I've known Paul van der Ploeg for a number of years now. Rewind a bit from these friendship beginnings and I was following Paul in magazines, witnessing him pulling whips over jumps for the paparazzi on his full-blown XC race bike. This, in typical PVDP style, was of course mid-way through winning a cross country race against the best Australian cyclists!
I would not be at all surprised if Guinness World Records knocked on the door today to award Paul with the most down-to-earth professional athlete on this planet. There is time for a joke with Paul up until the last milli-second on the start line (think Usain Bolt before smashing out a 100m Olympic record) – this behaviour is in great contrast to many riders of his caliber who struggle to talk to anyone around them in the 24 hours leading up to world-class mountain bike events.
The first thing that you will notice about Paul is his size – he is over 190cm tall and has disproportionately large legs relative to his upper body, reported to weigh over 40kg alone for the pair. Comparing Paul's 'rig' with other professional cyclists competing in the same disciplines as him, they pale in comparison; often nearing 60kg in total body weight. Where the power-to-weight figure of Paul's body is hard to match with these smaller competitors, he more than makes up for this with technical skills on the bike which are replicable by almost nobody. Furthermore, he encompasses a gigantic heart and lung package, more power through the drivetrain than any other rider on the circuit and the right attitude to race competitively at the top level.
Over the past two weeks I have been following Paul's Continental tyre tread through the Black Forest in Germany, and where I have been struggling to ride through technical rocks, roots, tight corners and hills so steep I plummet uncontrollably without fail – Paul rides these sections with finesse. Corners so tight they should not be physically able to be taken on a bike as big as Paul's are always railed at speed. Steep descents with nothing but slippery sand to slow nearly any rider down are controlled without worry.
To get a bit more of an insight into this one-of-kind human, we have had the privelage to quiz the man. Here we go!
Alleykat has brought a singing sensation, a veritable musical of improvised tunes to Offenburg. How have you been getting in on the action?
At first the concept of the ‘Life musical’ was a bit of a strange concept and to be communicating via song was such a random and challenging experience. AlleyKat caught me off guard at first, but I soon realised that I was over-thinking it and to sing is to express oneself. If done in a supportive environment the quality of the singing was rather irrelevant. It was super fun and often I found myself just laughing at the ridiculous connections that we made from verse to verse. I highly recommend that everyone tries this musical commentary at some point, just for fun.
You've mentioned that I am the only person who you can swap bikes with, as we share a similar seat height and ride setup. Have you ever had someone give your bikes a go, who is clearly too short and watched them crash catastrophically?
Many people have tried and failed to ride my bikes. The tall unit that is Alex Denham is the only person I know that can reach the pedals comfortably on my bikes. Most people can touch the pedals when they are flat and do an awkward half pedal to get my bike in motion. Most people don’t attempt anything too dangerous on my bike in fear of breaking it as it is worth some serious coin, and crashing from such a height can hurt a lot! (I think you may have experienced this a few times also despite fitting my bikes).
You have a dodgy shoulder which prevents you from utilising your ape-factor of 12 to its full potential in the rock climbing arena. (Paul's fingertip to fingertip measurement is 12cm longer than the length of his body!) We hear you might be able to be the rock climbing world champion once you retire from being the XC sprint eliminator world champion because you are getting a special operation. What is going on there exactly?
Well, I am pretty much full ape! I haven’t spent much time on the rock climbing scene and my discomfort at being at dizzying heights will probably prevent me from taking it seriously at any point in my life.
The old shoulder has seen better days for sure and it has left me no choice but to see about going under the knife and getting a highly trained professional (not like the ones seen on the side of the road in France), to tighten up the very loose joint that I have been dealing with since I was a junior.
Your life involves racing against all of the guys we grew up watching on TV and aspiring to be. You have made it to this level and even beaten a handful of them. What is your secret to hiding the undoubtedly wild nerves before these world class events?
I try to approach a world cup like any other race and for the most part it is just that. You need to focus on the aspects of the race that are in your control. You cant change what your competitors are doing or have done in the past and the process involved in getting through a world cup race is almost the same for everyone. Obviously when you race a world cup your goals are different from most people's and if you can focus on your own race and all the contributing factors that put together a good race, the results will follow.
