It is 9:30 am., Saturday, February 28. Few people are out at this hour in Ghent, the Flemish capital, and there is little sign that anything exceptional is scheduled to happen today.
But on one of the town’s squares away from the center, the Sint Pietersplein, things are starting to pick up. Volunteers are attaching the final banners, and various sponsors are putting the finishing touches on their promotional stands. For those in the know, this is the start of the Omloop Het Volk, the first Belgian classic of a new season.
Within the space of a half hour, festivities start. Fans filter into the square in front of the sign-in podium. The music bellows a kitsch mix of Belgian folk tunes and international favorites from the 1970s. A glamour pop version of “Here Comes the Night” echoes. But where are the cyclists?
Evidently, they put the inevitable fanfare off until the last minute. For most of them know that the true action is still hours away, on one of the many grueling cobbled climbs that litter this 202km classic. And for this band of cyclists, the real show starts in the fourth and fifth hour of racing.
Now, cyclists who revel in races like Het Volk are a strange breed. The French call them Flahutes, an honorary title given to this bad bunch. These are the guys who thrive in rain and wind, and who never let sleet and snow get them down, when there’s a bike race on the line.
For the record, the U.S. Postal Service team is not here. But why should it be? Unless a rider has a real interest in winning these races, it is better to remain in the south, where one can collect race miles without getting beaten up by the numerous traps and hazards inherent in these Belgian events.
Topping the ”fave” list today are guys like Belgium’s Johan Museeuw. The 1996 world champion has won countless classics, and before the race he admits that “this is a race I’ve always wanted to win.” But let’s not overlook Lotto rider Andre’iTchmil. This one-time Russian, then Moldavian, then Ukrainian, now holds a Belgian passport. And what better way to stamp it than with his first victory for Belgium?
TVM-Farm Ftites rider Peter Van Petegem is another rider not to be overlooked. Winning Het Volk last year registered the Flahute from nearby Opbrakel among the “who’s who” of professional cyclists, and he promised to do justice to his title this year …. But most people are looking at another Belgian, Tom Steels. Museeuw’s Mapei-Bricobi teammate won the Volk in 1996, and he is coming to the 1998 edition already boasting four wins in February ….
Steels may have been the hot tip, but early in the race it became evident that he would not be a factor. In the week prior to his cherished event, he had fallen victim to the virus that has swept through the peloton this February. As a result, even on the first climbs, he could be seen struggling. And when ephemeral hopefuls like TristanHoffman (TVM-Farm Frites) and Grzegorz Gwiazdowski (Cofidis) were fighting to get a slim 30-second advantage on the day’s third climb, the Old Kwaremont. Steels was uncharacteristically buried in the pack. Later, he admitted, ”I knew on the first climb that I just didn’t have it today.”
Ironically, it was Tour de France star Richard Virenque who ignited the real racing. Today, he was riding for his Festina teammates Gianluca Bortolami and Laurent Brochard — currently known as the world champion. Virenque’s attack 98km into the event, on the treacherous Mur de Grammont — the Muur in Flemish, Wall in English — splintered the field.
For the next 50km, the pack dwindled steadily under the pressure of the favorites. Particularly present was Mapei’s Frank Vandenbroucke, who attacked up climbs like the crucial Molenberg with rabbit-like ease. But when the crucial move came, 50km from the finish, ”VDB” was unfortunately absent ”I was in just about every move today,” he said at the finish. ”But the one move I was not in, was the one that went”
It was over the top of the last of the 11 climbs, the Berendries, that seven riders broke free. Not surprisingly, the break included several of the pre-race favorites: Tchmil, Museeuw, Bortolami, and defending champion Van Petegem. But there were also some new faces here: Australian GAN rider Stuart O’Grady, Rabobank’s Dutch sprinter Max Van Heeswijk, and Latvian Arvis Piziks of the new Danish team, Home-Jack & Jones.
With most of the favorites represented, the septet pushed its lead to more than two minutes. The final 20km over the flatlands to the finish in Lokeren were void of any climbs; but they were filled with vicious cobbles. It was on one of the final cobbled sectors, the Vogelzangstraat, 10km from the finish, that Van Petegem put his title on the line. Remaining in his saddle, he steamrolled past his companions. “He just went by us at twice the speed,” stuttered O’Grady at the finish. “If you didn’t have the right line, there was nothing to do.”
According to Van Petegem, the move was simply intended “to break up the group … because I was worried about Tchmil and Van Heeswijk.” But he immediately gained 15 seconds, a gap that soon increased to more than 20. With such a lead, and with only a few kilometers remaining, Van Petegem couldn’t afford to wait for reinforcement.
There were a few tentative attempts to chase him. But since each of the six riders behind were from different teams, no one appeared overly eager to sacrifice their own chance to benefit another. The result? Van Petegem cruised to his repeat victory.
At the finish, he still held 12 seconds over the late-breaking Bortolami – ample time to pull down his jersey, raise both his arms, and beam a jubilant smile.
For the rising TVM star, Het Volk now holds a special meaning. After numerous setbacks nearly brought a premature end to Van Petegem’s career, forcing him to drop down to the minor-league Trident team in 1996, Van Petegem has now scored back-to-back victories in the Belgian classic. And, at 28, he’s finally set firmly on the right road.
Now, the Belgian local is thinking of bigger classics.
“I’d really like to get a World Cup race – something like Milan-San Remo or Paris-Roubaix,” said Van Petegem. “But the one that would really be special is the Tour of Flanders. like Het Volk, it is held in my own backyard.
Nothing equals Flanders.”