Trek-Segafredo rider Koen de Kort built his career in cycling as a road captain
He’s an organizer, motivator, and delegator dedicated to helping others win, and he would have it no other way. Koen de Kort thrives in his role as Trek-Segafredo’s road captain. He has the mental acuity to read a race and make quick decisions in the heat of action, and a knack for slipping through tightly bunched pelotons and fighting for every inch his team leader needs to get to the front.
The road captain is a fundamental position on a cycling team. They have the ability to rally the troops and keep them focused on the goal, which can make the difference between a winning and losing team. For riders like Koen, this talent for bonding teammates together can be considered an art.
We caught up with Captain Koen to dig deeper into his role as road captain and why he loves it so much.
TFS: What is the role of a team captain?
Koen: I guess the role is to be a bridge between the team directors, the management, and the riders, especially during the races. When split-second decisions need to be made during a race, I make them. If you don’t have a captain, decisions don’t get made. I don’t always make the right decision, but it is better to have a decision than none. So, during the race, I make a decision when needed and tell my teammates what is expected of them.
There is a crucial role for directors and team leaders before the start of the race, but then you need a captain to act during the race. A big job for the team captain is to figure out what motivates my teammates and say the right things to make sure they do what is needed. An example of a quick decision needed during the race is if the leader has a puncture, choosing which one of my teammates has to give a wheel to the leader. Or, in case of a crash, the riders have a better knowledge of what we need to do; back in the car, they may not know which rider is where. If I can see where everyone is, I can say: “Everybody waits” or “Everyone waits except for so-and-so.” These are the kind of decisions that are highly stressful.
I actually think I'm better at helping others win than winning myself.
TFS: How did you become a team captain?
Koen: When you win races as a youth, you have to be a leader to even make it to the professionals. When I turned professional, it was quite a big step, and I started helping my teammates. It turned out my teammates were really happy with the help I was giving them. Bigger named riders wanted me to race with them; they wanted me by their side. I grew into the role. I enjoy it. It’s what I’m good at. It’s not what you envision when you turn pro: helping others win. I actually think I’m better at helping others win than winning myself.
You have to understand people and have some good management skills. You often need to tell riders to do something they don’t want to do, which will cost them their own result. I lead by example; I will always try to be the one working the hardest for the team. Then, I feel like I can ask other riders to do the same thing.
You see what other teams are doing at the dinner table, and Trek was really doing a great job. I wanted to help continue that atmosphere.
TFS: Is there a team captain, past or present, that you admire?
Koen: Well, I think I really got into this role when I started out doing some lead-outs for sprinters. The team would tell me I have to stay with one rider, help them out. On my previous team, I looked up to Roy Curvers. I think I really learned a lot from him. It’s not as glamorous as being Fabian Cancellara or Alberto Contador. But it’s an important job. The public may not know who you are, but it’s very nice when the leaders appreciate what you do. I remember Contador saying to me, “Thank you very much; I got that result because of you and would not have been able to do it without you.” It means I’m doing my job very well to be respected by the leaders. That’s most important for me.
I did the lead-outs for Marcel [Kittel] and John Degenkolb. Sometimes it was really juggling between Marcel or John. How can we work out that both riders are happy, and both get their chances? You want to make sure you don’t get two groups within the team where half is for Marcel and half for John. Roy was really good at that. We would always keep chatting together, always be at the dinner table talking for a long time. Even after dinner finished, the team would still be there. We had a really good team feeling, and he was a major driver behind that.
I signed with Trek because I saw that same feeling there. You see what other teams are doing at the dinner table, and Trek was really doing a great job. I wanted to help continue that atmosphere. You don’t want guys with headphones on at dinner or finishing before someone else gets there. In the bus is something else, but dinner is a time to chat about how the day went and what is coming up next.
TFS: How does your role as road captain continue post-race?
Koen: I just always make sure that with the guys who are in the race that I’m staying in constant contact with them after the race. For example, if something happens during the race, a crash or puncture, and a guy has to give his wheel to a teammate, he might have been hoping to do a lot more in that race. It is an anticlimax for him, even though the job he did was really important.
I will make a point of going to see that rider in his room or call him or talk to him at dinner. I will tell him how important that was, how much it was appreciated by everyone. When things like that need to be done, no one wants to give his wheel. Your race is over. You throw away your chances so that your teammate still has them. It’s not fun, but it’s important, and I try to make sure a rider knows this.
TFS: What are substantial differences between supporting a Grand Tour leader during three weeks of racing and a sprinter who aims for success in the stages?
Koen: It really depends on the team’s tactics for the Grand Tour. When you’re going into it with a GC rider, it’s my job to stay with the leader for the whole Grand Tour. I need to make sure he always has enough riders surrounding him, has enough bottles, enough food. I need to make sure he never loses any unnecessary energy because at the end of three weeks, a little bit of energy saved can make a huge difference.
Going into a Grand Tour to win stages with a sprinter is entirely different. It’s about pumping your team up to be ready for when the chances emerge during the race. We have to stick together and make the time limit when there’s a mountain stage. It’s a lot more ‘on and off’ than if you are supporting a GC leader. You need to be there for a GC leader every single moment of the race.
I go a little wider into a corner so the leader can stay safe and stay behind me. It's like I'm driving a trailer with precious cargo.
TFS: What does it mean to be a road captain for a leader who has a good chance to win a Grand Tour?
Koen: That is super exciting. I’ve never been part of a GT winning team, though I’ve come close a few times. Every day it’s very important to make sure that you don’t lose any time and save as much energy as possible. If your guy is in the leader jersey all the time, it will be stressful in the last couple of stages. My job might be even more critical. There will be a lot of stress on the team as we get closer to the end goal. Fingers crossed, as well! Assuming we are leading or close, the pressure will build up.
For me, I need a little stress to function properly. In a race where nothing is required of me, it’s hard for me to be motivated. I felt the same studying in school. If there’s no stress for time, I am not at my best. I feel this way in races: if I put extra pressure on myself, I get the maximum out of myself. I’ll be excited to race.
TFS: Often, the image of a road captain is that of a bodyguard who must jostle in the middle of the peloton so that the leader doesn’t take risks. Is that a correct image?
Koen: That’s part of what I do as well, for sure. My role is to stay close to the leader – I need to be close to them. When we’re going into a descent or a bunch sprint, I need to make sure there is enough space for the leader behind me. So yeah, it’s a bodyguard thing: I go a little wider into a corner so the leader can stay safe and stay behind me. It’s like I’m driving a trailer with precious cargo.
TFS: Vincenzo Nibali is considered a great leader. How do you find working with Vincenzo?
Koen: I haven’t done too many races with Vincenzo yet. My impression so far is that he is a lot more relaxed than most leaders I’ve worked with. Normally, I’m with the leader as we roll through kilometers zero, and I make sure everything is okay until I get dropped, and my job is done, or we pass the finish line. I rode with him in Volta ao Algarve, and he said to me: “Just come and get me at 50kms to go.” I said, “But it is my job to stay with you.” He said, “No, no, it’s fine. No problem.” I was like, really?
Typically, climbers aren’t the best bike handlers. I’m pretty used to making some space on the descents. But all of a sudden, Vincenzo came underneath me in a corner, going faster than me on the descent. He’s a really good bike handler. That means it will be easier to do my job; he will follow me through the bunch a little bit easier. I’ll get used to it. And having a leader that doesn’t seem to be too stressed on the outside calms the team down.