Egon van Kessel is one of the great Directeurs Sportifs in the women’s peloton. After his own cycling career, he moved to directing, and among his achievements are many years coaching and managing the women’s and men’s Dutch National Team, through Olympics, World Championships and more, and DSing for some of the biggest names in the women’s peloton, including USA Saturn, in the 1990s, and the much-missed Cervélo Test Team in the 2000s. In 2014 he demonstrated why he has such a great reputation, taking over a Wiggle Honda team that was stuffed full of big personalities, and ending the season at the top of the UCI rankings with an amazing four Road World Cup wins. I talked to him about how he did it, what his biggest achievements have been, his thoughts about British cyclists and cycling, his plans for Wiggle High5’s 2016 season, and more.
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ProWomensCycling: How are you?
Egon van Kessel: I’m fine. I’m waiting for the start of the season, although my team is already racing in Australia, and I’m following their results, but my first race will be the Ladies Tour of Qatar, and I’m looking forward to it.
PWC: What are you busy with at this time of year, as a Directeur Sportif?
EvK: Mainly with the programme. I’m contacting the riders and team management, discussing the programme, which races we want to do, talking with the riders about where they’d like to race. I always have to explain to them that I cannot fulfill all their wishes, but I always try. And enjoying the days I’m still at home, because in the season I’m away from home for many, many days, so I’m enjoying staying with family and friends.
PWC: You’ve got quite an interesting task this year, because last year, I have to admit, when I saw Wiggle Honda‘s roster, I just didn’t believe it was going to work – too many big stars, who was going to carry the water, how are they going to race together. But you had some incredible results! How do you feel about 2015?
EvK: Before the season started I had talks with [Wiggle High5 owner] Rochelle Gilmore about this, and to be honest, I knew I could manage it, but it would be very, very hard, because like you say, it was a team with big stars, and for this season, even more stars.
But I think that I can manage that, as I did last year. Working with women is not easy, I can tell you, it’s totally different than working in a men’s environment. Women are different – not better, not worse, but it’s different. And I’m very lucky that I live in my house with three women, my wife and two daughters, and my daughters are the same age as the riders in our team, so I think I can handle it. I know how they feel, I know how they act, although I’m much older than they are, I have a lot of experience working with women. And in the past I ran an agricultural company, and I employed 35 women, so that’s maybe an advantage for me!
PWC: What’s the biggest difference between men and women as cyclists?
EvK: The biggest difference is what is logical in men’s cycling is not logical in women’s cycling. The reason for that is that male cyclists develop totally differently when they are youngsters, than the women. If you look at club team for girls between 12 and 18 years old, the best staff and people are around the boys, rather than the women. So it’s totally different. They have a [cycling] education that in many cases is not on the same level. So when they come to the elite women – I don’t like to say it, but its the truth – the tactical skills are maybe on the level of junior men’s cycling. So that’s the reason I say nothing is really logical, for me, if you are used to working in men’s cycling.
Another big difference is in men’s cycling, if something goes wrong, or we have a hard opinion about a race, for instance, then they accept it. They accept it, and that’s how it is. In women’s cycling, there’s much more emotion, so I always have to be careful what I say. I also always have to understand that, for instance, in men’s cycling, if I don’t like someone, I don’t shake hands, I leave the guy, I don’t talk to him even. In women’s cycling, forgive me for telling you this, I see women who don’t like each other, they hug, and when the girl is walking away, say “she’s a bitch”! So every guy has to get used to that – for the men it’s really unusual that that happens.
So I know this now, after a couple of years, and I hope you understand what I’m trying to tell you.
PWC: I think it’s that women are socialised differently to men – we’re socialised to be nice on the outside, and to doubt ourselves more. There’s that thing where if you do something wrong in a race, it can really crush your spirit, wheres the men think “I’m great, I’ll just be great next time!”
