"Life is a difficult business," Jurgen Van den Broeck says with a wry smile as he lines up for stage 1 of the Tour de Romandie. The rain is pouring, the temperature stuck below 10 degrees and for a veteran of 15 years in the pro peloton, one has to question why the Belgian wants to be here. Desire, it seems, is something that still runs through the 34-year-old's veins, and despite a career that has had more than its share of hard knocks and setbacks, the former prodigy is still here.
Back in the mid-to-late 2000s, Van den Broeck was propped up as the poster boy of Belgian stage race hopes. A strong 2008 Giro was followed by 13th in the 2009 Tour de France. Those results, plus the departure of Cadel Evans, were enough for Lotto to build a team around him, and the press were all too willing to whip up frenzy. ‘The next Eddy Merckx' they said more in hope than expectancy, but two top-five rides in the Tour de France only added a sense of realism to the hype. He wouldn't be a Merckx, but perhaps Belgium finally had a Grand Tour rider on their hands once more.
Never a prolific winner, Van den Broeck had the lungs and the legs ideally suited to the daily grind of stage racing. A more than adequate time trialist, he could also climb with the best on his day. The problem was he never had the quickest of sprints – even compared to his fellow mountaineers - and his seasons were constantly blighted with crashes. Things came to a head in 2013, when after a major fall in the Tour de France he busted a knee so severely that no matter how determined his mind was, his body was simply not up to the task. It was a crossroads for a rider who had yet to reach his full potential and had the most difficult decision any athlete must face when coming back from a serious injury.
"I know that since my big crash in 2013 I'm not capable of doing the things that I did in the past," he says.
"I know that I can still be there to help guys. It's less pressure but I love riding my bike and know that I can still do a job. I broke my knee and it's not been the same since then. There were a lot of years of fighting and it wasn't the same. At one point I had to deal with that and then find another focus. I wanted to put away the pressure and find another role."
"In Belgium there was still an expectancy on me, but inside I knew that it was hard to come back to that level. I did the Tour the next year but my body just cracked because I put too much pressure on my body to come back. Then I knew it wasn't the same. It wasn't nice and I had to either change my focus or quit. If I'd tried to hang on in my previous role it would have been a waste of time."
Van den Broeck's new role at LottoNL-Jumbo means that he is now riding in the service of some riders who were at school when he first made his steps into the world of professional cycling. The legs might not be as powerful as they once were, but LottoNL signed him for his knowledge and experience and not just his wattage.
At Romandie he has linked up with another veteran in Robert Gesink – a rider who has himself found a new role as the years have ticked by. The former rivals will protect Primoz Roglic here at the Tour of Romandie before Gesink hunts stages at the Tour of California and Van den Broeck returns to the Giro d'Italia for a fourth time. Almost a decade ago, the race was a springboard for Van den Broeck after he finished seventh, but this time he will shepherd Steven Kruijswijk through the mountains.