Peter Van Petegem winning the 1999 Tour of Flanders in a two-up sprint against Frank Vandenbroucke.
Peter Van Petegem is a double Tour of Flanders winner, a Paris-Roubaix champion, and a three-time winner of the Omloop Het Volk (now Omloop Het Nieuwsblad). Still, the former Belgian pro remains modest. “I would never walk into a room stating my results list and boast about it,” he tells me. “Not in the past and not now. This is not who I am.”
Van Petegem is a softly-spoken and friendly man with a love for cycling that echoes in every word. He still follows many races on TV, men’s and women’s, and he found a job that keeps him in touch with the world of cycling. His own, long career spanned 16 years at the highest level. No fewer than 20 victories make up his palmares. He is one of 10 riders who has won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year.
“There are many highlights,” he says when asked if 2003, the year he achieved that double victory, was the best year of his career.
“I had a long career and if only one year or one race was a highlight, it wouldn’t be good. The first Omloop Het Volk was a highlight. That was the first big Classic. That double Flanders/Roubaix in one week was amazing too but many of my wins are great to me.”
Van Petegem, now 51 years of age, won his first big Classic when he was 27. Things have changed a lot since his racing days – a 19-year-old winning the Tour of Belgium and the Clasíca San Sebastián, and a 21-year-old winning the Tour de France.
“The move up to the elite category goes much faster now,” he says. “The scouting starts much sooner too. When I was 18 you were a boy and you were told to grow up first. I would not even think about raising my hand in the team meeting or contradicting the older riders. We trained with the team as young guys and were given advice by the older riders. There was a hierarchy. When I started with PDM it was Sean Kelly giving me advice in the race.
“You see it everywhere though. In football they play with the first team aged 16 or 17. Kids grow up faster these days. It’s more a complex puzzle. They have managers, sponsors, trainers now, they have their power meter files to show and everyone has their say. Everyone wants a quick result and the pressure is getting higher and higher.
“[But] bike riding is still bike riding. That hasn’t changed. These early season races in France were preparation races before the big races started. Now everyone races to the line every single day. They give 200% for their careers. It’s great for us as spectators because we saw fantastic racing in 2020 and 2021 so far but there is a lot of pressure on these riders now. Sometimes I think they should be less serious, especially the young riders.”
Van Petegem started at PDM when he was 21 and rode his last race in 2007 with QuickStep when he was 37. He thinks for a little while when asked if there is something he regrets in his career.
“No, not really,” he says. “I deal well with disappointment. I had two chances to become world champion: in Valkenburg 1998 and in Hamilton in 2003 and finished in second and third place. Of course, I would have loved to trade in that silver and bronze medal for a rainbow jersey. But regrets? No.
“Well maybe one thing. I stayed loyal to [team manager] Cees Priem and stayed with him when TVM ended their sponsorship and the team became Farm Frites. Nowadays a manager would have told me not to stay and move on but I was loyal to Cees.”
After a period of insecurity and unrest around the teams Van Petegem rode for, he joined Lotto-Adecco in 2002. He won his third Omloop Het Volk and the Driedaagse De Panne. He also had top-10 places in other big races and a third place in the Tour of Flanders that year.
“But if you already won Flanders once, a podium place becomes less impressive,” he says. “There was also a lot of pressure on me to repeat that performance. This happened the year after and that felt good; a real confirmation. The happiness was actually the same as the first Tour of Flanders.”
It was a remarkable race too that saw two of Belgium’s biggest stars come together. Van Petegem beat Frank Vandenbroucke in a sprint-a-deux in 2003 to become double Flanders champion, something only 11 riders achieved. A week later he beat Dario Pieri and Vjatsjeslav Ekimov on the velodrome of Roubaix in a three-way sprint to become the eighth rider to do the double in the same year. Since then, Tom Boonen (2012) and Fabian Cancellara (2013) joined the club.
“Being a Tour of Flanders winner in Belgium is forever,” Van Petegem says. “It changes something with the fans. There are riders who had a long career like me but don’t get recognized anymore. Funny thing is that people look up to me now more than they did 20 years ago. Edward Theuns was here the other day and he looked up to me while I looked up to him,” he says with a laugh. “I am not that kind of guy to go around and boast about my career though. In the province of East Flanders we are modest people.”
Van Petegem never managed another win after 2003. There were still top-10 places in Flanders and Roubaix but the lack of a big win caused criticism. Discussions started: had Van Petegem ridden one year too many? He is clear about this.
“It’s never a day or year too many when you still enjoy getting up in the morning to train,” he says. “I was paid to be a champion but didn’t win anymore. I didn’t get a new contract after 2006 because I had many injuries but I didn’t want to end my career like that. Patrick Lefevere gave me a spot on his team to end my career on my own terms. He did the same with Mark Cavendish and I can relate to that. Last year some strong riders didn’t get the chance to end on their own terms and I feel sorry for them.”
Van Petegem never ended up behind the wheel of a team car as a sports director, like many Belgian former pros. He doesn’t regret it though. He has a laissez-faire life philosophy and accepts that things are as they are.
“Of course, I would have liked to be a sports director straight after my career,” he says. “You only have a few months to decide what you want to do next. In my case the generation before me with guys like Hendrik Redant, Wilfried Peeters, Marc Sergeant and Herman Frison had just started as sports directors and there aren’t many places at the highest level anyways. I therefore chose a different career.”
Instead, he ended up selling insurance.
“I was always the kind of rider to chat with everyone, the riders, sponsors,” he says. “We now call it networking. I knew and know a lot of people and like the interaction. After your cycling career you must move forward with a career. I just ended up in insurance.”
The ties to cycling are still there because he designed a specific policy for pro riders and teams. He sold the business and now works with pro teams as their insurance liaison. Van Petegem also rides in the lead car in the Tour of Flanders with race director Wim Van Herreweghe and has his own cyclosportive.
“Unfortunately, we can’t do that this spring because of the COVID restrictions,” he says. “In the cars during the races, we now can only have two people per car but hopefully next year again [things will return to normal].”
Van Petegem hopes to also lead a team with development riders and pros in the near future. He’s working with former Team Veranda’s Willems manager Ivan De Schamphelaere on attracting sponsors and getting the project going.
“Ivan and I have been working on it for a while now but these are not the easiest times,” he says. “Also, cycling teams and their relationship with sponsors has changed. You need a lot more than to just offer the boss a ride in the team car. There is much more specialization in the teams as well. In the old days the manager did everything but now there are competent people for all departments. Managers need to delegate. I think I see myself more as financial boss than as a sports director,” he says with a smile.
Peter Van Petegem is also a dad. He has two sons: Axandre and Maurits. Both ride bikes, although the youngest, Maurits, started in football before following his brother and, maybe, the genes towards the bike. Axandre had a tough 2020 season as a second-year junior in COVID-times.
“It was a shit year for young riders and I sure hope they get to ride more soon,” Van Petegem says. “It’s what all riders need: to ride and race. That is my dream in life, that these boys have a nice career, that they have fun on the bike but also achieve their goals, that they are and will be happy and healthy. That is the most important thing in my life right now.”