Way back in Issue 7 of Cyclocross Magazine, we sat down with then first-time World Champion Niels Albert and found out more about the young Belgian. Since then, he’s captured another World Champion title (2012) and gone on to become one of the top cyclocross stars in the world. That is, until a recently-discovered heart condition forced him into a heartbreakingly young retirement. To celebrate his storied career, we’re running the interview by Christine Vardaros in full here.
After nearly losing the entire 2008/2009 season due to an injured spleen from a crash, Belgian Niels Albert came back strong late in the season, winning the Vlaamse Witloof Veldrit in Tervuren just one week after returning to competition. And less than a month later, he captured the most coveted title, the Elite Men’s Cyclocross World Championship in his first attempt. With this victory, Albert has conquered world titles in all three age categories before even turning 23 years old.
But for “Prince” Albert, titles and fame haven’t changed his life much, and he still lives with his parents and eats the same plain food every day. Is this simple life the secret to winning rainbow jerseys? Christine Vardaros sat down with Albert during the off-season to find out.
Congratulations on a very successful last season. In your first year as an Elite, you placed second in the Belgian Championships, won major events like Erpe-Mere, Zonhoven, Ardooie, Tabor World Cup, Veghel-Eerde, Tervuren, Otegem and the biggest title of all—World Champion—only a few days before your 23rd birthday.
Thanks! Yeah, my season was very good with just one problem, when I fell in Asper-Gavere. But I am very happy with the rest of my season. Second on the Belgian championships by five meters from Sven and then the World Championship I won, so I am very happy of course!
I watched your attack on the field in World Championships. Did you have that spot pre-planned?
For me, it was a little bit planning, but I was not sure that it was going to work. I knew that I must go first of the Belgian Team riders. I attacked in that short turn on the second round and Sven gave me a gap, so that was my chance. I am not afraid to attack in the first two rounds. And when they give me a gap, normally I’m gone.
So there was a team plan?
Not a team plan, but only my plan. I didn’t tell it to Sven in the [meeting] room the evening before the race that I have a plan for my own. But I spoke with Christoph [Niels’ manager] and other guys with my [trade] team and they were enthusiastic that I do it.
When did you realize your plan was going to stick?
When [Zdenek] Stybar was with me, I didn’t think about winning. But when he was behind me by five meters only 200 meters later, it was my chance to ride away from him again. It was a good position for me.
What was going through your mind as you were climbing the hill to the finishing straight on the last lap?
I was thinking that this is really crazy, I don’t believe it. Such a low then high. Two months before the World Championships, I was lying in a hospital thinking maybe I can’t even race the World Championships. It was like riding from a very low point to a very high point on top of the hill in just a hundred meters. You are making it up the tough climb and you are thinking about winning. It’s a very nice feeling.
Regarding the Belgian National Team, I know that there was a lot of talk about teamwork. Did the team actually have a pre-set plan for the race?
No, we hadn’t made a concrete plan, but it was the plan for a Belgian rider to win, and not a rider from another country. Not Lars Boom, not Stybar. Who it was or how it was gonna happen, there was not a plan.
How has your Worlds title changed your life?
Not really much. I am still Niels of Tremolo and I think it’s not changed very much. He’s a normal guy. Still working on a big career. But for most people, I am changed. I don’t think that’s true. And not for the people who are living with me, like Christoph, his wife and my team. I am still the same Niels.
What helped you most to come back to top fitness so quickly?
The most important thing in my recovery was Christoph. He is one of the people who helped me win [the World Championships]. After I fell, I was at Christoph’s house a lot. It was always about training and revalidation—working on a comeback. Swimming and running. Everything was towards coming back to the top.
How was swimming?
That’s not nice. I don’t like swimming but it was one of the parts for making my comeback. Yeah, that’s not nice. [chuckles]
ON STARTING YOUNG
I read you are two-time Belgian national champ in BMX. How old were you when you started racing?