I know I have struggled in the past and may struggle in the future to be able to block out the external, uncontrollable aspects of racing. It is a skill and an art form that only the top level elite riders have mastered. I guess that is why they are so good.
Alleykat has had an incredible time in Germany so far, we are loving the culture, cycling, fresh food, low cost of living, high standard of living, architecture, history, summer weather, natural environment – pretty much everything. You are currently spending half of your year in Germany, but can you see yourself becoming a full-time European resident anytime soon, because it is soooo awesome?
It is hard not to fall in love with this part of the world and there is something captivating about the way of life and all associated elements that make up living in Europe. Personally, I love living in Germany for the same reasons stated above, but I do love Australia and it would be hard for me to leave that world behind for any longer than a 6 month period.
As far as Alleykat is concerned, your attitude to life seems be perfect: you have fun everyday, you do only the things that you love, you are sensible/serious whenever you need to be, money seems to be such an irrelevant part of living and you are chasing your dreams. Have you got any tips for those chained to desks/mortgages/debt on how they can make the plunge to be more like your awesome self? (Keep in mind that not everyone has the skills to pay the bills, like you!)
Well I think that is a bit of an exaggeration! I do however try to take life quite in a relaxed manner and never look too far in the future as things change every day and what happens one day can affect your current life path. In regards to ‘living the dream’ I don’t actually like that saying. In my dreams I am living in a mansion with all of my mates, with a boat load of money (and a boat!) and usually, strange and random things happen in my dreams (I can fly and teleport, but I can't see that happening any time soon!). So I’m not living the dream as such. I guess in the sense that I get to do what I love everyday and somehow make ends meet…. Yes I am living some form of my dreams.
Not many people have made a career out of mountain biking for more than a decade. I know we are both stunned that Tinker Juarez who, at 51 years young is still up there beating guys half his age (Paul only narrowly beat Tinker last year in the Tour de Timor!) Where can you see your life going after the age of 32?
Deep question… I honestly have no idea as anything can happen and the future is a complete mystery to me. I Would love to be riding my bike when I’m 50+ years old, but who knows? Maybe I will need to tour around the world like AlleyKat and unlock the secrets to life along the way! The world is such a massive place and I hope I get to experience more of what is has to offer. Riding is not the only thing in my life and I always like to have other networks and people to interact with to keep everything in perspective. It is easy to get trapped in the cycling world ‘bubble’ and not experience other aspects of life.
This week I have been thinking about the fact that (and have just written about) cycling is really meditative and great for the mind. Do you feel at peace on a bike, and can you tell us what would happen to you if you couldn't ride a bike for, say, a year?
So I just read your piece on meditation and it was a real thought provoker in my mind as I can relate to everything you wrote. I know that when I get on the bike it clears my mind. Everything is more crisp and I can think about everything in a more logical and perspective-guided way. Without riding (or sport) I would feel incomplete, especially considering that being active and healthy has been such a huge part of my life up until this point. I can't see myself away from riding for such a period (a whole year? Unfathomable!) as I love doing it so much.
I mentioned above that I have seen you do things on a bike which I believe are not physically possible. How did you hone your skills to this level?
I just thrive on riding and I’m constantly opening my mind to new things and ways to ride. I really enjoy riding unexplored trails and having to adapt to the changing and unknown environment. It is one of the unique thrills that I get when on a bike. It always keeps me interested, as getting out in a new section of trail and flowing through fresh single track reassures me that this is what I should be doing and any doubts about my life choices disappear as it is clear that I’m doing exactly what I should be. The other awesome thing is that I can experience this feeling anywhere in the world; being in Europe or back on my local trails in Mount Beauty, can provoke the same level of happiness.
Paul, you've given us an amazing place to rest and rejoice, you have fed us, you have allowed me to ride/train with you in your playground and you have provided us with some insight into what it takes to be an awesome bloke. I can't thank you anywhere near enough, so we will just have to hug lots when we see each other again!
No worries AlleyKat, it has been a pleasure to show you my life here in Europe. I’m just so stoked that you were able to stay for long enough to get the authentic experience. I guess there are some benefits to having a wounded member in the team…