A professional rider since the mid-2000s, Laurens ten Dam has enjoyed a career spanning two decades and seen all the highs and lows of life on the road one can imagine. Now 37, the Team Sunweb rider has no intention of stopping, but in an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews takes a personal and in-depth look back at his career and the five races that shaped his life.
Junior National Championships - 1998
I started cycling quite late, at around the age of 15, but the junior crit scene in Holland wasn't my thing. At that time, most of the racing for that age group was all about 1km loops, sprinting out of corners and just from looking at my body type you could tell I wasn't suited to it. I still loved riding my bike and even back then I was logging 20 hours a week in training. I'd finish school at 3pm and then do five-hour rides in the dark because my coach instilled in me that I needed at least one really long ride per week. I'd always do the long rides alone and I remember that I had a front light but the battery would only last two hours, so I'd be riding along and only turn it on if and when I saw cars coming.
As you know, I'm from Holland and it's pretty flat there. In 1998, however, the National Championships were out in the hills and out of nothing I ended up with third on the podium, behind two Rabobank guys. That was probably the moment when I realized that I could climb and after that point an amateur team took me on board. I was 17 and I remember the two guys who finished ahead of me. Neither turned pro and I think that fourth and fifth were also Rabobank and didn't turn professional. I was racing for my regional team and it put me in the spotlight.
For those championships, my family and I set off a few days before the championships so that we could be closer to the race. I stuffed my face with food the day before and I think it was one of the best days I've ever had on the bike. I was closing gaps on the hills and in the end, there were three of us left. The two Rabobank riders played with me in the finish, but they were teammates, and in the end, they took the first two steps on the podium.
That night, my coach, who sadly died two years later from cancer, ordered champagne in the restaurant and it was a beautiful moment. He'd trained me and was immensely proud of what I'd achieved. I remember thinking that I'd really paid him back for his support. When we went back to our hotel I ran to the payphone to call my girlfriend. This was before mobile phones, and although we'd only been seeing each other for a few months, I was desperate to call her. She didn't know shit about cycling but I called up and said, 'Hey, I've just finished third at the National Championships.' She just said 'Oh good for you. When are you home?' The thing is we're still together now and we got married, but that story always makes me smile when I think about it.
Tour of Germany - 2007
By now I was in my fourth year as a professional rider and I was riding for the Unibet team. I'd done a good race in May at the Tour of Catalunya and finished inside the top ten in the overall classification. At that point in my career, despite being a pro rider for three years, the biggest hill I'd done was at the Tour of Luxembourg, so I wasn't what you'd say a mountain specialist. In the background at that time Unibet had been scheduled to do the Tour de France but we'd been flicked by the French, so Catalunya, Luxembourg and then Suisse were the biggest races for the team. I actually still have really fond memories of Unibet. It was a great team with some really special characters, like Rigoberto Urán, Baden Cooke, Luis Pasamontes, the staff, and even the bus driver – it was one big family.
While the Tour was on, I took my form and went training in the south of France. I camped with my wife and the training was super, super tough. I remember doing the Brixia Tour during the final week of the Tour de France, and then getting my ass kicked at San Sebastian, so when I arrived at the Tour of Germany, I was already super pissed off and even more motivated.
Missing the Tour also meant that I missed all post-race crits, so I lost out on a lot of money and one night between the Tour and the Tour of Germany I went to the bar until 4 a.m. - It was a Thursday, I think, and the next day my directeur picked me up and I was so, so tired. I slept for 11 hours and then I slept before and after the recon of the opening TTT.
However each day I got better and better and I finished fifth on the Rettenbachgletscher. It all came together for me that day, and it's this mythical climb. I think Robert Gesink was fourth. He was in his first season as a pro and the two of us got a lot of attention back home because at that time there weren't too many Dutch climbers at the top level. That result, and finishing seventh overall in Germany, sort of launched me into the Rabobank team a year later. The truth is that I'd already signed for them at that point, with a contract for 2008. I'd signed maybe a week before Germany but that result made things a lot easier for me when I arrived the following January. I could walk into the team and say, 'Hey, put me in the Tour de France'. At that point, I'd never done a Grand Tour. I was pretty clear when I joined and said right away, 'I'm 27, I've never done a Grand Tour but I don't want to learn at the Vuelta.' In 2008, I did my first Tour de France.
Tour de France - 2013
You were probably expecting me to pick the Tour de France in 2014 because I was ninth then, and in 2013 I was a little lower and in 13th place but what you'll probably find more interesting is the story behind my choice.
