Summer interview (1): 24 hours in Gosse van der Meer’s wheel
Gosse van der Meer (22) is Frisian, a top athlete, student, globetrotter and prospective cartographer. He refers to being paid for cycling as ‘a good trick’. One day following in the tracks of a moustachioed cyclocross racer. ‘I often listen to lectures in my hammock. What a life!’
7.45 a.m. Six months ago, Gosse van der Meer (22) exchanged a furnished anti-squat flat in Groesbeek for a spacious apartment in Kranenburg, just across the German border. I ring his doorbell just before 8 a.m. “Good morning! Have you had breakfast? Would you like some coffee?”
Gosse works his way through two sandwiches and a large bowl of buckwheat muesli, his lean muscular legs resting on a desk chair. The Frisian talks animatedly and with great enthusiasm about his youth. “By clear weather I could see the glow of the Ameland lighthouse from my bedroom window. When we were little, we played soldiers in the meadows. We threw cow dung at each other. It was so much fun!”
Little Gosse was too fanatical for team sports. He always cried when he lost. One day, his uncle gave him his old racing bicycle. “After taking part in a few races on the road, I was selected as the first junior of the club that year for the Dutch championship.”
Gosse discovered that he liked cyclocross even better than road cycling. And that he had a talent for wallowing in the mud: “Within six or seven weeks I’d won a cross at the highest level in the Netherlands. One thing led to another, and at some point people started to pay me to cycle. What a good trick that is!”
These days Gosse is not often seen in Friesland, except when he has to swap equipment at his parents’ storage unit. “Everybody knows me in Friesland. In the winter, cyclocross races are broadcast on TV every week, and I often appear in the papers. My mother has already started on her fourth scrapbook.”
9.30 a.m. In Gosse’s Renault Kangoo we drive to the “the greatest gym around town”. Gosse has trained in this fully equipped gym since he moved to Groesbeek.
In the car he talks about his last cross season, which basically went up in smoke. “At the World Championship in Namur, I fell in the first lap on a sharp stone. I thought there was a bit of stone in my knee, so I started digging in it, all the way into my kneecap. They had to put in seventeen stitches.”
Bio Born in Surhuizum (1995), completed his pre-University education at the Groningen Talent School for Top Sports (then Werkman College), now studying Geography, Planning and Environment at Radboud University (Bachelor’s nearly completed) The air-conditioning makes the air in the gym nice and cool. At this time of day, there are mostly older people around. In the background you can hear upbeat music. In the summer, Gosse trains here twice a week, in the winter three times. “As a cyclist, you train mostly your lower body, but your torso should remain in balance.”
Born in Surhuizum (1995), completed his pre-University education at the Groningen Talent School for Top Sports (then Werkman College), now studying Geography, Planning and Environment at Radboud University (Bachelor’s nearly completed)
The air-conditioning makes the air in the gym nice and cool. At this time of day, there are mostly older people around. In the background you can hear upbeat music. In the summer, Gosse trains here twice a week, in the winter three times. “As a cyclist, you train mostly your lower body, but your torso should remain in balance.”
For one hour, Gosse moves from machine to machine. He pushes weights up with his legs, rotates a heavy ball around his torso while standing on a BOSU ball, and walks through the hall ostrich-style with a heavy pillow in his neck. In between, he chats good-humouredly with the other gym visitors.
10.45 a.m. In his slippers, Gosse paces determinedly through the Groesbeek supermarket. The Frisian throws a can of coconut milk in his shopping cart, to make his favourite dessert. “Heat up some sugar in a pan, then add highly concentrated coconut milk and banana chunks. It’s a protein bomb, but so good! I discovered it when I was racing in China.”
12.00 p.m. Gosse quickly performs a few roll exercises, to prevent lactic acid building up in his leg muscles.
Before we eat he gives me an extensive tour of his stylish apartment. “I bring back souvenirs from every place I visit. Fewer than five items in this living-room were bought by me. This lamp and cabinet are from the thrift store, the couch and table I got from my fellow cross-cyclist Joris Nieuwenhuis. This picture of Buddha I bought in a temple on a trip across Mongolia, where I was taking part in a race. The hammock and the guitar hangers on the wall I bought myself.”
