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It all ended in Oostmalle, though it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
On a riotously sunny Sunday at the end of February, 2014, the temperature pushing 60 degrees, Niels Albert won his last race. It had been a long, hard season for the 28 year-old two-time world champion, one that produced a handful of important wins — notably at World Cups in Koksijde and Rome — but far fewer than he was accustomed to and neither a major series title or championship.
Belgian winters are long and dark, chilly and damp, and when the weather breaks and the sunlight pours out, golden and warm, it is as if someone has lifted a cold, heavy blanket from the countryside. That’s how it was that day in Oostmalle.
And, just a week after watching his last hope for a major series title evaporate, thanks to a poor result at the final Superprestige race in Middelkerke, Belgium, you could almost feel the sigh of relief Albert breathed on the start line as well. Lining up for the last race of a disappointing, stressful season, Albert looked relaxed and comfortable in a short-sleeve skinsuit unzipped to the chest. You could definitely see the sigh of relief he breathed at the finish, his arms outstretched, head back, taking his sixth career win on the sandy course that was something of his specialty. One last victory to cap a season of struggle.
Who could have guessed then that the struggle was so far from over?
Less than three months later, in a tearful press conference, Albert announced he would leave the sport immediately.
In a hastily announced press conference, Albert read a prepared statement. Haltingly, his voice wavering, he said, “Much sooner than I myself had expected and, particularly, than I had wished, I am today, for health reasons, forced to say goodbye to my professional cycling career.
“During a routine check it was discovered that I have a heart arrhythmia, and further research has shown that this problem could become fatal in extreme exertion, with a cardiac arrest as the result.”
Albert took the summer off, attracted a little bit of media attention when he went to Rock Werchter and Tomorrowland — two big Belgian music festivals — but more or less disappeared from public view.
Then, in September, he was back. Albert signed on as sport director at Vastgoed Service-Golden Palace, a new team and the new home of then reigning under-23 world champion Wout Van Aert.
Under Albert’s tutelage, Van Aert emerged as a major force in cyclocross, taking a controversial win over Sven Nys at Koppenbergcross in early November 2014, and following it up with a resounding World Cup win on the sand dunes of Koksijde a few weeks later. On the finish line there, Van Aert hopped of his bike, took a couple of running steps, and hopped back on. The gesture, he told reporters, honored the two men to win a world championship in Koksijde, Paul Herygers and Van Aert’s sport director, Niels Albert.
“I live in the same town as Paul Herygers who did it the first time in 1994, and last year Niels [Albert] did the same,” said Van Aert. “[Niels] asked me to do something special, and the last two laps I was thinking, ‘Something special, something special, I have to do something the people can see, I’ll do it for him.’ And I think it was beautiful to cross the finish line like that.”
It was, in some sense, Albert’s first real triumph in his new role, forging a bond of trust with the team’s young star, and coaching him to a major victory on a course that once all but belonged to Albert himself.
Now, a year later, Van Aert has emerged as a nearly unstoppable force, beaten only a handful of times this year, and earning what is sure to be the first of many Belgian national titles. And Albert has emerged as a successful coach and mentor, finding, he says now, real satisfaction in his new work after the turbulent — but not unsuccessful — season that saw his transformation.
“It’s now my second year as team leader,” says Albert, who is now a few pounds heavier than he was at his peak, but still flashes the same dashing, boyish smile as he always did when he talks about racing. “The first year was a little bit like finding my way, the situation was all new. Now I’m a little bit more used to making some comments and sometimes to make myself angry [to help fire up] the boys.
“I wanted to try to do this after my career, but my career stopped too early. For me it was brand new. I didn’t expect to have to do it at this age. I wanted first to try it, and I asked Geert [Vanhoof] — the chief of the team — I asked him last year, ‘Okay, I want to try it, I don’t know if I’ll have a good feeling or the self-confidence to give the right information to the guys.’ I had to learn also, and the first year was a little bit of learning everything, but now I’m coming into the position and I like it.”
On race days, Albert helps the riders on his team — now a mashup team called Crelan-Vastgoedservice, sporting a combination green-orange kit that must be the single ugliest in the sport — with mental preparation and pre-race strategy. He also runs a team workout midweek.
“Before the race I try to get the riders together with a WhatsApp group, on the iPhones, and I say to all the riders, ‘Okay, think about that, think about this. You see here a picture of the track, this is a little bit difficult, here are stones, here is a big gap for a crash or something,’” he tells VeloNews. “That’s how I always give the right information to the guys. For the moment it’s a good situation that works. But I give it to all the riders. I don’t pull Wout before the rest, as we say in Flemish. All the riders are the same for me. But we do some great results with Wout now and it’s good for the team, and we’re quite happy.”
