Project Ilan: 20 in 2020

Ilan climbing the mountains

Ilan Van Wilder turns 20 today, and that marks a good time to reflect on his career so far. In these last 20 years he has proven himself a young talent in the world of cycling, and it looks like he will continue to do so, but that doesn’t come as easy as you may think.

A compilation of our conversations with Ilan and his colleagues at Sunweb

Where it all began

As a young boy of nine, Ilan enjoyed cycling a lot. His parents who made him join Noord-West Brabant, a local cycling team five kilometres from home, noticed that too. Due to his young age, Ilan had difficulties in following the training sessions. It wasn’t until he was fourteen that he started a cycling race for the first time. Ilan rode well, and won the provincial championship the year after.

Besides cycling, Ilan also had another passion, swimming. Until he was thirteen he swam at a high level. But the swimming pool wasn’t close to home and it became almost impossible for his parents to bring him there three times a week. Ilan opted for cycling, but still reaps the benefits of his period as a swimmer when he was twenty.

©Patrick van Wilder
Ilan started when he was only 9 years old, he joined the local cycling team in Merchtem

I’m very glad I practiced swimming for so long, it’s laid the foundation for my overall good shape

The start

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve practiced sports where endurance is important, which has helped me enormously. Often core stability, back and abdominal muscles are important things that riders forget. That leads to back pain and less power on the bike, something that doesn’t bother me at all because of my swimming career”.

Ilan didn’t follow cycling before he started. He knew Tom Boonen, the Tour of Flanders and the Tour de France, but Ilan wouldn’t be able to tell you the duration of the Tour. It was only at a later age that he became passionate and fell in love with ‘de koers’.

Ilan doesn’t have a real example because he doesn’t want to compare himself to anyone. Names like Sagan have a very positive effect on cycling, but when asked if they are his heroes, he answered resolutely: “No, I want to go my own way”.

I don’t really have an example, I don’t compare myself to anyone. I go my own way.

Fit on the bike

The fact that top athletes have to pay close attention to their nutrition may not surprise you. But what does a cyclist have to eat to stay fit? Lieke Dommerholt is a nutrition expert at Team Sunweb and since this year also guides Ilan in composing his ideal diet.

“While cycling you consume the most carbohydrates, an essential fuel to be able to cycle at all. That’s the most important thing to be able to perform at the end of the day and also to prevent acidification of course”.

It is not only important what a cyclist eats, but also at what times they take in these nutrients turns out to be a crucial factor.

“What we mainly pay attention to is the intake around training sessions and races, so not only what is eaten during a training session or race, but also what is eaten in between . The riders have to make sure that they have enough carbohydrates at breakfast so that their glycogen reserves are actually already optimally filled before starting an activity.

Subsequently this means that they take 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour for training. At races we try to keep about 90 grams. We also pay a lot of attention to recovery after training. The intention is that that recovery meal also contains sufficient carbohydrates and proteins”

“Usually a coffee ride is part of cycling. That means they just go out for a quiet ride and sometimes stop for a coffee and a cake. That’s even fine. I think that’s part of a balanced diet.”

Not every rider is the same, so Ilan gets his own specific diet from Lieke. “We always try to build it up pretty quietly. For example, with Ilan I am initially interested in: what does his diet look like now? And how can we optimize that? For example, he also filled in three days of MyFitnessPall nutritional app, so that I also could have a more detailed insight into Ilan’s diet in order to determine what his daily eating pattern looks like.  I would then be able to give him further advice’

©Team Sunweb

Ilan needs to train very hard to stay fit. That’s why Dajo Sanders has such a big impact on the team. He’s the trainer of the team and makes sure every rider is in shape. For a youngster like Ilan, these workouts can be very intense and hard. That’s why only the best survive in the cycling world.

“ We make sure Ilan trains at least one time per day, and sometimes even two times per day. Every training day is different. We make sure to keep switching the routines to keep it interesting and challenging. “

Dajo is the trainer but works together with other people who focus on other elements of the sport. “ I’m responsible of making sure Ilan trains hard enough, that’s the only thing I need to do. All the other factors of the sport are not my responsibility.”

“Ilan’s day consists of waking up, eating breakfast and training. Apart from training his day consists of recovering and resting. That’s why the life of a cyclist isn’t the most exciting thing. Dajo also mentioned that social contact is also very important, but they do make sure that in between training sessions, he has no other distractions.”

Setting goals

The team is responsible for the goals of Ilan. They deliver his racing calendar and that’s the moment for Dajo to start constructing the training regime of Ilan. “I make sure he is in top shape for the racing day. We construct a training programme in different parts, the focus of the training differs each day. When racing day is coming closer, the training gets more intense. I’m also responsible to monitor the training sessions and make sure he works the best he can’. We monitor his wattages and heart rate and with that data we can modify the training.”

Ilan is one of Belgians biggest climbing prospects and that’s why it’s important to train on longer climbs. “Because we don’t have these in Belgium, it’s not the perfect training ground for Ilan here. That’s why we organise training camps in Spain where he can train on much longer and steeper climbs. In these training camps, we can focus on holding higher wattages on a climb and extending the periods of maximum effort.”