The main feature of the apartment is an old map of Europe, above the bed in his bedroom. “I patched it up myself,” laughs the prospective cartographer.
Gosse is a globetrotter. In August, he’ll run four cross races and a stage race in Australia, then he’s off for a trip across China. “Still, I’m there for the races, not on holiday. Last year I was in Mongolia: you can’t go out after 7 p.m., it’s much too dangerous. You can consider yourself lucky to get home safely.”
12.50 p.m. Gosse sends an e-mail to his tyre sponsor with some feedback about the product. Last year, the Frisian launched his own cycling team, with himself as the only racer. This brought a lot of administration in its wake. “I can easily spend five to six hours on it a week.”
Until last year, the top athlete student rode under the auspices of the Belgian cycling team Tarteletto-Isorex. “I was the only cyclocross racer in a team focused solely on road racing. I was also the only student. They couldn’t always take this into account, which made it difficult at times. I had to give up a lot of my own opportunities to watch other people win. That’s not always nice, especially if you spend an average of 25 hours a week on your bike.”
Gosse took a firm decision: he would become his own boss. He manages his own equipment, puts together his own racing programme, books flights and hotels, and maintains contact with the media. “I’ve negotiated my start contracts myself since the early days of my career. You don’t really need a manager to send out three emails, do you?”
As long as he can cover his fixed costs, he’ll keep racing. “In the winter, I get some start and prize money. I also make a bit of money with professional crits. I couldn’t win a cross race in Belgium, but in Switzerland, England or Italy, I can. The same is true of mountain bike races in Germany. I love cycling through the forest. And if I don’t feel like it, I don’t go.”
And yet, Gosse does see himself as a competition animal. “My big goal is to win a cross race against the pros. I might be able to pull it off this winter in England, Switzerland or Luxemburg.” And he doesn’t allow himself to be thrown off course: “You shouldn’t be too nice to your rivals. I never start a fight, but if someone starts pushing me, I push back twice as hard. That’s the first thing I learned from my trainer. I like to keep things sportsmanlike, but I don’t let people walk all over me. At this level, you pay the price right away.”
A few weeks ago, Gosse took a cycling trip to visit all his sponsors in Italy and Switzerland. “I visited everyone to see what we’re going to do this year. All my sponsors are really supportive of my career, but they also know that cyclists have few options at the end of their racing careers. That’s why everyone’s encouraging me to study and I even got some money to cover my tuition fees.”
2.00 p.m. Gosse scrolls through some photographs of a race he got from a photographer. He forwards to his sponsors any photograph on which they are clearly visible. Companies use these images for their catalogues. “Like this one here. You can clearly see my socks.”
He himself doesn’t have to be recognisable. Even his moustache doesn’t have to be visible. “Oh, the moustache. The result of a bet with fellow cyclist Sieben Wouters that got out of hand: we agreed to be like Canadian ice-hockey players and not shave until the end of the season. Since I was injured before the last race, I kept the moustache. That was two years ago. I don’t really care what people think of it.”
2.30 p.m. In four days’ time Gosse will take part in a mountain bike race in the German Emmelshausen, close to Koblenz. In his cellar at home, he puts the final touches to his mountain bike. Within half an hour he polishes the bike, fixes the wheels, and puts on a new chain. A bicycle mechanic couldn’t do it that fast. “I love my equipment. I could talk about it for hours.”
3.15 p.m. On the couch we watch a bit of the Giro. Gosse admits he hasn’t seen more than half an hour of the race yet. “Actually, I’m not really into cycling races. At the presentation of my former sponsor in Belgium, everyone was gravitating around this one man. I thought he was a famous singer, the Belgian Gordan or Gerard Joling, maybe. When I discreetly asked who he was, the atmosphere changed immediately. He turned out to be former cycling champion Johan Museeuw. In Flanders, everyone knows his list of wins by heart. To me, he’s not more special than anyone else.”
