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Back 2019-03-18

Meet Maikel Zijlaard: Axeon’s Classics Man in the Making

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Grab a cappuccino and stroopwafel and get to know Maikel Zijlaard of Hagens Berman Axeon. The 19-year-old Dutch rider contrasts racing in the United States with the Netherlands. Zijlaard reveals his love of the Spring Classics and gives tips on what it takes to fight for position on narrow Dutch farm roads. If you love the Spring Classics, you’ll enjoy learning more about this friendly and promising pro rider.

All photos © Davey Wilson

Here is an edited transcript of his conversation with Zipp at Hagens Berman Axeon training camp in Arkansas:

Have you raced before in the United States?

I raced the Tour of Utah. That’s the only race I’ve done in America.

How was that?

Oh, it was hard! All the climbing. That was the first time also I was at altitude. I was suffering like a dog, oh! The level (of competition) also was very high.

What did you take away from last year, your first on Hagens Berman Axeon?

I got a lot stronger. With the team, it’s fun to cooperate with every guy on the team. Everybody wants everybody to do the best they can. That’s good.

What are your goals for this year?

Getting stronger again, because I’m only 19 I have to get stronger again. And maybe try to get some results.

Which types of races? the Tour of Utah again?

The Tour of Utah was a really nice experience, but that is not a race for me. I’m more for the classics. I love races like Gent–Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

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Was one of the big adjustments of racing in the United States vs. Europe just the size of the roads?

Oh, yes, it’s so different! The roads are so different. In the peloton, it’s much easier to ride in the United States. In Europe, it’s only fighting (for position).

If you’re racing in the Netherlands or Belgium, how do you move up position or hold position?

Sometimes you’ve got to be aggressive because guys are aggressive to you. If you’re not aggressive to them, they just get your place and you have to start from zero again. Sometimes if it goes really fast, it’s just how fast you can go.

When you say aggressive, what do you mean? Bumping shoulders. What if you are slightly ahead of them, with your handlebars ahead of theirs?

If you have your handlebars ahead of theirs, there is no way you lose a spot.

Once you’re up there, how do you maintain that position? It’s a trick to be near the front but not at the absolute front too much.

Normally it’s like a ‘circulation’ … you have to go a bit more to the front for a bit and then you go back. You never have to stay on the same position. That’s almost impossible. You have to be like Peter Sagan who has a whole team around his bike that protects his position. It’s so hard to stay in one position.

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Is there more yelling among the riders in Europe?

Yeah, probably…. Because of the roads. Here you ride on bigger roads. There it’s more farm roads and potholes in the roads. It can be really narrow, more dangerous.

Did you grow up racing bikes?

I started racing bikes at a really young age.

How old?

I started riding a bike at 8. I’m 19 now.

Did members of your family race bikes?

I was born in a racing family. My sister did race bikes. My dad used to ride his bike, not race. My uncle has a racing team. My aunt was a professional athlete.

When you were growing up, did you race a lot of kermesses?

In the Netherlands, when you’re a youth—when you’re under 14, there are only kermesses. It’s really good to know the feeling of the bike well. It’s fast. It’s good for kids to know what racing is like. I sometimes feel differences between guys who are not as sure on the bike as I am. I think it’s good.

And in a kermesse, the pack is going to break apart almost every time.

Kermesses are just like an hour for us right now. It’s just an hour full gas.

Especially the start?

Yes, the start, from 0 to 50kph or something!

So what do you tell yourself at the start?

I see it like a normal road race, even riding a classic race. I try not to go at the back, because at the back you know it’s much harder than at the front. If you go around the corner and you see the guys at the front 200 meters in front of you, you’re sprinting. You know you’re going to be (screwed). I try to be at the front.

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You won the Junior Tour of Flanders. What was that like?

It was one of the better days of my life, I think.

Where did you make your move?

We had local circuit that went over the Muur (van Geraardsbergen) and then another climb. Five kilometers before the Muur I went to do the attack and I got two other guys with me, and on the Muur I went alone.

Is that your favorite race?

One of my favorites. I think Roubaix is my all-time favorite.

What do you think is the most interesting climb in Flanders?

The signature climb for the Tour of Flanders is the Muur, of course, but I don’t think it’s the hardest one. The Paterberg. When you enter it you just turn right and it’s one big climb with cobbles…. Oh, man!

What’s the trick to riding Flanders cobblestones? On the climbs, sometimes often you can’t stand up.

Not too much because you’ll slip. I normally climb in the saddle, so maybe that’s a good point. Just try to find the right lines. It’s really hard on the cobbles, of course. But once you have it, you’ll fly over it.

What do you see as the biggest differences between the U23 Classics and the WorldTour? Not just the speed or distance, but are there different things you’ll have to learn? Is it becoming more comfortable riding in the caravan or taking musettes?

Once you do it more and more, the more confident you get of doing it. Last year was the first year I grabbed musettes. Now I’m just like, ah, a musette. The first race I did I was like, ‘oh, no!’ It’s just a matter of time and practicing.

Does the Hagens Berman staff ever put anything interesting in your musette beyond energy bars?

A small cake in there would be nice.

What do you think of your Zipp wheels?

Zipp wheels! Oh, I love Zipp wheels! I also have the Zipp SL Sprint Stem. I was adjusting my bike and it had another stem on it, and I was like, ‘can I get the SL Sprint Stem.’… It looks awesome!

When you were a boy, what rider did you admire?

Fabian Cancellara. He’s a beast. He had this style and the power he can put out…. I always watched him on TV.

The Netherlands has been a significant nation for bicycle racing for a long time. What is the atmosphere there like right now?

There are always a couple guys who are really good. The Netherlands has always been on a level that’s pretty high because of the track everyone has to go through. With the juniors, they getting good people around them. They will keep it up. It’s not the biggest sport, but it’s a pretty big sport.

Did you play other sports growing up?

I tried football, soccer, once. There was no success! I did it one year and back to cycling.

When you were a kid, did you always ride your bike to school?

Yes.

On your race bike?

No. It was like 15 minutes on the bike.

Does everybody ride their bikes to school?

Like 99 percent.

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Do you hope to focus on the Classics in your cycling career?

I don’t define myself as a specialist, but I just like to do the classics most because I think my body is made for it the most. I’m not going to win on the Mont Ventoux! I’m 188cm (6-foot-2) and weigh 71kg (157 pounds), so I think that’s a bit overambitious! I’m in for everything. I want to see how much I can do. If I look at myself and evaluate myself, the classics are the best strength for me.

How would you contrast Spring Classics style riding over farm roads and cobbles with the “gravel” riding and racing that is becoming popular?

It’s a whole new different category. I can… but you also can’t compare it. I’ve tried riding on gravel once. It feels so different. It’s really nice and really cool. It’s also growing, especially in America. I think it’s really cool. But you should not compare it with road racing because it’s a completely different road.

Are there gravel roads in the Netherlands?

I have not seen one yet. When I see one I will text you!

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