Alright, there is one more similarity: Forrest discovered his athletic prowess thanks to his Jenny, Ardjan discovered his primal power thanks to his own ‘Jenny’. “When I was fifteen, during my last year in England, I had a girlfriend, Kirsty. There weren't any buses from my village to her home town of Faringdon. When my parents went skating in Oxford, I would sneak my dad's ‘Jan Janssen’ bike - a Dutch brand of a famous cyclist - from the shed and without putting on a helmet or cycling gear, I'd race over to see her. Because my parents always stuck to the main roads, I had to go via the steep hills and winding back roads. This made my route 20 kilometers instead of 10 kilometers. Anything for love, eh! My dad never found out. Well, now he has, of course,” laughs Ardjan.
Ardjan van der Linden | Cycling | ONYVA | Cycling club Het Snelle Wiel | TU/e | Eindhoven | Oxfordshire | PhD Computational Biology | aged 26
When the Van der Linden family returned to the Netherlands in 2008, the cycling stopped. “Cycling through the Channel Tunnel to Kirsty would have been pushing it,” laughs Ardjan. Only during his Bachelor's, in the fall of 2015, did he take up cycling again. And again a woman pointed him in the right direction. “A good friend of mine, Ilona, was a member of the student cycling association Squadra Veloce at the time and she took me along to an open evening at the Op Noord cycling track. There I met Sem and Yorit of ONYVA cycling club. That evening, when I cycled at the front of the group, Sem was the only person who could keep up with me. Afterwards he said I should ride competitively. I realized then that perhaps I was capable of cycling pretty fast.”
Ardjan tells his story with the same casualness as Forrest did at the bus stop. As if it is a logical step to be at a national championships after cycling for two years. His voice is calm and he listens closely, communicating politely with his eyes. Everything about Ardjan exudes calm; his seated posture, his clothes, even his mid-length hair. He is the archetype of the carefree soul, cheerful and lacking any instinctive fear. A fair-weather rider without any desire for hardship. But looks can be deceiving. Behind all the gentleness and lack of concern there lurks a tremendous drive and thirst for action. Both in his doctoral research and in the saddle, Ardjan has just one point of focus: Ardjan. He is forever asking himself the same question: ‘Did I get the best out of myself?’
On the bike, it isn't titles and prizes that motivate ‘Hard-Jan’. He finds the flattery of the ‘self high fives’ and pats on the back more appealing than the fleeting kisses of a podium girl. A new wattage record sparkles better than the champagne. “Already at high school I used to time how fast I could cycle to school and could blast my way up the viaduct. That's still how I experience cycling. Of course, I want to win a time trial, but what I enjoy most is the competition with myself. Geraint Thomas once put it nicely: ‘No one rides to fail’. If I have cycled to win, I don't care about my final ranking.”
Ardjan continued to develop this self-competition at TU/e. “My Bachelor's got off to a difficult start. In response I worked harder and suddenly I was on a roll - and I saw the study as a challenge. Actually, from that moment on, there was only thing I believed: ‘Only the best is good enough’. I started taking the Honors Program and wanted to pass all my courses cum laude. It all sounds very demanding, but wouldn't it have been a shame not to do it right? It's not so much that I want to please people, although it is a good feeling to perform at a high level and receive appreciation for that.”
His insatiable academic dynamism carries the risk of burning out. After his Master's his head was full to bursting and his energy reserves empty. “Throughout the entire period of my Bachelor's and Master's, including the semester I spent in Boston, I worked really hard. In five years the longest break I took was four days. I needed a proper break somewhere sunny.” And so it happened. As pilgrims have trekked for centuries to northern Spain in search of spiritual fulfillment, emotional solace and self-discovery, so Ardjan trekked to Andalusia. Not for self-discovery, but in search of rest and peace. Rest and peace in the Van der Linden lexicon proved ultimately to mean cycling about 1,000 kilometers a week through a hilly landscape.
“It sounds quite tough, but actually it was relaxing. You have breakfast at 10 o'clock at a little Spanish bar and then cycle an hour and a half without meeting another soul. Then you enjoy a big delicious lunch and pedal on farther through mountains, forests and beside rivers. It makes me so relaxed that I spontaneously start singing out loud, naturally off-key. You make up the strangest songs to melodies you invent, for example about something you happen to see: ‘Oh, look, there's a cat in the tree’. These trips brought me real tranquility. In Spain I started to realize that cycling is an essential part of my life; that it's more than cycling wattages. If I don't do it, I can get stressed - by my PhD among other things.”
When he returned from Spain, Ardjan started to approach cycling differently. He no longer cycles only as a cool lover of the sport, now he also allows space for releasing his emotions. Sometimes he cycles as ‘Hard-Jan’ sometimes as ‘Chill-Jan’. “I am no longer looking to average at least 36 kilometers an hour, along fixed straight lines and canals, on every training ride. I am looking for variety in my routes. Sometimes I set off without a plan or Garmin. I wander along unfamiliar forest paths or through the hills. Wonderful ascents, twisting and turning; stress just melts away. But just to make it clear: I'm not unsociable, you know. I love being among people, having fun.”
ONYVA Club Cyclistes in Eindhoven is where he finds this sociable fun, with his cycling companions. A band of regal rovers in search of the beauty and romance in every landscape and experts in brewing a bond among bar buddies. “On Wednesdays it is club night and we cycle incredibly fast, but what counts for me is the friendly drink afterwards at Bar Calypso. The fun is also why I do the long weekend rides of 120, 130 kilometers. You are training and at the same time getting to know people. You talk mostly about trivial things while cycling, but sometimes about quite personal matters. I was better able to cope with the death of my grandfather last year thanks to bike rides with my friend Teun.”
The sporting peak - for the time being - of Ardjan's cycling career came on May 8, 2018. With an average speed of 44.3 kilometers an hour he raced into third place at the District Championship. An achievement he puts down to his ‘I just go out and ride' training program. To his mind, total seclusion and fanatical preparation are myths. Just jump on the bike straight from a warm bed. Add to this his vegan diet and you know you are looking at a free spirit. “I cycle between 15 and 20 hours a week without really having a training plan. The team leaders at my cycling club Het Snelle Wiel would prefer me to have planned rest periods and eat a big beef steak in the evening, but they accept my choices.”
The decision to ride time trials is entirely in line with Ardjan's philosophy of life. It offers him the pleasure of the self-explosion. “It is riding against yourself; pure cycling. You go as fast as you can. What's more, the time trial is a relatively low-key discipline, so you can reach the top more quickly. At the coming national championship ‘Elite without a contract’, I simply want to see how fast I can ride. I am realistic enough to know that a top ranking is out of the question. That's why I would like to start first, so that for at least two minutes I can sit in the hot seat,” smiles Ardjan. “But in 2019 I want to try and ride among the top five, and after that to measure myself against the real men.”
And afterwards? The self-competition will simply continue. The epic distance runs that took Forrest to the American west coast and back to the east coast pale in comparison with Ardjan's cycling aims. “After doing time trials, I want to concentrate on long-distance rides, such as the Transcontinental Race, from Belgium to Greece, or the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, from Perth to Sydney. You ride solo distances of 4,000 kilometers without any kind of assistance. Winners of these rides cycle 20 hours a day at times and sleep in a plastic sack on the roadside. As well as the brutal harshness and mental resilience involved, the isolation and oneness with nature have huge appeal. For the rest, one day I want to break a world record, for example the farthest distance cycled in 24 hours. But that is for later, much later.”
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.