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Allan Peiper is a living link between Australian and Belgian cycling. Having resided in Belgium for the best part of 40 years, his is a link that was first forged when he arrived as a junior cyclist in 1977.
Illness forced his return to Australia after three years, but after Peiper returned to Europe in 1982 to race for the Parisian amateur team ACBB, his cycling career took off.
Peiper turned professional with the French Peugeot team in 1983. He then rode for the Dutch Panasonic and Belgian Tulip teams until retiring at the end of 1992. In a career focused on being one of the most valued domestiques, his individual highlight was a win on stage 14 of the 1990 Giro d’Italia.
Peiper’s link will come to the fore on Saturday when, 45km into stage 1, the 2019 Tour de France passes through his current home of Geraardsbergen in the heartland of Flanders. Peiper, 59, played down the significance of that link last Saturday while we chatted in his adopted hometown Geraardsbergen.
Ours was a long overdue catch up. Peiper was one of the first to help me when I moved to Belgium in 1987 to write about cycling for Winning Bicycle Racing Illustrated. He had just raced the 1987 Tour of Flanders with the Panasonic team and he took time out in the kitchen of his home — then in Ninove near the finish line — to help me understand the craziness of my first major one-day classic.
Peiper’s door has been open ever since, literally and metaphorically. We have seen each other on numerous occasions and at various locations. But in a world that seemingly moves too fast, last Saturday – one week out from the 2019 Tour – we had a prime opportunity to stop the clock, take a breath, and have a chat.
And so I took an early train from Brussels to Geraardsbergen and met Peiper at his home in time for breakfast. We went on a two-hour bike ride that included a stop at the Mur de Grammont – the Muur van Geraardsbergen in Flemish — that stage 1 of the Tour will pass. And after lunch and a chat that took us from his kitchen to the garden and back, we fittingly enjoyed a dark Rochefort Belgian beer before I took the train back to Brussels.
It was a wide-ranging conversation that covered everything from his racing career, to his family history, to his fight against prostate cancer — a fight more challenging than any he experienced on the bike.
The Missing Link with World War I
“Australians have a huge history here … in a cycling sense,” says Peiper when asked about his imprint as an Australian on Belgian cycling. “Some people say that I was one of the pioneers with Phil Anderson, but I think there were other pioneers before me.”
Peiper cites the likes of Sir Hubert Opperman who featured in the 1920-1930s, and then Russell Mockridge, Ron Baensch, Danny Clark, Donny Allan, Peter ‘Smelly’ Delongville and Dave ‘Dumps’ Allan.
“There are a lot of guys that came before me [and] did the hard yards,” he says. “Not that the yards I did weren’t hard, but I think the influence for me to come over here at the time when I was living in Melbourne [were] the stories about Belgium … horrific stories of hardship.
“All the guys who came before me left a trace with the Belgian people which is pretty endearing for Australians.”
Still, what sets Peiper apart is that he continued to call Belgium home after his racing career, and still does. The link he represents also extends beyond cycling, to the First World War of 1914-1918.
His great, great uncle William James Bosustow served in the ‘Great War’ as a Private in the 22nd Battalion of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). He was killed on May 3, 1917. His body still hasn’t been found, although Peiper has visited the site of his death. Bosustow is recognised at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux in northern France among more than 10,000 AIF soldiers killed in France and Belgium between 1916 and the war’s end, and who had no known graves.
“Like a lot of Australians, especially in the last decennia, looking for links for our ancestors and people we knew who fought in the first and second World War from an Australian perspective is something [done] with pride,” Peiper says. “My great, great uncle was stationed in Ypres in 1916, died in northern France in the second Battle of Bullecourt in 1917. His body was lost.
“Everybody wants their family member to be a hero or a Victoria Cross winner, but it seems like in the records he struggled,” Peiper says. “He left home, landed in Egypt … was sick half the time, landed in France … was sick again, got to Ypres … was sick again.
