Master

Master's student Eva van Agt suddenly became a pro cyclist: “Studying provides a nice distraction”

From university cycling club to the Tour de France

25-01-2023 · Interview

When Eva van Agt (25) began competing in student races, she had no idea how the world of professional cycling worked. Fast forward two years and the UM master’s student has not just taken part in the Tour de France, but also signed a contract with one of the world’s most famous pro cycling teams – Team Jumbo-Visma. And yes, in case you were wondering, she is related to former Prime Minister of the Netherlands Dries van Agt.

The realisation slowly dawned on her on the steep slopes of the Limburg hills and the nearby Ardennes. The numbers she was seeing on her power meter during climbs were not far off from the power data of the pros she liked to “stalk” on the Strava cycling app. And on training rides with her university cycling club, she was able to keep up with the men – or even drop them altogether. Was she good enough to go pro? “There was this little voice in my head saying, ‘Maybe I could do it.’ But it was always followed by a much louder voice, shouting, ‘Not anymore, you’re too old.’”

But the little voice was right. In May 2022, less than two years after joining a cycling club for the first time, Eva van Agt signed her first professional contract with the British cycling team Le Col-Wahoo. And as of January 2023, she will compete in the World Tour – the highest tier of professional cycling – for Team Jumbo-Visma, where she is a teammate of big names like Marianne Vos and last year’s Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard.

America

For years, Van Agt’s focus was on another sport. In 2013, she was 16 years old when she made her debut in the top tier of Dutch field hockey as a player for NMHC Nijmegen. At 18, she received an athletic scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, near Chicago, where she combined studying mathematics and economics with playing competitive field hockey for four years. “It was a great adventure. My goal was to develop as a hockey player before returning to the Dutch top division.”

But during her time in the United States, her love of cycling grew. “I’d done some cycling in Nijmegen, and I kept it up in the US. On those rides, I discovered how beautiful the country was. I persuaded my teammates to go on bike trips with me during breaks. We once cycled from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for example. Our coaches weren’t too happy about it – they were worried we would crash and injure ourselves – but we always came back in great shape. After my studies, I spent six months travelling through America with my bike. That’s when I thought, ‘If I could do it all over again, I would become a pro cyclist.’ But I was already 22. I thought I was too old to master the technique of bike racing.”

After she moved back to the Netherlands, her field hockey dream gradually faded away. She returned to her former Nijmegen club, which had been relegated to a lower division, but the covid pandemic soon shut down the competition. Cycling was still allowed, so Van Agt threw herself into it. She also decided to pursue a master’s degree in Data Science and Decision Making at Maastricht University. Her choice of university was motivated by her love of cycling. “To be honest, I mostly wanted to go to Maastricht because it’s in such a beautiful, hilly area. It’s a good training ground.”

Taking a bottle

She joined Dutch Mountains, the student cycling association. “I had no idea how the world of cycling worked, but I knew I could compete in races. Training with men also made me stronger.” Her talent didn’t go unnoticed for long. She beat riders from higher-ranked clubs in student races. And in September 2021, a year after joining Dutch Mountains, she won bronze in the event for women with no racing licence at the Dutch Student Championships.

Things moved fast after that. Encouraged by her teammates, she joined a Dutch club team called Restore Cycling Team. “I was curious to see how far I would come.” In April 2022, she competed in the Volta Limburg Classic on her home turf around Maastricht, catching the attention of pro team Le Col-Wahoo. “I was the only non-pro in the front group, eventually finishing ninth. Afterwards, their sports director invited me to a team training session in the Ardennes. They had me do all kinds of tests – like putting on and taking off a jacket while riding, or taking a bottle – to see if I had some skill and not just raw power. It went well, and they offered me a pro contract.”

