“It’s definitely been a lot to take in,” Michael Vink reflects on the start line of the Tour of Guangxi’s final stage, the last day of the 2023 WorldTour season and the end of the New Zealander’s debut year at the top table, an arrival a decade in the making.
What makes Vink’s story a compelling one is not just that he is another rider who’s turned pro thanks to being spotted on a virtual cycling platform – his UAE Team Emirates stablemate Jay Vine originally earned his WorldTour spot on Alpecin-Deceuninck after winning the Zwift Academy, before going on to claim stages of the Vuelta a España and the Tour Down Under GC – but that he finally broke through in his 30s after a dozen or so years of trying to make his cycling dream work.
As an amateur for various Continental and club-level teams, the 31-year-old (who turns 32 next week) supported himself by working in bike shops and even operating a workshop out of his own home. Finally, his strong results on the MyWhoosh virtual platform, which is a sponsor of UAE Team Emirates and more broadly a UAE-based company, were spotted and a professional contract finally made its way to his door.
Hopes and dreams are odd human concoctions. Nebulous ideas of things we want without knowing what they’re actually like. So, having worked to get to this position for so many years, how does he reflect on his first year at the top level of his sport?
“It’s what I expected, but yeah, to be riding with the best guys in the world and to be a part of now what’s officially the best team in the world for this season is incredibly special,” he said. “Particularly considering where I was the past two years. I’m just riding the wave to be honest.” UAE Team Emirates were ranked as the top team of the year in the official UCI rankings, despite Jumbo-Visma’s all-conquering year. We’re glad the riders are getting in on this playful prodding of the “samen winnen” squad.
Tour Down Under, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Itzulia Basque Country, the list goes on of the premier races featured within Vink’s debut WorldTour season, and it contrasts massively with his UCI-level race experience of the two preceding years: a total of only nine days, all in New Zealand.
So what has he learned or experienced this year that he maybe didn’t expect? Given that he’s already been living the cycling life since 2010, racing across continents and committing to training as if he were getting paid full-time to do so, does much change when you get to the top?
“I guess there is a lot that goes on in the political side of cycling, with contracts and negotiations and things,” he replied. “I always sort of knew it wasn’t 100% about the legs but definitely to see more of the business side of how cycling works and WorldTour-level cycling has probably been the biggest eye opener for me.”
Interesting. Presumably, it was eye-opening in the sense he finally understood why despite having the legs to make it at the top level the various pieces took a while to fall into place for the Kiwi. More pertinently, does he have a new contract with UAE Team Emirates for next year to replace his expiring one?
“I can tell you, I don’t think it’s been fully announced yet, but I have re-signed and yeah, I’m looking forward to another good year with UAE Team Emirates.”
Phew. With 28 riders already on the roster for 2024, Vink and José Álvaro Hodeg are the only two names unaccounted for next year. So with next season sorted, what will his off-season look like?
“It’s been a bit of a jump in the deep end for me, having not ridden the last two years so much to having done a full season in the WorldTour with a team like UAE … definitely some rest, bank the gains, and next year will be even better for me.”
And then does he know the plan for year two yet? Any sort of progression after a year of bedding in, or more of the same?
“Just whatever the team wants me to do really,” Vink answered. “My position in the team is quite clear as a helper, there’s not too many of us that do my job so it’s really important that I commit to that 100%. The team’s sort of building more and more trust [in me] and more and more confidence in what I do and hopefully I can become one of the best guys in the world at this job, which is a dream for me.”
And that’s what you get a lot of satisfaction out of? In being able to play your part in the victories of one of the biggest teams in the world?
“Exactly, I just want to be respected for what I do. To be respected as a good domestique rather than as an average leader. The amount of class and talent we have in this team, not just the riders but the staff, the amount that gets put in from absolutely everyone is such a big thing and to be able to sort of help and make all that pay off and see everyone happy and make it all worth something is really cool.”
In a sport where it’s often about the journey rather than the destination, it must be said that Vink’s winding voyage to this high-point must give him some extra satisfaction.
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