Jurgen Van den Broeck is a Tour de France podium finisher, but in his native Belgium and on his Lotto-Soudal team, he faced doubts and harsh criticisms about his ability to regain his top form. Now at 32, Van den Broeck has returned to his roots in a way with Katusha. Formerly teammate with Viacheslav Ekimov and Jose Azevedo at the Discovery Channel team in his early years, the pair will now be his manager and directeur sportif, respectively, and are giving Van den Broeck fresh motivation for the 2016 season.
"I always stayed in contact with Eki and José and even when I wasn't with their team, they gave me motivation to fight back," Van den Broeck said in an interview on the Katusha website. "This was very special to me, especially since I didn't race for them. I knew I was at the end of my contract so we were able to talk. It was a big deal for me – Eki and Azevedo were big riders and I will even go so far as to say that both of them were my heroes, so for them to be interested in me meant a lot to me.
"The image of the team is that it is not open or friendly but I have already told people this is simply not true. I would recommend this team to any rider I spoke to."
In 2010, Van den Broeck rode a consistently strong Tour de France, finishing fifth behind Alberto Contador, 6:54 down by the time the race reached Paris. The result earned high praise from his team owner Marc Coucke and all of Belgium felt they'd finally found their GC hope. Four years later, after the disqualification of Alberto Contador for clenbuterol and Denis Menchov for biological passport violations, Van den Broeck was indeed on the podium of that Tour, but by then his fortunes had turned.
After coming a legitimate fourth in the 2012 Tour, Van den Broeck crashed on stage 5 and abandoned the 2013 Tour de France, and had to have surgery to repair the damage. He said that following his knee injury he never got the support he needed to regain his previous level.
"After the operation some people doubted that I could come back as a cyclist and I didn't feel the support I needed to make my recovery," Van den Broeck said. "I didn't feel my career was over but in some ways without the support of my team, I found it difficult to find the courage to fight. I ended up working through it. I made it back to racing, but of course I was not very good at the beginning so I heard more negative comments about my chances to return to the top of cycling."
It didn't help that after he crashed on the same knee in Tirreno-Adriatico in 2014, his team began speaking about his Tour de France participation being in jeopardy. He was under pressure to perform at the Critérium du Dauphiné to earn his place in the team, and after finishing third there he was selected to race the Tour. But he bled time in the mountains at the Tour and finished 13th, 34 minutes behind Vincenzo Nibali, and his team began looking for other strategies, and that hurt.
"I would do a good race, I’d hear positive feedback about my chances, only to be followed by more negative attitude when I couldn't hold my form at every race. It was lonely at times, especially in training when there was so much time to think and wonder if all of it was really worth it when the support and backing was not there. I was always a rider who cared about my preparation and came to races ready to compete and go full gas, so it felt strange to not feel supported."
Now, with Katusha, Van den Broeck is excited to race with Joaquim 'Purito' Rodriguez, and be able to target the overall classification in Grand Tours without the same kind of pressure.
"I bring a lot of experience to help the younger riders, and also look for my own motivation to bring results to the team. I know I can still do it. I want to be part of the team that wants to be the best in the world. I’ll continue to be a rider as long as my body says yes and I can stay strong mentally. I lost a few years in cycling recently and I want to make it good again. This is my job and I love it."