4.00 p.m. Time for a short training ride. We make a double loop of fifty kilometres through the Reichswald towards Kleve. For Gosse this is just a warming up exercise, but I have trouble keeping up. Luckily I can tuck in close behind the wheel of the super fit racer.
“I often train in Germany because there’s less traffic on cycle paths,” he explains. “And lunch is cheap. I usually train alone: five to six hours of steady cycling. It’s fantastic. As I cycle, I look around.”
The sun is already low in the sky by the time Kranenburg comes into view. We cycle for a while on the Dutch-German border. On our right lies the Reichswald, on our left the sprawling, rolling fields. “During World War II, a big offensive took place here,” explains my guide. “I often go mountain biking through the forest. Last winter, after a big storm, I found a fence. Underneath it was a German bunker. How cool is that!”
6.30 p.m. After a refreshing shower, Gosse starts cooking. On tonight’s menu: chicken pilaf with cold peach chunks. “You want another great tip? Add a bit of soy sauce to the rice. It makes it taste better.”
Every evening Gosse cooks alone. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. “I’ve had lots of offers, mind you,” he laughs. “Flemish girls who dream of being the wife of a professional cyclist. You want to avoid these, trust me, Belgians go nuts when it comes to cycling. I’d rather have a partner who can disagree with me. But where do you meet someone like that? Spending a day on Tinder just makes me depressed.”
In the meantime, he’s gotten used to entertaining himself. He sometimes goes fishing on the Wylerbergmeer, in the evening he sits in the window and plays guitar for passers-by. “The biggest sacrifice I had to make when I started cycling was to stop playing so much music. My record player and my tape recorder are the most important things in my living-room. Do you know this song? It’s by Vanderbuyst, three guys who play guitar like gods.”
“If you stayed here a week, you’d notice that I live in an incredible cocoon. At times it really sucks to always be alone. I sometimes think to myself: Fuck, what am I doing here? I’ll just quit and do something else. But I quickly figure out that apart from cycling, there’s not that much I can do.”
8.00 p.m. In his hammock, Gosse watches a lecture on his laptop. Three courses and a thesis to go and he’ll have finished his Bachelor’s in Geography, Planning and Environment. He’s only had to do one resit: of his very first exam. “I thought: how hard can it be? Well, it was a lot harder than I expected!”
Since then, his studies have been going very well. Two years ago, Gosse was even appointed assistant lecturer for the mapping course. This year he gave his first lecture as a guest lecturer. “I got my own coffee mug to get coffee from the lecturers’ hall. That was fun!”
Gosse calls Radboud University extremely top sports-minded ‘on paper’, but in practice, he often runs into problems. “I once got an email from a lecturer that began: ‘If you choose to travel the world, you have to face the consequences’. I failed a course because I missed one group walk through the city when I was taking part in a race abroad, even though I’d passed the exam and all the written assignments. I wasn’t allowed to catch up on the walk by myself. But when I run a race that’s broadcast on TV, they always mention that I study at Radboud. Free advertising for the University, but I have to make sure my schedule suits them. Though I must say that things did become a lot easier after I made a few calls to the Rector and the Director of the Student Affairs Office.”
Gosse thinks it’s a pity that it’s so difficult to combine sports and study. Not only in Nijmegen, but all over the Netherlands. “You have to be really disciplined and figure out a lot of things yourself. For some time now, I’ve been able to take exams in Bern, Switzerland, only twenty minutes cycling away from my host family. It’s great that this is possible, but I had to figure it all out myself. I stand up for myself, but not everyone does that. That’s why so many student athletes quit their studies or their sporting career.”
After his cycling career, Gosse would like to become a cartographer. “I’d like to be a kind of digital nomad, so I can work anywhere in the world, until I find a place for myself somewhere.”
10.00 p.m. Before he goes to sleep, Gosse looks again at the map above his bed. Then he dives under the sheets. Tomorrow, he’s got to be in the saddle bright and early again.
Epilogue. Four days after this interview, Gosse sends in a WhatsApp photograph of the podium of the mountain bike race in Emmelshausen. On the top stands a Frisian with a moustache.