Thank you, Jens Keukeleire
Jens reflects on his 14 years as a pro
Last week in Guangxi, China, Jens Keukeleire rode his final professional race.
Jens retires as one of the most liked and respected riders in the peloton. Over the course of his 14-year career, the Belgian all-rounder won eleven races. When he won, he won big. For a start, four in the Flemish classics in his first month as a pro, a stage at the Vuelta with his one-month old son watching, and two general classification victories in the Tour of Belgium.
Jens contributed to many more victories as a teammate, especially later in his career. Jens was always ready to ride for his team. He proved that over and over again during the four seasons that he rode for EF Education-EasyPost. Always generous with his knowledge and experience, we could count on Jens to lift our spirits when the going got tough—and find the best coffee shop within a 100-kilometer radius on training rides.
Before saying goodbye, we caught up with Jens to reflect on his time as a pro.
Congratulations on a great career, Jens. How is retirement?
For the moment it still feels like an off-season. This time, it is just going to be for a little bit longer. I’m just enjoying being able to do stuff that I am not able to do during the season, just being at home, enjoying being at home. That is how it feels for the moment. Actually, usually when I had my offseason I would try not to exercise, not to do any sports, and that is something a little bit different now. I did half a marathon last Sunday. Maybe I wouldn’t have done that if it was really my offseason. I know that it is important not to train during your off season, just to give your body a bit of rest. It is strange to say but it was always hard for me not to do anything, but now it doesn’t really matter, so if I am like, okay, I want to do something today, I can just do it.
Are there other sports you are looking forward to trying?
There are a few. I had a little accident when I was younger where I tore my meniscus and the ligaments in my knee. I was still too young to have surgery on the ligaments because I still had to grow so that meant that I wasn’t able to do any sports where you twist your knee, like football, basketball, tennis. All of those sports I wasn’t allowed to do because those ligaments were still broken. Running, cycling, rowing—those were all sports that I could do. And I never fixed it, because by the time I was fully grown, everything was going well with cycling and I didn’t want to have the surgery. Now, I would love to do those sports. Probably football, because it is very easy to do here in Belgium, so that is still on the list. And my sister’s boyfriend is a kitesurfer. We live close to the beach and we have a lot of wind here in Belgium all year round, so that is a nice sport to do here in Belgium. For the last couple of years, I have been thinking it was something I wanted to try. Maybe not this winter but sometime next year I will give it a go. And then running. I love running and I have got a little bit of a gym here at home, so I will start training the upper body a little bit instead of only the legs, but I think mainly running. I have always really enjoyed running. I have always done it the whole year round, even during the season. You don’t need a lot. It doesn’t matter if it is 30 degrees or snowing or raining, you just put on your shoes and go. When I was riding, I could do it a little bit in the offseason or in the winter, but as soon as the season started I was too tired from the riding and didn’t really want to do too many other sports.
How does your family feel, now you will be spending more time at home?
I think my wife is happy! Obviously the kids as well. We tried to explain to them that I am not going to race anymore, and I think they get it, but maybe not 100% yet, definitely not the youngest one. They will still say, like, when you do your next race, you have to do this or you have to do that, and then we have to say, well, Daddy is not going to do anymore races.
What were the highlights for you in your career?
To start off, definitely my first couple of months as a professional, just because everything went so quick—so well, so quick. As an under-23, I was a good rider, but it wasn’t like I won 40 races per year, but then when I turned pro, within the first months I had already won four races, so that was pretty special, how quickly everything went from the beginning. And then, later on, the Vuelta in 2016 really stands out. The group we had there was a really good group. We clicked. We all got along really well and we had some really great results there. I was there with Magnus and he won two stages. Chaves was also there. He won a stage and finished third on GC. Simon Yates was also there and he won a stage. I won a stage ,and what made it extra special was that my family was there the day that I won a stage. My oldest son was one month old, not even. So to have them there and to win a stage in the Vuelta, that was by far the most special moment of my career. There were a lot of good moments, but that one was definitely the biggest one.
What were the hardest moments?
Having to deal with injuries or illness, especially towards the end of my career, I was unlucky in that I got sick a little more often and that was by far the most difficult part of the whole thing. You train a lot and you are away from home a lot, you give up a lot, and then you are finally there, ready for the races and you get sick. Those were probably the things that were the hardest.
You raced for 14 seasons. What kept you going?
