This interview with Sabrina and Hans De Clerq appeared in the Gazet Van
Antwerpen last week.
"With an average speed of 40.956kms/h the 2003 Tour broke a record. Belgian
Hans De Clercq broke one too; itís not been since Frenchman Jacques Hochart in
1973 that a rider took over 5 hours longer than the winner to arrive in Paris."
Hans De Clerq. Courtesy Lotto Domo.
how it was written in the newspapers Monday the 28th of July. The "lanterne
rouge" of the GC was a kermesse rider till he was 31, riding on teams like
Naessens and Palmans. Today, De Clercq is a domestique for Robbie McEwen on the
Lotto-Domo team, and since people always sympathize with the underdog, Hans was
welcomed like a hero in his hometown Knesselaere. After that, the TV shows
followed. It almost looked like Belgium finally had a new Tour winner! "At
first, he wasnít too proud of it", his wife Sabrina says, "but after a while he
was surprised how many pleasant effects it brought along. 'The worse I ride, the
more interviews IĎve got to give' he told me, bewildered."
Hans De Clercq must almost be the anti-Lance when it comes to being
available, and heís always willing for a friendly chat. "When he goes to the
bakerís, a mere 300 metres away, he sometimes stays away for over an hour."
While Hans was pulling through in the Tour, Sabrina painted the hall, kitchen
and living room in the colour "French stone", a proof that her thoughts were
always with him. The couple will be celebrating their tenth wedding anniversary
on the 15th of October and have an 8-year old daughter, Bieke, who seems to be
even more worn out from the Tour than her father is. Itís already noon when we
ring the doorbell, and Bieke is still sleeping. Turns out that she wanted to
watch the tour special til 11.30 every night, just so she didnít have to miss a
single thing about her daddy.
Gazet Van Antwerpen: How many Tours has Hans ridden so far?
Sabrina: Only two. Last year he made his debut. Heís ridden in smaller
teams for a long time, until he unexpectedly got offered the chance to ride in a
bigger team (Lotto). People may be laughing now, but Hans has already finished
the Tour twice now. The word "quitting" isnít in his vocabulary.
GVA: What spot did he end on last year?
Sabrina: 145th, 2 places better than this year. There was a rider
at 148th for a long time this year, but after a while he abandoned.
GVA: Flanders was incredibly supportive of its "lanterne rouge".
Itís got something sado-masochistic, every night arriving just before the
time limit, knowing that the next morning youíll be facing the same misery, no?
Sabrina: 'Hans, our home is decorated as if we were newly weds,' I told
him over the telephone. The people from Knesselaere even made their own songs
for him. In three and a half weeks, Iíve seldom felt alone. People dropped in
all the time, to keep me company. Bieke, on the other hand, had a harder time
missing her daddy. Sheís at an age when she starts to miss him a lot, but
thankfully he appeared a lot on the TV, being last in the GC.
GVA: Hans (who is on the verge on departing for a training ride), did
"King Lance" say something to you?
Hans: He nodded good morning twice when we both went to sign the race
GVA: Do you have any withdrawal feelings, after some 3000 kms in the
Hans: Withdrawal? From what? This weekend Hamburg is on the schedule.
People have a wrong idea about us, they think that we go on holiday when the
Tour is over, but our season lasts till midway through October. Think youíll
need me for anything else? (Leaves through the back door, a moment later I hear
the sound of a bike riding down the garden path.)
GVA: Sabrina, in his twenties, Hans rode for a minumum wage for a
while. You were forced to get a job as a forklift-truck driver.
Sabrina: When I applied there, they said, 'Oh missy, youíll never last
here longer than a week,' being the slender girl that I was. Three weeks later I
got offered a fulltime contract. Iíve been to over 20 metres high to collect
parts, I took pride in my job. When Hans started making more money I started
working part-time. During the time I worked fulltime he was an exemplary
houseman. Every afternoon there was a warm meal waiting for Bieke. He even
divided his endurance training in half, so he could cook in the afternoon and do
groceries. It wasnít haute cuisine, but Bieke never missed out on anything. If
her gym shoes were broken, her daddy drove to the store to buy her new ones.
During that time when Hans took care of her in between his training and his
racing, they developed a very strong bond. Bieke is more attached to her daddy
than she is to me; which is ok with me, Iíve always been a daddyís girl myself.
GVA: She misses him when heís racing abroad for 3 and a half weeks,
Sabrina: Sheís concerend about him. During the Tour she used to yell
from her playing room, 'Have you seen daddy yet?,' and when I said 'Yeah,' she
played on, set at ease. She sees him suffer on the bike too, eh. If heís gone by
plane he always brings her gifts. Like with the Tour of Switzerland, he brought
her a jumping stick. Half the riders leave the plane with a huge cardboard box
under their arms, packed with presents for their kids. You can make as much
money as you want, but on those occasions you see what the real motivations of
those riders are.
GVA: Did Hans ever consider taking up work in contruction again in
that period where you were having difficulties to make ends meet?
Sabrina: He was just about to end his career when he got that offer
from Lotto. Never say never in life. Even if weíre more financially secure now,
weíre still very aware of our money spending. I always buy my clothes on sales,
GVA: Youíre still modestly housed as well. I would think that there
are very few 34-yr old pro riders who live in a simple workmanís house in the
shade of their villageís church tower.
