After spending all but a few months of his decade-long pro career with the Rabobank, Belkin and LottoNL-Jumbo teams, 29-year-old Dutchman Dennis van Winden is hoping his move next season to the first-year Pro Continental squad Cycling Academy will provide new opportunities to add more lines to his palmares.
"I'm one of the most experienced riders," Van Winden said of the 2017 Cycling Academy roster, which includes 12 neo-pros with an average age of 24. "I've done Classics, I've done Grand Tours, so I have to be a little bit of a role model. We are the youngest professional cycling team and I hope that, like I did not receive the results that I hoped for when I was under-23 as professional, and I hope to grow with this team and in the end fight for big results in Grand Tour stages and the Classics."
As a promising young rider, Van Winden came up through the Rabobank Development Team on the Continental level starting in 2007 when he was just 19. Over three years with the team, he won the Dutch national time trial title, a stage at the Vuelta Ciclista Leon, a stage of the the Olympias Tour and a stage at the Tour de Bretagne, and was third and fourth at the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Van Winden also won a stage and scored two third-place finishes at the Tour de l'Avenir, won two stages and the overall at the Tour du Haute Anjou and scored top 10 finishes at Volta ao Algarve, Settimana Lombarda, Ronde Van Drenthe, Thüringen Rundfahrt and Vlaamse Pijl-Harelbeke, among others.
He graduated to the Rabobank WorldTour team in 2010 and stayed with the Dutch team as it morphed into Belkin. He moved briefly to Synergy Baku in 2015 but was back with LottoNL-Jumbo by May of that year. He finished the 2015 season with the team and raced through the 2016 season there before moving to Cycling Academy for 2017.
By his second year on the WorldTour in 2011 when he was 23 years old, Van Winden was notching top 10 results in .1 and .HC races like Tour de Romandie, USA Pro Challenge and Tour of Beijing. He scored two top 20 finishes in the Giro d'Italia and was 26th in the Tour of Flanders. His results slowed a bit in 2012, but he earned a top 10 stage finish at the Vuelta a España and went fifth at the Binche-Tournai-Binche/3rd Mémorial Frank Vandenbroucke.
Dennis van Winden at a Rabobank training camp before suffering from iliac artery problems.
A nightmare surgery that nearly ended his career
Van Winden's career was then derailed by an all-too-common problem among cyclists as he began experiencing symptoms in his leg that indicated a kink had formed in his iliac artery. He underwent surgery that he hoped would correct the problem, but things snowballed from there.
"My right leg had a kink in the main artery in the hip, and I had surgery on that in November 2012," he recalled. "Several weeks later I had internal bleeding caused by an infection. I had emergency surgery after that to stop the bleeding. That was also again a successful surgery, but we never really eliminated the infection area so the infection came back. A couple of weeks later the same thing happened, so I was at home and started to have fever and massive pain in my stomach and my leg. So it happened twice, and I was in total three months hospitalised and had a massive setback."
Although he was out of danger, the circulation issue with van Winden's leg was actually worse than when the whole thing started. He faced two choices: He could hang up his racing shoes and go back to school, or he could risk another surgery and try to make a comeback as a healthy athlete in the sport he loved. He chose the latter, and he went under the knife again.
"I invested in that surgery for myself," he said. "I did a lot of research together with a lot of professionals and we found in Paris a good solution for surgery. We did a reconstruction of the vein. I had to stay some weeks in Paris to make sure everything is fine with no infections."
The surgery in Paris was successful, and Van Winden returned to racing in May of 2013. A string of DNFs followed, but he slowly started to rebuild his form, notching a top 10 finish in a bunch sprint that September at the Tour of Alberta.
Over the next three years with the Dutch WorldTour team, Van Winden's best result was fourth in a bunch sprint won by Marcel Kittel in stage 1 at the Tour of Poland. His best result in 2016 was fifth in the Tour du Poitou Charentes stage 3 bunch sprint won by Nacer Bouhani. The U23 prodigy had slipped into a domestique role within the powerful Dutch squad, and at the end of 2016 it was obvious change was on the horizon.
Dennis van Winden and Luis Lemus take a camel ride during a recent Cycling Academy camp in Israel.
Finding new opportunity with a 'start-up' team
Van Winden's landing spot on Cycling Academy, the fledgling three-year-old outfit that jumped to Pro Continental status for 2017 and has laid out an ambitious list of wildcard possibilities, has turned out to be a very good fit.
Van Winden will join Dan Craven, 33, Guillaume Boivin, 27, and fellow newcomer Zakk Dempster, 29, as the elder statesmen on the team. It's a role that has Van Winden not only targeting races as an undisputed leader, but also picking up behind-the-scenes mentor duties like teaching younger riders how to use the ADAMS whereabouts system or schooling them on little tricks for staying warm during a coffee stop on a training ride.
"I see it as a really big opportunity for myself and also for the team," van Winden said of the 2017 season. "My knowledge and my strength at the moment is going to be there. I see myself as a team player and one of the stronger guys who is going to lead the group."
Van Winden and the team recently wrapped up a 10-day training camp in Israel before heading home for the holidays. The team will gather again in January for a second training camp in Girona, Spain. From there, Cycling Academy will jump directly into European racing, which the team hopes will culminate with invitations to some of the Spring Classics.
"I love the Classics like Flanders and E3 Harelbeke," van Winden said. "What I understand is that chances are really big that we will will start in Omloop and Kuurne, and I hope that we are fighting to get into Milan-San Remo, Scheldeprjis, Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem. That would be an amazing achievement for a young team like us to participate in.
"We have really strong riders, in my opinion, for these races. We are a young team who can actually only win when we are in those races. Nobody is expecting us, but we have a lot of horsepower with Zak Dempster, with Guillaume Boivin and myself. So we already have three guys who can make it on paper into the final.
"So if we get there with those three guys and show the younger guys how it works, make a good plan and just fight with everybody, that's a big goal for me."