Philipp Walsleben: “I don’t enjoy getting on my bike”
Why will this season be your last one?
I don’t enjoy getting on my bike for everyday training rides anymore. Of course, I know that there are ups and downs in the life of every working person. But the days when I really had to force myself onto the bike have been prevailing lately. That’s what brought the decision about in the end. Also, things like being on the road all the time added to it. At some point all other things started to bother me and wear me out. What I’ve always liked is racing. But it wasn’t enough to keep me motivated, either. Often road racing means lots of waiting. This is hard on me, too. Eventually even racing got too monotonous for me. More and more things added up. On top of that, I’ll have to retire at some point anyway. To be honest, I feel like taking the next step, even if I don’t really know where it will take me yet. For me it doesn’t feel like an extremely big step, I’m not afraid of the future. On the contrary, I’m very excited for what’s coming next. Although I don’t have any specific plans yet.
You’ve just said that you don’t like waiting…
In the past, when I was a cyclo-cross rider, I didn’t care about the result. I always rode offensively – and couldn’t keep up with the other riders at the end anymore. But I didn’t really care. In road racing, I can’t ride like the team captains because I don’t have their stamina. Therefore, waiting has become part of my job. That’s a bit of a problem for me. Sprint stages of tour races call for patience all day long; if the last 40 kilometres of a race are particularly hard, you’ll have to remain patient for the first 150 kilometres, just to bolt into this one small section that counts together with the whole peloton. I want to attack not wait. But in most situations, this would be unprofessional and not result-oriented, as most escape groups are ultimately caught by the peloton again. Therefore, I had to pull myself together and stay with the field, which I consider boring. Racing is not fun this way as it is not really racing anymore.
Apparently not even your two stage wins this year could change your mind.
In fact, I was already thinking about retirement back then. And, yes, even good results and wins couldn’t change my mind, as the other factors I already mentioned have been and will remain the same. Whenever things go well, I certainly want them to stay this way. But the times that I didn’t enjoy what I do, e.g., in training, prevailed. I don’t want and don’t need this anymore. It was a lot of work to get into the shape for winning races. The thought of having to follow through with another winter training in order to further up my game was not very appealing, on the contrary. At my age and with my sporty past in cyclo-cross racing, I’d still have a lot to catch up on in comparison to an experienced road cyclist. I haven’t clocked in enough kilometres yet. I have not yet won a grand tour, but I am very aware of the fact that this is not going to happen anymore. Since I want to perform at my best and to do well in races while also competing with riders that have already won three grand tours, I’d have to work so much more in training. That’s too much mindless work for me.
Does a professional cyclist need to be mindless to some extend?
Oh, I need to watch my tongue now (laughs). On six-hour training rides it’ll certainly help if you can switch off your mind and just ride. ‘Don’t think too much’, was a piece of advice I often got. But this was not the direction I wanted to move in. I don’t want to switch my head off. This world surely offers so much more to discover.
You said you were excited for the future. Do you have any specific plans?
No, not yet. I have a few ideas. The back of my head is haunted by the thought that I could go study, but only if this makes sense. After all, I’ll have to earn money. I think in many directions. I will definitely take advantage of the time after my last race to organize my thoughts. There are so many options.
Would you be interested in a job as sporting manager?
That’s definitely an option I’ll look into more closely.
Paul Voss, a former pro rider, your friend and coach, has just started a new career as pro gravel rider. Is this an option for you, too?
It is important to consider that I have no idea how I’ll feel after two months without cycling. At the moment, the thought of a career as an athlete is not really appealing to me. If you do gravel riding at pro level this means riding long distances. I am not really cut out for this, neither physically nor mentally. However, I may be a little biased right now. My year was quite long and intense – first it was packed with big goals, then I decided to retire. Maybe I’ll see things differently when some time has passed. Just now, I don’t feel like cycling anymore.
Looking back, what are your fondest race memories?
