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69 | How to Be a Pro MTB Racer with Olympian Kevin Van Hoovels

Kevin Van Hoovels had a quiet but sharp rise to the top in XCO MTB racing. Kevin represented Belgium at the 2012 Olympics in London and had a career-best finish at the World Championship in 10th. Now focused on coaching other riders, Kevin talks to us about science, study, what it takes to be a pro and why he had to leave his PhD to focus on training. Kevin's advice for aspiring pro riders cannot be ignored.

Kevin’s journey in the sport began at age 15, watching mountain biking on mainstream television and riding with his family. He began riding with his local club and competing in races. His progression of race results later saw him ranked top 5 nationally as a junior, race world cups as an U23, win an U23 national title, an elite national title, race the Olympics and top 10 at World Champs. Kevin tells the story of racing world cups as an U23 when the race was combined with the elites and starting as the 260th rider!

"I was never anything special as a junior, but I stayed consistent and focused on rest to be my best."

In 2010, having already gained his Masters, Kevin was working towards his PhD in Sport Science. However, Kevin also had a really successful year on the bike, racing Cape Epic and winning the Belgium National Champs. Following this, Kevin made the difficult decision to put his PhD on hold, but later reaped the benefits of this in 2011. He made great progression and achieved the results that would ultimately open the doors for his career as a professional athlete. Kevin explains how this change was revolutionary for him and that although the training load didn’t increase substantially, his sleep and ability to recover (both physically and mentally) did. Recovery is crucial to preventing overtraining and is something that many aspiring professionals struggle with as they juggle life’s other demands.

In 2011, Kevin’s World Cup results steadily improved and he raced his first World Champs. Here, he placed 15th, needing to place 16th to gain Olympic selection for 2012. This resulted in his first contract with the Belgian governing body and a big step forwards in his career. Kevin speaks of the contracts, resulting pressure and turbulent effect these matters have on mental state and performance as an athlete. These systems were beneficial for opening doors and making quick progression, but also induce performance anxiety that can be detrimental to an athlete and later caused an abrupt end to Kevin’s career.

Kevin and his coach had an approach to training that was seemingly ahead of its time. They had a scientific approach, using a power meter on his road bike (as they weren’t yet available for mtb), a heart rate monitor and even an altitude tent. His training was predominantly endurance based with some longer intervals to suit the demands of the sport at the time, with less short explosive efforts that we see now. Kevin emphasises the importance of goals and periodisation to perform when it counts and not be disheartened by poor results in non-target events. Matt also touches on nutrition, where they question the common desire of being as light as possible, concluding that a healthy, holistic approach is required.

Kevin’s three key points of advice for the listeners are:

  1. To ensure that they keep their sport and training enjoyable

  2. Balance training and recovery.

  3. Use goals to focus on races that matter and understand that you can’t be at your best for every race. A coach can help ensure appropriate periodisation.

This episode brings together lots of useful advice, particularly for aspiring professional athletes. Click the links below for more information on how to improve your training.

Listen to the episode:


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