In 2013, Frederik Van Lierde joined Team On. Later that same year, he became the Kona Ironman World Champion – running on clouds. At the time, On was a relatively new company, having only been established in 2010.
But based on a good relationship with On Co-founder and former World Duathlon Champ Olivier Bernhard, Fred took a chance on a small Swiss brand and went home to Belgium with gold.
Now, the 41-year-old has retired from the competitive triathlon scene and is looking towards the future. We sat down with the world champ to look back on his successful career, find out his thoughts on retirement and ask the all too important question: “What’s next for Frederik Van Lierde?”
On: Hi Fred, congratulations on an incredible career. Why is now the time to retire?
Fred: “I’ve had a great career. But back in 2017 was when I officially decided to retire. I like to organize things, so I spoke to my main sponsors and signed a contract for another three years with the intention to retire from the sport in 2020. Mentally, it helped me to dig a little deeper and push a little bit more.”
I’m happy with everything I was able to achieve. It’s like finishing a chapter in your life, but there’s still more to come.
What will you miss most about being a full time pro?
“I raced for 23 years, I’m happy with what I accomplished, and I’m excited about the future. For now, I’m happy with my decision and glad to have some of the pressure taken away. But maybe that’s something that will play up next year.
“I won’t miss the accidents or injuries, but at the end that’s not what you think about, it’s really those relationships and good memories – and those I can keep.”
What are you looking forward to most about retirement?
“It doesn’t feel like retirement just yet. I still have plenty of work to do with the triathlon organizations that I’m a part of. In the next couple of weeks things should calm down and I will have some more time to do some sport and be with my family.”
I will continue to run and bike. It’s just the competition aspect that’s over.
“There was quite a bit of pressure on me to be in shape the whole year when I was racing, and of course at times you have to make some tough decisions. Now that part is over, and I’m relieved about that.”
The global situation meant your final race wasn’t in Nice as anticipated but in your home country – how do you feel about that?
“At the beginning of the season I had planned to compete at seven races. But in the end, only two races could take place. Initially the plan was for my final race to be in Nice, but due to the situation the dates were moved and eventually the race was canceled. So, my final race ended up being in my hometown of Menen.”
It felt a little bit like coming home.
“I was traveling around the world for more than 15 years competing. So symbolically, it could not have been a better moment.”
You took the win in that final race. How did it feel to cross the line? – Did it make you think about changing your mind?!
“We planned everything really well and then on the day it was fantastic weather and a great race. We had a lot of attention from the media and Belgium television. So, it was an amazing day with 550 athletes competing.
“Not only was it my final race and a special moment for me, but all the athletes were really grateful that a race could take place again after so many months of uncertainty.
“Winning my final race didn’t make we want to change my mind. I’m really happy with that decision. But emotionally it wasn’t easy. I had my family there supporting me with some tears in their eyes at the start line, and of course you still have to focus on the race.
“I lost focus a couple of times during the race because it was in my hometown. So many people I know came out to support me. It was very special and of course I got a little emotional at the finish.”
How did the pandemic influence your final race season?
“It was disappointing of course. For the first half of 2020 I was just training while waiting to find out if races would take place or not. But that wasn’t the hard part. Training has always been a part of my life and that’s what I like to do.
“Mentally though it was tough. Everyone knew races wouldn’t take place for a few months, but we had all thought that by August we would be competing again. Then August came and the decision to postpone more races was made, and then it became a mind game.”
What are the biggest lessons you learned over the course of your career?
“I learned a lot. I was only at my best towards the end of my career. In 2008, I found out that Ironman distance was what I was good at. Before that I was at Olympic and half distance, and I had some good results, but nothing compared to my later career.”
It was only when I tried Ironman that I realized I was good enough to race with the best in the world.
“Some athletes are really good at a young age and can perform at their best level. But then there are athletes like me who need the experience in order to truly reach their full potential.”
Which discipline is your favorite – the swim, bike or run?
“I actually get asked this question quite a lot. There are many athletes that will say one discipline is their favorite. But when I won in Hawaii, I had the fourth swim time, the fourth bike time and the fourth run time. So, I’m equal across the disciplines. It really depends on the day.
