On the road with Peter Van Petegem
In the Tour of Flanders Centre, our starting point, two cobblestones are evidence of Van Petegem’s Tour victories in 1999 and 2003. “I’m a cobblestone rider,” Van Petegem smiles. “You must love cobblestones. I grew up on them and the hills in this area, thus this is all part of my nature. I was particularly motivated by those flandriens, like Briek Schotte, who also had to fly over these cobblestones.” His tips on how to handle them? “First and foremost flexibility! That’s why I often ride with my hands up high. You have to use your back to go with the movement. I see a lot of racers who lack this flexibility. They rely mostly on their hands. They’ll wear two pairs of gloves and tape their hands up. And despite all that they blister.”
Not a sportsman
The cobblestones in the Tour of Flanders are of mythic proportion. ‘Stone bloodsuckers’ the poet Willie Verhegghe christened them in a poem that is displayed at the foot of the Molenberg in Sint-Denijs-Boekel. The Molenberg is a serious cobblestone leg killer and one of the locations Van Petegem will tackle today. “On the Molenberg I have to sit forward because that’s where you can make a difference. The mountain is barely 500 meters long, but with a little effort you can make good time.” When he climbs the mountain Van Petegem’s competitive side shows. “I often try to console those who ride themselves to ruin. I tell them that they can no longer be a sportsman. I mean that. A sportsman is something you become from a small child through lots of training. I covered more than 30,000 kilometres per year when I rode. If you start at an older age, you can never achieve that.”
He has climbed the Molenberg, the Geraardsbergen Wall and the Bosberg thousands of times. “When I was in school and cycled from my home in Brakel to Ninove I rode the Wall and the Bosberg every day. Later I climbed the Molenberg ten times in a row. That was my passion.” The first time Peter won the Tour in 1999 he saw it as a reward for all that effort. It is his most precious memory of cycling. Van Petegem: “Winning where you grew up is incomparable. Especially because as a boy I came here to see my own heroes. Winning the first time was really a release. That I beat big boys Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke made the victory all the sweeter.”
The view from the Paterberg
The Paterberg is another mythic hill on the Tour. “On a bench on top of the hill there’s a maxim that beautifully summarises cycling in the region: ‘Enjoy here the view of the landscape that lies before you,” says Van Petegem. Stopping now and again and looking around or getting a cup of coffee and a sandwich is also important. That has to do with real recreational cycling.” On the bench Van Petegem explains his love for his region. “The planned tours in the region are really quite good. Yet I’d advise cyclists to go exploring, for that’s how you discover the most.”
Finding your way around here is not difficult, however. Together, Brakel, Ronse, Oudenaarde and Zottegem form a square, and you regularly come across major roads with clear signposts. Peter Van Petegem: “Just by wandering around I’ve discovered the small roads around Schorisse, Brakel and Maarkedal. Gorgeous! If it’s calm, I like to leave early in the morning. And then there’s the diversity of hills, farms and countryside. I thought that was the best part when I was training, because I prefer uneven terrain – hills and cobblestones.”Wandering around didn’t do Van Petegem any harm. “Anyone who wants to win the Tour of Flanders needs to know the course by heart. You have to know where there are stones in the road and where the cobblestones are wet.”
One more round …
We end our journey in ‘In den Hengst’, a 100-year-old cyclists’ café on the Valkenberg in Brakel. “The course actually began below the church towers,” says Van Petegem. “Registration and victory celebrations – or the search for comfort after a loss – took place in the local café. That is the atmosphere we must keep alive.” Café boss Anneke and a few regulars welcome Van Petegem cordially. The café exudes the atmosphere of a warm, cosy living room in which a traditional Louvain stove plays a central role. There is no tap, because the tasty local beers are preferred. The regulars soon gather round. ”Who’s going to win this year, Peter?” Discussions about the coming Tour are lubricated with a round. And then another one…
PETER’S SURVIVAL KIT
What do you need as a cycling tourist in the Flemish Ardennes according to Peter Van Petegem?
- “The art of cycling around here? Make sure that you’re in good shape and that you feel good. Be aware of your speed, and also which gear is right for you on hills. A heart rate monitor is unnecessary if you know your body well, but it can be useful to make sure you don’t push yourself too hard.”
- “Extra inner tubes are a must. If you ride on cobblestones, you can get flats. So take at least two inner tubes and a pump with you. And make sure you know how to fit them.”
- “Take a bit of cash with you. If you end up in a real mess, you can always go to one of the many bicycle shops. You can also get a bite to eat or drink, for example, a Kwaremont beer.”
MINI-BIO OF PETER VAN PETEGEM
Peter Van Petegem (43) was born in Opbrakel, and is regarded as the specialist in single-day classics. In 1999 and 2003, ‘de Zwarte van Brakel’ won the Tour of Flanders. He also won the Paris-Roubaix in 2003, matching Roger De Vlaeminck, who was the first to win both cobblestones classics (the Tour and Paris-Roubaix) in 1977. The Peter Van Petegem Classic draws thousands of cycling fans every year.
Text: Jan Verstraete – portrait photos: Diego Franssens
Try to climb the Molenberg!