Over the past decade, German Team DSM have gained a reputation for bringing through and developing promising young riders. The likes of John Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, Warren Barguil, Marc Hirschi, and Søren Kragh Andersen have all ascended to cycling stardom while at the team, even if they don't always stick around to the end of their contracts.
Today, the conveyor belt of young talent continued to churn with Jai Hindley and Michael Storer the latest men to hit the heights with Team DSM. The focus on youth continues into 2022 with five neo-pros joining along with two more promising youngsters moving up from the ProTeam Uno-X.
Among those neo-pros – four of them graduates from the DSM development squad – is Belgian Henri Vandenabeele. The 21-year-old Flandrian takes the step after two highly successful years at U23 level which has seen him hit the podium two years in a row at the Baby Giro as well as finishing a close second at the 2020 Ronde de l'Isard.
This year, thanks to UCI regulations, Vandenabeele got his first taste of pro life, taking in the Tour du Var, Settimana Coppi e Bartali, Brabantse Pijl, Tour of the Alps, and Tou de l'Ain with the WorldTour team. Next year, though, he'll enjoy a full season at the top level.
Cyclingnews caught up with Vandenabeele at DSM's team presentation last week to find out more about the team's latest up-and-comer.
Cyclingnews: To start at the beginning, how did you get into the sport?
Henri Vandenabeele: I think it was a bit because of my brother. He started cycling when he was eight years old, and I started a bit later when I was 12 years old. I was never really a great rider in the youth categories, but when I was a junior I started to win some races.
I rode for a club 10 kilometres from my house. I was six years at that team and then they quit, so I had to search for another team in my last year as a junior. Then I went to Lotto Soudal at U23 level.
CN: Did you have any idols in the sport when you were growing up?
HV: My idol was always Tom Boonen. Sometimes I wish I was more a Flemish kind of rider for the Classics because I really like to watch those races but I also really like the mountains.
CN: Your idol was a king of the cobbled Classics, but you are not quite that type of rider, are you?
HV: I think I was always a small kid actually – I didn't weigh a lot. I trained a lot in the Ardennes when I was young. I had to do the races in the Ardennes in Belgium to see if I'm good at that and then decide if I'm better in those races than the flat ones.
Then you're U23 and really ride the races with the high mountains and I could see that it was more for me.
CN: So you are more of a climber, or an all-round GC style rider?
HV: I think I'm especially a climber at the moment. My time trial is not great for the moment. I try to work on that, and I think this year I made a big step in that part. So now I hope to keep improving at that.
Normally, the Ardennes style races suit me too. But I didn't do many of those kind of races at U23 level, maybe also because of COVID. I had the chance to do Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23 this year and I felt quite good at that, but I was diagnosed with Toxoplasmosis at the end of the year and it was already a couple of months in my blood at that point, so my results were not as expected.
CN: You mentioned COVID stopping you doing some of those hilly races – how has the pandemic and a tough 2020 affected your development?
HV: I think that maybe COVID-19 was actually good for me because in 2020 all the races suddenly came in August and September. That's actually a period when I'm always good.
I think for U23 riders every hard race was at that time – the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, the Baby Giro [he finished second overall], the Ronde de l'Isard [third]... Then there was Il Lombardia and the Giro della Friuli Venezia Giulia [10th at both]. So there were a couple of nice races for me at the end of the year.
CN: You spent a year with Lotto Soudal's U23 team before moving to DSM for 2021. Why did you make that switch?
HV: I think I especially made that choice because I'm a GC rider and DSM is more known to develop that kind of GC rider more than Lotto, I think. That's my opinion and I think that I have made a good choice for my career.
CN: This year you have raced at U23 level but also with the WorldTour team. How was your first experience with the pros?
HV: It was quite nice, especially at the Tour of the Alps. That was the nicest experience of the year. The Tour du Var was my first race of the year and a lot of big names were at the start there, so it was hard to start there, but also really nice to compete.
I had one really bad day in the Tour of the Alps. I spent four hours in the gruppetto, and I thought that 'this is another level' but then the day after it I was 11th on quite a hard stage, so I was really happy with that performance. Then I knew that it was my place.
CN: Do you know your plans for 2021 in terms of racing yet?
HV: I don't know yet. We're doing the team training camp in Calpe soon and there we'll plan ahead for 2022.
Normally I won't do a Grand Tour yet, but you never know. The focus will be on one-week stage races. I think that it's good to first look at how I do there. Then, if everything goes well and better than expected, maybe it would be possible to do a Grand Tour. But I would say not yet.
CN: Finally, do you have a certain grand ambition for your career? One race you'd particularly like to target one day?
HV: I never really say I want to win this race or that. I just want to get the highest possible in my ability, I think. There are a lot of good riders and young riders nowadays, so it's going to be a lot of riders challenging. But I believe I can be there. We will see.
I think it's important for me to do things step by step because a lot of riders are young and already at the top. For me it's going to be a bit longer until I get there, I think.
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Daniel Ostanek has been a staff writer at Cyclingnews since August 2019, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later part-time production editor. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.
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