EvK: Indeed. And therefore I had an interview two years ago with a Dutch newspaper, “Why are you going back to women’s cycling?”, and I said because if you take yourself seriously as a team director, you should work with women – because with women, you can develop something. It’s hard, very hard, but you can develop something.
I also should say that every men’s team director should start first with women, then they can learn a lot, and it makes men’s cycling very easy. I worked for the Dutch National Federation for many, many years – for 14 years I was involved with the development of junior and under-23 bike riders. And that’s what I most liked, to develop something, to reach their goals with them. And in women’s cycling, it’s almost the same job, I feel like I did with the juniors in the old days. When I was working for pro men’s team, it was also nice, but totally different – you are much more involved in facilitating the team, than you are involved in the results. So therefore I like women’s cycling a lot.
PWC: In terms of development, you had some really lovely moments last year – Jolien D’hoore winning two Road World Cups [the Ronde van Drenthe and Crescent Vårgårda] and Mayuko Hagiwara just seemed to have come out of her shell last year and raced so well. We always expect Giorgia Bronzini to do well, but you had some amazing results last year, from other really interesting riders as well.
EvK: I’m sure that the girls know my background, so from the beginning I had their support, and they also had my support. I tried to tease them, let’s say, about the men’s tactics, because I’m one of the few in women’s cycling who’ve worked at the top level in men’s cycling in the past. If you want the big money, you’ve got to go to men’s cycling, I can tell you! But I think that was an advantage. We had a very complicated team, and we still have, with all these stars, mainly sprinters, and it’s not easy to create a team. And with my knowledge from the past, and also knowing some of my most important team director opponents, like from the big Dutch teams – these guys were my riders in the past, I was their team director for several years. And they are Dutch, so I know how they are thinking.
And that’s what I’m trying to teach my team, put yourself in the mindset of your opponents, and concentrate on that. And that was one of the things that was maybe new for some of them, and it worked. We always had a team, like you see can see in the films on the team’s YouTube, it’s not play, it’s real. There was always a good atmosphere, and that’s very special in such a complicated team.
PWC: I thought that no one would be talking to each other by April, and I thought that it would just be a disaster, with five riders trying to lead the team, but it was the opposite, and I’m genuinely really impressed with that!
EvK: Thank you. I had a talk with [new Wiggle High5 rider] Emma Johansson a month ago, and I asked her “How did you look at our team a year ago?”, and she said almost the same as you said! So I think we all – not only me – we all did a good job. It’s never one person alone who can create that, you need the whole team for that, the staff, you need the support from your management and the riders, and we created something. And again I say, we created something. I think I had an influence on it, but don’t give me too much credit, because I also had good riders.
PWC: Very good riders!
One of the things I think about Wiggle is it’s such a big team, it’s bigger than a lot of the other squads – how do you make sure none of the riders get lost? There are some riders that I worry might never get to race.
EvK: That’s a problem, I agree with you. This year we have 16 riders available. It is good for the team that we have five or six riders, I think, who have to concentrate on the Olympic Games, and they have programmes with the national federations, so that creates more space for the other girls. Not in March or April, but later in the season until the Olympic Games, I’ll only have 10 or 11 riders available, so they will all race.
And I can share with you one of the problems I have: If you want to race, we have a programme in Belgium and in Holland, and for this programme you need bike skills. About 25% of bikes races on the UCI calendar are in Belgium and in Holland. And these races are very difficult. Small roads, lots of corners, etc. But some girls, and especially the British girls, are missing the bike skills. I have some very good, strong riders, but weak in bikes skills. I don’t know why it is, but it’s mainly the British girls. What happens in Britain, I don’t know.
PWC: I think it’s the [British] focus on the track. For many years the road national team has been the track girls who sometimes get to ride road. I think British Cycling has given up on the road, because we have Lizzie Armitstead, and before that we had Emma Pooley and Nicole Cooke, so they don’t need [a full road programme], it’s very sad.