“The first day of the second Battle of Bullecourt he died … a bomb exploded, blew him back into the trench, covered him up with dirt and they didn’t find him again. So, [he was] heroic in that sense; but it sounds like [it was] a few years of real turmoil for him, being sick in battle fields … not really the easiest way to [see] the war through.”
Last year, Peiper rode with a friend to West Flanders to the King Albert Monument for World War I and spent three days touring the battlefields.
“I really feel a personal strong link to the first World War,” he says. “It has a really powerful effect on me. The number of times and the number of people I have [taken] to Flanders fields and [to see] the ‘Last Post’ and taken them to Passchendaele and passed some of the really small graveyards which you can spend hours walking around. It is definitely a strong Australian link and a matter of national pride.
“I always take them to [the grave of] Captain Jeffries … a Victoria Cross [recipient]. Having your name in Villers Bretonneux is fantastic, but it is up on the wall, three metres above. You could just make it out which is great … but there is something tangible about a grave.”
Eddy Merckx and the Mur
Allan Peiper has ridden over the Mur de Grammont countless times. He is always drawn by its allure, and today that allure is a plaque positioned in honour of Eddy Merckx who twice won the Tour of Flanders. The first time was in 1969, the same year he won the first of his five Tours de France. When we get to the plaque, Peiper suggests we stop.
“Anyone who is a bike rider, [or has] been a bike rider knows that Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist of all time,” he says, while a stream of cyclists continues to ride up the Mur with varying levels of success. When asked about Merckx, as a person, Peiper refers to his humility.
“Surprisingly, for such a great champion, he is very un-egoistic [sic] and very humble in his ways, and is not a guy who is going to shoot his mouth off about his own exploits to somebody’s detriment,” he says. “He always holds that to himself because he doesn’t need to telly everybody about it. They already know.” Peiper laughs.
The Mur, adds Peiper, is still an iconic climb in cycling, but it has nonetheless changed over time. “Thirty, 40 years ago it was worse … more rain, more moss on the cobbles,” he says. “We didn’t have Di2 with 22 gears. We only had five or six on the back and we didn’t have a lot of choice. So, it was 42 x 21 and that is why a lot of the riders crashed.
“We have come up here today, and we have 39 x 30 on the back and it makes us seem like a really good bike rider! Back in the day, they struggled to get those gears around, especially in the wet. The climate of the environment has changed, but it’s still a tough climb in [the Tour of] Flanders because they race up here really hard.”
It doesn’t take long for Peiper to recall his worst and best experiences of racing up the Mur. The worst was in the 1984 Omloop Het Volk (now Omloop Het Nieuwsblad) when he and Irishman Stephen Roche rode up it together as the last and second-last riders in the race.
“We had to ride 40km back to Ghent, freezing cold weather and we finished last and second last,” he says. “Actually, that was an accomplishment.”
And the best? The 1989 Tour of Flanders that then finished in Ninove. Peiper was in the lead break of seven riders from which eventual winner Edwig Van Hooydonck attacked on the following climb: the Bosberg. “I was seventh; much to the chagrin of my DS … but that’s another story,” says Peiper with a wry smile.
Peiper agrees when I suggest that racing up the Mur must be like racing through a funnel of madness. On Saturday, when stage 1 of the Tour passes over, he expects the atmosphere to reach another level again compared to the Tour of Flanders.
“It spurs you on,” he says of the crowd. “The Tour de France is really a world event and I think, being summer and [with] everyone on holidays, [there] is going to be so many people here. It is going to be absolutely incredible on this place where we are standing right now.
“It is a national sport, but also a national sport of pride. [Belgium], probably along with France and Italy, have been the most predominant cycling countries in the last 100 years. Having this Tour go through Belgium, starting in Brussels 50 years after Eddy won the first five of his victories, is going to be pretty special for the country.”
A Ride Down Memory Lane
Allan Peiper has a selection of framed jerseys on his wall. Noticeable is the fact that only one jersey is his — the white jersey of best young rider from his Tour de France debut in 1984. He was riding for Peugeot at the time. He claimed the jersey with third place in the prologue behind Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon and wore it for 10 days. I ask Peiper what that jersey means to him.
