The 2013 IRONMAN World Champion Frederik Van Lierde is only 41, but he is walking away from the sport and working on what will be next. He had planned a couple years ago to finish his pro racing career in 2020, but with Covid19 that final season was not at all as he had expected. He however stuck to the retirement plan and raced his final pro race last weekend in his hometown of Menen. He also won't race as an amateur triathlete anytime soon either as he thinks that mixing it up with age groupers so close to his pro career is not cool.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Frederik.
Frederik Van Lierde: Always a pleasure and from now on I’ll have some more free time.
ST: Last weekend you officially finished your pro racing career at the Decospan Half in your hometown in Menen - a race you organize. When did that start?
Frederik: The major of my hometown came up with the idea in November 2019. Initially we were looking for companies to take over the organization, but we didn’t find any good ones. So, by the beginning of February 2020 we started to run it ourselves. The organization consist of Ruben Vandevoorde, Henk Wekking and myself with the help of my 2 brothers Vincent and Olivier. Closer to race day we could count on numerous volunteers, great teamwork!
ST: With so many races being cancelled recently were you worried that your last race might become a Covid19 victim too?
Frederik: At some point yes, but on the other hand, it’s the major who wanted to organize it. He’s the one who takes the responsibility and he was always pro! So, by August I was pretty sure that if one race would go through, it would be the one in Menen. With 590 participants it’s not like an Ironman labeled race with way more athletes. We had to organize Covid19 proof with only 30 pro men and 15 pro women starting together. The rest of the field had to start every 5 seconds one by one. The finish area was situated on the track (like T1 and T2) and we only allowed 400 spectators. Masks, social distance, hand sanitizer.
ST: How did you come up with the number 590 and when did it sell out?
Frederik: In the beginning of our organization we were aiming for 200 participants. Very soon we were sold out and accepted another 200 participants. By August again sold out and one more time we accepted 200 more. 600 in total with 40 teams included and in the very end a couple of cancelations added up to the number 590. We could have gone for a lot more since Belgian championships were canceled on 3rd of September but we closed entries on the 31st of August.
ST: What type of Covid19 procedure was set up for the race?
Frederik: The very first thing, before you could even enter, was a body temperature measure tent and everyone had to pass through it. From the entrance to 10m before the start everyone had to wear a mask. Only the best 30 male athletes and 15 best female athletes started together. Over 500 other athletes started with 5 second difference and in the transition area all bikes were 1.5 meters separate. At the aid stations everything in bottles and just on a table so you had to take them yourself. When you have a look at www.decospantriatlonmenen.be you will see INFO / TIMING. We made a schedule so everyone had to pick up the number, put everything in transition, go to the start, start, and after the race leave the stadium as quick as possible. Everyone had a strict time schedule to follow to spread out the athletes as much as possible. Social distance is easier to maintain that way.
ST: Did the athletes enjoy being able to race after so much time with no races?
Frederik: Yes, for sure! Everyone was really delighted and happy they could finally race again. The first and only half distance race in Belgium by the way. Only a couple of smaller races and shorter distances took place this summer in Belgium. Everyone was really satisfied afterwards, and we received plenty of good comments from the participants. In my opinion people are not that critical in this situation neither, they’re just happy there was finally a race.
ST: But many other races you had planned to do did not happen.
Frederik: True and the most painful cancellations for me were Embrunman and Nice. The full is my best distance and on courses like these I can still prove what I’m worth. A first win in Embrun or a 6th win in Nice were still possible with my current shape.
ST: As you ran towards the finish in Menen was it bittersweet or were you ready for the next chapter?
Frederik: 100% ready for the next chapter! I felt happy, satisfied with my career and a really fantastic feeling to close my career in my hometown in front of all people who have known and helped me over the last 20 years. It could not have been any better! Fairy tale ending.
ST: Bart Aernouts and Pieter Heemeryck were looming in the background as you crossed the finish.
Fredrik: The race ended up very special. Pieter and Bart were both stronger than I but they waited for me 200 meter before the finish line and let me win. I came out of the water with Heemeryck and we rode the 87km in 1:55. Non drafting but Pieter waited a couple of times for me. His pace was ridiculously fast! On the run Pieter stayed with me as well. In the very end, Aernouts closed the gap. 4th place Vandendriesche and 5th place Baelde (8th in Les Sables 70.3 last week) were behind at safe distance so Bart and Pieter decided to let the race unfold like this. It made me happy and was appreciated by everyone! True gentlemen both of them, showing their respect for me.
ST: When did the thought to retire first come up?
Frederik: That decision was made in the end of 2017. We had to discuss with partners about the future. Most of them were ready to invest another 3 years and that’s how the project 2020 with 2020 as my very last season came up. A really good decision because in some way it helped me mentally. You realize you only have a few chances left, a boost for the motivation.
ST: You had a very fine career with many IRONMAN titles including the IRONMAN World Championships in Hawaii win in 2013. How do you feel in terms of what you accomplished?
Frederik: Kind of proud in fact. Hawaii has been key and very important but next to that I want to be remembered as a triathlete who performed very consistent, year after year. I could handle many different courses and climates, with a preference for harder races.
ST: Talk about some of what you consider your favorite race memories.
