The next chapter: Steven de Jongh
As Tinkoff-Saxo’s directeur sportif and Alberto Contador’s coach, Steven de Jongh is working on his second career. And — who knows? — he might soon move on to a third. “Now, I can finally enjoy a victory in a mountain stage,” he laughs. Not bad, for a sprinter who often worked as a domestique.
It’s strange,” Steven de Jongh says, with a look to his thirteen-year-old son, who is sitting beside him. “I was Jesper’s age when my father died. Jesper’s still just a kid in some ways — rash. For me, on the other hand — when my father died, it felt as if I was all of a sudden older. I quickly learned to become self-reliant. My mother was 37, and she went off to work, so if we wanted to go to speed skating practice, it was up to my brother and me to make sure that we had something to eat first.”
In 1986, Steven de Jongh went with his father to buy his first racing bike. Later that afternoon, his dad — a fervent racer, who rode for a year as a pro — was hit by a car during a training ride and fatally injured.
Up until that point, De Jongh had followed cycling on television and in the newspapers, but he hadn’t done much riding himself. Skating was the sport he could compete in with the best in the Netherlands. “We lived on the water, so as soon as there was ice on the canal, we went skating. That’s why I decided to join a skating club.” After their father’s accident, the De Jongh brothers took a different road. Steven’s two-year-older brother raced bikes for a couple of seasons, but stopped, and Steven started racing competitively as soon as he turned sixteen. He went on to ride as pro for TVM, Rabobank, and Quick-Step and won races such as the E3-Prijs and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. “During my final four seasons, I was Tom Boonen’s lead-out man for the sprints. I did still get the opportunity to race for myself sometimes, and I made the most of my chances, but I was too light for the really big races. Then, you have to choose. Do you go ahead and try to get results for yourself? Or do you make yourself useful for your team?”
In 2009, De Jongh knew that his time as a racer was almost up. “When I got the offer to become a directeur sportif, I didn’t have to think twice. It was a good way to quit racing but still remain in cycling. It was one of those moments when a chance comes along and you know that you just have to grab it, because Team Sky was a really ambitious and impressive project, and they were just getting started.” He joined the team just when scientific management was coming to the fore. “Sky introduced new tactics to make the races hard. In 2012, you saw them attacking the bottom of the climbs full-gas as a team to make sure that everyone was in the red. That introduced a new kind of racing. What Sky was really good at was resting, then doing really specific training, then resting again and training, and then racing well. That made a world of difference to modern cycling.”
During the 2011 Vuelta, De Jongh was Team Sky’s director when Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins finished second and third after José Cobo. “At a certain point, Froome got the leader’s jersey on his shoulders. That night, he didn’t sleep a wink. He just about broke out in a rash from the stress. Wearing the leader’s jersey in a grand tour was something he was not made for. But, he matured. All of the best guys are the same. They can completely focus on one thing. Wiggins showed an unbelievable amount of character as well. I’ve got a ton of respect for him. He can be very moody after a race, but he’s also extremely funny and can do really good imitations of people. It’s hilarious. He’ll grab the bus’ microphone and begin to pretend he’s one of the other riders or a director. He’s always got something up his sleeve.”
When, in 2012, Team Sky asked everyone involved with the squad to sign a declaration stating that they’d never had any involvement with doping, De Jongh had to bite the bullet. He decided to be honest. Between 1998 and 2000, he’d used EPO as part of the TVM and Rabobank programmes, so he didn’t sign. “I told them what I had done, and then I moved on. Ever since, I’ve only looked ahead. Anyone who knows anything about the time that I raced in knows how few people were clean compared to those who used dope. A bunch of old riders still keep their mouths shut. I think they have more weight on their shoulders than I do.”
In 2013, De Jongh moved to Tinkoff-Saxo. “Straight away, the atmosphere at Tinkoff felt much warmer. It was a lot more like a family. The organization was less structured though. I’d seen how they’d done things at Sky, and Bjarne Riis asked me in fine detail what the differences were. Tinkoff-Saxo had everything that they needed. They just didn’t make the most of it. There weren’t enough staff. The volume and intensity of their training needed to be controlled better. In 2013, they rode a ton of races, I saw, but the riders didn’t have any periodization built into their schedules. They rode and rode and rode, but they hardly won any races. Bjarne Riis was in charge, but leaders often run the risk of becoming complacent and losing sight of the details. So, Bjarne asked me to join the team, to see how they were doing things and say what I thought needed to be changed. When the season was over, we sat down and put everything on paper and decided to change our programme drastically for the 2014 season.”
In his living room in Kalmthout, De Jongh pulls the numbers up on his laptop. “In 2013, we only won eight times and did so with five different riders. Compare that to 2014, when we won 26 times with eight different riders. That’s a significant improvement. I count 338 days of racing in 2013, compared to just 264 in 2014. That’s 74 fewer. You can use that time for training camps at elevation, for rest, and to prepare specifically for certain races. Our new approach turned out to be much more effective. In the winter of 2014/2015, we decided that our goal was to win a lot of races again, but to approach that goal as a whole team. We drew up a programme that gave each rider a time in which he could go after results for himself. Before, riders would ride races to prepare for other races. Now, they had more time to rest and could prepare for smaller races with the intention of winning them. Because of this, we won 28 times with 13 different riders. When you compare that to two years earlier, it’s a big step forward.”