“I think you are only rightly the owner if you win the jersey,” he says. “I was third in the prologue … I was third in the first bunch sprint, [on] stage 1 … top 10 in the first 10 days. I was very proud of that. I didn’t win the jersey, but I had it for 10 days and I suffered like hell in the last 10 days so I figured I could show it off … at least at my own home.”
Peiper tells me the stories behind the other jerseys framed on his wall.
Andre Greipel’s 2010 Tour Down Under ochre jersey
“Winning the Tour Down Under as an Australian [sports director] was a peak moment, plus it was with Andre Greipel,” Peiper says. “Having a sprinter in the Tour Down Under, it is always going to be ‘edge-of-the-knife’ sort of stuff, [with time] bonuses, WiIlunga Hill and the rest of it.
“Andre was such a great guy. He came up to me before the start of Paris Roubaix [this year] and said, ‘Allan, I hear you are sick. I want to wish you all the best.’ He put his arms around me. I said, ‘How did you know?’ He said, ‘I just know.’ Andre has a place in my heart.”
Mark Cavendish’s 2011 road world champion’s jersey
“It was the last year for Highroad and the culmination of a lot of victories for ‘Cav’ and a lot of pleasure for everybody who was on board with ‘Cav’ in those five years,” he says. “He has been an amazing force in cycling.
“The two of us had a fiery relationship during those five years where ‘Cav’ didn’t talk to me quite a few times. But it was probably the most joy I have had from a rider because of the absolute difference he could make in a sprint. We won’t see that too often and we haven’t seen it since.
“A few weeks ago he sent me a little Instagram shot. He was at the Tour California and he dedicated on his number – it was ‘Breakaway for Cancer …’ – [by writing on it] that he is ‘riding for Allan P.’ He sent me this photo. That level sort of support from Mark … Never thought I would get a message like this, but I’m really grateful.”
Tony Martin’s 2011 world time trial champion’s jersey
“A real ‘Mister Nice’ guy,” Peiper says. “The ‘Panzerwagen’ was definitely a force in those days. You put Tony on the front with ‘Captain America,’ [George] Hincapie, and [Mark] Renshaw behind him, and then ‘Cav’ as last man. Nobody is going to beat you.” Peiper laughs.
Who can win the Tour
Allan Peiper believes Team Ineos will remain the team to beat in this year’s Tour, despite the absence of injured four-time champion Chris Froome. In a race that will also miss Dutch contender Tom Dumoulin due to injury, Peiper says Ineos is still well placed to win with Colombian Egan Bernal and defending champion Geraint Thomas:
“It will be a more open Tour,” he says, “but I think they [Team Ineos] have strength in numbers, a powerful squad to get the job done.”
Peiper believes Team Ineos will be able to manage having two top calibre contenders. After all, they managed that last year.
“Any good management rises above the fame or earning-power of any one rider,” Peiper says. “A good manager has control and is able to depict to the riders in the team what the team goals are and what the team is expecting. That can change during the race because of circumstances. But I think clear, clear directives from management basically solves any problem.
“That doesn’t mean everyone likes it, but as long as there are clear directives the objective is clear as well.”
Peiper does not see a clear threat to Team Ineos. For the podium he respects the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team led by Briton Adam Yates, in 2016 the best young rider on debut and fourth overall, and Australian Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), despite him crashing out the last two years.
“There are a lot of guys with opportunities,” he says. “Richie Porte has had it right the last couple of years, but every time there has been an accident. If he gets through that he could be looking at the podium as well.”
Peiper likes the condition Porte seem to be in off the back of the Criterium du Dauphiné in what has been a season stalled by illness. He was also heartened to learn Porte is more serene than ever before the Tour.
