Rest and recovery are paramount to professional cyclists, especially in the days before the Tour de France. The likes of Chris Froome and Peter Sagan were probably horizontal, having a nap or doing as little as possible.
Not Frederik Backaert: on Tuesday evening, he was milking cows and cleaning machinery for three hours. The next day, he headed to Düsseldorf to make his Tour de France debut.
The 27-year-old is a full-time professional cyclist for Wanty-Groupe Gobert and a part-time farmer on his family’s 95-acre plot in the Belgian town of Brakel. They make their own dairy products and grow their own crops. Morning is for training; sometimes, he will spend the late afternoon milking their 90 cows, cleaning machinery or ploughing fields.
“My family knows I’m going to do the Tour and have to be fit, so it’s not like working all day long,” he says. “But it’s fun work. Mentally, you clear your mind; physically, it’s something different. Better than lying around on the couch all day.”
“I don’t see it as work, it’s just two hobbies. It’s good if you can make your hobbies your passion and your passion your work,” Backaert says. “I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life: not on the bike at least, sometimes in the farm though.”
This is unusual in the 21st century, but agriculture is integral to Flanders and cycling has long had connections to salt-of-the-earth types. Tour de France contender Nairo Quintana hails from farming stock, while Bernard Thévenet, Sean Kelly and Raymond Poulidor are among the most illustrious riders who grew up on one before finding success on two wheels.
Backaert has been accustomed to helping out his parents and uncle since childhood. At the age of 18, he did a three-year college course on biotechnology. “Most cyclists don’t go to higher education. That was a problem too: I had that and the farm. At the time, I was especially busy building extra stables, we did most of it ourselves. So, between the ages of 18 and 21, I didn’t have a lot of time to train. it was mostly in the evening for an hour in the dark, with lights.”
“I didn’t go so well because of that. At one point, when I was 22 years old [in 2012], I was thinking of quitting cycling. Then my last year as an under-23, the stables were made so I had more time. I started training a lot more and the improvement came.”
Subsequently, Backaert turned pro at the age of 23 with the Professional Continental team Wanty-Groupe Gobert ahead of the 2014 season.
Flanders over France
He grew up a stone’s throw from the foot of the Berendries, a climb used in several top Belgian one-day races. Like most kids from Flanders, Backaert dreamed of winning De Ronde, not the maillot jaune. “We don’t care about the Tour,” he says, laughing. “Everyone is amazed at that, but Peter van Petegem was from Brakel – our biggest Classics rider, the only one, more or less.”
The Tour’s doping affairs also put him off the sport’s most prestigious event. “If you look at the list of the last 20 years: Ullrich, Armstrong, you name them… all the scandals with EPO around 2007. I just thought: stick to the Classics. And to be honest, there was also doping there in the past. But for long races like the Tour de France, EPO makes a lot bigger difference than one-day races. But things have changed a lot with the blood passport. Ever since it came in, they don’t risk a lot anymore.”
The tall, skinny Backaert has developed into a handy one-day racer. He won a stage of the 2016 Tour of Austria, was runner-up at this year’s Tro-Bro Léon and finished 11th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
But as his Instagram feed confirms, he doesn’t shirk his shifts on the farm, even following his favourite races of the year. “After the Classics, there’s a lot of work to do. That period is the busiest of the year because everything needs to be sown, cultivated and fertilised.”
“We harvest our crops in October, right after the season. Most pro cyclists go to the beach for three weeks; I stay in the farm, working full gas.”
Wanty-Groupe Gobert, wild card underdogs
With his agricultural background and shock of ginger hair, Frederik Backaert stands out as an underdog on a Tour de France team full of them. Wanty-Groupe Gobert will be the minnows of the peloton this July. Their approximate budget of €4.5 million is one of the lowest in the race, roughly eight times smaller than that of Team Sky.
Backaert was surprised when the race organisers gave their second-tier outfit a wild card berth in January. “A guy from the team posted a message on our WhatsApp group chat: ‘Oh guys, we’re going to the Tour.’ I couldn’t really believe it,” Backaert recalls, adding: “It was a screenshot, so it couldn’t be a joke.”
This is the team’s first Grand Tour and the entire nine-man roster has never raced a Tour de France before. “Everyone is scared and excited. I think I am more scared than excited,” he says.
The most recognisable names in the squad are former WorldTour cyclists Yoann Offredo and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck. The young Frenchman Guillaume Martin – who is also a playwright, as we discovered in Paul Fournel’s interview with him for issue 17.4 of Rouleur – is their best hope in the general classification.
Backaert’s personal goal is reaching Paris and making attacks. Indeed, every Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider is seeking to animate the race with breakaway bids galore.
“Even if we don’t make it to the finish, the sponsors will be happy. I look at it as a Tour of Flanders every day. I guess everyone is watching the Tour,” Backaert says.
That includes his family on the farm in Brakel, who will “probably” down tools to watch the race every afternoon. “That means more work when I come home,” he says with a smile.
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