Though his experience and skill at analyzing the dynamics of a course have clearly paid off for the riders, he plays down the significance of his part in their success and in Van Aert’s in particular.
“Wout has a good team from trainers and massage guys, but I think I make a little bit the difference to give him trust and self confidence,” says Albert. “I [want to] give him the right information before the race. Maybe it’s five percent to bring him to the victory, but that five percent is enough.”
In some sense, Albert’s success as a sport director might be linked both to his unique combination of youth and experience. Other teams employ former racers as well — three-time world champion Mario De Clercq announced this month that he will retire as sport director of Belgium’s recently rechristened Marlux-Napoleongames squad after nearly a decade in that role — but Albert is not only a champion, but a peer. Until barely more than a year ago, he shared the course with the same riders he now directs. As a result, the level of trust and camaraderie he has fostered, along with his still-acute awareness of what life as a young rider is like, has lifted up the team.
Still, Albert is modest about his importance.
“I want not to take the results as my own,” he says. “They have some individual trainers and [my job is] to make them happy and have a good feeling on Wednesday on the training, and to give them self-confidence on the trainings. And to push them to the limit, but on Tuesday and Thursday, when they have to train long rides on the road, then they’re alone. I’m just a piece of the victory.”
And in spite of his team’s success, Albert says he still feels a familiar ache when he watches a race, a deep sense that, in spite of his good fortune to have caught his heart problem before it put his life at risk, something fundamental was lost, a piece of his identity that can never be put back in place.
“Sometimes it’s difficult,” Albert admits. “Sometimes I watch to the riders and to the track, and I say, ‘Shit. It’s bad luck, it’s quite stupid that I’m over here now and not racing.’ It’s shit, but it is what it is.”
It is a strange, contradictory feeling. Life is good. On the one hand, he is successful in work and will probably live to an old age, spared a terrible fate by a chance medical exam. On the other, he is surely not the same man he was just 18 months ago.
Nonetheless, taking the long view, he does not deny his overall good fortune.
“I have a problem with my heart, but I don’t have pain or anything,” he said. “I don’t feel anything. And that’s strange. I have a problem that I don’t feel, and sometimes it’s hard to understand. But after everything, my life is in a good situation. I have a new girlfriend. I have a good bike shop. The team results are very good. The guys are accepting me and have some respect for me. And that’s why I’m doing this for the guys. When the guys are happy, then it’s okay.”
In addition to the team, there is that bike shop in his hometown, Tremolo, just a couple of kilometers down the road from the site of his one-time top rival, Sven Nys’s, namesake race in nearby Baal. Albert spends most days when he’s not racing there, puttering with the bikes, chatting with fans who come to visit the former champion. Signing the occasional autograph.
“The bike shop is,” he starts to explain, then pauses and rethinks. “It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s a good investment. Normally I’m right there the whole week long when I’m not at the races [or] at the [team] training. On Monday, Tuesday, Friday — Saturday when it’s not a race — then I’m in the shop. So, yeah, people come in and ask to take a picture or to get my advice and, yeah, we sell a bike.”
You talk to Niels Albert, and you get him started talking about the bikes, and you immediately see why he was so successful as a rider, how he wears his love for the sport — and for the bike itself — on his rainbow-striped sleeve. You see why he seemed to be having so much fun in a goofy old-timer’s race earlier this season, a non-battle between five retired former world champions: Albert, Bart Wellens, Erwin Vervecken, Paul Herygers, and Danny De Bie to raise money for charity. It is his pure love for the sport.
He was not always the fastest or the most skillful, but he won because he loved what he was doing so much that he could turn himself inside out to take a victory. And maybe, somewhere along the way, he went a little to far, pushed a little beyond the limit when he should have been resting, and it cost him almost everything.
He is glad, he’ll tell you, to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But he knows what he lost and won’t pretend otherwise. If you’re in Belgium, you can drive down a narrow main street of the little village of Tremolo, and you’ll find the Niels Albert Bike Shop. Go in and you can ask him yourself.
“I feel [fortunate], but sometimes I’m feeling unlucky,” he’ll tell you. “If I were 33 years old or something, then I’d say, ‘Okay, bad luck, but I’m going on.’ But now it’s three or four years too early to stop. And that’s quite unlucky. But I’m happy with the victories of the team, and for me it’s okay.”
And that little contradictory reply, you’ll know, is the truth. It exactly sums up the strange dichotomy that is his new life. You take the good and the bad and you do what you can with it. At your best, maybe you win a bike race, maybe a big one. And you can celebrate that.
Another day, you take a breath, glad you’re still there to do it, take a picture and, if you’re lucky, you sell a bike. You miss the racing, you know there was more you wanted to do, but you can celebrate that too.