Wout Poels: Perspective
After five ‘safe’ years at Team Sky/Ineos, Wout Poels is headed off in a new direction. At Bahrain-McLaren, he hopes to go for stage wins at the Tour. Robin van der Kloor and Patrick Delait from De Limburger sat down with him to speak about the hardships he has gone through in his life and how he has made an art out of putting things into perspective. “I don’t want to be a lost soul for years and years,” he says.
Are you leaving the best team in the world willingly?
I could have just stayed and done my thing, but I want to win a stage in the Tour, Giro, or Vuelta too. At Bahrain-McLaren, I’ll get that chance, whereas I was a bit stuck at Ineos. I did the same trick there for five years.
Did success become boring?
It wasn’t boring, but it didn’t feel very special this year anymore either. You got to the Champs Elysées, and then there was another party. Perhaps I’ll think otherwise about it in a few years and ask myself how I could ever have said that. But that is how it feels now.
Were those Tour de France victories also personal victories?
Not really, but there were some key moments, such as in 2015 on the Alpe d’Huez when Chris Froome was in trouble, that I had the feeling that I was really able to make a contribution.
Will you miss the Rolexes that winning captains often give?
At Ineos, we always got money. Just euros. That way, you could buy what you wanted. The first time that we won the Tour with Chris, I fixed up my garden. That was way more useful than an expensive watch.
Your former team has been accused of using testosterone patches? What do you think of that?
That’s not so nice. That story about the testosterone patches dates from another period. I still hadn’t joined the team then. I can have my own opinion, but it’s hard to say: here, take back my contract. Of course, I hope that it is not true and that nothing is going on.
You hope that, but are you convinced of it?
I assume that they are not cheating at Sky. I would be very disappointed if that turns out not to be the case. Then, I would feel betrayed.
So you never saw or experienced anything?
No, I was never given testosterone patches. I never heard anything about them.
So, there has been a shift in culture in the meantime?
Phew, I can only say that I never experienced anything illegal during my time there.
The salbutamol affair around Froome lead to a heated Tour last year.
I would not have minded missing that Tour. Afterwards, it was proven that Chris had done nothing wrong, but we got so much shit, and literally piss, thrown over us. Little kids showed us their middle fingers. It had a big impact on my mental state. During the mountain stages, I was on my guard. When it’s steep, you aren’t going fast. And there are lots of people there. When I would get dropped, I was afraid to ride alone, so I would shelter in a group. Chris had police protection, but we still had everything thrown at us. It didn’t help that Tom Dumoulin was one of Chris’ rivals. Dutch fans didn’t hold back against me either.
Speaking of Dumoulin. Was Jumbo-Visma not an option for you?
I would have liked that too, but sometimes things go another way. There were discussions, but they were busy with Dumoulin. That was a bit more of a priority.
You will get more chances to race for yourself at Bahrain-McLaren, but your performances are sometimes inconsistent. Do you know why?
Since my fall in 2012, I’ve become less consistent. It took me a couple of years to become steady, but I am still not completely sure where the bad days come from. It is still something I come up against sometimes.
At the world championships in Innsbruck, you fell through the ice. What went wrong there?
I felt it coming. Halfway through the race, I knew it was coming. My heart rate was higher than normal and hardly dropped on the descent. That was pretty frustrating. You wish you could think: I’ll drink a glass of water and the dip will go away.
Does that have something to do with the pressure?
I don’t think that I’m mentally fragile. I often feel more pressure before a hard mountain stage in the Tour than when I ride for myself.
You have an enormous ability to put things into perspective, bordering on apathy. After the world championships in Innsbruck, you said, “And now I’m going to go eat some good sushi.” You laugh a lot away.
“Ah. Sometimes, you have to put things into perspective. We shouldn’t exaggerate. It’s only sport, a bit of bike riding. And sushi is really delicious. Maybe it’s an attitude. After the world championships, I fell into a real dip. The day after was my birthday, but I kept the blinds shut until three o’clock in the afternoon, even though I had a party that evening. Geraint Thomas convinced me to go for an easy spin. We started drinking sangria on a patio. I’ve never been so drunk on my birthday. I wove through the tunnels of Monaco—definitely faster than I’d ridden the day before in Innsbruck.
