funny because people laugh with it. But at that time when they were throwing mud, water, beer I was filled with such anger – you don’t think about it, you just try to hit them. Afterward I knew it was not good or right of me, but the fans need to think before throwing things.”
Wellens’ newfound status of family man definitely helps to calm his feisty side, and it’s also given him a fresh perspective on his career. “With a family, things become more relative. If somebody screams bad things to me, I think – racing is important but family is more important. I like cycling, I like cyclocross, but even more, I like my wife and my kids.”
As for mixing the two worlds, Wellens has it all worked out. “Sometimes I am training and working hard half the day, and the other half I am daddy. And Lentel [de Hertog, Wellens’ wife] is now going to school. On the days that she goes, I am full-time daddy. That’s good for my head when I can switch off my ‘race button’ and just be daddy playing with [daughter] Lily.”
Wellens adds, “You have your race and your family, so it is very important. Especially last year when I was sick and it wasn’t going well, then you come home and you know that it’s not the race that’s important but the family now. They support me very well and I need it.”
On the topic of more kids in the future, Wellens jokes, “We’re practicing. So we will see.” In response to further inquiry to discern if he is practicing as hard as he does on the bike, Wellens laughs and says, “Every day!”
When reminded of the warm welcome he received at the Brussels Airport directly following his win at the World Championships in Monopoli, Italy, in 2003, Wellens responded that he cherishes those memories and applies them to his present goals. “Coming back to Belgium with the jersey and the gold medal – then to ride with the white jersey the whole year – the best feeling ever. I want that feeling back at some point over the next three or four years. I want to be world champion one more time.”
Other than the coveted rainbow stripes, Wellens wants only to be talked about like he once was. Wellens tells, “Last year it was a season to forget very fast with my disease. They spoke about only three people last year, [Sven] Nys, [Niels] Albert, [Zdenek] Stybar. This year, I want them to be talking about four – and hopefully it’s Wellens again.”
After racing for 26 years, retirement is always a question, one that Wellens has a clear answer for. “I started at nine years old and I am now 32. I always said that I will race until I am 35, then I will see if my level is high enough for doing races. If so, I will race longer. But if on my 35th birthday I’m not good enough anymore, then I will stop. That’s in three years, so we’ll see in three years,” chuckles Wellens.
In acknowledgment to his American fans, Wellens promises to make an appearance on their home soil. “We will see each other in 2013 for Worlds, but I hope before that as well. My brother Geert was just at CrossVegas and he said it was amazing to race there – although his result was not so good. I hope I can go next year since the timing will be much better at the end of the season. That is, if they ask me to go and give enough money…”