I remember a cyclo-cross super prestige race in Gavere back in 2013. I lost this race to Sven Nys in the final sprint. It was a little frustrating, but nevertheless it was a highlight of my sporting career. I had a really good day, but my chain got stuck on the last lap. I managed to close the gap to Nys and we went on the finish stretch side by side. As he was the more experienced rider, he acted much smarter and caught me by surprise. Unfortunately, I’ve never won an important cyclo-cross race, and this bothers me. This could have been such a day. Another memory is this years’ Strade Bianche that Mathieu (van der Poel, editor’s note) won. I had a part in it, too. First, I rode in the front group and when we got caught, I dragged him to the front before we entered the important gravel section. Being part of the race and of this success story was really special to me. And not least, my stage win in Norway is a fond memory. I am very proud that I won against Niki Terpstra. That’s really something.
On the one hand, because I tried to do everything right that day and perform as well as possible. It makes me proud when I succeed in doing so. I needed to be focused all the time. On the other hand, Terpstra is a tough rival. He is capable of opening a gap uphill even though he weighs 10 kilograms more than I. You must never lull yourself into a false sense of security that you’ll have him under control in uphill sprint sections.
Did you get up that day with the certainty that this will be your race today?
I certainly contemplated front groups before the race, but this inner attitude and everything it brings with only surfaces when you are part of the leading group. But if it does, you’ll ride fully committed.
The last time we met in person was at the 2020 team presentation in Amsterdam. A lot has happened since then, the team, e.g., won Flanders, took stage wins in all three grand tours and much more. Did you think back then that your team would develop like this?
I already knew back then that Mathieu had a lot of potential and that he could win any race. The only question was when he would do so. And that Tim Merlier was a superfast rider was already perceptible when he was still with Correndon-Circus. To be honest, I do not consider this development illogical. It was nice to witness it and to be part of it, but to me it was no big surprise. I know that the team has always worked towards the optimum. They were never happy with what they’d already achieved. As soon as every rider moves in the same direction and has the same goal, team management does not have to build up pressure. Riders build it up themselves, each and every one of them. At least this has been my experience so far. Sometimes I would have loved to vanish in some random team, earn money and do some racing, ideally without captain and tactics. This is what you wish for while fighting for positions or if you start overthinking things. But to always aim for the best possible performance is the team’s style and signature and coincides fully with my attitude – including all consequences. This way, there are more highlights on the one hand. On the other hand, there is much more frustration if things do not go your way. If you don’t have goals, you won’t be disappointed – it’s as simple as that. I’ve known the two brothers for ages and raced for their former teams, therefore, the teams’ development is logical.
Where does this striving for perfection come from? What makes the Roodhooft brothers’ DNA so special?
Great question. I think, DNA really is a factor. They have a natural desire to improve, always and in any field. Furthermore, new opportunities keep arising from this and in most cases, they take them. This was the case with Niels Albert, and it is the case today with Mathieu. They have grown with Mathieu, and he has grown with them. Let me elaborate on this with the example of the Tour of Flanders. Team management didn’t settle for being invited to the race and being at the start line, they also wanted to do everything else right. They did anything in their power to get to the level of World Tour teams, at least as far as preparation and execution were concerned. The riders’ development needs some time after all. This meant that if Ineos had 20 people alongside the course that provided bottles and wheels, Alpecin-Fenix needed 20 people, too. Many things derive from ambition and the desire to keep Mathieu as part of the team, which is why both brothers time and again must take respective decisions. Of course, you also need to be good at executing, not fool yourself and be honest with yourself. They manage these, too, very well.
What are your goals for your last race, the Münsterland Giro on 3 October?
I definitely want to finish in the peloton. On the one hand, I’d like to ride the way I’ve always ridden, i.e., attack and join the escape group. But if the group is too small and too weak, and there is some real racing taking place behind it, there’s a risk of being caught too early and get dropped towards the end of the race. That’s why I’ll try to remain patient and make sure I’m in the peloton. My family and friends are coming too, of course, and I don’t want them having to wait a quarter of an hour until I cross the finish line behind everyone else.