Jan Bakelants takes on Unbound 200

on his Factor OSTRO Gravel

Recently retired road pro switches to gravel. It’s a common story, but this one has a different twist and it goes back to Factor’s first days in the WorldTour. Jan Bakelants is heading to Unbound 200, the world’s biggest gravel event, free from pressure.

<em>Photo: Matteo Roose</em>
“There’s no stress about results – I did that for 17 years. This year will be about learning, a recon year. The goal might be as simple as to finish and have fun.” -Jan Bakelants

At the end of last season, Jan retired from a 14-year pro career, the narrative arc of which is straight from Hollywood. In 2013 he won stage 2 of the Tour de France and wore the yellow jersey for two days, a career-defining success that was followed by a steady flow of further wins and podiums. Then, in 2017, he suffered a catastrophic crash at Il Lombardia, plunging into a ravine and breaking his back in two places.

His recovery took a long time and required multiple surgeries. “There were some difficult moments” during the following years, says Jan with typical understatement. A handful of top-10 placings provided the only glimmer of hope visible to anyone outside his team.

Then, on stage 5 of last year’s Tour de Wallonie, on home Belgian roads, Jan launched a late attack, pre-empting the sprinters and holding on to take his final pro win, exactly how he had taken his first at the Tour de France nine years earlier. It was poetry and there was barely a dry eye in the house.

Ahead of his first taste of US gravel racing, we spoke with Jan about this new chapter of his career.

When did you first start riding gravel?

Just this year! It is gaining momentum. The UCI world title of Gianni Vermeersch received a lot of coverage here in Belgium and got my attention. After 15 years as a pro, you can imagine I have seen every road many times near where I live. On gravel you discover new things, like you’re on vacation but from your own house.

Rob [Gitelis, CEO of Factor] is a good friend. He sent me an OSTRO Gravel and I have a really good time on it.

“For racing, the OSTRO Gravel really gives you an edge, because it’s aerodynamic, light, agile, like the OSTRO VAM.”

Will gravel be a big focus going forward?

I wanted some goals to keep riding for. As an ex-pro it’s hard to do something that is worth doing on the road without having a team. While I am still freshly retired, I can stay quite fit without too much training. It comes at the cost of not being at my top level but I will get to see what these races are like from the inside.

What are your goals at Unbound 200?

It’s not like it used to be on the road, going to the race to be the best possible version of myself. I’m going also as a tourist. I’ve never been to the US. The American scene seems different and more of a lifestyle. Amateurs can start with the pros and if they feel good then they can try to hang on. Then, after the race, they have a beer together. It’s more about fun.

There is a saying that at Paris-Roubaix every rider has a story, but they don’t all count. Wout Van Aert wasn’t smiling over a beer about his third place this year.

What is your longest ever ride?

During the Covid lockdown, I once went for a 280km ride with Wout Van Aert. We rode 140km to a really good bakery in Banneux. We had a great piece of pie and then rode home. The distance of Unbound is very intimidating!

Unbound is 320km, but you don’t need to do this in training. You need the best shape possible with the time you have. If this brings me a result, great, if not I will evaluate what I have to do to get a result and if that would make me happy. Or was it simply good to be a part of it and I’ll come back in the same way. The goal might be as simple as to finish and have fun.

<em>Photo: Matteo Roose</em>

The effort and sacrifice as a pro is quite extreme and it gets more every year. We always do everything we can. Cycling has always been a way of life; you are a cyclist 24hrs a day.

Gravel puts the person more central, but as it becomes more professional the level of preparation will increase. Also, there is a risk that the UCI will push the culture of road cycling onto gravel.

How have you approached training since your retirement?

I didn’t stop for very long off the bike in winter, but the goal changed. I was never more than five days off the bike but also never more than three hours on the bike.

“Now it’s five minutes to midnight to save what I can. The training hasn’t been too structured or scientific. There’s no stress about results – I did that for 15 years. I don’t want to look like a clown in the races but also if I’m fifth or 15th it doesn’t really matter. This year will be about learning, a recon year.”

How did you become such good friends with Factor CEO Rob Gitelis?

It was by coincidence, when I was on AG2R in 2017. AG2R was Rob’s first team, when Factor was a very young brand. We’d been on Focus bikes before and when Rob and Baden Cooke came in person to the Alps to present the bikes, all the riders were stoked. But Rob didn’t speak French and the French teams, they are very French and don’t speak much English so that was tricky. Because I speak English, we chatted a bit more. Then he kindly messaged me in 2017 after my crash at Il Lombardia and we started keeping in touch more.

The 2018 season was very difficult, with very invasive surgeries and a lot of antibiotics to fight infections. Even so, Rob invited me out to Taiwan for the KOM Challenge, which is an amazing event. We hung out, ate at restaurants, rode every day, toured the factory. I was especially intrigued by Factor’s testing room and all the work they do to optimize the carbon layup. You really feel this in the bikes.

I have ridden a lot of bikes in my career and right now I’m riding the OSTRO VAM. It has an amazing balance of stiffness, comfort, stability and aero. It’s agile, too. It can do everything. At the Critérium du Dauphiné (stage 5, 2022) the peloton caught me in the last 80m – I’m sure that on the OSTRO VAM I would have won that stage. It’s so fast.

When I mentioned to Rob that I was interested to try gravel, he immediately offered to support me with the OSTRO Gravel, which I really appreciate.

Check back after Unbound 200 when we will talk to Jan about how his race went, along with all of our other athletes.