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At just 19 years old, Cian Uijtdebroeks just became the youngest Tour de l’Avenir winner in history. The race where U23 riders get a chance to shine and find that pro contract has proven to be the perfect stepping stone for rising stars. In recent years Tadej Pogačar and Egan Bernal won the Tour de l’Avenir and went on to become Grand Tour winners. Could Uijtdebroeks join them on that path?
Uijtdebroeks is already the next best thing in Belgium, following in the footsteps of Remco Evenepoel. Like Evenepoel, Uijtdebroeks signed a long-term pro contract straight from the juniors, skipping the U23 ranks. But don’t compare him to his older compatriot. Uijtdebroeks is Uijtdebroeks. He will find his own pace, his own path, and who knows whether the outcome will be the same.
The first time I heard about this young rider was when he was dubbed “the new Evenepoel” who, in turn, is “the new Merckx”. Uijtdebroeks won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Juniors as a first-year U19 with a long solo. From that moment – or perhaps even before that race – WorldTour teams were after him. He decided to join Bora-Hansgrohe, deliberately opting not to join a Belgian team and take on the pressure that comes with being “the next Merckx”.
Uijtdebroeks is not from a typical cycling family. In fact, he accidentally came into contact with the sport. He hails from a region called Haspengouw on the border between Flanders and Wallonia. The small village of Abolens only has a few hundred inhabitants and not a lot of activities for young kids to do apart from spending time outdoors and on the many farms. That’s exactly what young Cian did. He loved spending time on a nearby farm, tending to the animals or riding on the tractor with the farmer. His first sport was horse riding. And then one day a couple of friends challenged him to race his bike.
“I started following bike racing on TV when two of my friends asked me to come ride with them,” Uijtdebroeks tells CyclingTips. “I saw those climbers on the mountains and was so impressed. I was a big fan of Chris Froome. The Tour of Flanders didn’t really capture my imagination but the Tour de France did. That’s why I joined my friends at the cycling club, to pretend we were cyclists too,” he adds with a smile.
His first Belgian title came in the U17 category when he was riding with a club team in Charleroi. Then he was scouted by Balen BC / Acrog Tormans, one of the biggest junior teams in Belgium.
It was clear from the start of his junior years – years which were seriously hampered by the lack of racing due to the COVID pandemic – that Uijtdebroeks was a pure climber despite the fact the hills around his home are small. It was no coincidence that his biggest display of power to date came in the Classique des Alpes Juniors in 2021 which he won with a margin of 4:46 over Luis-Joe Lührs and Lenny Martinez, both WorldTour riders in 2023.
“I have always loved the mountains,” Uijtdebroeks says from his home gym in Belgium. “I remember the first time I did a real big climb in 2016. We were on holiday in Spain. First, my parents and I had travelled to the south where we did a lot of historical stuff and museums, but on the way back, upon my request, we went to Andorra. Accidentally it was also the day of the Tour de France [stage 9] where Tom Dumoulin won.
“I had brought my small aluminum bike but wanted nothing more than to ride to Arcalis too. My dad followed me in the car. I did that in the rain and the hail like the pros but loved it.”
When he did that climb in 2016 Uijtdebroeks was 13 years old and not yet the 6’2″ (188 cm) he is now, but the joy he felt that day climbing a big mountain still shines through in his words and even more his eyes. Uijtdebroeks loves what he does.
That passion is one of the reasons Bora-Hansgrohe offered him a contract. After his powerful display in the junior ranks almost all the WorldTour teams made him an offer but Uijtdebroeks chose a long-term, three-year contract with the German team.
“My first impression when seeing Cian is that he is so fascinated and passionate about cycling,” says coach Dan Lorang. “He wants to do everything to do this sport as a profession. Immediately I recognized it’s important for him to be really close to someone he can trust.
“From the first day on I felt we could have a good relation. He already has a lot of knowledge in training and nutrition. He is living the sport. He is clever and open-minded and willing to learn. Some young riders are successful and think they know it all already.”
Uijtdebroeks’s first year with the German team is all about discovery. He’s had a balanced program of races without any WorldTour stage races. Lorang and the team have a multi-year plan for his development.
“We try to develop a rider mentally and physically for a long career,” Lorang says. “We have a step-by-step build-up in training and the races we send him to. We are not firing on all cylinders in year one but we give more and more input year by year.
