'It's all about instinct, making split-second decisions': Danny van Poppel on how to be an unbeatable lead-out man

The Dutch powerhouse tells us how he's switched from sprinting to bossing it for others

Danny van Poppel
(Image credit: Alamy)

For each article in this long-running WATT WORKS FOR ME series from Cycling Weekly's print edition, we ask a pro rider about their favourite things in training: what has helped them most in getting to where they are today. The aim is to get to the heart of the beliefs and preferences they hold dear when it comes to building form, maximising fitness and ultimately achieving results. Back in July, we sat down with Danny van Poppel...

How has the Tour de France been so far? 

This is my third consecutive Tour and for me this one has been the easiest. I think that’s because we’ve had a lot more easy sprint days where the peloton has been more relaxed. Last year was unbelievable – there was never a day off. But this year the GC fight started on day one and that was important for the peloton’s stress. 

Why did you make the transition from sprinter to leadout man? 

When I was the leader at Intermarché-Wanty [in 2021], there was so much pressure – everyone expected me to win. When it doesn’t go so well, it’s not nice, and no fun. I said to my girlfriend [Dutch F1 reporter Stéphane Kox] that if a good team asked me to be part of their leadout for one of the best sprinters in the world, I would do it. Bora were resigning Sam Bennett and I was more than happy to take the opportunity. 

How did you learn how to move around in bunch sprints? 

When I turned pro in 2013, I had no clue what I was doing. The first time I properly figured things out was when I was at Wanty [2020-2021] with my brother [Boy van Poppel, Intermarché-Circus-Wanty] and I developed this instinct, similar to what [Michael] Mørkøv has. When Boy would guide me with one kilometre to go, I was always able to finish it off with a sprint, but I started to realise that I could do the finale on my own really well and on instinct, making choices in a split second. Happily for me, not a lot of guys are like that. 

How do you develop that instinct? 

Experience really helps. Some riders can read a race; I can read a final. I study the course but not too much, as my experience tells me more. I compare it to Formula One: [driver] Max Verstappen will be in pole position and his most important part is the first few seconds – that’s when he needs power to move quickly. It’s the same in a cycling sprint: a short period of time to unleash your power. 

What are you trying to improve? 

Because I live in Monaco and train in the hills, my power is a bit less than before, but training my 20-second sprint is most important and I do them often. I have come a long way and I do feel like a lot of improvement is still possible. It’s really motivating when you have that feeling. I think you always improve your power with specific training. 

What’s been the biggest difference to your training in recent years? 

I moved to Monaco two years ago and the result is that I am a much better cyclist. I owe that to having to do more climbing but also my coach at Bora. When I am a leader in races, I am also much better now, and that’s to do with experience. 

What off-the-bike work do you do? 

After the Classics this year, I started doing shoulder workouts as I was getting headaches, so I’m trying to strengthen that area of my body. Next year I want to focus even more on my upper body to avoid injuries and pain in my neck. If I want to continue at this level, it’ll be nice to be more comfortable on the bike. 

How has your training changed in the past decade? 

I am much more professional now. When I was young, in Holland, I would have to do efforts of 10 minutes. Finding straight roads with a headwind to do them on wasn’t always possible, so I’d mostly avoid doing them. When I see young guys today working hard with their efforts, I’m like, ‘why wasn’t I like them?’ But you can’t be perfect.

Rider profile: Danny van Poppel

Age: 30

Height: 6ft

FTP: Not supplied

Raised: Moergestel, Netherlands

Lives: Monaco

Rides for: Bora-Hansgrohe

Best results: 1st – Stage 12, Vuelta a España (2015); 1st – Binche-Chimay-Binche (2018, 2021); 1st – Rund um Köln (2023)

Instagram: dannyvanpoppel

X: @dannyvanpoppel

Danny van Poppel on the podium

(Image credit: Alamy)

Favourite session? 

A nice, easy three-and-a-half-hour cafe loop in winter that I do with Wout Poels [Bahrain Victorious] and Dylan Van Baarle [Jumbo-Visma]. 

Least favourite session? 

No one ever looks forward to VO2 max efforts, but the session I really don’t like is low-cadence sprints in the saddle. You have to push so much with your upper body and the next day you have muscle pain in your arms.

Quick-fire faves

Place to ride? Monaco. Great training roads

Race to compete in? Vuelta a España

Way to spend a rest day? Coffee spin with my girlfriend

Cafe stop treat? Any type of cake

Sport or hobby away from cycling? I only like cycling!

Quality in training partner? When they don’t go too fast!

The full version of this article was published in the 20 July 2023 print edition of Cycling Weekly magazine. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered to your door every week.

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