Unsung heroes: Bart Lemmen on his journey from the platoon to the peloton

He left the Dutch Air Force last year to turn professional with Human Powered Health: 'My road to being a professional cyclist is so very uncommon.'

Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Until December last year, Bart Lemmen was working full-time as a platoon commander with the Dutch air force.

The 27-year-old’s journey to becoming a professional cyclist has been almost as swift as the airplanes at the base he used to work at.

After three years of balancing his military training and his budding passion for racing, plus a season all but eliminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lemmen showed his potential with ninth at the 2021 Dutch time trial championships, less than two minutes behind the winner Tom Dumoulin.

A year and a half later, Lemmen was stepping into the professional ranks with Human Powered Health after being persuaded to get in contact with the team by fellow Dutch rider Nina Buijsman, who was a member of the women’s team and had previously ridden for Lemmen’s club.

“It all feels very normal already, but if you realize it’s also very weird,” Lemmen told Velo. “Being a professional cyclist is a lifelong dream that I didn’t always know I had.”

Also read:

Lemmen only joined his first cycling club in 2017, aged 21 — the same age that Tadej Pogačar had already won his first Tour de France title — after his girlfriend convinced him to join. They had been going out on regular rides before that, but it was much more casual.

After spending much of his 2018 injured, as well as going through his military training, Lemmen finally competed in his first UCI event in September that year. The following year was still dominated by his studies, and when Lemmen was finally able to make some time to race more seriously, the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to the entire calendar.

With a more structured work schedule in 2021, Lemmen was able to put more time into training and he took eighth at the TT nationals, finishing amongst some top Dutch names in the process. By this point, he was already 25 and turning professional seemed like a possibility that had already passed him.

“My road to being a professional cyclist is so very uncommon. It really looks like you only can become a pro cyclist if you’re a very young rider, very talented and you get picked up by the development teams of the WorldTour teams or Pro Continental teams, if you have one in your home country,” he said. “In the Netherlands, we have none. We used to have Vacansoleil and Roompot, but they don’t exist anymore.

“Since I started cycling, at the age of not being under 23 anymore, there was no opportunity for me in that way. I could only get pro with very good results, and that’s very hard to get those results. I realized that it’s not only the result that your get, but also the story behind it.”

After getting his top-10 finish at the Dutch TT champs, Lemmen continued to impress. The following season, he took part in the Volta Limburg Classic — a 1.1 race and the biggest event he’d ever ridden — and finished 10th in a group that contained Philippe Gilbert.

What the results didn’t show was that he’d spend the five days before the race working in Germany with little time to train. As he was improving in his racing, he still had to balance it with a very demanding job.

Life in the Air Force

While cycling became Lemmen’s new passion in his 20s, his first dream was to join the military. Being in the Air Force was something of a family business and he was drawn to it from a young age.

“I cannot even remember not wanting to be in the military,” Lemmen said. “My grandfather was an Air Force officer and his brother also. I think unconsciously that maybe pushed me that way. I remember being in high school, and people thinking about what they wanted to do, and I never knew really clearly what I wanted to do. But for sure I wanted to do something very real.

“Being in the military is quite like you more, more or less, I think that’s what I wanted to do. With its camaraderie, and awesome military infrastructure, the F16s, or tanks or whatever, it’s just a badass.”

Lemmen took a gap year after he finished school and began his military training when he was 19, which involved studying international law, as well as military operations and logistics.

When he graduated, he became the commander of a platoon responsible for security at the airbase he was stationed. It was a steep learning curve as he had to look after around 50 people, many of whom were older and more experienced than he was.

However, it was an experience that taught him a lot.

“I was very young. I was 22 or 23 when I started. And then you’re the boss of 50 men, who are not 23, well not all of them. You’re very new and you have no experience at all, but still, you’re the boss. And there are guys working there already for 10 or 12 years. It was very hard to make yourself comfortable, but also show still show leadership, and be humble,” Lemmen said.

“It was also a very rewarding job. You see yourself developing in that position, but you can also see other people developing. For example, when I first got there, somebody told me there is this sergeant and he’s not doing well, you should look at him and maybe he needs to be fired. I knew he had been the platoon commander before, so maybe it is like that. But then I found out it was not.

“He was not doing very well, but it was not his fault. It was because of other guys making it very hard for him to perform well, it was like bullying, almost. If you see that, then you can help and get him in a position where he can actually excel. That was very nice and very rewarding to see.”

After several years of balancing his burgeoning passion for cycling with his military career, Lemmen finally left the Air Force at the end of 2022.

While he misses the people he used to work with, he doesn’t miss trying to fit in his cycling around a very intensive full-time job and this year, for the first time, he can focus fully on the bike.

“I do think that I can appreciate the downtime a lot more than most of the guys in the peloton do because they’re used to downtime,” Lemmen said. “For me, bike racing has always been a very stressful activity. Last year, when I did a stage race, I came back at 10 p.m. at home and I needed to unpack everything to go to the airbase the next day for a couple of days. And I was in the car at 6:30 in the morning, while the rest of the peloton got back, put their suitcase in the corner, and went to bed or sat on the couch with their girlfriends and the day after, they will unpack the suitcase, and do the recovery ride, and I was at work.

“I had not been at work for a week and the workload was up through the roof. So, it was 9 a.m. and I was already stressed out to the fullest. It was always on the Monday morning I realized, dammit, the whole fucking peloton is recovering right now and I’m through the roof already and not recovering at all. All those frustrating moments, I don’t miss it all.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.