10 Questions with Edwin Bull who it turns out is from Belgium. Sometimes the rumors are true!
I’ve raced against Edwin and his team for as long as I’ve been racing cross. But I never knew that much about him. So I asked questions. Wanna know what it’s like racing as a junior in Belgium? What it’s like to run a small bike company that want’s to be big? Then please read on! You can bug Edwin on Twitter @Van_Dessel and stay tuned for the new website here.
1. We’ve know each other for a few years now or about as long as we’ve been racing against each other. But I feel like I know very little about you. Plus I’ve heard all these vague rumors of racing in Belgium and stuff. So set the record straight. Where are you from? How did you start racing bikes and is there any truth to these rumors of Belgium? (Yes, I’m counting this as one question.)
I am from Belgium - born & raised, sort of. I haven’t lived there since I was 8 but spend most of my summers in Belgium through high school. I grew up just outside of Antwerp. My father’s work moved us to the Ivory Coast in West Africa was 8 years old, we then moved to Massachusetts when I was 12 (not speaking a single word of English). My family all moved back to Belgium around when I was 18, I was having a good time so stayed behind, then met a girl, then had kids…and so here I am in NJ.
I was exposed to pro racing very young. There was a pro kermis (circuit) race that went right in front of our house, and Ludo Peeters lived around the block. I’d stalk him coming to and from races, watching him wash his stable of what must have been 8 pristine Colnagos on the front lawn. He had one of the nicer houses, he was always ripped and tan, smiling, and drove a nice car. Bike racers were rock stars growing and he was my hero. Being in that environment got me hooked on racing very young. From as long as I can remember all I wanted to be was be a euro-pro bike racer - exactly like Ludo Peeters.
In Africa I always ripped around on my bike, but first started racing in MA at 13. I did some citizen races then got my USCF and raced with NEBC - those guys were great and really took care of me. I later raced with BRC, they had an organized junior team of good kids and it was a load of fun. Mostly I raced in New England with the likes of Tyler Hamilton, Adam Myerson, Erich Kaiter. I did race in Belgium a few times - I’d just go home to Belgium and bring my bike. I’d race on my own out of my grandmother’s or aunt’s house. Mostly it was just open up the newspaper, chose which race to go to, and my aunts and cousins would come out to cheer me on if they could. I absolutely loved it over there. Racing in Belgium was like coming home, even as a junior it was “real” bike racing. Compared to the US it was just hard core - hard racing from the gun, every race. There were usually deep fields, and people would get pushed into ditches if they tried sitting on a break - not something you’d see in New England races. Unless you attacked most of the time you’d end up in a group that got pulled and wouldn’t finish. The agressive type of racing over there really suited my riding style - it was just always on. I felt in my element, everything about it was beyond awesome. It took me some time to get up to speed, but eventually I got it. I never won a race there, but had plenty of podiums and top 5s. My last year as a junior I was fully motivated on going pro and went for a full summer. That’s when I first saw that doping & drugs were everywhere - stuff like syringes in changing rooms and guys on the start lines clearly amped up more than natural. I rode consistently well and started receiving advice/encouragement from people well entrenched in the pro racing world. Sadly much of the advice given was about doping. At that point it was made 100% clear to me that going pro = getting on the “doctor’s program”. No one encouraged me to dope - in fact, advice I got was to *wait* to dope (until I got a pro contract). “kids these days want to all be rock stars and have no patience, so they don’t wait. Then when we hire them we find out they’re already bumped up and we can’t increase their form. So wait, it may take longer, but you have to fight and get your pro contract clean. Otherwise, we won’t be able to step you up to where you need to be and you will never get a contract again.” That summer was a bit devastating to me. I was doing what I had been dreaming of - racing in europe, and doing reasonably well, and yet at the same time my dreams were shattered by the reality being successful as pro was directly tied to getting on the doctor’s program. I had heard the rumors, finding out they were true was devastating.
I gave up on my dream and the sport that summer and stopped racing. This was the same generation as the USPS wave of US riders. Regardless of what choices anyone made when they came to the awareness of what it was like with doping, it really sucked coming up into that part of history. Maybe those guys didn’t get to Europe until later in their careers, or I just had a unique experience, but anyone who claims they went to Europe around that time and didn’t see the doping coming from miles away is either totally ignorant or blind. In my mind there was zero chance I would go down the path of doping. Never going to happen. I walked away immediately and never looked back. I never went far enough to have the opportunity to see what I could do, but as a junior it was clear that I had a fair shot and didn’t have any less talent than Tyler Hamilton, Erich Kaiter, etc… I likely wasn’t good enough to ever be a rock star, but I was OK with that. I do completely see it as my sport, my dream, and my future having been robbed from me by doping. For years I was very bitter. Never in a million years would I have believed that the hidden underside of pro cycling would ever come to light though, or that there would be any consequences to those who jumped on the doping bus. Especially in hindsight of the USPS/Lance implosion I’m extremely happy with the choices I made. It has been extremely therapeutic for me to witness the system that stole my dreams crumble and fall. It took me a long time to get there, but today I am extremely content.