I think first of all, the love of the bike. I just really enjoy going out and riding the bike. That was the main thing. I am pretty sure that if you don’t like riding the bike, you won’t do it for a very long time. And then, and it’s probably one of the things I will miss the most—I said this as well last week in Guanxi at my last race—is just the camaraderie. Being at a race with good group of guys, just having fun at the races, I think is one of the things that is underrated or underestimated. I really believe that if you are at the races and you feel happy and you are having a good time, the results come a lot easier. I was lucky enough to be a part of a good group a lot of times. I always had a lot of fun at the races and that will probably be one of the things that I will miss the most.
Which races were your favorites?
Flanders was always extra special for me, because the start was often in Bruges. That was a really special thing for me. A big part of why I started cycling was the Tour of Flanders, just having the race starting in Bruges every year and going to watch the riders come to the start podium in the morning. But also, one of my earliest memories of starting to ride the bike was doing the Tour of Flanders myself, but then the day before the professional riders, the gran fondo. To eventually be there as a professional rider at the start line, that was something really special.
How has the sport changed during your career?
It has gotten a lot faster. That is for sure. The racing has also changed in a way. The race opens earlier. Especially in the first couple of years after I started, the race would start and then there would be a fight for the breakaway. The breakaway would go and then the race would stay a little bit more closed until the finale, and then the finale would be raced full gas, but that would be, I would say the last hour. It wasn’t always like that, but most of the time it was. But nowadays it doesn’t matter if it is 40 kilometers to go or 200 kilometers to go, when the bunch decides to race, they just race and see where they get, so for sure that is one of the things that has changed a lot.
Do you have any advice for the young guys just starting out in the sport now?
Most of all try to enjoy it. Make sure you enjoy it as much as possible. It is hard to say now, because all of the young guys coming over, they know everything. Information is so accessible now. What to do, how to train—even if you are 17 or 18 years old, you probably know what to do already. That is probably one of the big differences as well. When I turned pro, I still had a lot to learn. I remember my first year as a professional, I really had to watch and listen to the experienced riders and learn a lot. I think that is why I made very big steps coming from the U23s, but I think nowadays, everything is so accessible that if you want to know what to eat or how to train, you just Google it, and Google will tell you what to do and it is pretty correct too what you can find online. But advice: try to enjoy it as much as possible, because it is a cool sport, eh. You go to a lot of places, you see a lot of places. And as I said before, if you are having a good time at the races or at the training camps, the results will come a lot easier, so always try to have as much fun as possible and you will see that everything will come easier.
What about your boys? Are they going to become racers?
It will be impossible to stop them. Already now, they both do some BMX, and the oldest one is already asking, when can I start racing on the road? But he is still too young. He is seven years old. We are stimulating them to do some other sports as well. They play football and in the summer they play tennis. We try to give them some variety, but I think it is pretty clear that they will do something with bikes later on. Everything that has two wheels is like an obsession for them. They just see it and hop on and off they go. I don’t have to say anything. My family, growing up, we didn’t have a cycling background. My dad would watch the races, and, as someone from Belgium, you know a lot about cycling, but when it came down to training and racing, we didn’t know anything. And a lot of things that are obvious to me now, weren’t so obvious back then, just simple stuff, like the day before a race you don’t have to train too hard, you need a bit of a recovery day. All those small things, my kids will never have to learn, because they grew up with it. It will all be obvious. They won’t need a lot of advice. I just hope that they enjoy it as I did, or as I do, for as long as possible and they will find their ways.
And for you. What’s next?
Nothing is decided yet, but I would like to continue my way in cycling. I would be interested in becoming a DS. I am not really sure where or how that might go, but I hope to make a decision about that pretty soon now. I have been in a lot of different teams, like really different teams. I started in a really classical French team. They have changed a lot, but I still think they have that classic French DNA. And then the Aussies were completely different, very international and very scientific, when it came down to aerodynamics and training and everything, also nutrition. And I went to a very old-school Belgian team, and that was a very nice experience as well. And then EF, I don’t have to tell you what EF is all about, but very international and at a very high level when it comes down to material and training and everything. Also the roles that I have had as a rider. I have worked on sprint leadouts, worked for GC leaders, and I have won races myself—a stage in the Vuelta, but also the Tour of Belgium. Over my career, I have built a lot of experience in different areas. Especially the last couple of years, I have really felt good in sharing that experience with younger riders. I think being a DS might be something I would be good at. It is definitely something that I would be excited to try and to see if it suits me, so I hope that that is where my future is now.
For now, enjoy your long off-season, Jens. Congratulations on a great career and thank you for everything you brought to EF Education-EasyPost.