WorldTeam Nikolas Maes and Annelies Dom about their first months as Lotto Soudal sports directors

Both sports directors talk about the ins and outs of the cycling world and their ultimate dream.
General 01 April 2021

At the end of last year,  Annelies Dom and Nikolas Maes both ended their careers as professional cyclists. However, they immediately took on a new challenge. Nikolas joined the Lotto Soudal WorldTeam as sports director, Annelies became sports director at the Lotto Soudal Ladies. Both sports directors talk about their first months in the new job, the ins and outs of the cycling world and their ultimate dream.

Annelies and Nikolas, what was it like to be driving the team car for the first time?

“Before I received my definitive license, I had to be in the team car alongside an experienced sports director during five race days in Belgium”, says Annelies Dom. “In the beginning, it was quite hectic, because you have to pay attention to the road, but there are also a lot of other things going on when you’re in the car. The jury gives the race information, the riders talk to you through the radio or you hear them talk to each other, we talk in the team car, you follow the course to pass necessary information to your riders,…”

“The Tour de la Provence was my first assignment as sports director”, Nikolas Maes begins. “I have to admit there was a healthy portion of stress, but I was really looking forward to it. Fortunately, I know the ins and outs of the peloton from a rider’s perspective, which made my debut a little bit easier. My fellow sports director Maxime Monfort was an ideal guide and already taught me some tricks of the trade.”

Annelies Dom: “My first race as a sports director was the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and it didn’t go all perfect. When I rejoined the race caravan, the team car in front of me suddenly braked. Fortunately, I was able to stop on time without hitting the vehicle, but the car behind me didn’t, so a minor collision took place. Luckily without any real damage, but it immediately made for an eventful debut.”

Why exactly did you want to become a sports director?

Annelies Dom: I really wanted a job in the sport sector and it is fantastic to be able to share my experience as a former rider. Being a sports director includes a lot of tasks, you meet so many people and there are always different situations to deal with. It also requires analytical skills. It is a job in which I can express my own personality. This was an opportunity I wanted to grasp with both hands.”

Nikolas Maes: “Last year, partly due to the lockdown, I started thinking more and more about the chapter after my professional cycling career. Cycling is the common thread throughout my life and you don’t want to give this up so abruptly, of course. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the job as a sports director. At the moment, my main focus is on the Flemish Classics and it feels nice that the team gives me full confidence.”

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Being sports director, are there certain things included in the job that you weren’t aware of as a rider?

Nikolas Maes doesn’t have to think long and immediately says: “Yes, a lot actually. I would even say that during my active cycling career, I only saw half of what being a sports director actually entails. I knew that a sports director drives the team car and gives briefings, but that’s about it. But there really is a lot more to it than you would think. From early morning to late at night, you’re busy. It’s not really physical work, but more thinking and planning.”

Annelies Dom fully agrees: “An enormous amount of time and work goes into the preparations for a race, a part which you don’t see as a rider. It doesn’t seem like a lot of work, but there’s so much more to it than you would think. Before the race, I study the course in detail with the help of Veloviewer. I mark all the important sections like hills, cobbles, obstacles,... Based on the analysis of the course, I make a presentation which I discuss with the riders during the briefing. Apart from race tactics, we also discuss the lessons we can learn from previous races. Because I don’t want to approach each race separately, it’s a continuous process that we are in.”

What type of sports director do you want to be?

Annelies Dom: “I want to keep a close contact with the riders and communicate a lot with them. I hope they feel supported and therefore motivated to give the best of themselves.”

Nikolas Maes: “Mainly the type I liked when I was a rider. It is difficult to capture the essence in one sentence. But with every decision I make, I ask myself: how would I have liked it when I was a rider? That way, you already get quite far. As a rider, I was often realistic, but also critical. I use that attitude now in my job as sports director.”

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received from a sports director?

“There are a few sports directors I looked up to when I was a rider”, says Nikolas Maes. “I try to apply some of their thinking in my job. But there is not one specific piece of advice. For me, it is mainly about the full package. When a rider trusts a sports director, you automatically get better.”

Annelies Dom: “What motivated me a lot was when Liesbet De Vocht – with whom I rode with in the peloton – said: “you don’t know half how strong you are and what you do for the team.” Such a positive message is very motivating and makes you feel very appreciated. It gives you wings.”

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What are the ambitions for 2021?

“We haven’t had a smooth start to the season, but I think it’s interesting to work on these areas of improvement”, says Annelies Dom. “It’s rewarding to see progress. I know we have strong riders in our team, but they need self-esteem and they have to be able to make decisions quickly. Together, we are going to work on that. If we notice at the end of this season that we’ve made a positive evolution, then we’ll be able to finish this first year in the new structure with a satisfied feeling.”

Nikolas Maes continues: “We have a very qualitative and talented team, so we need to have healthy ambitions. Ultimately, it’s always the riders who have to deliver the performance. As a sports director, it’s your task to prepare them as good as possible for the races. But it is an illusion to think that a sports director can make the difference between a mediocre team and a top team. However, it is crucial that you advise and assist your riders as best you can. Personally, I have the ambition to further develop as a sports director, but I don’t make any specific statements about that.”

What is your ultimate dream to experience as a sports director?

“My main focus is on the Flemish Classics, so winning a spring Classic is of course the big dream. With my history as a Classics rider, the Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix would be the ultimate thing. It doesn’t even matter which one”, says Nikolas Maes with a wink.

Annelies Dom: “Just to win a race, I don’t want to dream too big yet. I was already nervous when Jesse Vandenbulcke was in the breakaway at the Omloop van de Westhoek and battled for a podium spot, so just imagine that you win a race with one of your riders. That would give such an adrenaline rush.”

A final question, do you still have time to practice any sports?

Annelies Dom: “I don’t have much time left to exercise. I’ve some problems with my back and I’m not able to go jogging for half an hour or an hour. And for cycling, you need a lot more time… It’s a pity because I usually need sport to unwind.”

Nikolas Maes also has little time left to exercise: “At the moment, I don’t have the time but I would like to pick up the thread after the spring Classics. But I still love to ride my bike and I would also like to try something new, like tennis. But for now, most of my time is filled with the spring Classics. I will always remain a competitive person, but I don’t feel the urge to prove myself anymore. Now it’s about competing against other sports directors”, concludes Nikolas Maes.

Images: Facepeeters.