Taco van der Hoorn (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij) could hear his voice wavering and so he paused to compose himself. That only made it worse. His shoulders began to shake as he wiped the tears from his eyes, and he held up a hand in apology for the interruption. One doesn't anticipate quite this depth of emotion in the press room at the BinckBank Tour, but then Van der Hoorn's is a story apart.
Last November, Van der Hoorn suffered a head injury when he crashed on a mountain bike ride, and he would spend much of the next few months lying in a darkened room suffering from its lingering, disquieting effects. Trying to train was not only futile, but dangerous. Sustained efforts brought only headaches and confusion. Deep into the spring, the 24-year-old wondered if his career was over as a result of his concussion.
It was only in June that Van der Hoorn was able to get back out on the road, and it was just last month that he resumed training in earnest. The Dutchman's first semi-formal event came two days after the Tour de France finished, when he lined up at the criterium in Surhuisterveen. That evening, he was content to be overshadowed by the maillot jaune of Geraint Thomas, and simply relieved to feel like a bike rider again.
On Wednesday, Van der Hoorn was more surprised than anyone to find himself in the leading break of five riders as stage 3 of the BinckBank Tour reached its conclusion in Antwerp. Inside the final kilometre, he lifted himself from the saddle and attacked. When he looked under his shoulder, he realised that nobody was on his wheel. Someway, somehow, he had landed the biggest win of his career within weeks of his lowest ebb. Small wonder he was lost for words.
Perhaps sensing as much, Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij manager Erik Breukink accompanied Van der Hoorn to the winner's press conference, and he served as spokesman until his rider regained his composure.
"He's very ambitious. He thinks about everything, he does everything, but the whole year he didn't race until August, because he had a problem with headaches. He had a crash in November and he went the whole season without racing. He was only able to train properly in June and July, and then start racing in August," Breukink explained.
Van der Hoorn picked up the story again in greater detail.
"Five weeks after my crash, it was really bad," Van der Hoorn said when asked to pick out the worst moment of his recovery. "I'd get up and have some breakfast, but after breakfast my head was so confused, and I'd have so many problems with concentration, that I'd have to lie down for three hours in a dark room. I couldn't do anything. I wasn't just far from being a cyclist, I was far from being a normal person.
"After, I think, four or five months, I started riding my city bicycle, really easy, just doing laps near my house. In the beginning, 10 minutes was already too much. I did a lot of walking to make the progression a little steadier. Two months ago, I could start riding my road bike again, and five weeks ago, I could really train, for two hours, twice a day. After two weeks of that, I did longer, more intensive rides. So I've just had five weeks of good training.”
Now in his second season at Pro Continental level, Van der Hoorn's victory was the second of his professional career after he claimed Schaal Sels a year ago. The Rotterdam native has combined racing with working towards a degree in human movement sciences over the past number of years, although his studies were also temporarily interrupted by the effects of his concussion.
"My head was too confused to do any study. I started last year on my final paper, about training load and injuries, and I've only finished it now in the last two or three months when my head was OK," he said. "I could finish my paper, so my Bachelor's degree is done. I'll move on to cycling now, and then maybe in the future I'll do a Master's. We'll see. But first we need to focus on cycling."
Roompot hit the jackpot
The crowds that assembled beneath slate grey skies in Antwerp on Wednesday afternoon were expecting to see a bunch finish, but, powered by new race leader Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), the five escapees dispensed with the script to deliver a thrilling ad lib and come home 1:11 clear of the bunch.
Since Roompot's inception in 2015, their orange jerseys have been an almost fixed presence in breakaways on this race, and there were two of their number in the break here. Jesper Asselman joined Van der Hoorn in the day-long move, and he helped to shut down a late attack from Mohoric before rolling home an exhausted fifth. On arriving at the team bus afterwards, Asselman burst into tears of joy on accepting the congratulations of Breukink and directeur sportif Michael Boogerd.
"We're always on the attack. We know we can't win the bunch sprints and we can't win the time trial, so we don't even look at the general classification," Breukink told Cyclingnews. "Every day, we go in the breaks. We always say that nine times out of 10, it doesn’t work, but the 10th time you ride for the stage win. Of course, you never know when the 10th time is, so you always have to be up there."
Everything played out perfectly on the road to Antwerp. The harmony of the leading quintet contrasted with the dissonant efforts of the sprinters' teams behind, and the finishing circuit proved more technical than anyone had anticipated. Van der Hoorn’s resilience was matched only by his cunning. After almost a year in the dark, he illuminated a dreary day on the BinckBank Tour.
"We had a very good group. Mohoric was fucking strong. We had a perfect plan. We went really easy all day, with everyone doing long turns," Van der Hoorn said. "Then, with 70km to go, we started to go pretty fast. In the last hour and a half everyone was still doing long turns. We still had a gap of over a minute, and we made it. We had a really good plan, and everyone stuck to it. We made it. It was amazing."
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