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Cafe Chat: Martijn Maaskant, Dutch Flandrian

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Martijn MaaskantIt's tempting, as an American, to blur the borders of Europe sometimes. Yes, I get that there are a million highly distinct cultures, but geographically, from the point of view of a cycling fan, it can be hard to make distinctions. Why don't more Italian climbers succeed in Spain? Why aren't more Germans winning in the French Alps? And the like.

Sometimes the answers are obvious, but it strikes me as a bit curious that the Netherlands hasn't produced more champions of Flanders. An enterprising rider could pedal from the Dutch border to de Muur in less than a day. More than that, Flanders and at least part of the Netherlands share the same language, same flat lands, same cold wind and rain. Topography and weather do a lot to shape young riders... and yet the champions of Holland don't seem all that hewn to the Northern Classics. Dutch riders are more famous for their assaults on Alpe d'Huez or the Yellow Jersey than on races seemingly next door. To the greats like Jan Janssen or Hennie Kuiper, Paris-Roubaix or de Ronde are just one palmare in a blizzard of international wins and colorful jerseys. Recent times, a down period for Dutch cycling, have been worse: but for Servais Knaven's Paris-Roubaix win in 2001, we'd be talking about a 24 year duck in the Cobbled Monuments for the Netherlands... and barely any podiums either.

But the slumbering giant of the Low Countries is waking up -- Dutch riders are making gains in several areas of Cycling, thanks to the Rabobank development team and a decade of investment in preparing young riders for success. It's only natural that one of those emerging talents would be a true cobbles man, 26-year-old Martijn (rhymes with "wine") Maaskant of Zuidland, not terribly far from the Belgian border. In two seasons at Team Garmin-Transitions Maaskant has shown that his early promise on the cobbles was no fluke: he took 12th in his first professional run of the Tour of Flanders and fourth in Paris-Roubaix, followed by another fourth last season in De Ronde. Such results at a young age have put Maaskant at the head of the Cobbles Peloton, smack down among Ballan, Pozzato, Hincapie, Cancellara and the rest of the challengers to Quick Step's throne. I spoke with Maaskant from his home in East Flanders yesterday, talking cobbles and 2010 and race tactics. Full transcript of that interview is on the flip.

Maaskant comes across as friendly and easygoing, joking with a stranger (me) about a nickname he doesn't like (Sleepy Martijn) and explaining the nuts and bolts of classics success with a calm but unassuming demeanor. He is clearly excited about his progress, about changes in the team that will pair him up with veteran talents like Johan Van Summeren (twice in the top ten at Roubaix himself) and Robbie Hunter. And he, above all, is a man focused on preparing like nobody's business for those two magical Sundays in April when the stones of Flanders and France come alive.

Enough preamble, let's start right in. I've added some subject headlines so you can skip around rather than reading the whole thing, if you prefer. Don't miss the race tactics discussion toward the end.

Lame Nicknames

PdC: First  I have to ask you, do people really call you "Sleepy Martijn"?

MM: [laughs] Not really, only my teammate did the first year on the team, Chris Sutton, he started it and he thought it a bit funny. I didn't really like the nickname, I don't listen when people call me that but, eh, it's alright. It's just because I'm sometimes a bit later out of bed for breakfast than the other guys.

Falling For The Classics

PdC: Starting out, when in your life did you realize you wanted to focus on the cobbled classics?

MM: I did the Paris-Roubaix for Under-23s back in '04 or '03 for the first time. The first time wasn't a big success because I crashed on the first section and I couldn't get back on, I had to quit the race. But the second year I finished ninth or eighth I think. [It was ninth.] Then I thought maybe this is my race and these races suit me, you know?

PdC: Did you ride in Belgium as an amateur before your U-23 days?

MM: Yeah, I rode for Dutch teams but I did a lot of races in Belgium and of course I did all of the climbs of Flanders in these races. I was always good at that stuff but it was when I turned pro that I really knew I could do finals in the big races.

Training: Know Your Way Home

PdC: Do you live in Flanders now, or still in the Netherlands?

MM: No, I live in Flanders now, just 20k from where the final of the Tour of Flanders is, so that's perfect to train on those tracks there.

PdC: So you train in the Vlaamse Ardennes most of the year?

MM: Yeah, most of the year when I am home. I am not home very much, but when I am there I always go there to train. I think it's really good to know the course of those races. It's very important  when you have to be in front and not spend your energy when you don't have to. I think it's an advantage to me.

PdC: Do you go down to the course of Paris-Roubaix to train? Does anyone train on those roads, or are they too awful?

MM: I go there sometimes to see the cobble sections . The only thing is I always need somebody with me then because you have to go from one point to another, you can't make a loop, because then you have to do twice the distance. 400k is a bit too much. Plus you have to have a car with spare wheels because the risk to break a wheel or to break your bike is a lot bigger there.

PdC: When you train in the Vlaamse Ardennes do you just ride them, or do you have special exercises, maybe take the Muur and do it a few times and time yourself?

