Forever on the front: Meet Tim Declercq, one of the world’s best domestiques

You have determined his face, his grimace, his impressive presence at the front of many of the Spring Classics and Grand Tours. He is the rider who does his work in view of the world but always finishes his races in the peloton, or behind. He doesn’t get champagne showers on the pulpit or winner’s interviews on international Tv. But without Tim Declercq, many wins for the likes of Sam Bennett or Julian Alaphilippe would not have happened.

“That face I stimulate is my focus face, ” Declercq says with an audible smile when I asked about about his world-famous grimace. “I establish the same face when I play Age of Empires at home. It’s how I gaze when concentrated.”

Tim Declercq was a promising junior and U23 rider. He even became Belgian champ in the U23 category 10 year ago. In the same peloton that day in Geel we find identifies like Edward Theuns, Tim Wellens, Tim Merlier and Yves Lampaert. That championship earned Declercq a contract with Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise where he stood until 2017- the year he joined Patrick Lefevere’s QuickStep team.

“I won races in the younger categories but when I joined the professional grades, I noticed[ I’m missing] the explosive style of racing needed ,” he says.” In the finals of the races, especially the long and demanding ones, I did well but in the short ones I missed that explosive kicking. Testing confirmed this and that’s how I started focusing on being a support rider.

” My dream was to the working day has become a domestique in a WorldTour team. Yves[ Lampaert] told me back in 2016 that QuickStep might be interested. I was bold enough to send Patrick an email and got an invitation to test.”

Declercq in action at the 2021 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

From that time Declercq became one of the most-filmed equestrians in cycling with endless hours expend journeying at the front of the peloton. His nickname soon became’ El Tractor’ (‘ The Tractor ‘). It seems like a relaxed job without too much pressure but the real hard work is usually done before we turn on the TV. By way of context, Declercq clarifies one of the most important periods of the season for Deceuninck-QuickStep: the Tour of Flanders.

“Most equestrians start a race like Flanders rather relaxed ,” he says.” They dress up with extra strata but not me because my work starts straight from the start of the race. I need to be ready right away because it’s full gas from kilometre zero.

” It’s my job to check which riders try to get in a breakaway. I know most of the equestrians of the peloton and can establish the judgement whether someone is a threat or not by myself. There are usually many strikes happening and no time to confer with the athletics director in the team car.”

Apart from the team meeting the darknes before, government decisions on who to let go clear on the day falls on Declercq. It’s that kind of experience that can’t be measured in makes on ProCyclingStats or in UCI points.

“So far I have been spot-on in my judgments, knock on wood, ” he titters. “Flanders is a tough race so it’s important to keep the breakaway within reigns. It’s important to see who is in it but also which teams. Are there teams left to help with the chase or do they have someone at the front and therefore won’t help? Doing it all alone like sometimes happens in the Tour de France is quite pain .”

‘El Tractor’ resulting the peloton at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2021.

“It’s likewise my job to keep the team commanders at the front and out of high winds ,” he says.” It’s ever busy at the front in Flanders. Position is key. Every corner and every mound is like a bunch sprint again. Luckily, I have some respect in the peloton and manage to position the team leaders well. I usually lose many stances before the ascents and then have to catch back on. And recur. That’s why I generally don’t last-place that long in Flanders .”

“Tim is a hugely important rider for the team, ” says his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Yves Lampaert. “He controls the race from the start and deters on travelling deep into the finals, or even an entire Grand Tour long. Every day again! This space he saves the team so much energy. It’s something that many people underestimate. Many think they can do what Tim does. Plus Tim is a great presence at the dinner table. That’s important too! ”

“It feels good to be appreciated, ” Declercq says. “Some people would ask me:’ where are you in the race ?’ but being appreciated isn’t my objective. Team commanders prove their gratitude. Sometimes we get talents[ Lampaert made him a lawnmower when he became national champion in 2018- ed .] but it doesn’t have to be a gift. A thank you, a few terms are enough, both after wins and after losses too.”

