In May this year, Niels Albert (28) announced an abrupt end to his competitive cyclo-cross career due to a heart condition. For someone who has four world titles (junior, U-23 and two elite) that represents a massive change in lifestyle.
“I was sure that my best years were still to come,” he said at the time. “It’s tough.”
But he did not win his world titles with a defeatist attitude so, deprived of the sporting life he knew, he was not going to sit around wallowing in self pity. Five months on, he is acclimatising to life on the other side of the fence.
Recently appointed Sport Director of the young Belgian team Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace, Albert will be with his team in Valkenburg (the Netherlands) this weekend for the opening round of the 2014-2015 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup. It’s a race that, a few short months ago, he could have nursed ambitions of winning.
Return to racing atmosphere
“For the moment it’s a bit of a strange feeling,” admits Albert. “But I am getting used to it. I can’t race, so being a Sports Director gives me the perfect opportunity to be at races and have a little bit of the same feeling as when I was competing.
“I get a bit nervous for my riders and it is great when a guy in my team wins. But of course it’s not the same feeling as when you win yourself.”
He takes his new role very seriously and believes his experience as an athlete can help him in his task.
“I know the two worlds now and I think that is important. A rider must feel he can say anything to his Sports Director,” explains Albert. “He must know that he can ring him at any time during the week if he needs to. As a Sport Director, I must be correct, get angry if necessary but also be a friend.”
The Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace team is young and full of talented riders such as U23 World Champion Wout Van Aert. Despite some injuries within the team – leader Rob Peeters has some back issues and Van Aert has returned to competition after breaking his collarbone last month – Albert is optimistic for Valkenburg. They have had good results in recent weeks.
“I think it will be a very exciting race,” he predicts.
Bike shop to open soon
Most of Albert’s work with Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace will be concentrated on the European winter months. That will leave him time to devote to his new shop, the Niels Albert Bike Store, which he will open in Tremelo in December. He is currently flat out working on this project with his friend and business partner Paskal Teugels, as well as his wife Chantal who is looking after the administrative side.
Meanwhile his freshly-written biography has hit the bookshop shelves and last week the former World Champion signed copies at its launch in his hometown.
“I’m busy, very busy at the moment,” says Albert. “I don’t want to sit at home on the sofa doing nothing.”
2014/15 UCI Cyclo-Cross WC TeaserClip – Valkenburg