Nils Eekhoff: a Wise Head on Young Shoulders Tour de France Unsung Heroes

The second time Nils Eekhoff ever went training on a bike, he broke his collarbone.

By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images: Getty

The 8-year-old Eekhoff had taken up cycling because he wanted a new sport after quitting judo. Watching the Tour de France on TV one summer, he told his parents that is what he wanted to do.

Eekhoff soon joined a local club and he got a quick introduction to what life might be like as a professional rider.

“My grandfather always watched cycling and my father also. He never started racing but it was still always on the TV,” Eekhoff told VeloNews. “At some moment, I quit judo, and then I had to choose a new sport.

“We were watching the Tour de France, and I said I would like to try cycling. I ended up at some cycling club nearby and I did some test training. In my second training ever, when I didn’t even have a license, I broke my collarbone just by falling over.”

Eekhoff’s father had been filling out the forms to apply for a racing license when he returned from training. Most eight-year-olds would be put off by the sudden shock of breaking their collarbone, but he chalked it up as a learning experience.

“He asked me if he should stop, and I said if I will be a good cyclist then I will probably break it another time. Luckily it hasn’t happened so far,” he said.

“It didn’t stop me.”

Some 14 years on from pointing at TV images of the Tour de France and picking cycling as his new sport, Eekhoff has started his first Grand Boucle. Not only is it his debut Tour, but it is his first three-week race.

“It’s really an honor and it’s special to be selected for the Tour and to be a part of that. I’m also a bit nervous, as it is my first time at the Tour and the first time at a grand tour,” Eekhoff said just over a week before the Tour rolled out from Brest on Saturday.

“I think it’s hard to know what it’s like until you’ve done it. It will probably be a bit surreal.”

Fortunately for Eekhoff, he avoided any injuries in the two mass pile-ups on the opening stage Saturday. The same couldn’t be said for his teammate Jasha Sutterlin, who earned the dubious title of the first rider to abandon the race.

A wise head on young shoulders

With his pragmatic response to breaking his collarbone as an eight-year-old, Eekhoff showed from an early age his capacity to cope well when things didn’t go his way. He would need that a few years later when he had his biggest result taken away from him.

Those that know the name Eekhoff, may remember it from the drama that unfolded after the U23 men’s road race at the world championships in 2019. Eekhoff was initially declared the winner after outsprinting a group that contained Samuele Battistella, Stefan Bissegger, Tom Pidcock, and Sergio Higuita.

He got to enjoy the feeling of being world champion for a short while before he had the win taken from him and given to Battistella after he was deemed to have been drafting behind team cars following a crash. He challenged the ruling but it was deemed inadmissible by the Court of Arbitration for Sport earlier this year.

Nearly two years on, Eekhoff looks at the experience as something that has ultimately helped him.

“It was a big rollercoaster of course. First, the big moment of happiness and just this bubble of joy. It was a really special feeling to cross the line first in the world championships in Harrogate,” he said.

“It all went so quick, and it’s hard to really say what was going on then. I was really sad, of course, but also some disbelief. It’s hard to describe the feeling. In the end, there are more important things in life and mentally I got stronger from it. There are still so many years ahead of me as a WorldTour rider hopefully, and I only got a stronger feeling to prove myself.”

Nils Eekhoff 2019 cycling world championships
Nils Eekhoff’s winning feeling didn’t last long Photo: Tim de Waele / Getty Images

Turning professional in the aftermath of that disappointment was an opportunity to put it behind him. However, he got just 13 racing days into his professional career when the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a grinding halt.

“We in the Netherlands were some of the lucky ones as we could train outside still,” he told VeloNews. “For that I’m really thankful. This made it a lot easier, but of course, it was difficult at times. There were ups and downs. Sometimes I was really enjoying myself making the hours, with the nice weather, and training hard. Other times, there were two or three off-days where you were thinking what am I doing without racing? Then, it was tougher.

“The team really tried the best to keep in contact with all the riders. We did special workshops in groups to also keep the riders together in contact, so we didn’t lose each other. In the last part of the lockdown, we went with the whole team to an altitude camp. We had three really good weeks of training and a good time with the team training hard and being together.”

As with any rider, putting in the right training is a big part of racing, but enjoying oneself is equally as important for Eekhoff.

“As long as you do your thing, and that you’re enjoying yourself trying to make the best of things then it’s good,” Eekhoff said. “When you are not enjoying what you are doing, you cannot get the most out of it and that’s a shame.”