By Andrew Hood
Peter Van Petegem lines up Sunday in what could be his last Tour of Flanders. The 37-year-old is synonymous with the Belgian classic and boasts two victories (1999 and 2003) to his list of successes during his 16-year career.
Van Petegem made a big switch last year, trading his team captain’s role at Predictor-Lotto for one that’s certainly a notch or two lower in the pecking order at Quick Step-Innergetic.
What’s surprising is that Van Petegem couldn’t be happier than to be in his new role of “joker” behind two-time defending Flanders champ Tom Boonen and reigning world champion Paolo Bettini.
“Van Pet” has a one-year deal with the option to extend in 2008. From what he told VeloNews.com in a recent phone interview ahead of the spring classics, he doesn’t sound like a rider who’s about to retire.
VeloNews.com: Why did you decide to change Davitamon-Lotto, where you were the classics captain, to Quick Step-Innergetic, where Boonen and Bettini are both making noises about winning Flanders?
Peter Van Petegem: It was very good for me to change the team. Last year I had some problems with the team. Coming to Quick Step was like a big present for me. It’s a good team for the classics, perhaps the best, and those are the most important races for me. I know a lot of guys on the team so making the change wasn’t so difficult. For me, it was the best team that I could join.
VN.com: How is your relationship with Tom Boonen – he’s the big star now in Belgium and can expect to have full support of the team?
PVP: We have a very good relationship. I’ve known Tom since the beginning of his career. I rode for him (at the 2005 world’s) in Madrid and our relations have always been very good. It was very easy to come to the team. Everyone wants to ride next to Boonen and Bettini. From the young guys to the old guys like me. We first spoke with Patrick Lefevere about the possibility of coming to the team. Then he spoke with Tom and asked what he thought about Van Petegem joining the team. Tom said there would be no problem.
VN.com: Was it hard for you to go from being the team leader at Davitamon-Lotto to essentially a support role at Quick Step to Boonen and Bettini?
PVP: The problem at Lotto was that I had to do everything on my own. I was the leader for the classics, but I never really had much support. Now we have three leaders who can win the race. First there’s Boonen, then Bettini, then me. Beyond that, everything else has stayed the same. I do my work, I train like I always do. It’s always good to have more options for the team. If it’s not for me, then I will work for the others in the final kilometers. I don’t have a problem with that.
VN.com: Boonen told us earlier this year that he thinks you’re the favorite for Flanders, how do you see the team tactics unfolding for Flanders?
PVP: Maybe I can be the joker. Everything is possible. When you have a lot of good guys on the same team, you can play different cards. When you are alone on the team, there’s only one chance to do it. At Lotto, the team rode for me, but you need a little bit of luck to win sometimes, too.
VN.com: This is your 16th year as a pro – what keeps you motivated?
PVP: It’s true, I don’t have to keep doing this. I could stop racing and it would be easy to say it’s time to stop. I still love it. I am very motivated. Now I am on a new team, with Bettini and Boonen, they are the biggest riders in the world right now, so that’s very motivating. I still have the passion of cycling. That what’s the most important. You have to love it. It’s always easier when you win, it’s not so easy when the wins don’t come. We keep trying.
VN.com: How do you deal with the pressure of being a classics specialist, your entire season is judged from results in one week?
PVP: There is pressure. What people don’t see is that we are busy in November, December and January. When others are on vacation, we are training hard, already racing. We have three days in two weeks. You have to be good then. I knew I could never do well in the big stage races, so it was natural for me to gravitate toward the classics. It fits my character.
VN.com: What in your character makes you love the classics so much?
PVP: When I was very young, I would go with my parents to watch the classics, so it got into my blood early. I live in the middle of the classic courses. It’s all around me, so it’s easier to do them. The classics in Belgium are something like baseball in America. The other big sport here is [soccer]. I did play some soccer, but I found I loved cycling more. My father wasn’t a racer. He loved cycling, but it was forbidden in his household for him to race as a youngster. When I was growing up, he took me to the races, but first he told me I had to finish school, then I could race.
VN.com: What makes a great classics rider?
PVP: First, you must have talent on the bike. Then you have to work and train. That’s very hard and you must like it. It’s not an easy sport. You have to have a strong character. You have to have a solid head on your shoulders. The sport can be stressful and you must try to stay calm even in the most difficult circumstances. You have to work and sacrifice for months and months to be good for one week, so you have to have a strong head.
VN.com: How have the races changed since you first started in the 1990s?
PVP: The races are still the same. That’s what makes them so interesting. There are the typical climbs, the typical stretches of cobblestone. That will never change. There have been some changes in materials over the years, especially when you talk about Paris-Roubaix.
VN.com: How has the preparation and training changed from 15 years ago?
PVP: Now we are much more serious in the winter. Before we could do things like skiing or mountain biking, but now we are putting in long miles already in November. You cannot wait any longer or you will not be ready for the classics.
VN.com: I can imagine winning Flanders-Roubaix in the same year was your best memory?
PVP: To achieve something that not many people have done was something special. That was very, very good. I’ve been pretty lucky with crashes.
VN.com: I can imagine that during a 16-year career you’ve had your fair share of disappointments?
PVP: Well, it seems I’ve had a lot of those! I’ve had many good times, but the bad time was when Mercury ended [in 2001]. That was very unfortunate. It was a good team and we won a lot of races. When you work without getting paid, that’s not nice. After all, we are professionals, but we had to race with no money to get a contract for the next year. I was lucky. I joined a team for the last month of the season and then I went to Lotto. That’s life. You cannot change it.
VN.com: You’re a big star in Belgium, how was it being on American team?
PVP: I liked it. America is big! Cycling there is growing, but people only know the Tour de France. The public doesn’t know the sport like in Europe, but that’s normal. In Belgium, people recognize me, but I don’t have a problem with it. You’re a little bit of a hero to some people. It’s not something you can take too seriously. I do my job.
VN.com: When do you think you’ll retire?
PVP: At my age, maybe one more year is possible. Not more. I know when I will stop racing, I will have no regrets. I was very lucky to have done it for 16 years. Maybe one year more. I always gave the maximum and I will be happy when I finish. It was a very good time in my life. That’s normal that it will come to an end.
VN.com: Some commentators in the Belgian media have suggested your time is up?
PVP: You always have people who are for you and who are not for you. For me, I don’t listen to them. It’s not a problem for me. First, you do your job, that’s most important.
VN.com: Looking back at your career, is their one moment that stands out?
PVP: I think for me it was my first victory in the Tour of Flanders. That was the biggest for me because I dreamed of winning it since I was a young boy. It’s such an important race in my country. People who are not Belgian don’t understand what it means. That was great.
VN.com: Do you dream of winning it again?
PVP: I don’t dream anymore. I am happy doing my job. If I win, that’s very, very good. But it’s most important being healthy and doing my job for the team. When I win, it’s a bonus. If it’s possible, I would love to win Flanders again.