MM: Most of the time I just ride the course. You have to do a big effort on those climbs because they're so steep and the road is so bad that you have to do an effort even so you don't have to walk.

PdC: You're in the red?

MM: Yeah, it's always an effort. If I do the course, I always do the climbs full gas and most of the time I do easy in between. Then you have the feeling of the climbs and you know which gear you have to put on, and that's important too.

PdC: So you're trying to replicate the effort you make in the race?

MM: Well, in the winter period it's harder to go as fast as in the race of course. But when it comes to heart rates it's pretty much the same as in the race. But in the race of course you don't do easy between the climbs.

PdC: What is it like to be training on this course for many months, thinking about this one day, what does it feel like when that one day finally arrives? Is it a relief to say, now I get to finally do this for real?

MM: It's a relief when you get to the finish line and you did a good race. It's always a pretty nervous day of course because that's what you train for and that's where the team expects you to be in top condition. It's a relief when you know you did a good race and you did everything for it to be good on that day.

Experience Beyond The Years

PdC: You got a lot of results with the Rabobank team before joining Garmin. This is a team that's becoming pretty famous for preparing a lot of young riders to become successful. Can you talk about how this experience prepared you for your time with Garmin?

MM: Well, I learned a lot obviously in that team. We did amateur races but we also did a lot of pro races, so doing both of them you learn how it is to be in the pro peloton. Also, the director there Nico Verhoeven, he's tactically really smart, he taught me a lot. I think as a development team it's really good, you see a lot of guys from the pro team, they have been in the development team. For me it was just a very good learning period.

PdC: So the first time you rode Paris-Roubaix for Garmin did you feel confident going in because of this experience?

MM: Yeah, it was more that year I turned pro, it was not all that new, I had done races with the pros before. I knew how they raced in the pro peloton, it's different than in amateur races. But in Roubaix when I finished fourth I was confident because I had finished 12th in the Tour of Flanders which I didn't expect in my first year. So that gave me a confidence for Roubaix then.

2010: Pre-Monument Preparation

PdC: Turning to this season, is your preparation for the classics the same as usual, with the Omloop, KBK, Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico?

MM: Yeah, the only difference is last year I did the Tour of Algarve in Portugal and this year we do the Tour of Oman after the Tour of Qatar, but that's the only little difference. I do Qatar, Oman, and then Het Volk, Kuurne, Eroica, Tirreno, Milan-Sanremo, and then Gent-Wevelgem.

PdC: [Discussing the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has been moved from the Wednesday between Flanders and Roubaix to the Sunday before Flanders.] Does the change in Gent-Wevelgem change the way you approach that race, or do you plan to just work for Tyler?

MM: Well, we will see how the race turns out, but with Tyler we have a leader there for when it comes to a sprint in a big group. But last year it was not a bunch sprint and you never know how it turns out this year. It always depends how the weather is and how the race develops. But I think with Tyler we really have a chance to win the race. For me, I can't win the bunch sprint.

PdC: This is a question about how someone who can win Flanders or Roubaix would approach Gent-Wevelgem when it was on a Wednesday. How do you approach that race? Did you plan to drop out, or just go and see how the legs feel?

MM: Yeah, I wanted to do a good training anyway on that day, so I just said alright, let's see how the race goes, and maybe I go to the finish if it's an easier race. Sometimes Gent-Wevelgem is not a very hard race because it's more or less flat except for the Kemmelberg. If there's no wind it's a pretty easy race. But then the weather was really bad and there was a little wind. I decided to drop out in the feedzone, I decided not to take any risks and make sure I was ready for the next Sunday.

PdC: And now with it on a Sunday I assume you and the other top riders for Flanders and Roubaix feel like you can ride Gent-Wevelgem for real?

MM: Yeah, for sure. This year it's one of the goals too. 

Nuts and Bolts: Comparing Flanders and Roubaix

PdC: De Ronde and Paris Roubaix are obviously different races, but do they play to your strengths in the same way?

MM: Which races?

PdC: The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. [Note to self: my Flemish pronunciation is worse than I thought.]

MM: Flanders is more like a tactical race. If you do one big effort and you can't recover from it, it's not good. In Roubaix if you're one of the strongest guys in the peloton and you don't have bad luck you'll be in front for sure. In Flanders this year, there was a big group coming to the line, like 30 guys coming to the line for third place. This usually never happens in Roubaix.

PdC: Roubaix forces more selections because you can't recover?

MM: It's always a really hard race. They're both hard. In Roubaix they always race on the cobbles. ["race" means they go hard.] In Flanders sometimes some climbs they do more easy, not every climb full gas. But on the cobbles there's always some team, some rider who will put the hammer down. It's always full gas on the cobbles. If they raced like they do in Roubaix on all the climbs in Flanders, it's no chance there's 30 guys going to the line for a podium place.

Garmin Roster Upgrades

PdC: So how do you counter the power of Quick Step? More teammates? I know that you've brought Johan Van Summeren on, is that the key, to bring in more teammates?