The winter of 2012 was a really difficult period in Holland. All the shit came out from the Rabobank team, Lance Armstrong appeared on Oprah, Michael Boogerd confessed, and in the end, Rabobank pulled the trigger and ended their sponsorship. Those few months were the only time that I wasn’t proud of my profession or of being a rider. I went to a few personal events, like birthday parties, and it was difficult to tell people what I did for a living. I remember going to the farmers' market, still in my Rabobank winter jacket, and people were coming up to me and asking, 'Why are you wearing that and when are you going to confess to taking EPO?' When I'd go out training some people would honk their car horns, lean out of their windows and shout 'doping.' It was a really difficult time.
But that winter I concentrated so hard on my training. I did recon of the Tour with my wife and my young son who was just one at the time. We took our BMW 5 Series, put the bike on the top and went to the Alps and Ventoux. I was doing seven-hour training rides and I remember one day I bonked massively. I still had two hours to go and I was riding around, with no fuel and no energy looking for a bakery. It was France, the middle of the day, and so, of course, everything was shut. I finally I found a place that was open and stuffed my face with so much food. When I eventually made it back to the hotel to meet my wife, and before I could even take a shower, I was on diaper duty because the hotel staff had been so rude to my wife and had made her carry all the suitcases in even though she was alone with a baby.
I worked so hard heading into that Tour and everyone could see my efforts because I uploaded everything to Strava. It became the Tour of Bauke and Laurens because we were both up there in GC, and it brought people in Holland back into cycling.
They'd watch the Tour in the bars and pubs instead of the football. And after the Tour, we did so many crits and signed so many autographs. Everyone wanted pictures and it made such a contrast to the previous winter. Instead of shouting 'EPO' and 'doping' from their cars they were asking me to pull over for a photo. I never minded stopping for them and I was honestly really proud because it felt like I was helping the public and cycling after what had been a tough time. It felt like a rebirth in many ways.
Tours of California
I can't pick one so instead, I'm going to cheat a little and just say all of them. I started doing the race in 2011 and was sixth on GC and third on Mt. Baldy. That was a great race for me but I've chosen the race because of the experiences it has given me, both as a rider and as a person. At the race we'd turn up and as soon as we'd arrive a Dutch farmer, who lives out there, would pick us up in his huge RV and he'd put on these amazing barbeques before the race. We'd cruise around California, have pancakes for breakfast and then stay in these great hotels with huge beds. I'd been to the US before, I went there on my honeymoon, but my love for California started with that race. My wife and I always said that when I was close to finishing my career it would be with a US domestic team, like Jelly Belly and after I crashed at the Tour in 2015 and injured my back I thought, 'Fuck it, let's do it now.' So we moved to California for 2016 and we lived there as a family.
I came back to Europe for March, June and July and in the end, I signed with Giant-Alpecin, now Sunweb. At the time I was talking to UHC but they didn't want me and I was also talking with Optum but they only wanted North Americans. In the end, my manager sorted out the deal for me. So in a way, my love for the Amgen Tour made me fall back in love with cycling. It brought me and my family to the US and then helped kick-start my career once again because I've now been with this team for three years. It's why I still race, it's why I'm still going and it's why I'm not ready to stop. Nowadays, when I look back at pictures of my time in America, it brings a smile to my face.
Grasshopper Adventure Series
When I was moving to the US I knew that my first race back in Europe would be Paris-Nice. To get ready I needed to have some intensity in my legs so I tried to enter some local crits. I wrote to USAC but with a WorldTour license, they turned me away. My manager came up with a plan B and invited me to stay and do the Grasshopper in January. We went, booked an Airbnb with the family and when I turned up there for the first one, which is called the Old Caz. I was instantly blown away. There were over 400 people there. Ted King was there. Levi Leipheimer was there and the level was incredibly high.
It's the most beautiful place in the world to ride your bike but right from the start people were sprinting. I thought, 'Fuck, I better start sprinting too' and then all of a sudden you're climbing and then going through farm gates with your bike on your shoulders. Then you have to cross rivers and soon enough there are just 15 riders left, then 5 and I ended up fourth. You finish in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a mountain and you're in the sun and out of nowhere, they come out with 1,000 bottles of beer and huge bags of potato chips. I have photos of me and Ted King sitting on these boxes of beers and stuffing our faces. For me, that’s what WorldTour racing should be about – racing your bikes flat out and then just kicking back and talking about the race over a beer.
So now, two years later, I've found the right company to work with, and in September I'm going to put on my own race. It's in Germany, with different options on distance. People can camp for two days, all food is included (but not the beers), and there's a party and then a hangover ride. I expect everyone to be hungover and then in the afternoon, there's big screen so everyone can stay and watch the World Championships. I really believe it's going to be the best weekend of the year and I hope to build on it after my career because I love it, and it feels like I'm giving back some of that love to the cycling community.