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Even ardent fans of cycling might have a hard time recognizing Loïc Vliegen, but his story exemplifies those of many “anonymous” riders in the Tour de France peloton. If you paid close attention to this year’s spring classics, you may remember that Vliegen T-boned a cushion-protected wall on the descent of the Poggio when he was in the lead group at Milan–San Remo; and he was the last survivor of the day’s big breakaway in Liège–Bastogne–Liège when he cramped up in both legs on the Côte des Forges. In his seven years as a professional (four with Team BMC, three with his current squad, Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Vliegen has won three times: a stage and overall victory at the 2019 Tour de Wallonie and first place at the 2020 Tour du Doubs, a French semi-classic.
Those performances, plus a solid 12th overall at the Baloise Belgium Tour in early June, helped him get picked by his team for the Tour—much to his own surprise. On Instagram, he posted a wide-eyed, shocked-looking selfie, captioned: “Me, when I learn that I’m going to my first Tour de France.” The 27-year-old Belgian was expected to work for the team’s leader Louis Meintjes, the South African climber, who Vliegen had raced with when they were both on the same junior team 10 years ago—Vliegen comes from a family of bike racers and began racing at age 14. He admires Meintjes for twice finishing top 10 at the Tour…but for Vliegen the Tour was a big unknown.
After stage 1 and its two massive pileups, he tweeted: “Fortunately I crashed on other riders.” Even so, when you fall onto a pile of riders and bikes at 70 kph you get damaged; and Vliegen didn’t find out till later that he had an internal knee injury. Five days in, he wrote, “What madness…what intensity! The danger of the stages, the stress, the tension, the very large public made the race very difficult…but I’m happy to get out of the first 4 stages without too many scratches!”
At 154 pounds and just over 6 feet, Vliegen is not built for the high mountains and after the first day in the Alps he posted a photo of himself finishing in Le Grand Bornand, his mouth open and face muddied, along with two emojis, one sweating, the other one crying. Twenty-four hours later, at the end of the brutally wet and cold climbing stage to Tignes, he wrote: “I was suffering of my knee since my crash the first day. … I fought till the line but unfortunately I’m out of time limit.” On a day when a dozen riders left the race (including stars such as Arnaud Démare, Primoz Roglic and Mathieu van der Poel), Vliegen’s disappearance from the Tour garnered little publicity. Just an unknown warrior calling it quits.
Back home in Riemst, Belgium, Vliegen was diagnosed with inflammation of the plica in his left knee. Within 10 days he’d restarted training on his home trainer and declared himself fit enough to start this week’s Tour de Wallonie—the stage race in his home region that he won two years ago. Vliegen is probably best suited to the classics, and he admits that he still has lots to learn. “I’m pretty impulsive,” he said earlier this year. “I must be more patient, more calm. The day when I’ve understood that I’ll start to get better results, I think.”
The Tour’s Lost Boys
In the first week 19 riders dropped out; another 20 left the race by the second rest day; and four more did not make it to Paris, making a total of 43 abandons from 184 starters (see “The Final Verdict: 43 Lost Boys, a 23% Attrition Rate”).