INTERVIEW: NIKI TERPSTRA
The Flanders champ on his move to Direct Energie and how fans misunderstand him
Niki Terpstra is one of only two riders in the peloton to hold both the Flanders and Roubaix titles, but he surprised the cycling world by transferring from Classics A-listers Quick-Step to Direct Energie this year. Procycling meets the Dutchman with a spiky reputation and nds that defying convention is part of his style
Nearly 20 years ago, when Niki Terpstra was a teenager at school in Beverwijk, a city in the north of the Netherlands on the west coast, the first subject he dropped was French. Fast forward two decades and Terpstra has spent the winter of 2018 driving around in his car with a French language tuition CD playing. He’s about to join his new team, Direct Energie, and speaking and understanding the language has just become crucial. He laughs wryly when he tells Procycling the story. He must wish now that he hadn’t given the subject up so quickly.
Terpstra’s move from Quick-Step Floors after eight seasons, down a level to the ProContinental French squad, was a surprise to almost everyone when it was announced last summer. As a Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders winner, Terpstra was leaving the peloton’s blockbuster Classics outfit for a lower-ranking team with little discernible pedigree in the discipline. As a ProConti team, Direct Energie also have to rely on wildcard invites to race the top Classics. Last year, for instance, they didn’t contest Flanders. In 2018, meanwhile, Terpstra enjoyed arguably his most successful spring campaign, winning a debut Flanders, E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn, as well as getting on the podium again in Roubaix behind Peter Sagan and Ag2r’s Silvan Dillier. His victories had given him premier status, even in a team as packed with Classics talent as QuickStep is. At Direct Energie, he was about to become the undisputed head of their fledgling Classics squad, and one of just four non-French riders on a team that perceptually, if not perhaps in reality, still has a very old-school French ethos. On paper, it certainly looked like Terpstra would be a square peg in a round hole.
Terpstra laughs when it’s put to him that few people saw the move coming. “I think nobody did,” he says.
“The main reason I chose this team was that they were not only taking me for my good results, but I also want to help the team going forward, to the level… This team was really interested in this - building a stronger team. That’s the thing that convinced me.”
Now 34, and having achieved the two biggest victories he can in the Classics, Terpstra is clearly entering a new phase of his career. With Quick-Step struggling to find a new headline sponsor last summer, Direct Energie came calling and made him an offer he says he couldn’t turn down.
“It’s different, but we have some really strong guys and already since the first meeting at the beginning of November, it’s a process of shaping the team together and to give them the right goal. They were already strong in the Classics, they didn’t have the best results but they didn’t have the right goal, I think. Now they have the right goal,” he says.
“They are confident I can finish well in those races so they are really motivated to help me and it’s a process of every training camp – you can see the guys from the Classics, they are happy, and the whole team wants to make a step forward. They say they already feel the difference, and that gives me motivation that together we can make a stronger team. I think those big engines for the Classics can surprise the cycling world.”
“The guys from the Classics, they are happy and the whole team wants to make a step forward. They say they already feel the difference”
There’s a face people pull when you say you’re going to interview Niki Terpstra. A sharp intake of breath through closed teeth, followed by a wide-eyed eyebrow raise. Off the bike, Terpstra has a reputation for being straight-talking, no-nonsense and blunt. On the bike, he’s just as direct. He thrives in the kind of grey and grim weather others despise. He can always be seen near the front of the peloton, instructing team-mates, mouthing off at rivals and not giving an inch of space. He is unforgiving, merciless and utterly relentless in pursuit of a goal. Terpstra is one of the most successful classics riders of his generation – just seven riders have won both Flanders and Roubaix in the last 30 years, with Peter Sagan the only other active rider to have done so. He races with the kind of panache fans should enjoy – both of his monument wins came solo. But Terpstra’s popularity is, or at least has appeared, dimmer than that of his less decorated rivals.
He’s faced repeated allegations that he’s not a team player, that he goes for personal glory more often than working for others. After last year’s E3 Harelbeke, questions surfaced over whether Terpstra refused to wait for Philippe Gilbert who was trying to bridge across to him at the front of the race. Terpstra said he couldn’t hear on his radio, and didn’t know the rider behind was his team-mate. But for those who had already made up their minds, it was classic Terpstra behaviour. Even back in 2014 when Terpstra won Roubaix, all the race build-up had focused on his team-mate Tom Boonen chasing a historic fifth win. Boonen was active throughout and made it into the racewinning front group, but it was Terpstra who cannily slipped away and took the victory, and to some, Boonen’s thunder.
It takes minimum internet searching before you come across YouTube footage of Terpstra engaging in an elbow fight at the front of the peloton with a rival. Or find news stories of how he lambasted team-mates at the end of the Vuelta team time trial in 2015, in front of the TV cameras, when the team finished fifth, 10 seconds behind the winners. Even one of Terpstra’s closest friends in the sport, CCC’s Laurens ten Dam, tells Procycling: “Everyone thinks he’s a dick, because when he races he wants to win. It’s all for him and his team.”
So, upon first meeting him, there’s a slight moment of trepidation when Procycling asks if Terpstra would mind taking his glasses off his head for the photos. Some kind of look or grouchy comment is half expected. But there’s nothing. A second later, we make another request, this time to take out the jacket that’s rolled up in his jersey back pocket. Again, there’s a pause. Maybe this is the moment the spiky version of Terpstra we’ve heard about is going to appear? But there’s still nothing. Instead, he obliges