EvK: It’s sad for women’s cycling, and it’s not good for the development of British cycling, because you have so many talented riders. If I look at my team, all the British girls are very, very talented. And they could have many more results, if they had more bike skills. It’s a huge problem. And I remember also when I was working for Cervélo, it was the same with the British girls in that team – also Emma Pooley, and she developed a little – and I’m now trying to develop these British girls.
PWC: It’s not easy, because sometimes you also see a rider’s first race in Europe might be the Omloop het Nieuwsblad, which is completely the wrong race for someone’s first time! It must be hard, because you want to give them a chance, but at the same time, you want to field your best team always. So will you be sending them off to smaller races, or…?
EvK: This year, because we have enough riders, we are racing one-and-a-half programmes, and we also have some smaller races on the programme, and I’m going to talk to Rochelle about adding a few more smaller races, like in the Czech Republic, where the level is totally different than here in Holland They’re nice races for the young girls in the team, like Anna Christian and Amy Roberts, they can practice there. I’ve also organised that they can stay in Holland for a while, and can do some criterium races. I would recommend this to every British girl who wants to ride on the road – go to Holland, and find a place, and participate in some Dutch criterium races, because there’s a lot of corners, very high speed, high level, and there you learn.
PWC: Speaking of British women, the rider I’m really excited about this year is Dani King. Obviously British Cycling have dropped her from the track team, and this is going to be her first proper road season – what do you think she’s going to do?
EvK: If Dani doesn’t develop into the top 25 in the UCI ranking, and in a few years into the top 10, then I will be very disappointed, because she is very, very, *very* talented, very strong and a very good mindset. I don’t know why she’s been dropped from the Pursuit, but I told her if she concentrates on the road, and British Cycling follows her, I’m sure she will start at the Olympic road race, and she can help Lizzie win the title there, or a medal.
I can tell you, I was really disappointed that she was not selected for the Road Worlds last year, in the US. For me it was unbelievable, I don’t know why, because if they had watched some races we had here in Europe in the second part of the season, she did really well in some races. But the point is, she has to develop now, into a road racer, she does not know that much about road racing, technically she has to learn a lot more now, and that’s my job. I will help her with that, because I see her as one of our key riders for the future.
PWC: It’s interesting, because Lizzie did the same thing, she gave up track, and now look at her on the road – and I think Dani can be similar.
EvK: Yes. I remember I said to Lizzie, when she was with me for the year in Cervélo, and we had a talk when we were racing – she wasn’t the level she is now, she was a young girl, and we were at the Route de France, and she was second in a bunch sprint, or something like that, and I told her “Lizzie, believe me, in the future you will be one of the best riders in the world”. And she said to me “Do you mean that?”, and I said “I’m sure”. Because if you work for so long in the cycling profession, you recognise talent – and that is not only how they are sitting on the bike, or how they pedal, it’s also how they behave, how they think – you talk a lot with the girls.
And with Dani, I have the same feeling. She’s a different rider than Lizzie is, she will never win bunch sprints, but she is good in the hills. We had a training camp in Spain a month ago, and she was really good in the mountains also. She’s an all-rounder. It will not be easy for her to win, but I compare her a little bit with Elisa Longo Borghini, same kind of rider, and she also wins big races.
PWC: When you’re a sprinter, you can just win twenty races in a season, whereas Elisa doesn’t win so often, but when she does, it’s the biggest races, the important races.
EvK: Impressive always – very impressive how she wins. Elisa’s one of my favourite riders of all time, in women’s cycling, the way she wins races and gets the results. And I think the same career is also possible for Dani King.
PWC: Who else are you excited to work with this year? I know you’re excited about working with all of them, but are there any other riders we should be particularly looking out for in your team?
EvK: Because you are British, I’m very curious why Lucy Garner did not develop like she promised when she was a junior rider. She has the skills, she has the bike skills for the road, so if I can play a role in her development, that would be, for myself, very very nice. I have other riders who are really good, like Emma Johansson, Bronzini, D’hoore – they are already on a very high level, they are all stars. And for them, I can be important, but they were already good. So for me it’s nicer to work with girls who are not on that level yet, because then I can develop them, and maybe make a difference. And Lucy is one of the girls I say “hey, why didn’t she develop to the level she promised when she was a junior rider? And what can I do, and what can she do, to have more results, and better results?” – for me that’s really nice.