Ilan training in the mountains
©Team Sunweb

Obviously, with the coronavirus, there is no option to go train in Spain. “ They need to keep training, even if there are no more races this year. We can already work on the fitness of the riders for next year. The training sessions can be less intense and hard, but they are always mandatory. The moment we get more info on the new race calendar, we can modify everybody’s training program.”

Doing the impossible

It is very exceptional that these youngsters immediately make that switch with success. It remains a dangerous factor.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen gives his opinion about young prospects making the early switch to the top
©Wouter van Biezen

Tom Boonen, World Champion in 2005, has an outspoken opinion when it comes to professional cyclists who are getting younger and younger. “I’m not an advocate of this tendency. I speak from my own experience. I wasn’t ready to become a pro when I was 18 years old. I took part in my first races in the pro peleton and that already worked out well on the flats, but I really couldn’t compete uphill.”

“First I rode as a trainee for 2 more years and after that, when I was 20, I was really ready to make the switch. Of course that is different for everyone. I really needed that period to grow, but, again, I’m not in favor of making the transition to the pros early.”

“In fact, there is no longer a category of prospects. The category of prospects is actually meant to get a taste of professional life, with a bit of framework and all the decent material so that you still have room to grow.”

“Nowadays the better junior teams are just as well equipped as the “bad” pro teams. And the good prospect teams are just as well equipped as the pros, in many cases they are even better equipped than the pro teams. Is that good? Yeah, probably. Is that good for everyone? No, but that’s where you get the strong men who don’t need this growth period and can take it a step higher.”

“They’re effectively ready by the age of eighteen and don’t need to adjust. However, there are many boys of that age, if you put too much pressure on them, who don’t keep up and stop after three years because they are completely exhausted and worn-out. You do set the standard high, so young guys can compete at a young age, but that only works for the best of the best. It’s something very exceptional that perhaps only happens every 30 to 40 years, that such men immediately make that transition to success. It remains a dangerous factor,” concludes Boonen.

Luxury problem

Patrick Van Wilder, Ilan’s father, has a slightly different opinion. “I saw that he was made for the bike. A very good posture on the bike, very correct. I knew he had really found his thing and that finally came true.”

“We’ve doubted that for a very long time. Me, Ilan and his mom, we’ve talked about it for a very long time. I never told him ‘do this or do that’, but we did guide him. It’s something he has to choose for himself. There were five teams for Ilan, Jumbo-Visma, Team Sunweb, Bora-Hansgrohe, Bahrain-Merida and Lotto Soudal.

“He really had a luxury problem at one point. In the beginning we thought together to choose for a second year in the “promises” category, it’s not all Remcos that ride on the bike. But a lot of people said that Ilan is made for cycling and that he will succeed. I think he made a good decision because the people of Team Sunweb have a long term vision and wanted him to sign for three years. That means that they believe in him as a cyclist. That took a long time, but still we made the decision. Ilan riding with the pros, but at which club? Team Sunweb had an advantage thanks to the training of cyclists and the presence of many young people. You get a long-term vision from this team and they do everything themselves. That’s why we chose Sunweb.”

Ilan and Tiejs Benoot, two Belgians riding together
©Team Sunweb

“It wasn’t an easy decision at all to choose a team from such a large selection”, Van Wilder states. “We started to gather information from people who are active in professional cycling in order to hear the different opinions. That took a very long time until after the World Cup, early October. A luxury problem isn’t always a good one and that didn’t make it easier. The CEO of Sunweb also visited our home to explain everything.”

“What’s sensitive with us, was his trainer change. Three years ago he had to find his own trainer for his national team, of which he has been a member for four years. We ended up with Michel Geerinck and the connection was immediately there. We discussed everything together and decided that he would be Ilan’s new trainer, we haven’t regretted that for a second. That was, and still is, fine. Also at Sunweb.”

“We don’t just see and hear them over the phone, you have to do things like that in real life. It just felt good with Sunwebs CEO, we all felt really good about it, especially Ilan. He came to our house once and met in the lobby of a hotel. Those people explained everything and that was just fine. We have a very good bond and relationship with him, that’s perfect. Ilan has made a very good choice.”

Social media responsibility

Emily Brammeier does the communication at Team Sunweb and helps the riders at the team if they have any questions related to the media. Obviously, when Ilan joined Sunweb, he gained a lot of media attention and a following on social media.

“There are no restrictions at all. I mean, of course, everybody is expected to be professional. And a professional cyclist isn’t just an ordinary person. They do have a platform and the responsibility of that platform. But that’s not something that we’ve ever needed to enforce. I think all riders take that responsibility themselves . We just have to ensure that the partners are in the correct light, which comes naturally because it just flows easily ,because they already have all of the content.

Everybody knows that media attention can be quite intimidating. Especially when there are 10 cameras pointing in your face, for the first time ever. But Emily explains that this is a very personal thing:

“If it is just a general pre-race media convention, interviews about how to riders are feeling and such,then we don’t give any direction. Actually, we don’t really give directions to our riders, we just like to let them be free to what they want to say. If it is like a sensitive topic, then we would just have an open discussion about what their thoughts were on the topic. And if they need help with how they could approach it, which some of the young guys really need, we provide them with some guidelines. We know that when you’re a young guy without any media experience in the past, it can be quite scary. But generally, our riders are pretty laid back and don’t need this kind of help. That does not mean we don’t offer that.