At the end of 2013, De Jongh was mowing the grass at home in Kalmthout when his phone rang. Alberto Contador was coming off of a calamitous season and wanted to know if De Jongh would be willing to give him some extra attention. Of course he was. “I first checked what he’d done the previous winter. I won’t say that it was a disaster, but it certainly hadn’t given him a stable base to make it through a whole season. He had to go from one sponsor’s event to another. There was some time to train in between, but he didn’t have the chance to do a really good build up. So, that was the first adjustment that we made. His first camp at elevation was really important. We stayed together for three weeks on Tenerife. In Tenerife, there is one mountain, one hotel, and the rest is lava, so you are really left to your own devices. I think that really made the difference for the rest of the season. We created a really strong bond together and left with a good feeling.”
In 2014, Contador began to win some more. “That really builds your confidence. Alberto might seem timid, but there’s an unbelievable fighter lurking inside of him. If we’re sitting in a meeting and something needs to be said, he doesn’t seem timid anymore. All the best guys are like that. Last year, my wife Renée came to the Giro, and the first thing that Alberto said when he saw her at the hotel was, “You really know how much we’ve put into this.” That’s nice for her to hear of course, because it’s a compliment. I was away from home for long periods at a time to help Alberto, and he didn’t forget that.”
On the descent of the Petit Ballons during the 2015 Tour, Contador crashed and fractured his tibia. He rode on at first but eventually had to stop. “When I heard, I went cold. I just sat in the car and cried. We put so much time into it. He’d lived for it and was so sharp. All the excitement just fell away. It was emotional. Luckily, the next day was a rest day, so Oleg, Bjarne, the riders, and I got together to set some new goals, because our general classification hopes were finished. It was a chance for the riders to show how good their form was, that they were ready. Maika won a stage, Rodgers won one, and then Maika won another one and climbed his way into the polka-dot jersey. I really think that our success came from the time we took to process the loss of Alberto on the rest day.”
After a crash in the same Tour, Ivan Basso complained about pain in one of his testicles. “He had hit it on his saddle, he said, but he could also feel something there. After the finish of the team time trial, we were able to arrange an ultrasound. It took forever to get the results. Then, the doctor called to say that he had discovered a tumor. We were really emotional when we realized that Ivan would have to leave the Tour. We were even staying in the same hotel as he had been two years earlier when he heard the news that his mother had died. That brought back a lot of memories. The whole team was thrown out of whack. I kept in contact with Ivan on a daily basis, and still do — he’s now one of our team’s directors.”
“I dream of starting my own team, of having a role like Patrick Lefevere’s,” De Jongh says, when asked about his ambitions. He’s already speaking to potential sponsors and is in the middle of a ten-module sportsleadership programme. It would be the third chapter of his career, because Tinkoff is going to pull its sponsorship at the end of 2016. “I speak to Oleg Tinkoff once in a while, and sometimes he calls during a race. Most of the time, he’s a really pleasant man, although he’s become famous for being outspoken. That’s the same within the team. If he wants to say something, he says it. Everything he says on Twitter he also says to us. We don’t get shocked anymore. He’s really involved. I’m always getting emails with his thoughts about how things are going.”
After the 2014 Amstel Gold Race, there was another phone call. “In 2013, we’d won with Roman Kreuziger. The next year, he was our best guy again, but we didn’t manage to pull off a good result. Then, Oleg called. ‘I’m no clown,’ he said, ‘this isn’t what I’m paying you for.’ So yeah, he keeps a close eye on us. He also came to our training camp for two weeks and rode his bike everyday. He wasn’t too happy to ride with me though. My form was better,” De Jongh says with a smile.
Even as a directeur sportif, De Jongh still tries to ride everyday. “It just makes me happy. In the morning, I’ll ride a quick 50 kilometres and feel so much better. Most days, I’m up at 5:30, and I try to be on my bike by 6. That way, I can make it home in time for breakfast.” In the winter, De Jongh rides beach races on his mountain bike. He won the last one that he entered, but in the first real race he did after his professional career, he ended up breaking his collarbone. “You’ve got to laugh about that. You quit racing only to suffer a typical racer’s injury anyways. When you’re a rider and you contribute to a teammate’s win, or you win yourself, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. I was scared that I wouldn’t enjoy the races as much, now that I’m a director. But I soon realized that you get exactly the same feeling when you’ve been working intensely with the riders and get to see a plan that you developed pan out as you hoped. I love that. What’s different is that I can now enjoy victories in the mountain stages, which was unthinkable before. I wasn’t able to help much in the mountains when I was a rider, but now I can. I was part of Alberto’s victories in the Vuelta and the Giro. To be able to fill a role there is something I never would have imagined possible. It’s crazy actually. My father missed out on my cycling career completely, because he died early. I think about that once in a while. I think he would be proud.”