For me, all the girls are the same, but some girls you think about what’s possible, how we can have better results with her, etc etc, and she’s one of these girls.
PWC: Excellent, I’m happy with that, I’ve always been a fan of Lucy!
So last year, which do you think were your biggest achievements? The team’s, and your own?
EvK: For the team, that we did a very good Team Time Trial in the World Championships. If you look only at the names, and at our team in general, then is being fourth normal? But, and there is a but always, my team last year was mainly based on sprinters. So if you look at the World Championships, I used riders who, if you compare them with the three teams in front of us, they were much lower ranked in the UCI rankings, especially in the Time Trial rankings, than the girls in the other teams. So in fact I had the fourth team, or maybe the fifth team, in strength. But they trained so well in our technics, that we had this result. We were very close to the podium. And when I saw it on TV later, how we were racing technically, and compared it to the other teams, it was really professional, how our team performed there, it was really good. We were missing some power in the team, but with this team, and then maybe with Emma Johansson, and Amy Pieters, we can be really good, maybe even for a gold medal this year. So I was very happy with how the team grew, because for me, it’s a very important thing in the season, the Team Time Trial – there you can show yourself as a team.
PWC: And of course, you were working with the Cervélo when they were the unbeatable Team Time Trial team, and they had some really strong Time Triallers and TTT experts there. So are you going to be looking at Canyon-SRAM, and knocking them off their throne?
EvK: That is my goal, because in those days [when they were HTC Highroad] we could beat them. It was kind of the same team, with Ronny Lauke [as the DS] and I’m really looking forward to beating him! In those days I had the riders, I didn’t have them last year, but in 2010 I had some really good Time Trial riders. And we trained a lot for the Time Trial, and we created a team, and that’s the reason we could beat them. And that can happen again, and I’m almost sure it will happen, if we can find enough time in the season to train on TTT, I’m very confident we can. For myself personally, too, it’s a big thing – but also for the team, now, I think.
PWC: But also they’ve been so unstoppable in the TTT. It was Cervélo, Cervélo, Cervélo, then it was HTC-Specialized-lululemon – so is the future black and orange?
EvK: I hope so!
PWC: So from a personal perspective, what were your best achievements last year?
EvK: I think also the Team Time Trial, but there were some limits. But for myself as a team director, it’s not a particular race – although if I have to say a race, it was the Tour of Flanders, we were really good then, and we had trained so well, and were so well prepared, that for myself that was one of my own highlights. As a team director you also have to be in good shape, you know? And I was in good shape, because I knew how important this race was for the team.
But in general, I think my biggest achievement was that I could create a good atmosphere and team spirit, with these strong individual riders. I think I’m most proud of that.
PWC: My last two questions, are kind of connected. You’ve been around the sport during some times of some really big changes, and obviously with your time in the Dutch Federation, for a lot longer. How has it changed, since you’ve been working in it?
EvK: The first time I was confronted with women’s cycling, but only as a spectator, or as a team-mate, was in the 70s, so forty years ago. And I never thought that women’s cycling would develop to such a high level. In those days it was almost nothing. Sometimes big fat women – you laugh, but it’s really true. And not well trained, etc etc.
The second time I was in women’s cycling, and the first time I worked with them, was in the late ‘90s, with an American team, called Saturn, which was a big team in those days, with big star riders. And I was totally surprised, how much it had developed already in 20 years. It was a very professional team – but in those years, I must say, North American cycling was very developed. American cycling did not develop so much in the last 20 years, as European cycling for women. They were really on the top in those days, and I was really impressed, and I said “hey, I have to take this seriously”.
