At the finish of Brabantse Pijl and the Amstel Gold Race, tucked just behind the group of favourites, was a comeback kid racing closer than ever to his soaring potential. Rasmus Guldhammer wasn’t just pleased with some of the best results of his career (14th and 37th), he was happy to be there at all.
Back in 2010, the Dane turned pro with HTC-Columbia, at the time the world’s most successful team. He was one of the hottest prospects in the sport, an U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner and fourth place finisher in his national tour.
“Physically, he’s good, bloody good,” former HTC directeur sportif Brian Holm says. “We wouldn’t have signed him if he hadn’t been. But you need the head too. It’s one thing being good in the amateur ranks, another as a pro.”
First, there was the unexpected loneliness of life as a young pro. Though Holm urged him to stay in Denmark, Guldhammer moved to Lucca in Tuscany, away from his friends and family.
While HTC-Columbia was a prolific team and a fertile ground for talents, Guldhammer felt he wasn’t achieving what he wanted. “When you’re not fulfilling your ambition and the team’s ambition, it’s hard on yourself and you just start to think whether it’s the right thing to be a professional cyclist,” Guldhammer recalls, talking on the phone after Brabantse Pijl.
Radmus Guldhammer has returned to the top tier of professional cycling after a five-year absence pic: Mario Stiehl
What did he expect from himself back then, as a 21-year-old neo-pro? “I want to win and unless I do that, I don’t feel it’s the right way. I come from a family where winning is important and I want to be one of the best. That’s also why I think it was really hard for me: I came from a really good [amateur] season and then the year after I was suffering. That was a really hard bump in the road for me, for sure.”
Guldhammer’s HTC-Columbia directeur sportif Holm remembers first hearing about the youngster’s disillusion from colleague Allan Peiper after the rider abandoned the Four Days of Dunkirk in May, 2010.
“The young kids normally need some time to adapt to the professional life… it’s tough,” Holm says. “You get smashed in all the races, then come home to a quiet apartment and nothing in the fridge. It’s normal to get depressed or homesick about things. He learned the hard way.”
Guldhammer’s low state of mind came to affect his performance. “If you don’t have the confidence in yourself, it’s easier to quit. So maybe in some races, I wasn’t totally on the limit and instead of keeping fighting and maybe getting a better result, it was just easier to give up,” he says. “There was a big problem. In my head I didn’t have the confidence in myself and didn’t believe enough in my talents.”
He slowly realised that he wanted out of the world he had been chasing since adolescence. In September, he told the HTC-Columbia bosses of his decision and they agreed to annul his three-year contract. Guldhammer returned home to friends, family and the cosier world of the Danish racing scene, but professionally he was plunged back to square one, scrapping with other talents again to join the top tier that he’d voluntarily left.
Guldhammer's lack of self confidence caused him to drop out of races during his 'first' career with HTC-Colombia. He is happier at the Danish Pro Continental squad, Cult Energy pic: Mario Stiehl
He joined brother Thomas on Team Concordia and the intervening four years were spent on a succession of Danish Continental teams, such as Michael Rasmussen’s Christina Watches squad in 2012.
“I just read an article by Michael: he’s a cycling expert for one of the Danish newspapers and he just said that Cult Energy don’t have any ambitions when they’re happy about getting fifth and sixth, stuff like that. I think that’s a really strange thing to say, because it’s a whole new team and if you look at the riders on the team, I think only four were on a ProTour or Pro Continental team last year,” Guldhammer says.
What’s his opinion on Rasmussen? He pauses before answering. “I was on Christina Watches with him [in 2012] so I have a bit of a different opinion about him, I think. Michael is a really nice guy but he can also be a really strange guy… I think he’s maybe a little bit pissed that Christina Watches didn’t become a Pro Continental team and that Michael and Christa Skelde got Cult Energy to become one.”
Guldhammer kept plugging away, but his results only took off in 2014, winning two stages of the Tour du Loir et Cher. Did he ever fear he had thrown away his chance of returning to the pro ranks?
Guldhammer was among the riders competing in the 2015 Amstel Gold Race. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
“There were a lot of times where I was thinking maybe I should do something else because there are other things in life…I had moments of doubt but I was still fighting and believing that, if I just gave everything, then maybe I could have a contract with a ProConti or WorldTour team. When I got the offer from Tinkoff [last summer], I was really happy.”
Signing a one-year deal with Cult Energy last September took Guldhammer back to the European scene. For him, it was the right time to turn pro. In the dark colours of the new Danish Pro Conti team, the puncheur with a finishing kick is getting better results than ever: fourth at the GP Lugano, fifth at the Classica Corsica.
The Dane’s recent 14th place at the Brabantse Pijl, finishing at the back of a group that included his teenage hero, Philippe Gilbert, stands out too. “When you’re in the group with one of your idols, it’s a big thing,” Guldhammer says. “He has a really cool style of racing, always trying to give his best and going for the win.
“I’m similar to Gilbert, I like to attack. I wouldn’t say I’m quite the same rider type – he seems much better than me – but I like to race like him, to try and take risks sometimes.
“I would really like to be on the podium in one of the semi-Classics or one of the Ardennes Classics in the upcoming years, but you never know what’s going to happen,” Guldhammer says.
The homesickness which hampered his HTC career should be less of an issue for the 26-year-old. Guldhammer lives in the Luxembourg town of Bridel with Danish team-mate Michael Carbel and team mechanic Jesper Deleuran for company. When not battling Carbel at football console game FIFA, the outdoorsy kid from Vejle goes for walks in the forest to clear his head.
“It’s a really nice thing to do, to just enjoy where you are. It’s not like I have a big hobby, but I do small things that make me happy and I think that’s very important for me at the moment.”
Though it’s five years between his forays in the professional cycling, it’s easy to forget how young and inexperienced Guldhammer still is: Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday will be the longest race of his life. He is ready to acquit himself far better then his 2010 DNF.
“You can say I’m a different person now than I was five years ago: I’m older, stronger and more confident,” he says. “Doing what I did was the right choice. I wouldn’t change it.”