Only three years ago Justine Ghekiere was working in a fitness center in Roeselare, Belgium, and discovering indoor racing for the first time during COVID lockdowns. Last month she won the Tour of Valencia, beating world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, and just last week, she scored her first top-10 in a Women’s WorldTour race with eighth at Trofeo Alfredo Binda.
It’s no exaggeration to say the 26-year-old Belgian from the AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step team is one of the most exciting prospects in the pro peloton.
“I don’t even know why my sister Magalie and I do so well in sports – my parents are not even that athletic,” she says with a laugh from her home in Izegem, West Flanders. “When I was young, I did so many sports and because I was just not that much of a student, I chose an education to become a PE teacher with specialization in wellness and personal training.
Here’s how to pronounce Justine Ghekiere:
“Earning a living in sports seemed like a good idea. I worked in Roeselare where I was personal trainer and taught the more intense group lessons. In March 2020 all the fitness centers closed and all of a sudden, I found myself at home.”
Ghekiere was already familiar with cycling but up until that moment she was doing 60–70 km cyclosportives on a mountain bike. When lockdowns started, she discovered Zwift, not knowing that would change her life so much.
“I like how you can really suffer on the indoor trainer,” she says. “It’s a feeling I couldn’t achieve riding outdoors. I got slightly addicted to Zwift and even when it was 20 ºC outside that spring of 2020, I was riding indoors with a big puddle of sweat beneath the bike. People told me I should ride outside because of the weather but I just loved the indoor suffering. When I felt completely empty, I could just lay down on the floor next to the trainer – something you don’t do outside.”
During that lockdown there was a competition in Belgium. The rider who did the most kilometers in one week on Zwift would win an exercise test with the renowned Energy Lab. The way Justine approached that challenge shows her enormous mental strength and willpower. And maybe also, a little craziness.
“I knew that after six days I was already in first place by 200 kilometers on the runner-up but I just wasn’t sure,” she recalls. “What if the other person would go completely crazy on the last day and catch up? So, I set out that day for 13 hours on the trainer. It turned out I was the crazy one. They even initially disqualified me because they suspected fraud!”
In the end Ghekiere did get the test at the Energy Lab and the values the then-24-year-old showed were very promising.
“Ward Vande Capelle did that test with me in August of 2020 and he was impressed,” Ghekiere says. “I didn’t really believe him so he showed me some [anonymous] data from a pro rider he had tested before. He said ‘Justine, now you can see it black on white. You have potential.’ He sent the results to some of the pro teams in Belgium and that’s how I started with Bingoal Casino-Chevalmeire in 2021. Ward is still my trainer, by the way.”
Ghekiere rode some big races with the Belgian team in her first year. She raced Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège all while still working as a personal trainer at the fitness center. Her climbing talent showed for the first time at the Tour de l’Ardèche that year when she was eighth on Mont Lozère in a peloton of well-known WorldTour pros.
In 2022 she joined Plantur-Pura. She showed again that stage races are her strong suit with a 10th place and the mountain jersey in Thüringen Rundfahrt and a 14th place in the Simac Ladies Tour. As a newbie in the pro peloton she was learning fast, but it was a steep learning curve.
“At the beginning I didn’t know anybody in the peloton apart from some of the bigger names,” she says. “I never really followed the sport that closely. When I started to get to know more riders and their strengths, I started to learn who to follow and which attacks to counter and which riders to let go.”
Another problem she had to tackle at the start of her career was finding her way in the peloton. Unlike many of her counterparts who had been racing in peloton for years, Ghekiere wasn’t familiar with the dynamics of the bunch.
“For me positioning myself in the peloton was and still is an important point to work on,” she admits. “When I first started racing it was very frustrating because my values showed I should be in the first group but I was dropped or didn’t even finish. Heidi Van De Vijver, my sports director at Plantur Pura, taught me so much about positioning and in the second half of my second year in the peloton I was making big steps forward and also started getting the results.”
Ghekiere was learning the ropes of pro cycling at warp speed and her results led to an invitation to represent Belgium at the 2022 Road World Championships in Wollongong. She finished in 19th place in the road race, among the best in the world, but still felt a bit disappointed. It showed how much she wants to achieve and how her progress is often too slow for her own liking.
“A top 20 at your first world championships is a great achievement but I wished I could have done more for Lotte [Kopecky],” she says now. “At a certain moment we were behind and Lotte urged me to the front of the group to try and get us back. Ellen van Dijk was at the front at that moment and I said to Lotte ‘That’s Ellen van Dijk. I can’t possibly do better than her.’ Luckily the group did return and Lotte won silver.”
This year Ghekiere joined the AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step team as one of eight new riders, alongside experienced recruits like Lotta Henttala and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio. She surprised the cycling world but most of all herself by winning the four-stage Tour of Valencia in February beating Van Vleuten, Amanda Spratt, and even her team leader, Moolman Pasio.
“I wasn’t even sure of my form that week because I had missed a few days of training with the team because of a slight illness,” she says of the race. “It wasn’t even my goal to win this race. The goal was to support Ashleigh as good as I could and also to try and win the mountain jersey.
“On the final day with Ashleigh in yellow I joined the breakaway for the mountain points and to be there for Ash when it all came back. I took enough points to secure the mountain classification but in the final, I still was at the front for the stage win. I gave my all but lost that sprint. When I heard I had won the overall classification by one second, I couldn’t believe it!”
With a primetime interview on national TV and newspaper articles in all major publications, Justine Ghekiere became famous all of a sudden, a relatively new rider notching one of the few major stage-race wins by a female Belgian rider in years.
“It was an avalanche of attention,” she recalls. “Physically I wasn’t even that tired after Valencia but mentally it was draining. I slept one hour or so because I wanted to read all the messages. It was so intense that Facebook and Instagram were temporarily blocking my account because of so much suspicious activity. That was a blessing in disguise to be honest.”
Justine Ghekiere is now a full-time bike rider and that enables her to make the big steps forward she couldn’t when she still held a parttime job at the fitness center.
“It’s such a big difference to be able to live off my sport now,” she says. “In my first year only my expenses were paid and I still had to work. I had a physically demanding job but also mentally it’s hard to juggle both and to know that after training you have to hurry to go to work. In my second year I didn’t yet earn a sustainable wage but my parents helped me. I wanted to try one year to make cycling my job. If that wouldn’t have succeeded, I would have quit but AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step sent me a good offer and here we are.”
Her ambition is to one day win a big Classic and race the Grand Tours. She wants to keep improving and learning every race she does. She feels and hopes there is more margin to grow although she is humble by nature. Ghekiere also wants to inspire more girls in Belgium to start racing and share her story because it’s quite a unique one.
“Lotte is an inspiration to many young girls but I see now that people also start to ask me things about my races or my training,” she says. “I like inspiring others. My road to becoming a pro cyclist is not a standard one. When I saw how people made a living with their hobby, I was always a bit jealous. I liked my job but I always wanted to go home and do my own things. And look at me three years later. I am the one making a living with my hobby.
“I want to show people and inspire them that when you follow your dream and work hard, you can do much more than you think. I am now doing what I love most so I think you can call this living the dream.”