You’ve lived in Monaco for three years now. Do you enjoy the glitter and glamour?
I don’t experience much of it. I’ve maybe gone partying three times. It just doesn’t fit in the life of a sportsman. It’s a bit of a fake world. I did have a fast car for a while, but I sold it quickly.
I had my driver’s license taken away for driving too fast. I wasn’t paying attention. It was on a toll road, before one of those gates. I was allowed to drive 90, but I kept going 130. My driver’s license was confiscated on the spot. I told the policeman, “That was nothing. This car can go twice as fast.” He didn’t think that was very funny. At the time, I didn’t live with my girlfriend yet, so I called a teammate to come pick me up from the police station.
Who was that?
So the Tour de France winner had to pull road-pirate Poels out of the fire?
I said, “G, what are you up to this evening?” Then, he came and picked me up from the police station in some little French village. The car was a Mercedes with 510 horsepower. I got rid of it right away.
You now live with Alice. How did you two meet?
She worked at Sky as well, in the marketing department. During the Tour of Britain, a teammate stole my phone and sent her a message. Then, I put on my brave shoes: “We had might as well have a drink, eh?” “Win first,” she said. The next day, I won the stage on an uphill finish.
Love gives you wings.
That is true. You get back to the bus and immediately start sending messages. That’s very motivating. A new girlfriend for every grand tour—that would work best.
Are you considering becoming a father?
Phew. There is a baby boom in Monaco. Everyone is having children. Froome, Thomas, Diego Rosa, Luke Rowe—on the bike, all those guys talk about are their babies. They only get four hours of sleep, because their little ones are up all night crying. That doesn’t sound particularly appealing. At some point, I would like children, but not yet.
Your father died of lung cancer when you were 25. Do you still think about him a lot?
I just visited his grave on my way to this interview. Most of the time, I go there if I’m in the Netherlands. Oftentimes, at special moments in my life, I think: if only he were here. After my victory in Liege, but also when I signed for Sky and Quick-Step… I’ve ridden for the best teams in the world, and he only ever saw me at Vacansoleil, which, with all due respect, was at the bottom of the ladder. He never saw me riding with the elite of the elite, and that’s a shame.
Do you often speak with your mother about him?
I just did coincidentally, because I had borrowed her car and she gave me the card to get gas. I asked for the PIN code, and it was the code of my dad’s card from ten years ago. I still know it off the top of my head. It was handy to have when I was 18 and had little money.
With those things, you notice how deep your relationship was?
Yes. I was just at the cycling gala in Limburg. My uncles were there too, and they look a lot like him. He always really liked those galas. That brought back a lot of memories of him.
Your mother has MS. How is she doing?
My brothers and I were afraid that she would suffer a setback when Dad died, but she has become more independent. Perhaps that’s because she has to do more herself. My dad took a lot off her hands. She is taking a new medicine, which is working well. Her walking is getting better and better. It’s bizarre: MS is a progressive disease, and her medicine doesn’t work for most people.
Can we conclude from this conversation that you laugh less of life away than people might suspect?
Of course, I ponder the difficult things in life. Sometimes, it’s shit. But I’ve now been in Limburg for two days; should I then continue to mull over negative thoughts and think about how things were better before? I’d better just make something good of it all, I think. I don’t want to be a lost soul for years and years.
The Hard Facts
What would you like to change about yourself?
My grey hairs, which are beginning to appear. I would like to filter out my bad days. And I would like to have sprinter’s legs, like Peter Sagan’s for instance.
When did you last cry?
Last summer, when I visited the grave of my father after the Tour. I was on my bike after a training ride. I’ll often sit for ten minutes on a wall and think about him and how I miss him. Then we move on to the beautiful moments.
What do you regret?
At the start of my career, I probably should have switched to a better team earlier. That would have given my career a boost, even though I got a lot of chances at Vacansoleil. Beyond that, I have few regrets. Ok, a few bad Tinder dates before I met Alice.
Who would you like to spend 24 hours with?
A Formula One driver. I live in the same neighbourhood as Max Verstappen, but don’t know him. It’s not as if I’m going to send him an Instagram message: “Hi, I’m Wout. Can I spend a day with you?” A day with a famous DJ would also be interesting.
Cover Photo: Chris Auld