"You learn who your friends are during difficult times," says Belgian
Thomas De Gendt hopes that a one-year-deal at Omega Pharma-QuickStep will be all he needs to help rebuild his career after a disastrous final season at the now defunct Vacansoleil team.
At the Omega Pharma-QuickStep training camp last week the Belgian described 2013 as a lost season in his career, after injury, a lack of form and contractual issues ruined his campaign.
“It was a bit of a lost season and I don’t want to look back that much,” he told Cyclingnews.
“It was a tough year, that’s for sure, but I learned a lot. It was a year filled with a lot of bad luck, maybe 2013 was my unlucky 13 but it’s over and I can only look forward. I learned about where my injury was coming from and perhaps Vacansoleil stopping was the best thing that could have happened.”
At one point it looked as though De Gendt would fail to find a new team. Vacansoleil were already confirmed to leave the sport and due to his high salary following on from his third place at the Giro d’Italia in 2012, De Gendt wasn’t the first name on team managers’ lips as they assembled new squads.
However, Patrick Lefevere stepped in, offering De Gendt a lifeline at a WorldTour team, albeit on a heavily reduced salary.
“Lefevere had talked to me in the previous years and this was an opportunity to talk again. I was a free rider and he could make a bid this time. From the moment he said he wanted me it was a fast process.
“I think it was someone from inside who leaked the salary information but I don’t care anymore. I have a different salary than last year and that’s no problem because I’m now in one of the best teams. Maybe that’s better.”
De Gendt had been scheduled to ride the Giro d’Italia this year but told Cyclingnews that his race program will remain under wraps for now. The main goal is simply to reach a level of consistency he hasn’t been able to produce for nearly two years.
“The main goal is to get back to the level I had in 2012. If I reach that level then I can win again.
“I want to start the first races this season with good feelings and have that condition right from the off rather than chasing form and chasing form. If you do that it’s so hard to reach your top level.
“I don’t know my complete program yet. I’ll start in Mallorca and then we’ll go from there.
"It’s a one-year deal though and we’ll go from there. It gives me a chance but I know I have to prove myself. I don’t need to go for GC in major tours, that’s probably for others, but I can still try and win stages."
One thing De Gendt will not have to deal with this year is the high level of expectations that were placed on him after the Giro in 2012. A memorable stage win on the Stelvio netted him third overall and for a country like Belgium, who haven’t produced too many Grand Tours contenders in recent years, the result sparked a media and fan frenzy.
The situation only became worse in 2013. With the Vacansoleil management struggling to find a replacement sponsor all eyes were on De Gendt and his team leader's sizable salary as the team looked for results.
“With the third position most people in Belgium had high expectations but they’re now less than they were last year,” he told Cyclingnews.
“Sometimes it was tough to deal with the level of expectations because after every race people would say that a rider of my talent should be in the top-tens but if you have a problem with your knee like I had then you can’t do that. The pressure wasn’t just from the team, but also from the press and the fans. I was third in the GIro and then people were thinking I could be up there in the Tour. Then when I wasn’t up there they thought I wasn’t good enough and they push you aside.
“It doesn’t hurt but you learn a lot during those difficult times. You learn who your friends are. The press weren’t too hard on me I have to say. I’ve seen them do worse to riders.”
A new team, a new kit, and new teammates can work wonders for a rider’s morale and De Gendt will be hoping that some of Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s success can rub off on him.
“As a Belgian rider on a Belgian team it’s a warm team to be with. Everyone is close but now I have to learn about everyone here. It’s like the first day at school and you have to make friends all over again. It’s scary and fun, all at the same time. It’s a big change.”