“Now that I’m retired, I don’t think I will do as much swimming. My background was competitive swimming, so I’ve been in the pool most of my life. But running and cycling are more social, and you can see plenty of places.”
What’s your message to young triathletes who want to follow in your footsteps?
Be patient. Surround yourself with good people. And believe in yourself.
“There’s always years that are better than other years. I won Hawaii in 2013, but that didn’t mean I won everything from there on out – that’s sport. Every time you go to the starting line, it’s clocks back to zero and you begin again.”
What were the top three biggest moments in your career. Guessing the Kona win is up there?
“Of course. The year before at Kona I placed third, so there was some pressure to come back the next year and win it. If I hadn’t gotten third place the year before, my mind would have probably said ‘it’s not possible,’ so I had to work a lot on the mental aspects of racing.”
You have to prepare both your mind and your body to win. There is a lot of mental preparation for winning big races. It looks a lot easier than it is.
“But I won in Nice five times also, and this is one of my favorite courses. It’s a course that suits me very well. I love to race in France; the people and the atmosphere are different than in other parts of the world. Nice is one of the oldest Ironman races, so it’s a classic – I’m really proud that I could win there five times.
“Winning in Lanzarote in 2019 was also pretty special. It was on my birthday. So, the day I turned 40 I was still able to win a major Ironman.”
You worked closely with your coach, Luc Van Lierde, for a long time – what was that like?
“I think it’s good to work with people who understand you and your situation as a pro athlete. If you work closely with the people who support you and can offer advice when you need it, you’re more likely to succeed.”
Having a team around you is super important.
"Luc won Hawaii in 1996 and 1999, so he really knows what it takes to win."
You raced your last race with Bart – Belgium produces a lot of great triathletes. How was that after so many years competing against one another?
“Bart Aernouts and Peter Denteneer are now at the top of 70.3 racing. So, they waited for me to cross the finish line first, which was really a nice gesture.They had a little more left in the tank than me."
“It was a real race, because we would have been the top three athletes that day, just in a different order. That race was not about real competition, it was more a farewell to me, and they showed great sportsmanship.”
[We asked Bart to shed some light on this day and their time racing together]
"Fred was always a very inspiring athlete for me and many other Belgians. An example of a hard working and modest champion! Next to being a champion he also always took time for his many fans. Personally, I will always remember the great times on our yearly training camps in Font-Romeu and our great fight in Ironman Nice 2013. For both of us, this was one of the best races of our careers. If I look back at it, I was a witness to many of the best races. His third place in IM Melbourne 2012 and his third place in Hawaii 2012. Fred winning the Abu Dhabi Triathlon in 2013 and of course winning Kona the same year. I’m happy that, in this very special 2020, I got the chance to be a part of the last race of his career in his hometown, Menen. It was a great day and an honor to share many special moments and years of racing together."
- Bart Aernouts
You joined Team On when On was much smaller than it is today. What convinced you to join up?
“It was an amazing experience. My relationship with Olivier was a big part of it of the reason I joined. When I signed with On, no one knew about the brand.
“At Kona 2012 I placed third running in a different brand, and then Olivier was there in 2013 to present me with the Cloudracer in a special colorway.
“At the start of the marathon I saw Olivier on his bike, and he rode alongside me throughout the entire race. I moved from fourth to third, third to second, and then finished first – Olivier went crazy. But from the very beginning I had the feeling that he knew I could win and that’s what made it so special.”
You have been a key figure for Team On ever since. How would you describe that partnership?
“I’ve loved working with On over the years. The company is very athlete focused. And now that I’m retired, I will continue to work with the brand in a new way.”
[Watch this space]
What has it been like to see On grow as an athlete who was there from the early days?
“Seeing the changes since 2013 has been an amazing experience. I think having people recognize the brand now when I’m racing is a big change since the early days.”
What’s next for Frederik Van Lierde?
“I’ve been part of the Belgium army since 2004. They have a special division for professional athletes and at the beginning of my career I was second at the European championships for U23, which gave me the opportunity to join. There are 22 professional athletes working for this program and we create positive media about sport.
“Now that I’m no longer racing professionally, I will become the manager of all the pro athletes in the Belgium army, but first I have 9 months of military training to become an officer.”
In every sport, you deal with winning and losing, you deal with injury, and I think my experience with this will help guide younger athletes.