Frederik: Ironman France Nice 2013 I consider as my best race ever. 8h08’59” is still the course record. The battle with Bart Aernouts till the very end was magical! I started the marathon solo with an 8-minute lead over Bart - man to man. 4 loops in Nice and he took back 2 minutes every loop. So by the start of the last one he was only 2 minutes behind me. I could keep the pace on that last lap and Bart was not able to catch me. I finished with a 3-minute lead after a 2:42 marathon and Bart ran 2:37.
ST: When you ran on Alii Drive in Kona towards the finish what went through your mind?
Frederik: It felt like in my head my life went fast forward through it in that last kilometer. People who loved and supported me all the way who would be very happy. But also people who had never believed I would ever win Kona or other big races. For me it felt like you see, I did it, I can do it! As long as you believe in yourself and work with people around you who believe in you, anything is possible. Don’t quit, continue no matter what.
ST: The following year when you came back as the returning champion, did you feel a lot of pressure and expectations?
Frederik: Of course there’s more pressure, but that’s not the thing. I’m pretty good at that, even better when I need to deliver. Gives me some extra motivation. The biggest change is you meet plenty of people, shake hands, talk everywhere you go. At the bakery, the supermarket, the swimming pool, interviews, races, it never stops. That was completely new to me. Every race I competed in that year there was always something not ok. Like feeling a little sick or some fever. I remember winning in Düren with a fever. Same thing in Hawaii, I ran in 2nd position with Ben Hoffman out of Energy Lab and faded to 8th place because of a little muscle rupture in my abs. So that year 2014 my best result was only a 2nd place in Frankfurt behind Kienle and 8th in Kona.
ST: I think many folks would be super stoked about a second place in Frankfurt, and also an 8th in Kona.
Frederik: I agree but after a year like 2013 with plenty of big wins in Abu Dhabi, Nice and Kona you expect some more.
ST: What about low points?
Frederik: A couple, quite a lot even, but the most frustrating ones are the ones that you can’t control. The ones that someone else decides about your race. The blue card in Kona 2018 is still not fair for me, even now. Especially when you hear afterwards “I didn’t know it was you.” Then you realize it’s not always the same for everyone. But hey, I’ll remember the good ones and I can live with the fact that not every race will be a great success or a victory.
ST: I didn’t know that was you?
Frederik: That was what the referee told me afterwards. I did not agree with his decision and looked for him after the race in the lobby of the King K hotel. I told him I was bridging the gap between group 2 and group 1 by myself for a long time and I was almost there close to Gomez his group. Just then Dreitz and Lange overtook me, and the referee came from behind. I was at the correct distance of 12 meters that you can easily check on the Queen K. He didn’t check the distance when he was next to me, but when he was behind me and that’s the mistake he made. You can surprise an athlete by judging from behind but you have to know that’s not the way to do it. Same thing with pictures. Anyways, when I came up to him and explained him the situation, first thing he said was I didn’t know that was you. Man that answer! Still makes me angry! Afterwards I looked back at the coverage and saw him talking (warning) to the other athletes.
ST: Do you think the sport has changed much since you first started?
Frederik: For sure! Only look at the finish times, in general way faster! I feel the difference on the bike. A lot more aggressive and faster from the start. Aero positions and bikes have become faster but still, that’s not the only factor. In the first years I was racing full Ironman, the start of the bike section was easier and slower. New generation - faster, stronger, better.
ST: What is next?
Frederik: As most of you know I’m in the Belgian Army as a professional athlete since 2004. I’ll continue in the army to become the coordinator of all the elite athletes. I’ll start taking courses for 9 months from March 1, 2021 on, to become an officer. I need that position to get that job. I’m continuing as a coach as well. For 10 years I have helped triathletes with their training plans via an online platform - Coachbox. It’s called FVLcoaching and I really like doing that.
And last but not least, I will be involved with the DECOSPAN triathlon Menen for the next 5 years. We started small but we want to grow in the next editions. The company signed with us for years and that’s what you need to build up a solid and good organization.
ST: How many athletes do you coach?
Frederik: Until now I always had about 15 athletes per year. Not too many since I was still a pro triathlete. Now I will allow more and promote it as well. So spread the word.
ST: Do you think your sons will want to follow in your footsteps?
Frederik: Well, our oldest son Aaron (16) has been participating in some triathlons in the last 9 months now. But with the whole Corona situation it is not ideal. Most important for me, he enjoys it and trains 3x per week. But no ambitions so far to really go for it and invest plenty of time to get the best out of himself. But, that’s how I like it. Maybe in a couple of years he’ll do so and at least he will not risk to be over trained by then. As for our youngest son Simon (13) he’s playing soccer. For 1.5 years now he has played on a team that plays in first division in Belgium (KV Kortrijk). He trains every day about 2 to 2.5 hours and 2 times a week the training is during the day. So they can leave school and have some more time to do their homework in the evening. We’ll see where he gets but he’s doing great so far!
ST: Did you play soccer when you were younger?
Frederik: No, never with a club or in a competition. At school I loved it and I was actually not too bad at it but as I was swimming a lot my parents did not allow me to combine the two. So I continued swimming.
ST: Will you still do triathlons? Or other adventures now that you have more time?
Frederik: In the future I will continue to do some sport, of course! I can't live without. No more swimming for now but still some riding and running. I planned to run a marathon but because of Covid there are none to do for now. So maybe in 2021. No more triathlon, I had my part and I don't want to mix up with age groupers so close after my pro career, that's not fair.
Images 1, 2, 3, 5 © David Pintens
Image 4 © Herbert Krabel
Image 6 courtesy Frederik Van Lierde