Headwinds, friendships and dreams – Wallays’ and De Gendt’s 12-day bikepacking adventure

The two Belgians rode from Flanders to the Costa Blanca, and left with a glimpse beyond their pro careers

Clock12:07, Friday 28th July 2023

Courtesy of Jelle Wallays

Amid the all-consuming circus of the Tour de France, it can be easy to forget that there are plenty of pros not doing much racing right now. Most of them will still be riding, busy at training camps preparing for the latter part of the season, but not many will be strapping bags to their bikes and trekking 2,000 kilometres through four countries.

At the weekend, Thomas De Gendt and Jelle Wallays rolled into Calpe, on the southeastern corner of Spain, having set out from northern Belgium 12 days previously.

In between lay a near-constant headwind and a baking sun, hundreds of litres of water, tens of baguettes, one budding friendship, and a prevailing sense of adventure.

This was, it turns out, all new for Wallays. While De Gendt has embarked on a few of these multi-day trips - although nothing this long - Wallays was as green as they come. Not that he was dragged along; in fact, De Gendt had planned the trip already, and a semi-serious appeal for company via social media led to a partner in crime for two weeks on the road.

“It was a bit of a surprise," Wallays tells GCN. "Thomas asked on Twitter for some company for the trip so I sent him a message. I wanted to have some sort of new experience, and I didn’t have any training camp planned so this was a nice opportunity.

“First of all I asked my team, and they said ‘no problem’. Then I asked my girlfriend - 'no problem'. And away we went.”

Wallays and De Gendt are former teammates, having spent five years at the Lotto team between 2016 and 2020, but they weren’t an obvious partnership.

“We know each other a bit but not a lot, so it was also a surprise to see how it would go between us. But we have the same humour, and also we are sort of the same cyclist - we like to go on the attack, in breakaways - so it was a good match.”

The pair set off on July 3, leaving their respective Flanders homes before linking up in Tournai, crossing into France and tracking due south for the best part of a week. They negotiated the Pyrenees by way of the Pas de la Casa in Andorra, and then continued south through western Catalonia and down the Valencian coast to Calpe, a hot spot for winter training and location of De Gendt’s holiday home.

“We did 23,000 altitude metres, so we looked for the flatter roads, but the day in Andorra… we called it our ‘rest day’ as we only did 67km but 40km was climbing, up to 2,300 metres above sea level," Wallays recalls.

“The route got better and better. The first three days weren’t so fun, because when you’re still near home you know the roads, and then in the north of France there were too many long open roads. But once past Paris it was only beautiful roads - new roads, new areas, new nature, which is what I enjoyed the most.”

Wallays and De Gendt decided to sleep in hotels - “a good starting point for a newbie” - giving their trip a basic structure as they knew where they’d be staying every night and how much riding they’d be doing every day.

It also saved some weight on the bikes, which were in fact team-issue race machines. In the case of Wallays, riding his Look 795 Blade RS, he didn’t change anything from his race set-up save for swapping tubeless for tubes and adding a few drops of a new chain wax. On the 7kg bike was just as much luggage, with a frame bag, saddle bag and bar bag, as well as a two-litre water bladder on the back.

“My bike was definitely not used to this,” he jokes. “Actually you use totally different muscles this way, because of where the weight is on the bike. I think it came to 13kg, which is a big difference, basically double the weight. Then it’s not possible to handle like you do in training or racing.”

The trip passed by without many of the mishaps that so often accompany these voyages into the unknown. In fact, they only suffered one puncture between them, an agonising eight kilometres from their destination. The one thorn in the side - or rather, in the face - was the wind.

“We had 12 days of headwind, it was crazy,” Wallays says. “In the end, you have to laugh about it. We were joking with each other, saying ‘if we turn and go home, I think the wind will turn also, just to play with us’.

“The wind was also the only thing that caused any tension. In the last 20km of each day, things would become quiet. You’re close to the finish but it’s still 40 minutes in a headwind, when you are totally empty. From the first day until the last, we would fall silent for those last 20km.

“Otherwise, in the 12 days we spent together we never had tensions with each other. The friendship is growing, I would say.”

What's next?

Wallays appears to have enjoyed his first taste of bikepacking, and that’s even more apparent when we ask him if he’d do it again.

“I actually wanted to ride home as well,” he says, deadly serious. “I said to my girlfriend, if I had the time, I’d turn around and come back, then it would be 4,000km in 24 days.

“For sure I was tired but after a good night’s sleep I was already thinking about the next trip.”

It’s a conversation he and De Gendt already had on the roads near Calpe, with the Transcontinental Race - an epic 4,000km self-supported scramble through Europe - pencilled onto their bucket list. It’s also a conversation brought on by their proximity to the end of the pro cycling conveyor belt; De Gendt is 36 and retiring at the end of 2024, Wallays 34 and still without a contract for next season.

“I’m worried about it," he says. "Cycling is changing a lot, it’s much more intense than seven or eight years ago and I know it’s not easy now to have a pro contract when you are 34.

“For me, if I have two years more, my dream is coming true - to be 15 years a pro cyclist."

In that respect, bikepacking may have broadened Wallays' horizons beyond the pro cycling bubble, but what if it ends up being the thing that keeps him in there for a little longer?

“On Training Peaks, this is the first time my fitness is growing like this,” he says of the physical effect of the 12-day adventure. “In a Grand Tour you have more intensity but this is the most hours I’ve ever done in 12 days.

“I’m actually very curious to see how I go now. Normally I’m always good after a Grand Tour. I’ve got the Tour de Wallonie coming up this weekend, and I’m really excited about that one now.”

It remains to be seen whether or not that particular dream comes true, but at least Wallays now knows there are other dreams to be dreamt.

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