It Hurts To Win

It’s hard to describe what motivates me but I guess to sum it up it would be the feeling of winning a race.

Michiel Van Heyningen

Meyrueis, Lozere, June 26, 1977.  Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

Tim Krabbé’s seminal novel: The Rider

It Hurts To Win

Interview by Rory Payne
Words by Giles Mountford
Photography by Diederik van Heyningen

Interview by Rory Payne

Words by Giles Mountford

Photography by Diederik van Heyningen

“To even ride on the same roads that were graced by the celestial talents of Eddy Merckx, Faustino Coppi and Jacques Anquetil provides a pilgrimage for cycling acolytes the world over. To actually race on those roads means you are daring to roll your tires onto the foothills of potential greatness.”

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Allow me to educate the uninitiated: bicycle racing is the most beautiful sport in the world. It is also the most vicious, physically demanding, mentally taxing and emotionally draining experience imaginable. Which makes it the most whacked out choice anyone could make as a hobby or a career. Which makes it the most beautiful sport in the world.

No other sport has produced a such a weighty canon of bitter rivalries, betrayal and heroism. Many of these tales have reached almost mythical proportions in the re-telling: amateur devotees of the sport huddled over their espressos trading tales of pre-race superstitions, suicidal break-aways, and gladiatorial battles played out over hundreds of kilometres. 

The professional cyclist is an aficionado of pain, a master strategist and at heart, a romantic. Not traits found in your average 17-year old. But then, this was never going to be about average.

Competing on New Zealand’s youth cycling circuit, Michiel Van Heyningen is talented, serious and in love with the sport and the roads of his spiritual homeland.

Cycling is a sport where training often involves hours upon hours of isolated self-punishment, braving all conditions, whilst learning the art of controlled suffering: often set to a backdrop of panoramic splendour against which the most magnificent of sporting stadia appear as poor facsimiles of nature’s ability to inspire. Michiel experiences this inspiration every day.

I’m pretty lucky to live where I do with places like these in my back yard. There’s a diverse range of training options in some of New Zealand’s best training grounds.

Riding in the port hills, overlooking the city of Christchurch, the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Alps is pretty incredible – even while doing the hardest of efforts.

Michiel Van Heyningen

Despite the natural splendour that riding in New Zealand offers, the beating heart of professional road cycling resides in the veined roadways of old Europe: Belgium cobbles, Italian chalk roads and the soaring cols of the Alps and Pyrenees.  Michiel had his first taste of these mythic roads in 2019.

“The opportunity to ride in Europe was incredible. Racing in Belgium against 100 riders my age, seeing the Tour de France and the famous cobbled climbs, and riding with the pros in Girona was an eye-opening experience that was so different to New Zealand in every way”.

The mountain that Michiel must climb is not only one paved with tarmac and gravel.

There is a rightful youthful enthusiasm in his words. To even ride on the same roads that were graced by the celestial talents of Eddy Merckx, Faustino Coppi and Jacques Anquetil provides a pilgrimage for cycling acolytes the world over. To actually race on those roads means you are daring to roll your tires onto the foothills of potential greatness: perhaps one day Michiel could have his name spoken in awe over a steaming espresso after a Sunday club ride.

New Zealand riders have experienced some success in the circus ring of the three grand Tours; the Giro D’Italia, the Vuelta Espana and the grandest dame of all: the Tour de France. But for a country whose landscape is as rugged and challenging (minus the big mountains) as anything Europe can offer, they have only produced individual stage wins at the Vuelta through Paul Jesson in 1980 and Greg Henderson in 2009. The other Tours remain elusive.

most of all I love the competition and commitment that goes with the countless hours of training behind the scenes. For that one result that makes it all worth it.

Training, whilst still in school, for up to 20 hours a week shows that Michiel already knows the price that needs to be paid to compete at the highest level if he is ever to even dream about challenging for a victory in a Grand Tour. It is a price he is not only willing to pay but an exchange he relishes.

“I love the feeling of winning a race, or achieving a new power PB but most of all I love the competition and commitment that goes with the countless hours of training behind the scenes . For that one result that makes it all worth it”.

The cafes, cobbles and ‘chapeaus’ of Europe are a long way from New Zealand: geographically and metaphorically. But having tasted the possibilities that riding in Europe brings Michiels’ appetite is anything but diminished.

The mountain that Michiel must climb is not only one paved with tarmac and gravel. Many professional cyclists go an entire career without recording a ‘win’. Michiel is one young rider determined not to be amongst their number. And he understands that getting there the hard way is the only way to do it.

Because that’s what makes it worth it.

bicycle racing is the most beautiful sport in the world. It is also the most vicious, physically demanding, mentally taxing and emotionally draining experience imaginable.

Because after the finish all the suffering turns into memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature’s payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering.

Tim Krabbé’s seminal novel: The Rider

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