“We give him the opportunity to discover what kind of rider he is. So, we didn’t only look at his metabolic profile and say: ‘OK, you are this kind of rider.’ We will let him ride different races, explore and get experiences and then build him up to a one-week or three-week rider with some classics.
“In a multi-year plan, it’s not a fixed plan. It’s open and it’s also based on his own wishes and development. And it’s not only physical but also mentally.”
Uijtdebroeks’s first stage race in 2022 was the Saudi Tour in February. It was not a great success.
“I had a tough period mentally in the Saudi Tour,” the young Belgian explains. “It was echelons all the time, no climbs, and aggressive racing. It was not my thing. On the last day I caught salmonella and then COVID on the flight home that really took me out for a few weeks.”
The illnesses weren’t part of the plan, but taking Uijtdebroeks to a race that didn’t suit him was done deliberately by Lorang and Bora-Hansgrohe.
“These young talented riders are used to winning or to being successful but they have to learn about defeat too,” Lorang explains. “A race like the Saudi Tour is not his strength and he had a bad experience but it’s part of the process. He has to do cobbled races too which is hell for him but he has to. That’s why we do that. He can gain that experience. We create room for mistakes so he can learn.”
Uijtdebroeks is not the only rider who’s skipped the U23 ranks in recent years. Lorang sees the pitfalls of this path and is constantly aware of the young age of Uijtdebroeks.
“Mentally these young riders don’t develop as fast as they do physically,” Lorang says. “They are kids becoming adults during that time in our team. They are at a sensitive age. You don’t treat them as full adults but as young men who get experience in sport but also life.
“It’s only one side of the coin that a 19-year-old can push the same watts as a 25-year-old. On the other side he is still a young guy who lacks experience in different domains.”
Lorang explains the entire team is involved in the development of young riders like Uijtdebroeks. It’s a gradual process that the team doesn’t want to rush.
Uijtdebroeks has now almost completed his first season with the German team and already showed his potential in stage races like the Tour of the Alps or the Tour of Norway (eighth overall). He still has two more seasons to go with Bora-Hansgrohe and hasn’t regretted his choice for one second.
“The team gives me a good program to develop and discover,” he says. “I also feel good around Dan. He brings peace and quiet and I trust him completely. When I have doubts, I discuss these with him. Even if he says the contrary to what I felt, I trust his judgment to be the right one.
“One of his ideas was to let me ride all the stage races this year as if I am going for the general classification even though I have no chance of winning that race. I like the space they give me to do these things.”
Uijtdebroeks radiates a clear joy for cycling. Not for a moment has he considered this a job, despite the fact there are expectations. Moderate expectations from the team and big ones from the outside. The last Belgian to win a Grand Tour did so in 1978 so the hunger for a new Grand Tour winner has been growing ever since.
“Yeah, I am more in the spotlights now but for me nothing has really changed since I started in the youth categories,” Uijtdebroeks explains. “The feeling is still the same. I get to ride these big climbs now which we didn’t in the youth races but I still love riding my bike. It’s not a job, it’s not work. I don’t see it like that.
“I do learn now how to deal with the attention and when to say no but I don’t want to make this a circus. I just love bike riding, especially in the mountains. Nothing has really changed there.”
Uijtdebroeks’s eyes light up when he talks about riding up mountains. It was in the Alps that he made the difference in the Tour de l’Avenir – his biggest win to date, ridden with the Belgian national team.
On day seven he won atop the Col de la Madeleine but just missed out on the yellow jersey because of an illegal bottle in the final 10 km. The day after he set things straight on La Toussuire, winning another stage and moving into yellow. On the final day, on the the Col d’Iseran – one of his favorite climbs – Uijtdebroeks took second and secured the overall.
“I didn’t expect to be so much better than the rest,” he says without an ounce of arrogance. “I had hoped for a top five in the general classification or maybe even a podium spot. I had no idea where I would be in this field. I knew the level was high and the racing would be hard every day. This is, after all, a top chance to secure a contract for many riders.
“The first days I had some mechanical issues and I even crashed. At a certain moment I was 1:17 down in the overall and thought to myself: ‘You do need to win that time back somewhere.’ It was a question mark if I could, and up to stage 7 I wasn’t really convinced I could. It was on the Madeleine I noticed I was the best rider uphill and would take that time back.
“It is weird to realize you are that much stronger. On that penultimate [stage] Johannes Staune-Mittet followed me but when I attacked, he got dropped [ed. Irish rider Archie Ryan did stay with Uijtdebroeks]. It was a ‘wow’ moment to me,” he adds with his characteristic smile.