And then with the Dutch National Federation, I was involved from 2001, and I saw then that the level was rising and rising. So in the last 10 years, first of all it looks much more professional. The people around the teams are much more professional. I’ve seen some really great races last year.
But I think in the attitude, from the girls, how they have to race, then if you compare that to men’s cycling, they still have a big step to make, because men’s cycling is much more aggressive. I’m happy that this season the radios are coming back. I don’t like the radios for men’s cycling, but for women’s cycling it’s really necessary, and I hope with the radios coming back, the team directors will use them in a positive way and make the races more aggressive. I have seen some aggressive races last year, but only when it’s because of the weather, or because of the road, or because of hills or mountains. The flat races can be really boring, and I hope that that will change.
The girls have to be more aggressive, more confident in themselves, and not think too much about the others. In men’s cycling, you have your own goal, boom, and you’re going for that goal. OK, you care about your opponents, but you have your own thing. In women’s cycling, and I don’t like to say this, but I feel it, they always look at what the others are doing in the races, and “If they don’t attack, I don’t attack”.
PWC: That’s one of the reasons Elisa won the Ronde van Vlaanderen, I think. Elisa deserved to win Flanders, but there was that moment where some of her opponents looked at each other, and didn’t want to be the first to chase. And then suddenly you realise you’ve let Elisa get too far down the road! It was such a beautiful moment, but it felt like if there’d have been other riders who’d have chased Elisa straight away, it wouldn’t have been so easy for her to win.
EvK: For a big part you’re right, but it was also part of our tactics. I knew that this would happen, because there is a lot of competition between some teams, and the only thing that changed from the tactics was Elisa attacked earlier than we talked about before the race. But I always tell my team, “In the final, you have to make your own decisions”, because I’m not on the bike, I’m in the car far behind you. You feel your legs, you see how your opponents are doing, so you have to find your own moment. I can give you a moment, but I can’t say this is the moment. You can see that”. And Elisa used this knowledge, and she attacked at the right moment.
But believe me, they chased hard in the last part of the race, because with 12k to go she had 55 seconds, and she had headwind, don’t forget, and she had 5 or 6 riders behind her, working, working, working, and chasing very hard, but they could only close by 10 seconds. If Elisa has a gap, then she has a gap. So it was both.
PWC: And I guess also having Jolien, sitting happily, not doing any work, must destroy their spirit.
EvK: That also was because Jolien was dropped in the last hill, so she was back, and I told her… I was talking more with Jolien by radio in that race than Elisa, because I told her “Jolien, Jolien, you have to come back, you have to chase back the group of followers, because if you are there, then the race is over”. And the moment Jolien joined that group, they were still chasing, but with a brake on it, because they were afraid of Jolien. So she had to be there, and that was very good for us. It was great teamwork.
PWC: Do you think the new Women’s World Tour is going to make a difference, or is it just same races, different name?
EvK: I think it is a difference, it is good that they have a World Tour, but I hope that they can achieve their goals with the World Tour. Because it’s all about money, and competing in this World Tour it means for a lot of teams – not us, but for some other teams – you need to have money to participate. And next year, and I agree with this, they have to pay better salaries in the future, if they want to go – not quite, but the UCI wants to reach nearer the level of men’s cycling.
That’s really good, the UCI needs to have a goal, but I hope that the teams can find the money for it. I know the budgets of a lot of teams, and I worry about the future for the World Tour. That’s not about the level of the riders, but it’s all about money for teams. And it depends on broadcasting, on television, on press. It’s very important, if they can find the television, or if they can broadcast it, then it’s easier.
PWC: Well good luck for the season! I hope at the end of next season, after I’ve been saying “I thought Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo Borghini, and Amy Pieters should be competing against each other”, I hope I’m sitting here saying “Oh my god, how did you do that?” again!
EvK: I can tell you, I think a lot about this, because I know it is very, very, very hard, but I’m confident. If I can’t manage this, at the end of the season you’ll be talking to a very disappointed team director – disappointed in myself, not the girls.
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