I started with BMX when I was 12. I was 13 and 14 [years old] when I was Belgian champion. Then at 14, I started riding and racing on the road and cyclocross, and the BMX was done.
Who were your ’cross heroes when you were younger?
They were Bart Wellens and Sven Nys. I liked to watch cyclocross when I was 14 or 15 years old. But when I was 18 or 19, they were also my competitors. When I was 20 years old, I already won a big race in Lounhout, part of the Gazette van Antwerpen Trofee and also Oostmalle. I don’t have big idols anymore, but I respect what they do. And when I can beat one of them I am very happy, because I don’t want them alone at the top any longer! [chuckles]
Is it at all strange to race with them and even beat them now?
Yeah, that’s really strange. Watching [cyclocross] on TV, I always saw Bart Wellens and Sven Nys, my really big heroes. But now at my age of 23, I have that strange feeling every week since I am riding against them. It is not a bad feeling, but a strange feeling.
What is your favorite type of ’cross race?
I like races like Koksijde and Oostmalle most of all—the races that are faster. Or like Kalmthout, really fast and in the woods and sand. And the World Championships! THOSE are my favorite races. [laughs]
Goals for next season?
I don’t want to give my World Champion title away but I know that winning in Tabor is not going to be easy because February in Tabor may have snow and ice. That’s not really easy for me but we will see. Maybe in February, Tabor is fast and dry and no ice. It’s possible…
I want to win the Belgian Championship in Oostmalle in January. That is one of my big goals. And I want to win one of the overall titles like GvA or Superprestige or the UCI ranking. But I am not already thinking of it since it is far away for the moment. A lot can happen before then. I can fall and break a leg. I will see when the season starts.
I heard you had already ridden 1000km more than last year by mid-May and that you are looking sharp. Why change your preparation from last year?
I am a year older than last year and a little bit stronger than last year at this time, so I think everything is going to be better. But I must see it in winter. I don’t think about it now, but I want to stand strong from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. And I want to ride every week against Sven and Bart Wellens for the win. I must work very hard so I am fit enough.
Road or possibly mountain bike racing in the off-season?
I ride on the road, no mountain biking. I will also do little events, like Ronde van België.
I have been looking for you every week at the Begijnendijk group ride. Do you still ride with them?
Christoph doesn’t like the group of Begijnendijk, so I can’t ride with them anymore. He says they go too slow.
One of the last times I rode on the group ride, Sven was there and pulled our group, which was second, around the first group because they were going too slow! And we know that never happens.
When you do ride with others, do they treat you like a superhero?
No, the group of Begijnendijk treated me like a normal person. I don’t want to be a hero for other riders. I want to be only Niels from Tremelo. A normal 23-year-old guy where everything’s a little bit slow and easy and relaxed. Not a big hero from Belgium. I think that is the best.
And how does Niels from Tremelo spend a typical day?
Normally, I am standing up at eight o’clock. Eight-thirty, I eat a normal breakfast, then I go training with Radomir [Simunek] and Philipp Walsleben. Sometimes two hours, three, four, five. Then, I go home, eat a little bit and rest. I am watching Giro now. I am not going out or doing something in the weekend. That’s not possible for me. But after the season, I go out a little to a discotheque or something with the guys of the team. Normally two, three, four times in a year, so that’s more than enough. Then, again, I am ready for training.
Do you use a heart rate monitor or power meter?
I train with a Polar. I started with it this year since Spain at training camp from 10-25 April. Yep, I bought my first Polar.
So up until now you’ve never used a heart rate monitor? [gasps]
Nope, not before. [chuckles]
And not a power meter?
Sometimes, sometimes not. [again chuckles] I never really trained with it before but now I do— but I don’t look at it. It’s only for the results for the team, but not for me. I don’t need to listen to it.
A lot of people will be happy to hear it’s not necessary to use that stuff even to win a World Championship. People seem to go technology crazy SRM and PowerTap… [laughing] I have everything. But I don’t train with it. So… [laughs] I have everything, but I don’t use it.