MM: Yeah, for sure. I think our classics team is a lot stronger this year because we have Van Summeren now. I think Tyler is going to do them as well, last year he broke his collarbone I think so he couldn't ride the classics. It was bad luck for him. But I think we have some experienced guys in there too, Julian Dean and Robbie Hunter. But I think it's really important that Van Summeren's on the team now. If we can both be in the break than we can do something together. Otherwise, if you're alone you have to look at what other teams are doing and hope you're stronger than them.

PdC: Do you know Johan? Have you spent time riding together in the past? Is it important to spend time riding together now before the classics?

MM: Yeah, for sure, it's important to know each other before you go into those races, but I knew him before already. When I heard he was talking to the team we were talking a little bit in the races. Now we have had a training camp in December and another one in January so... we knew each other already but it's always good to room with him or to talk to him, to know what kind of person he is.

Back to Race Tactics: How To Win (Or Not)

PdC: What do you think of the changes to the Tour of Flanders course, removing the Eikenmolen?

MM: Well, when I saw the course I thought it was a little bit less hard than last year, but you have to know how the race goes. Eikenmolen is not a very hard climb, if you ride it in training it's nothing, but if you do it in the race after 220k or something it is a hard climb. So I don't know, I think it's still gonna be a hard race, but maybe a bit less than last year.

PdC: Did your crash in Paris-Roubaix make you feel like you should approach the race differently this year?

MM: Well, I crashed, but it was later on. I had a flat in the section just before the Forest [of Arenberg], so that was not the right time to have a flat tire. My team waited for me but in the Forest the whole bunch split up and I had to pass some guys and cars and photographers, so it was chaos. I don't think I really did anything wrong, maybe I have to be in front more. I wasn't in front, but maybe I need to be in front more to see the road better and see the holes better so there's less chance to have a flat.

PdC: But if that's the case, doesn't everyone want to be in the front?

MM: Yeah, you don't have to be on the front to see the road. If there's ten, twenty guys in front of you, you can't see the road anymore so you're hitting the holes when you're not expecting. I think it's good when especially in those sections right before the Forest or the bad sections, it's important to be in the top five or even top three. You don't have to be on the front, but very close.

PdC: But doesn't everyone want to do the same thing? How do you pull it off when there are 30 guys all saying "I want to be in the top five"?

MM: Yeah, that's the point, everybody knows that. It's just the strongest guy who are there. That's what makes the race so hard, cause everyone wants to be in front in every section because that's the place to be. It's true that only a few guys can be in front, but that's what makes the race hard.

Riding the Grand Tours

PdC: Now you've ridden the Tour de France twice; last year you rode the Tour and the Vuelta. Are these separate goals a chance to be riding and looking for for wins, or are the grand tours important to developing your fitness for next spring?

MM: Yeah, it's both. Last year I tried to get my chance -- if the team allows me to I try to win a stage, it's not easy but it's also good to develop as a rider for the next year to do a grand tour, it makes you stronger, it's really good for the next spring.

PdC: So do you feel better now than this time a year ago, after having done the two grand tours this year?

MM: Yeah, I think I feel a bit stronger this time than I did last year, but we'll see what happens when we get to the races.

Wearing the Orange Shirt

PdC: OK, last question: do you have ambitions to ride for the Dutch national team? I know the worlds are coming to the Netherlands. Have you had contacts with them?

MM: Yeah, last year I had contact with the national coach for the worlds in Switzerland, but I didn't get selected. But for next year the course suits me a lot better in Australia, and then I think after that... is it in 2012 when it's in the Netherlands?

PdC: Yeah, 2012

MM: Yeah, I know that course really well, every Dutch guy does, but I think that course suits me pretty good too. Yeah, I really want to be part of the team this year and also 2012 in Holland.

PdC: Is it hard to be a part of the national team when you're not from Rabobank?

MM: I never did the worlds yet so I don't know, but I think the Dutch coaches select the best riders at that moment, and of course looks at the course. I don't think it matters if you're in Rabobank or not. They have a lot of good Dutch riders too.

*****

We joke here about Evil Garmin,** in part because it's so transparently, laughably false. But Jonathan Vaughters hasn't merely bought himself a friendly, ethical PR machine; he's put together a roster of top-shelf talents, and after a couple years of tinkering they seem to be building a deeper, more complementary team. Maaskant made a name for himself the last two springs with the support of a competent, but not dangerous, squad. Just as he hits his prime, Maaskant finds himself alongside the kind of guys you need to really succeed. Not sure about Flanders, with its bigger peloton and occasional sprints, but if you see some argyle on the podium in the Roubaix Velodrome over the next five years, or even a young Dutchman holding a cobblestone aloft, it's no fluke. This Flandrian from the North has been years in the making, and is leaving no cobblestone unturned in his quest.

[Note: the "evil Garmin" joke is just recurring nonsense, our stock-and-trade here, that I believe started with either the Hincapie Tour stage polemics or a snark about JV's sideburns. One of a long list of things not to take seriously here.]

Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport