Cycling up 500 stairs and Primož Roglič parallels: introducing Jumbo-Visma's road rookie and next star Milan Vader
The Dutchman will combine both road and mountain biking through the season
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Jumbo-Visma training camp, December 2021: Milan Vader walks into the hotel.
"I hadn't done any races with the team yet and I saw the room list and I thought, uff. My heartbeat started to race a little. I was sharing a room with Primož Roglič."
In one bed in the room was a three-time Vuelta a España victor, a winner of 62 professional races. In the other bed was someone who'd never ridden a professional road bike race.
After the initial deep swallow and bracing himself for sharing a room with one of the best general classification riders of his era, mountain biker Vader entered the room. "It was great," the Dutchman tells Cycling Weekly. "He's a normal guy, he's pretty relaxed, we get on well and we had a lot of good conversations. I knew immediately that I could learn a lot from him."
Which is handy, because Vader, despite even today only having ridden four days as a pro road rider, is an ambitious man. "The team have told me that they see a GC rider in me in the future. I have always had this natural drive inside me to become the best in the group, so surrounding myself with good riders is what motivates me."
Vader, a five-time Dutch cross country mountain bike champion, signed for Jumbo-Visma in the recent off-season on a three-year deal, the cheery and talkative rider pursuing a joint road and mountain bike calendar that is primarily designed to help him achieve his goal of winning mountain bike gold at the Paris 2024 Olympics; last summer he finished 10th at the Tokyo Olympics.
The second objective is to create a road champion, and the parallels to his training camp roomie are obvious. Vader, at 26, obviously isn't as much as a newbie to the sport as Roglič was, but he is starting his road career just a year older than what Roglič was when the Slovenian took his first tentative steps in the sport he has come to dominate.
There's also similarities in how they ride. "Look at Primož," he says. "He rides in the bunch all of the time, and then he always wins the day in the last kilometre, attacking uphill. He is very explosive.
"I also have this explosive power from the mountain bike, and it's easier to build the endurance around that, and try and keep the explosive end up too. There's the potential."
He's not wrong. There's a video circulating on the internet of Vader cycling up the Landgraaf staircase in Holland, the longest stairway in the country, packing in a quite unfathomable 508 steps. It's utterly ludicrous and, frankly, looks an impossible task that only a bike rider with such explosiveness could accomplish.
"A teacher of my brother seen this challenge on Instagram and he told my brother that it would be a challenge for me," Vader recounts. "It was the other side of Holland, but I said 'why not do it?' So the following weekend we went there, and I rode up it. We did a video of it as it was fun."
But difficult, surely? "Really hard," he confirms. "The distance between the stairs is what makes it hard because it's not rolling. You have to stand out of your saddle for most of it. I was basically in the squat position the whole time for 500-odd stairs. It was hard but fun."
Vader initially felt uncomfortable, even out of his depth in the pro peloton. "It's so different, completely different to mountain biking," he says.
"My first road race was the Volta a Valenciana and for the first hour I remember thinking it wasn't so hard. And then, in the end... uff, super hard. I had a hard time following the big group in the last climb. That first day I could only focus on myself.
"The second day I could chill a bit more, and I was noticing more things around me. But I had a really sore neck after the stage - that was new!"
It's a pointer to his skills and talents, though, that these newbie nerves were limited to just two days. By day three he was finishing 13th on a summit finish ahead of seasoned pros who have won Grand Tours and stages in the biggest races.
"In the third day I had more of an overview, and I could tell who was in the deep end, who was in the breakaway," he reflects. "It was a nice climb for 20 minutes and I was happy with how I rode."
That neatly encapsulates Vader's approach to cycling, whether its skinny or fat tyres. Riding a bike is enjoyable, and gives him the outlet to be the best version of himself. He adds: "I think at Jumbo you can become a better athlete, whether that's on the road or on the mountain bike. That is exciting to me."
Of course, it has to be said that we should not be expecting Vader to win road races anytime soon. "In the beginning, the team's said there is no pressure, and they don't expect much from me. It's about learning."
He's also going to be focusing on his first love of mountain biking for much of the summer, the discipline where he met his long-time coach Tim Heemskerk who was the main catalyst behind Jumbo-Visma signing him.
"Tim moved to Jumbo and he secretly kept on coaching me," Vader, who mostly resides in Alicante in Spain, adds. "I think the Jumbo team could look at my TrainingPeaks, they saw my values and they saw something interesting.
"My coach told them that I was interested in moving to the road after Tokyo, we did some tests, we had a few meetings, I went on a training camp before the Olympics, and they asked me if I wanted to join the team.
"I was disappointed with 10th at Tokyo, and I decided I want to try again in Paris but I also liked the road idea. We decided to combine the both and it's the best chance of my life."
And one that he has been keen to take advantage of. In a January training camp, the team pulled him aside one day. "The feedback I got from the team was that I like a challenge!" he laughs.
"Sometimes they tell me, 'Milan, it's only January, go back and relax.' I like competitions, I always have done in the past, and if I can make it a competition, it drives me. I like that."
Sounds familiar to Roglič, right?
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Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.
Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.
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