Exhausting

Two months later, she found herself at the starting line of the biggest bike race in the world – the Tour de France. For the first time in years, the women’s edition was a multi-day stage race. “It was bizarre. There I was, in the peloton, riding alongside great riders like Annemiek van Vleuten and Marianne Vos. The level was extremely high and I had to be constantly alert. Everyone wanted to be at the front, so it was very hectic and there were a lot of crashes. It was exhausting. I had nothing left in my legs by the time we reached the mountain stages towards the end, which are better suited to me.”

There was also a flurry of media attention, partly caused by the fact that her grandfather is Dries van Agt – former prime minister of the Netherlands, and a known cycling enthusiast. “I declined most media requests. I wanted to get results first; I didn’t want to be interviewed just because I’m his granddaughter. Fortunately, I didn’t feel the pressure while racing.”

And all the while, she was still a student. “I was even serving as treasurer of Dutch Mountains at the time. I’d taken on the position almost a year earlier. I had some time for my board duties in-between races, but studying was pretty much out of the question. Fortunately, I’d already finished all my courses and my internship. All I had to do was write my thesis.” It wasn’t until the off season, around October, that she had some breathing room. “That’s when I could finally get started on it, which I’d intended to do in April. Fortunately, I got an extension because of my pro athlete status at UM.”

Maths

Just because it’s the off season doesn’t mean the writing process is smooth sailing, though. “My topic is rather abstract, very maths heavy, so I can’t just work on it for an hour here and there. It makes things difficult, as I currently spend a lot of time training – cycling during the day, strength training in the evening. And I have even less free time when I’m at training camp. I hope to make some progress in the coming weeks, around the one-day races in the spring. We don’t train much in between, so I’ll have more time. And then I’d be able to finish it in October, during the next off season.”

Why bother, though? She’s a professional athlete now, after all. “It’s also just a nice distraction. I like to do something with my brain in addition to cycling. It makes cycling feel like a hobby rather than an obligation. And it means I wouldn’t get bored if I had to spend some time recovering after a crash.” Besides, cycling and studying go quite well together. “You get a lot of time to think when you spend so many hours on the bike. Sometimes I come up with new ideas. That only goes for training rides, though. In a race, you have to give your full attention to the rear wheel of the rider ahead of you, or you’ll crash in no time”, she laughs.

Call

Van Agt is currently preparing for her first full season as a pro. She will represent her new team for the first time at the Tour of Valencia on 16 February. How did she secure a contract with Team Jumbo-Visma? “They’d shown an interest in signing me next season. I still had a year left on my contract with Le Col-Wahoo, but the team was facing funding problems after a sponsor pulled out. I called Jumbo-Visma and asked if I could come early. A bit unconventional, perhaps, but it did work.”

Her first few weeks at the World Tour team have been a positive experience. “This was another step up for me, and I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have as much freedom as I used to. But I still get to go for training rides with Dutch Mountains every now and then, which I’m glad about, as I still have a lot of friends there. In fact, I’m still a member there. Pro cyclists are required to be registered with a cycling club. I’m probably one of the few pros who is registered with a student club.” Van Agt was also relieved to find that Team Jumbo-Visma doesn’t focus on data to the exclusion of all else. Really – even though she is a Data Science student? “Sure, power output and sleep quality data are useful for evaluations. But when I’m racing, I want to race by feel.”

What would she like to achieve in her career? “It would be fun to compete in races around here, on the roads I train on, like the Amstel Gold Race. But I don’t have any specific goals, to be honest. My dream was to become a pro cyclist, or rather to be good enough that someone wanted to sponsor a bike for me. That dream has already come true. Now, I just want to enjoy it as much as possible.”

This is an attitude Van Agt shares with Annemiek van Vleuten, one of her role models. It just so happens that Van Vleuten, too, started cycling when she was about 25 years old. Now, at 40, she is still one of the most successful riders in the women’s peloton. “I was always worried that I’d started too late, but I’m actually still quite young for a cyclist.”

Photos: Team Jumbo-Visma

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: evavanagt,cycling,sports,pro athlete,dutch mountains,students,instagram

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