Every photo you’ve seen of Kiel Reijnen over the last few weeks has probably involved him smiling profusely. Whether it is the obligatory bike and rider combos, the posing with his new teammates or training in Spain, he has been beaming from ear-to-ear with a genuine eagerness and freshness not all professionals can claim to foster.
In case you’re not aware of Reijnen’s backstory, he is a 29-year-old rider who has followed a rather unique path into the WorldTour rank and file. Unlike one of your typical U23 development riders he never clamoured for a place at cycling’s top table. Instead, he chose to build a solid base on the North American domestic scene before cementing his role as a leading rider within that circuit. Over the years there were certainly chances to move to Europe, race the biggest races and work with some of the biggest names, but until this year Reijnen had resisted. However, when Trek-Segafredo came calling it was time to make the leap. And since then, that smile has just become wider and wider.
“I’m definitely a bit of a late bloomer,” he modestly tells Cyclingnews as we sit down in the lobby of the Trek-Segafredo hotel in Benidorm on a crisp December evening.
“But I’ve been making consistent progress throughout a lot of my career and I’ve taken years at each step. I was not one of the kids whose only goal was to make it to the WorldTour no matter what. There are multiple ways to make it to the start line of Milan-San Remo, for instance.”
From Jelly Belly, to Team Type 1, through to UnitedHealthcare, Reijnen’s career went from strength to strength and flourished last year with a stage in the Tour of Utah and another at the USA Cycling Pro Challenge. It’s true, he had scored similar victories in the past, but it was the nature of his wins in 2015, coupled with so many other top placings during both events, that tempted Trek to reach out and offer him a WorldTour shot. And for a team that has amassed a truly eclectic gathering of racers, Reijnen may not have found a better home.
“I like winning bike races so I didn’t want to jump to a big team when I wasn’t fully ready,” he says, addressing the timing of his move.
“I didn’t want to quit winning races just to slip into a worker role. Now, don’t get me wrong I’ll work for my teammates, and some of my favourite memories from racing are about selling myself out for my buddies, but I want to race to win.”
One could assume that Reijnen’s move to Trek came about because they were the first team from that level to negotiate with him. However, according to the rider, several teams had lined up over the years to discuss a move.
“I didn’t have a contract in my hand but I had talked to teams before. I’m not 23 anymore so I wasn’t going to move to WorldTour just ‘to go’. It needed to be a good situation and it needed to feel right.”
“It goes way back but I talked to Geox at one point. But I didn’t know anyone there, and I have no idea how they even got my number but at the time I certainly considered it. I was calculated about it and I didn’t want to just jump at any offer in Europe. I wanted to make sure I was ready with the legs and with the right mentality. I want to win and some of the hardest things in this sport aren’t just about bike racing.”
Reijnen has no regrets about the path he has taken thus far, and why should he? He has seen rider after rider voyage over the Atlantic towards the heartlands of cycling only to sink without a trace. It would be ingenuous and over simplistic to label his approach as ‘safety first’ due to the fact he has discovered and embraced each opportunity with each of the teams he has ridden for.
“In some ways I’m glad that it didn’t come when I was 23 because it would have changed my trajectory a lot. I think most people assume that this was my first chance to jump but I just wasn’t as desperate as some of the young kids that come through the U23 ranks are these days. Everyone wants to be in the WorldTour, it’s the big leagues, but a lot of the things that I loved about the sport I found on the teams that I was on. I wasn’t fixated with the WorldTour.”
“So when this offer came along a lot of the pieces fit. Peter Stetina is here and Trek are an American sponsor, so that makes it feel like home.”
Kiel Reijnen and Peter Stetina at the Trek-Segafredo team camp in December.
A transitional phase
Reijnen’s entire schedule for this season has yet to be confirmed but he will make his WorldTour stage-racing debut in his first Trek-Segafredo race at the Tour Down Under. The Australian race isn’t a million miles away from some of the weeklong races on the US domestic scene, with a sprinkling of the punchy stages certainly fitting of Reijnen’s skillset.
For many riders their first WorldTour outing is one that would fill them with trepidation and and possibly fear but Reijnen has plenty of experience in when it comes to competing against the best. With no disrespect to UHC – one of, if not the strongest team, in the US – Trek are on another level and Reijnen isn’t just riding against the best, he’s riding with them too. That move from big fish to little fish is one that would ordinarily take time for an athlete to adapt to but Reijnen’s modest self-assuredness will provide him with solid foundations.
“There are a lot of things that are the same and a lot of things that are different,” he says when asked to compare the WorldTour to the Pro-Continental ranks.
“I was on some good Pro-Continental teams so a lot of these races are familiar. I was going over the schedule with the directors the other day and I think that they were expecting me to have not done a lot of what was on there but I’d raced at least half of them.”
“I think about it like a Venn diagram where there’s a lot of overlap between the two circles. There are some guys racing Pro- Continental who are capable of being at the top of the WorldTour, and vice versa, there are riders in the WorldTour who are more suited to Pro-Continental teams. Then there are a lot of guys in between. There’s not this hard, black and white line. Of course, I’m saying this before I’ve done my first season in the WorldTour so maybe I’ll have different answers next year.”
“There are differences though. When you have a team with a bigger budget everything is so dialled in. Everyone had a specific role so if there’s any issue it’s dealt with immediately. Then there’s some bigger differences so we’re going in to win a lot of the races. We’re not going there to gain experience or finish in the top 10. We’re going there to win. I wouldn’t say there’s an immense amount of pressure from the team to win at this point but this is certainly a big opportunity.”
And so to Trek-Segafredo with a new bike, a new kit, an improved race calendar and the makings of an entirely different role.
“The opportunities here will be few and far between in comparison to what I had at UHC,” he says, ackowleding that with a team that includes Fabian Cancellara, Ryder Hesjedal and Bauke Mollema, the overall objectives will be different.
“That matters and again one of the reasons I waited to make this jump was because I wanted the right offer and because I didn’t want to lose my opportunities. I had a lot of say at UHC in terms of my schedule and tactics, all those things and that was a privilege. I know that if you want that in an other environment you have to earn it. It’s not just handed to you. Do I think that there’s the opportunity to earn that privilege here? Sure. That will be the goal for 2016. I want to help guys here, because there are some superstars here, and they’re super good guys too.”
“I’ve been super impressed with the team so far. There are some really great guys here and it’s a really cool set up. I’m glad that I’m here now. I was ready to make the step this year and it was almost now or never.”
Now or never. Whether it’s during the Tour Down Under or at a race later down the line, few would bet against Reijnen taking his opportunities in his stride and earning the success his career deserves. One thing is for certain. It will be a long time before his excitement and that smile will start to fade.