A thing very specific for cycling are the post-race interviews. Riders are still on their bike catching their breath when a dozen journalists shove a microphone in their face. When cyclists are tired, they can react differently to some situations. Answers are less advised and thought through. Journalist know that riders are at their most vulnerable and know that they can gather some exciting headlines. However , Emily doesn’t really see a problem with this.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good or a bad thing. I think it’s unique and it offers a exclusive perspective into the sport and the suffering and the beauty and the magic of it. And, of course, if you win a race, that’s whe, the emotions are at their highest. People love to see that. That’s exciting. People are interested in what is happening after that moment, where the real pure emotion is. But in that moment, my job is to see if they are ready to talk to the media or if they need a couple minutes in the bus. it’s especially very important to make sure our youngsters are comfortable in every situation to keep them motivated. The mental game is very important in this sport.”

The best is yet to come

Ilan’s father, Patrick, never had any doubts when his son chose cycling. He always supported his son, no matter what sport he did. Together they have come a long way to stand where he is now. Of course, Ilan will have to keep working to get better and to realize his biggest dream. Being one of the best and winning a major competition.

At the age of 9 Ilan was already a member of the training club for cycling Noord-West Brabant. He only participated in the group training on Wednesday. “In his first year you could see that he could ride a bike, but he wasn’t a real cyclist. Is this going to be all right?” We wondered a few times. “But I saw him get stronger every year. It wasn’t until he was fourteen years old that he first joined the Aspirants. Dendermonde, a cycling race for ‘youngsters’. Ilan rode a strong race, and after that day he didn’t miss a race or training. The passion for cycling started growing.”

The parents were always on standby when their child had to race. They cooked, washed, went to get bicycles, took them away for races, supported where they could . “We used to do a lot. I have 27 holidays and these have all been used in recent years for his early career. That has now been reduced. In professional cycling there is a lot of help from the team. But even then, we are always ready for him and he knows that.”

Sacrificing everything

Ilan also dropped a lot to achieve his goal. “I respect every cyclist on earth” Patrick says. “When I see what they sacrifice, they all lose a part of their youth. I take my hat off to those men, and certainly to our son. He already went to France, the Czech Republic and Poland to ride in the big Nations Cup. We don’t have a problem if he goes abroad. It’s a learning process where he gets a lot of experiences and new visions. It is of course a pleasure to see your son come home after 7-8-9 days. We only have one son and of course you want the best for him.”

Cycling is a dangerous sport and as a father of a cyclist, i have a hard time with it.

Ilan’s father
Ilan’s father talks about the risk of falling in cycling. How dangerous it can be and how affected you can be when you see someone crashing on the ground. it is a devastating feeling

“You have to dare to take the risk, you learn to estimate those risks and that’s the same for Ilan. But the fright never really goes away,” says Patrick. “Especially in the first weeks after recovery you can see that he’s a bit scared to drive in team. He shows character by doing it over and over again. He has a strong character, but also the willpower to keep going and to always try again. Even when things go against him, Ilan says to himself: ‘Look, I’m back, and I’m going to come back even stronger’. He has a good character and he does everything for his passion. Just like his workouts, he never stops 10 minutes early. No, he stops five minutes too late.”

“I always try to show people things I’m capable of. Giving everything during a competition, pursuing the impossible, that’s in my character,’ Ilan says. “Last year I took part in a competition in Bassenge(Liège). I just came back from a rest period and wanted to get into rhythm without thinking about the results. Almost immediately I was surprised by a crash and a group of fifteen men escaped and created a gap of 2 minutes. It was me and my shadow, I joined back to the front group after one lap, only to be able to say to my friends in hindsight: “Did you see that?”

Ilan won the trophy of ‘Sportsman of the Year’ in his municipality Opwijk for three years in a row, which makes people recognize him during his training rides. He even received offers from a few  local pubs to start a fan club, but that isn’t important to him at the moment. “I don’t need that right now. I don’t want to impose any unnecessary pressure or obligations on myself, firstly I want to become a better cyclist and person.”

Besides cycling, Ilan also tries to make as much time as possible for his friends. “We do a little bit of everything. Have a drink together, watch a movie or go bowling.” But after heavy training days of no less than six hours he describes himself as “unproductive,” then I’d rather put my feet up and watch some Netflix”, Ilan ends.

We wrote this documentary about Ilan for a school project. However, it was an honor to work together with such a young talent. We wish Ilan all the best in the future and hope to see him on the podium of the Tour in a few years.

We would also like to thank everybody who contributed to this documentary. In specific Wilfried Vanderhaeghen, who motivated and coached us for this project

Editors: Senne Croonen, Seppe Frans, Wouter van Biezen, David Lambreghts, Junior Verhelst, Matthias Schoenmaeckers, Maxim van Mil, Wietse De Smet and Yannick Joos

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