Niki Terpstra was a latecomer at the Etixx-QuickStep media day in Calpe during, jetting in from the Netherlands after sealing victory in the Rotterdam Six Day with Iljo Keisse the previous night. By the time he emerged on the terrace at the rear of the Hotel Sol y Mar, television crews were already swarming around teammates Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish and Michal Kwiatkowski, and the Dutchman was able to help himself to a coffee on arrival before he was ushered across to speak to a small group of reporters.
Terpstra’s victory at Paris-Roubaix in 2014 was enough to earn him a new three-year contract but in what is arguably the WorldTour’s most star-studded team, he feels that there has been no discernible change in his status and, for that matter, seems quite glad of the fact.
“I think it’s like last year,” Terpstra said after settling into an armchair, coffee now perched on his knee. “Of course, they have trust me in me otherwise they wouldn’t have signed me for another three years but I don’t think it’s going to change a lot. The strength of our team is that we have a lot of strong riders in the final of a race; not only one captain, but some more riders who can finish the job.”
Lining up for the cobbled classics as part of such a stacked roster is something a double-edged sword. Stijn Devolder, for instance, was able to use Boonen and his teammates as a foil to win successive Tours of Flanders at QuickStep in 2008 and 2009. However over the years, men like Nick Nuyens and Sylvain Chavanel often struggled to carve out opportunities for themselves and set out for pastures new.
Terpstra would not have been short of suitors had he opted not to extend with Etixx-QuickStep but the 30-year-old said that he prefers to operate as part of a strong collective rather than as a lone leader. The statistics support his thesis: QuickStep riders have won exactly half of the editions of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the past decade.
“I really like this system actually, especially with Tom: he always has your back. He’s there, he can finish the job and I feel really strong with him and confident,” Tersptra said. “And that’s the thing I prefer to being the only guy. When everybody is in good shape, we have a really good team. [Matteo] Trentin can win races, [Zdenek] Stybar can win races, [Stijn] Vandenbergh can win races.”
Earlier in the afternoon, sport and development manager Rolf Aldag had said that his instruction to Terpstra for the 2015 season would simply be to “stay wild.” Since joining the team in 2011, Terpstra has typically been deployed to crack open deadlocked races by going on the offensive from distance, while Boonen keeps his powder dry behind. Yet even amid the careful tactical plotting of the race radio era, there is still room for invention, and in the finale of Paris-Roubaix last year, Terpstra seized the moment and won.
“In WorldTour races, you have radio communication and you have contact every ten minutes or every five minutes. But in other races, there’s no radio communication and the tactics are already four or five hours old so you have to adjust yourself,” he said. “But a move sometimes comes in a split second and then you don’t need a radio: you just need yourself, your mind, good legs and the inspiration to go.”
Return to Roubaix
The early part of Terpstra’s 2015 season will follow a familiar pattern, and he will once again start at the Tour of Qatar, where he claimed overall victory last season, before steadily building towards the first two Sundays in April. “From Qatar on, it’s one line until Paris-Roubaix,” he said, downplaying the idea that the fierce competition for places – and for leadership roles – in Etixx-QuickStep’s Tour of Flanders and Roubaix teams could prove counter-productive.
“Most of the riders know their place in the team and they know their job, we don’t even discuss a lot about it. We like to work with each other and there’s a good chemistry and if you see the main selection that does the classics, it’s already here for four years,” he said. “Maybe there’ll be some slight changes but it’s a tight group.”
Wearing the QuickStep jersey in the Belgian classics brings with it a particular brand of pressure – witness the scrum of journalists and fans outside the bus at starts and finishes throughout the spring, on cobbled squares in Ghent and Roeselare, in Waregem and Harelbeke, in Bruges and Oudenaarde. But for Terpstra, the weight of expectation is a positive tension.
“It gets nervous in March but it’s a good kind of nervousness. There’s a nice tension in the team. The selections of the team are being pronounced and everybody’s getting in good shape, in race shape,” he said. “We do a lot of big races in March and April and it’s a big pressure but I like the pressure.”
At this point in the year, Terpstra steadfastly refuses to look beyond the Roubaix velodrome on the second Sunday in April, deflecting a question on the Richmond world championships with a half grin from behind his sunglasses: “After April, we will see but for now the focus is until there.”
Terpstra is a man who rarely gives away too much of himself in his dealings with the press, playfully peppering his answers with wry humour and pithy asides but almost always exercising a degree of restraint. When asked if his ambition had been sated by landing Paris-Roubaix victory, however, Terpstra’s response was a revealing one, as he contemplated lining up with the number one dossard in 2015.
“If you are the number one, when you come back the following year and you don’t win, it feels like losing. So of course I’m extremely motivated to race good there again,” he said, before carefully adding: “In the end I must not only focus on myself to win but on the team to win.”