After 10 years of racing cyclo-cross, Dutch rider Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank) has taken the leap this season to become one of the world's top contenders, for the second time. The first was over two years ago during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons when he regularly finished top ten with podium placings in the World Cup, GVA Trofee and Superprestige events. Both seasons he ended fourth in the overall UCI rankings.
Unfortunately due to physical health problems that plagued his next two season preparations, he was unable to reach the same level of fitness until recently. "I have had back problems during the whole of my career," said De Knegt. "And a couple of years ago, I broke my hip. But from last April until the beginning of this season I was feeling okay - I've had a good summer. That is the big difference."
Now that he finds himself once again repeatedly just off the podium, he takes the relative disappointment in stride. "It's been a long time since I've been riding this well, so I am satisfied with getting fourth position because the other guys are a little better [referring to the powerhouse trio of Belgian Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), Belgian Niels Albert (BKCP - Powerplus), and Czech Republic's Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea )]. I'm just relieved to be getting good results again."
Regarding his chances for another national championship title which he won during the 2005/06 season, he is not fully confident. "A muddy course is easiest for me because the best rider will win. But if it's fast like it is expected to be since it is going to freeze all week, you can also have other riders who normally couldn't keep up in the mud like Thijs Al (AA Drink) and Lars Boom (Rabobank)."
Boom's first of possibly only two races this season was last Sunday at Grand Prix Groenendaal in Sint Michielsgestel where he placed 22nd, 3:30 behind De Knegt who finished second. When asked how Boom could still be seen as a threat, even on a fast course, De Knegt explained, "It was a different race from what nationals in Heerlen is expected to be. It was a really small course where he couldn't pass the other riders. He also started in a poor position and I don't think he was competing to finish in 20th place."
Looking forward to World Championships in Tabor on January 31, De Knegt holds modest yet optimistic aspirations. "I have been from position five through 10 in this race. In the shape that I am in, I could be top five - maybe podium. Because the World Championships is a crazy race, there are sometimes top favorites who don't get the results they want. And there are other guys who perform very well - maybe I can be one of those guys," said De Knegt.
Now that De Knegt is again at the top, retirement is much farther away than it once was only a couple of years ago when he struggled with his health. " I am close to renewing my contract for two years with Rabobank [he signed a two-year deal on Wednesday - ed.]. That is really positive for me so I can concentrate on the racing," he said. "Then after that I'm thinking about retiring because I'll be 36. Well, maybe after two seasons if I am still in good shape, then why not continue?"
Even if The Netherlands' unequivocal top gun snags a win at nationals and the World Championships, he will still be looked at strangely by folks in his country where cyclo-cross has not reached the level of popularity it has in its neighboring country of Belgium. "When I am in Belgium, everybody knows me. But in the town where I live, nobody knows what I am doing . They just think, 'That guy. He is always on his bike and he never works'. When I tell them that's my job, they say, ‘ Oh, ok. Can you make money with that?"