I’m happy to see things seem very different for this generation of up and coming young riders. I’m extremely grateful to the efforts of USADA and celebrate each time someone gets caught. I’m very glad that the tides have turned, if anything just in the general outward attitude/perception towards doping by the sport and media. I’m sure it will always be a problem, and as you well know there’s clearly still riders in our fields doping - I just hope juniors these days step into a healthier environment and that those guys in our fields who chose to cross the line into doping all end up with lifetime bans.
I’ve hear you’re ex KGB, is this true?
2. My perception of the Van Dessel thing is that it’s basically all you. As in you pretty much do everything from assembling and shipping bikes to designing new ones. Is this perception accurate? If not tell me about the people that help you run the brand.
It is indeed mostly a one man show. My talents lie mostly in bike design/production and marketing. I built a couple of my own frames by the time I was 16, and I’ve always really loved the equipment and mechanics of the bike. That’s what I concentrate on most. I feel as long as I put the best possible product out there, that the rest will fall into place. I have had people working for me, mostly part time, and am currently looking to hire some people. So if anyone reading this has an interest, then please get in touch! I’m extremely fortunate to have a TON of help from friends. Guys on the team like Gui Nelessen, Dave Wells, and Bill Elliston have been a phenomenal help, taking vacation from work to help me out at Interbike, etc… Dave Wilson and Rich Weinstock, two local NJ riders, have also contributed immensely with marketing and graphic design. So while I am technically by myself doing everything, I could never have brought things as far as I have without receiving a LOT of help from a LOT of really good people.
3. How did the whole Van Dessel thing get started?
That’s a pretty long story. After I turned my back on pro racing I didn’t ride for many years and didn’t pay any attention to the sport. But I still always loved “the bike”. Being a natural endorphin/speed junkie it didn’t take more than 3-4 years until I started riding again and quickly got the bug again. At this pint I had left any will or ambition of racing pro well in the past, but I just loved the racing and the scene/lifestyle. So I figured that if I’m not part of it on the rider/racing side, I can still be in it on the equipment side. So I switched my goals from being part of the pro rider peloton to being part of the world of bikes - and for me the equipment/technical side came very naturally. So I eventually redirected the drive I had to making it as a pro rider to making bikes and being in the industry.
As far as starting Van Dessel: I tried getting a job in the bike industry first, anything, anywhere. No success. One day I found myself in a position where I could roll the dice and do something, and so I did. I got a ticket to the Taipei Cycle Show in 1999 and started making some bikes. From there on out it’s just been an exercise in perseverance and stubbornness. I am going by the strategy of willing this thing to work despite all the road blocks. I’m extremely dedicated and extremely good at being stubborn - two qualities I think everyone starting their own business needs.
4. I feel like a lot of people don’t know this but the last few seasons you’ve quietly been selling really cool alloy race bikes made in the USA (Alluminator Cross frame and Hellafaster road frame). Made for you at Zen Fabrications in Oregon. How did you come to the decisions of having bikes made domestically?
I always liked the idea of moving production in-house. Several times I took serious looks into doing our own welding. It was just too big an undertaking and didn’t make financial sense. So I’ve long had the motivation to move production closer. I also really love aluminum. For me the feel of a well made and well balanced high end aluminum frame is better than that of many carbon frames. I’m not sure what it is, but even in the age of carbon, I think high quality aluminum is still very sexy to me. For high end performance bikes it deserves a lot more credit than most people give it. Mostly I guess because while you can make very nice aluminum you can also make very low end aluminum, which is what most people’s frame of reference is. Our Aloominator and Hellafaster frames are lighter than some carbon frames, and in my opinion with a far better ride quality. For years I have had a vision in my mind of really high end aluminum race frames. I just couldn’t get it out of Taiwan. Not being able to produce our own frames in house but wanting to move production closer, and not being able to get the level of quality I wanted out of Taiwan, I went looking for a high end domestic welder. Zen has been phenomenal to work with. Those guys have made it possible for us to create our own frames that I always wish we could produce, at a quality level that you just can’t get out of Taiwan. USA production is without question also a very motivating factor - but the quality, lead time, and convenience that we can’t get overseas is also there.
5. As a small operation what have been the pro’s and con’s of having bikes made in the USA?
First and foremost on the pro’s it’s the quality - and this is what it’s been all about for me. There is also the lead time and convenience, which are both better than sourcing frame construction elsewhere. And of course any time you can support jobs and manufacturing domestically it’s only a good thing. The con is price… there is no question the USA frames are not inexpensive. You get what you pay for, but our margins on the US aluminum frames are extremely poor. It’s more about creating the best frameset we can at price points that will allow us to get some more mainstream traction with them - no compromises on production and extremely sharp pricing. My goal with the US made frames was to just step everything up as far as possible and get them out there. I really pride myself in the frames I put out - and I’m especially happy with the Aloominator and Hellafaster frames. They make me smile - quality, price, performance, for me they really hit a sweet spot that I’m very proud of.