“I didn’t expect this at all but I do think the hardness from racing with the pros helped me here. When a team like Ineos ups the pace, I can’t follow of course but it does make me able to suffer. I still can’t really believe I rode to victory that day in Tour de l’Avenir. Even now, a week later, I find it hard to comprehend.”
Uijtdebroeks’s sense of wonder at his success feels genuine and honest. He is like Charlie in that Chocolate Factory, not fully realizing what fortune he just encountered. Not realizing how good he actually is at riding his bike.
When speaking to the young Belgian I see an ambitious young man who is realistic and completely down-to-earth despite his extraterrestrial talent. He is a bit of a dreamer and sees himself win big races in his imagination. The big difference between him and other dreamers is that he has a good chance of actually winning the biggest of races.
He reminds me of Marianne Vos and her Twitter bio: “Fulltime hobby cyclist”. Like Vos he is grounded and kind-hearted.
“My dream is to become the best climber I can be,” Uijtdebroeks says. “When you wake up and leave for a ride in the mountains when there is still some fog around, it’s so great. I once did a training up the Col d’Iseran four times. Every time you see different things. I also like doing these rides alone and enjoy just being there.
“I am also maybe a bit strange because that day I turned off the music 2 km from the top and imagined I was riding the Iseran in the Tour de France when there were people everywhere cheering me on. In reality there were only some hamsters and rabbits,” he says with a laugh.
It’s contagious to see the love this young man has for such a simple joy like riding his bike. It makes me want to run out and get my bike out of the shed. The difference is that I could probably ride the Iseran once in the same time he does it four times. Plus, there are no big expectations resting on my shoulders, like there are on his in a cycling-mad country like Belgium.
“A lot of things are happening after having won the Tour de l’Avenir but for me nothing changes about the plan,” Uijtdebroeks says. “People already ask me when I will ride a Grand Tour or go to the Tour de France but if it were up to me I won’t until at least 2024. Maybe the team wants me in the Vuelta next year but I’d rather take this too slow than too fast.
“Pogačar didn’t win a Grand Tour the year after Tour de l’Avenir either. We really need to follow the steps and [even] then it’s not certain if I will ever get to that level. I’d rather develop a bit more in the shade first so maybe when Remco [Evenepoel] wins the Vuelta, that’s a good thing for me.”
Talents like Pogačar, Evenepoel or Uijtdebroeks are rare. In all three cases, the potential was very clear early, but the step up from having potential, to finishing top 10 in a Grand Tour is enormous. Actually finishing on the podium or winning a Grand Tour is another thing entirely.
“We just don’t know,” Uijtdebroeks says of his future potential. “Only time has the answer to that question. Personally, I would already find it amazing to win a race like Volta a Catalunya. That means you are already among the best riders in the world. At the moment my training sessions are enough and then we will see how far we can get.
“Of course, I dream of the Giro and the Tour. Those three weeks and the high mountains are ultimate cycling. Yes, I would love to play a role or maybe even win a yellow jersey. That would be the ultimate thing if I really, really dream big.”
Uijtdebroeks’s childhood idol Chris Froome won them all. When he met Froome, it was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory again.
“I saw Froome in the Tour of the Alps and the Coppi e Bartali,” he says. “When you see him ride, you do think: ‘How is it possible I am in the same peloton?’ His palmares is world history but he is also very down-to-earth and kind. When we were racing at the front with our team, the Israel-Premier Tech train came alongside. He gave me a little tap on the shoulder and politely asked me if he could pass me, please. Then I do think: ‘What is happening to me?’ I was very much amazed.”
Uijtdebroeks is still amazed but he will soon find out what many already know: Cian Uijtdebroeks is the real deal. He has a bright future ahead of him with the solid support from the Bora-Hansgrohe team and his parents. He finds joy in riding but also in taking care of farm animals or riding around on a tractor. Somehow, he also manages to find time to study psychology in Brussels.
I ask whether he’s aware that what he’s doing is extraordinary; the trajectory he’s on. “I am just a guy who likes to ride his bike,” he says. “I don’t compare my numbers to someone else’s. I only want to improve myself. That is the plan.
“I love training. When I come to think of it, the most difficult part of the season is still to come. It’s not training but mandatory rest,” he concludes with a laugh.