What is your favorite training session for cyclocross?
My favorite is riding in the fields on Wednesday. And after training, a little bit on the road behind the car on the same day. For me, it’s perfect training day. I ride one and a half hours in the woods and I train very hard. Then, one hour behind the car and that’s my favorite day in winter.
What do you like most about bike racing?
The feeling in the legs when they are very good. When you start riding in the morning at 10 o’clock and then you are already at 1 o’clock, and the feeling is still good… And it’s nice weather. That’s for me the perfect day. That is what I like most about cycling.
Going into the next season as World Champion, will you feel additional pressure?
No, Niels doesn’t know any pressure. Niels and pressure don’t exist [together]. He is always relaxed and he’ll see how it goes. He is not thinking about winning for the moment even though he is already a little bit busy with it.
How do you do that when everyone is looking at you as the guy to beat?
I don’t know. [chuckles] I think it’s my personality. When I was 14, 15, 16, I was always relaxed. Not stressy or nervous. For the World Championships, I was nervous but that’s normal. I don’t think about the ‘cross season for the moment. I think about now the good weather, a little bit training and relaxing in the peloton, 200km on the wheels—that is training for me now.
How supportive is your family?
Very important. My mom and brother are very important. Christoph is like a brother to me; I am very much here at his house for the moment. I train here, I rest here, I watch TV here. It is like my second home. We would go through a fire for each other. That’s very nice and I want to keep it like that.
Regarding nutrition, a major part of every bike racer’s life is food. What is your favorite meal before a race?
I think for every cyclocross rider it’s the same—spaghetti. But that’s my favorite food all week. My mom is a very good cook and my brother Steffen is a chef in a restaurant, so I am very happy for the moment at home. I have very good cooks in the kitchen! And when I come back from training at Christoph’s, his wife makes dinner for me, so I am a little bit like a king! [Laughs]
And Christoph also cleans my bike. [laughs again.] I also have a mechanic named Kris, so I have two people who clean my bike and work on my bike. I have a whole team around me, so I don’t have to do anything. All I have to do is the training, resting, eating. I don’t have to wash my bike, or make my food, or do laundry, so I have it very good for the moment and I don’t want to change it.
Do you eat or drink anything just before the race to top off your energy?
I eat pasta and thirty minutes before the start I eat an energy gel.
What about caffeine?
No, no! I don’t like it. Yuck! That’s bad. I don’t like coffee or tea or anything else. The only thing I drink is Coke during the race or afterwards. For the rest of the time, I drink Aquarius [sports drink] or water.
What is your favorite “guilty” meal?
Ice cream. That is not good for a ’cross rider but I really, really, really like ice cream. When I am watching TV, I can eat a whole box of ice cream. My favorite one is vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and a banana and a lot of whipped cream. It’s really nice [laughs.] I like fries, but not that much. I eat it once in a month with cocktail sauce—ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.
OUTSIDE THE ROUTINE
What do you do for fun, other than ride your bike?
For fun, I watch TV. The best for relaxing is riding my pit bike. I bought it from America. It is made for competition riding, but I use it for fun. I am spending a lot of time at my new house now talking to the guy who is currently building my kitchen. I go to the cinema, a little bit ice cream eating. A little bit of everything a normal guy does after work. And after the season, I race go-karts a few times.
Any plans to race in USA? [See his interview with us pre-Worlds in Kentucky in 2013 here.]
I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t have a request from an American organization. So maybe when they ask me…
Is there anything you can share with your fans that you think they’d want to know?
I am very open person. When I say I am feeling very good—and for the moment the condition is very good—I look forward to the ’cross season. And they are very happy when I say that I want to race every week to beat Sven. I think that’s all my fans want to hear.
Thanks so much for the interview Niels! I will be cheering for you at the races!
My pleasure, and thanks!
Thanks to Niels for being a fantastic competitor to watch over the years.