6. You also support a factory team for both road and cross. How involved in that are you?
When I have time to train and riding well, very. Other times, not at all. This is the first year I haven’t done much on the road. I’ve had a lot going on personally - divorce, moving, kids. I’ve had to focus more on the living and work parts of my life rather than training and racing, but even though it’s just for fun the racing is still very important to me so I’m sure I’ll be back at it and in full swing before long. Bill Elliston essentially runs our team. I am involved, but I need to give credit to Bill for keeping the ship together and sailing smoothly. He’s phenomenal at what he does, very organized, very on top of it, and very experienced. One of my motivators for growing the company/brand is to one day be able to offer Bill a full time job running our team/athlete program. It’s a goal of of mine to have our own full time sponsored program and there would be no one better for the job than Bill. I just need to sell more bikes so that I can come up with a marketing budget for him to work with.
7. Why do you do it? As a small brand is there a return on your investment or are you doing it because that’s just the kind of bike company you want to be?
To be clear - I have never had any ambition of being a small bike company. Yes I’m small and doing most things on my own, and have been for many years, but that’s not at all where I picture things to be in the future. I’m very ambitious and have some very high goals that I’m pursuing with the brand - which do not include being a solo bike builder or one man show. Doing everything on my own and not having financial resources to grow has kept the brand limited in growth potential, but every year the brand has consistently grown and one year ago I took on significant financial investors to really take the growth to the next level. It’s our goal to grow the brand into a well distributed world wide performance bike brand. I have been building the brand for ten years, and over the past 12 months have been putting everything in place to finally take that step forward. We have just completely redesigned the line, and we have made significant investments in tooling and equipment. The new line will be ready and in stock before the fall trade shows, and we are all set to see significant growth throughout 2015 and 2016. My biggest problem has always been that I have not been able to supply consistent inventory to dealers. Shops would contact us to be dealers, exited about the brand, but then we would fail them with not having any consistent availability. With the new investment partners on board these issues are well in the past and we’re in a position to take a very serious step forward as a reliable supplier of high quality performance bikes with great design and pricing.
I’m extremely excited about 2015/2016 - the US made aluminum frames are just a small part of the new direction - you should be seeing some BIG changes very soon, and a whole new Van Dessel for 2015.
8. Your guys got invited (based on the teams NCC results) to do US PRO criterium nationals. That’s huge. How did that happen? Who are you sending? Are you pumped?
It’s absolutely awesome, and so much fun to be a part of that - I’m crazy pumped!!! We have a really good group of guys. Our “elite” road team is a combination of our guys and the Haymarket/SEAVS cyclocross team (who we support for cross). We have Gui Nelessen, a two time team pursuit national champion, Bill Elliston a seasoned pro, Jared Nieters who can put out some serious rides, and Jake Sittler who is extremely talented and fired up to make it to the pro ranks. I’ve put in some good rides over the years and can still pull out a ride every now and then when inspired. So we do have a very solid little group. What really did it is the Airforce Cycling Classic weekend, it’s one of those weekends where a few of our guys were going well, and luck was on our side: Jake Sittler & Jared Nieters each got in the winning break over the weekend - Jared got 6th Saturday at Clarendon Cup, Sun Jake got 5th at the Crystal Cup. It was a point heavy event and those results sent us on our way.
Unfortunately I’ll be driving our marketing bus from NJ to NV for Interbike the weekend of the Crit Nationals, and it’s also Nittany weekend which Jared has won - but our guys are really fired up and everyone but me will be there and is highly motivated. Jake and Jared will be well into their preparation for cross season and are super motivated for Cross Vegas just a few days later, so I would not at all be shocked to see them have a good ride.
9. What do you do besides bikes?
It’ just kids, work, racing, mostly. The truth is, ever since I was about 6 years old its always been about the bike. Except for the hiatus after my last Belgium trip as a junior, I have always had a very single track mind. I don’t get involved in much outside of bike racing. Two kids keep me plenty busy, I always have an endless to-do list at work, and when I can take the time for training and racing I take that pretty seriously. So besides the kids/work/ride routing there really isn’t room for anything else. I do hike with my dog a fair amount when I can. When I’m old maybe I’ll garden or something.
10. Are you actually going to listen to your coach this cross season instead of smashing local races on your off weekend?
No. Although I’ll try. I have little hope that I’m really all that coachable. Bill Elliston (Elliston Coaching) helps me out a lot with coaching advice and direction whenever he can, but the truth is that I’m so stubborn that it must be really tough for anyone to really help me. I love racing, but I hate intervals, structure, etc… So most of the time while I intend to do what Bill tells me…I admit I mostly just do what my legs tell me to do, then come crawling back to him when I’m thoroughly burnt out and my form is down the toilet. I DO want to ride well at CX nationals in Austin though - so I *WILL* make every attempt to follow his advice as much as I possibly can despite my own weakness for needing to repeatedly smash any fitness out of my legs the second I’m going half decent.
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