Sabrina: Now heís at Lotto-Domo thereís a chance weíll move someday,
even though thereís no reason why we should. Weíve got great neighbours and
weíre in walking distance of all the stores. In his former teams there were
loads of riders who didnít make a decent living, but only a few dared to admit
that. That idea of trying to appear grander than you are is a common thing in
cycling, Iíve found. I think itís a pity. That way people will continue to think
that all cyclists make heaps of money.
GVA: Was Hans already a cyclist when you met?
Sabrina: We met at a club. Hans didnít like to make an entry with the
fact that he was a cyclist. If I asked him what he did for a living, he told me
he was in the construction business. It took a month or so before I knew I was
dating a cyclist! When we decided to move in with each other, Hans had just
decided to quit. He had already sold all his equipment, because he didnít find a
team. 'Iíve had my chance,' he said. And right after he had sold his stuff, the
phone rang and he got offered a pro contract.
GVA: Is Hans a different person when he falls back in his family life
after living in a cycling routine for over 3 and a half weeks?
Sabrina: No, I reckon Hans has been through too much to let a Tour
bring him out of his balance. His father had been sick for over 10 years, a
heart problem. Hans is a tall, strong man, and so was his father. Heís seen him
wither to a small, weakened man who barely could lift 5 kilos. Hans was only 18
when his father passed away. Heís been a close witness to that .Last year his
mother died unexpectedly, at 66 years of age. She was hospitalized and 2 weeks
later she had passed away. When you go through things like that, you tend to be
more stable in life.
GVA: Has this being a "semi-orphan" changed him?
Sabrina: Heís not easily taken out of balance and has a strong sense
of relativism; heís become very down to earth. He canít call home for advice
when important decisions have to be made. He doesnít care much for material
things anymore either. He lets me design the house the way I want it, it doesnít
matter to him, heís more attached to life as such. Two years ago, his sisterís
child died aged 15, from a heart problem, like Hansí father. That did put him
off his balance for a while. His older brother also has a weak heart, but the
doctors assured us that itís not an heriditary matter. But I had it checked
upon nonetheless when I was pregnant with Bieke.
GVA: Hans De Clercq has no trouble being in the background, it
Sabrina: Not in the least. When Robbie (McEwen) wins, he can come home
and open the door with a big smile, saying, 'Weíve won!' Cycling is much more of a
team sport than many would think. Having said that, heís a bit disappointed with
the fact that Robbie missed the green jersey by a few points. He wanted to get
over the mountains so bad, to be able to work for Robbie in the last few stages.
Robbie McEwen at the conclusion of the Tour. Photo courtesy
GVA: Can he enjoy a good, full plate of fries after a Tour filled with
salads and pasta?
Sabrina: This weekend itís the WC race in Hamburg. I felt like having
mussels for dinner, but Hans said, 'Wait with those mussels a bit, theyíre still
important races to come. Crustaceans make the legs swell.' So now I go eat
mussels with my mother and brother instead.
GVA: Does Hans have many brothers and sisters?
Sabrina: Thereís 5 of them, and theyíre all equally crazy about
cycling. When we were only just together, I felt they were a bit afraid that I
wouldnít support him enough in his career because cycling doesnít really
interest me. If Hans is not riding, I wonít watch a race on TV. But by now
theyíve seen that I motivate him enough. Heís very sorry that his mother, his
biggest supporter, didnít live to see him finish the Tour. Sheíd already passed
away when he got to ride it for the first time last year.
GVA: Does a pro rider have time for other things, outside racing? They
seem a bit trade fanatics to me.
Sabrina: Hans enjoys the small things in life, like going out in the
evening for a croque monsieur or a spaghetti in the village. Sometimes he comes
home from training and asks, 'Think weíll go for a drink in the bar?' Or like
Friday, just before he was off for Hamburg, drinking a good glass of wine
together and really enjoying it. Those are our savoured moments.
GVA: Your husband broke his knee three months ago. Itís almost a
miracle heís gotten over all those cols!
Sabrina: Exactly, thatís what I think too! On a moment like that
youíre living a bit in doubt. I had to think of Wilfried Nelissen whose career
was ended because of such a fracture. Wilfriedís knee was shattered, Hansí was
a clean break, thank god. Thatís what I told myself to keep my spirits high.
Luckily Hans isnít the whining type, heís always good-humoured.
GVA: If you open the door, you look straight onto the saying "to want
to is to can", attached to the facade of the marching bandís clubhouse on the
other side of the street. It couldíve been Hansí motto.
Sabrina: Hans sometimes says that he doesnít have much talent. But he
has his courage and focus to train; he follows his schedules to the minute, heís
no slacker. Sometimes he runs into an acquainted rider on his training trips,
but he doesnít accompany them, because he dutifully wants make his own
GVA: He was standing here in his cycling outfit a while ago, itís
kinda dorky if you think of it, eh?
Sabrina: Yeah! (laughs) At the start of every season I have to get
used to all the new colours in the peloton. 'Now youíre another kind of clown
again,' I yell to him then. Iím one of those cycling wives that mixes the pulls
with the long sleeves with those with the short sleeves. Or the wrong shorts
with the wrong leg pieces. 'Youíll never learn it,' Hans says, 'but Iím thankful
you put them in my closetÖ'
Source: Gazet Van Antwerpen, www.gva.be, and
thanks to Jans Janssen.
Visit Hans' website
here, and the Lotto Domo team site