Lampaert and Declercq both hail from the province of West Flanders. Together with East Flanders it’s the heartland of Belgian cycling. The normal order of a pro cyclist’s life is that an uncle, father, brother, grandfather or cousin journeys and then the young generation joins, but Tim and his brother Benjamin- a equestrian with Arkea-Samsic- are the first pro cyclists in the family.

“No one in the family races but my dad was a big fan of Johan Museeuw ,” he says.” I played football but it was soon clear that I wasn’t a Cristiano Ronaldo. I tried a race bicycle and that went really well. My brother did too and now we are the only ones in the family racing and even at pro level too.”

Tim Declercq is not a winner but he is instrumental in winning. In the Tour de France of 2020 he was part of wins by Julian Alaphilippe and the stage wins and light-green jersey of Sam Bennett. The design is to return to the Tour de France again this year.

“Those wins construct me happy for my teammates ,” Declercq says.” Specially with Sam you could see that it define him free. My vision is that I have to do what I am good at. Of track, it would be great to win a race the working day but all the articles of the puzzle must be right. Last-place year this almost had occurred in Bruges-De Panne[ Declercq was second behind Lampaert- ed ]. My career doesn’t need a win is efficient though. I am content as it is. I am grateful to be a helper and think I have grown in this role over the years.”

Tim Declercq second in Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne 2020 behind teammate Yves Lampaert

Declercq also knows that within Deceuninck-QuickStep there won’t be an opportunity to pursue his own success. But he is happy in the team. “Never say never[ about joining another squad] but if Patrick and I achieve agreement I don’t meet a reason to leave ,” he says.” It’s not that I feel like I are likely to be winning races when I journey for another team.”

Declercq has already been through a lot within the Belgian team with the crashes of Remco Evenepoel in Il Lombardia and the life-threatening crash of Fabio Jakobsen in the Tour of Poland a few weeks before. He wasn’t part of the team those periods but the events altered all the team’s equestrians and staff.

“Fabio’s crash had a huge impact on all of us and developed a strong bond within the team, ” Declercq clarifies.” We actually went through it as a crew. Each time I read him, I am happy he is still with us. The team has a great psychologist who is also at the races. It’s not mandatory but he is there when you need him .”

Declercq in action at the 2020 Tour de France.

In July 2020 Declercq and his wife Tracey welcomed their first child into the world.” Meet newborn Marilou ,” he wrote on Instagram at the time.” Becoming a parent made the biggest impression on me .”

Declercq is hopeful that his daughter will likewise” do athletics” when she grows up.

” My wife Tracey is an athlete so passing be possible ,” he says.” Two daughters can race[ bicycles] if she wants too as well but it’s a dangerous athletic. I am not a fearless rider. I am a philosopher and interpret the jeopardy before me. That’s always been the case. Especially on fast descents I just wanted to take “peoples lives” in my own hands and not depend on others but it’s also something you have to let go and avoid the panic or you simply can’t race.”

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Declercq’s next aim is the Tour de France. He was supposed to join Fabio Jakobsen in the Tour of the Algarve but Declercq broke his hand during a mountain bike ride at home. He now wears a 3D strut and is able to train in the Belgian Ardennes.

“I ride my Roubaix bike with extra wide tires for extra consolation and it goes well ,” he says.” I leave for an altitude camp soon and the first days are always a bit more easy-going with low-grade intensity so that are beneficial now .”

After the Tour de France, the Road World Championships will be held in Declercq’s home country. He hopes to be part of the Belgian team again but the tournament for the available places is always fierce. Harrogate 2019 was the only time he got the call from the national coach.

“My dream is to win a world-wide championship but it’s absolutely not realistic, ” he concludes. “Representing Belgium in September in Leuven would be a dream in itself. I hope to be there because that’s about to become a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

If he’s there, you can bet he’ll spend a bunch of occasion on the front of the bunch, that famous grimace inscribed on his face, riding in support of his higher-profile teammates.

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