“He was not super, but also not too bad,” Peiper says of Porte’s Dauphine. “Coming into the Tour that is not a bad thing. At the Dauphine two years ago, he was really stomping and at the camp after that, and last year he won the Tour de Suisse. I was in the car — he was really good as well, good enough to go into the Tour and be classed as one of the favourites for the podium. But because of the time he had been so good before the Tour it was a toss-up if he could hold that for the last week [of the Tour].
“I think with the way he was [at the Dauphiné] this year – not quite at the level … and I read in the newspaper that he has had much less stress than in last years. Those two things together … might be the thing that tips the scales.”
Peiper believes more questions hang over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), the 2014 Tour winner who raced to second place in the Giro d’Italia in May. He is unsure if the Italian is banking on the pressure being off him after the Giro; or if he has bitten off more than he can chew.
“To his advantage, he went into the Giro a little bit undercooked, [and] the true champion he is, he got better during the race,” Peiper said. “If anything, he is probably kicking himself now that he probably gave the Giro away on a couple of stages by not taking the other rider [winner Richard Carapaz] seriously.
“What he is probably thinking now is, can he can back up for the Tour after such a Giro? It’s been a long time since anybody really did it with success. How much depth does he still have after that Giro?”
And as for Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Peiper believes the Colombian can ill-afford to leave his run too late as he has seemingly done in the past.
“You have to be racing from the start,” he says. “If you wait too long, the danger is you don’t get it back … you have to take opportunities and make a difference. You can’t wait until the last week and hope you can back it up. You might be two minutes behind by then.
“Movistar they have a great team. They have three leaders. It will be [about] managing them and going into the race with one clear leader … everybody in support. We will see the signs on La Planche des Belles Filles [stage six] … If Nairo is to win the Tour that is probably where [he needs] to take the bull by the horns and make a difference.”
Belgian spirit and Life as an Aussie Belgian
Peiper’s early days in Belgium were certainly tough, as he has candidly described in his book, A Peiper’s Tale, published in 2005.
“I came here with $300,” Peiper recalls of his 1977 arrival in Belgium at age 17 before illness forced his sudden return home. Peiper found the strength to resuscitate his cycling ambitions, then returned to join ACBB before embarking on a professional career with the Peugeot, Panasonic and Tulip teams.
Peiper’s initiation to Belgian life, highlighted by his care under the Planckaert family – a dynasty of Belgian cycling – paid dividends.
“I owe a lot of that to the Belgian people,” he says. “They are very much a closed society. A lot of that goes back to the World Wars, and the invasions by the Spanish and the Germans and so many Roman cultures. That has really influenced the environment here.
“But once you get past the front door with a Belgian you basically get the keys and the cars and everything that goes with it. That is really who they are. Belgian people talk about Australians as being really friendly, open and relaxed and the rest of it … which is all true as well. But the Belgian way … they are a really a supportive society, really supportive and that is engrained in their culture.”
The Biggest Fight: Peiper v Cancer
Allan Peiper is immensely grateful for the support he has received for his latest challenge, too: beating prostate cancer. Not just from his wife Isabelle, his family and his friends, but acquaintances and strangers as well. He has been engaged in this fight for five years, undergoing operations and radiation, but this year it has taken a new path with chemotherapy.
“Anybody who is sick, whether it is cancer or something else, suffering from their health … a support network is really critical,” Peiper says. “You have days where you need to feel some love, and having people who are sending messages, emailing or dropping in or calling you up is really important.
“I know for some people it is difficult to reach out when they know somebody is sick because they don’t know what to say. But I think having a network around me here in Belgium, where I do have one, is really important. These days with WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and all the other social media opportunities, and even Skype, I have so much contact and support from Australia … it is really great.
“It is all really welcome because that support really helps you through the tough days.”
Peiper’s condition has forced him to take time off work as a sports director on UAE-Team Emirates which he joined this year after moving from BMC.
“I am going through chemotherapy from metastasised prostate cancer, so it has spread out,” he says. “It’s only early stages. They are trying to get a hold on it, so I have been off work for a few months.
“I am more than half way through [the chemotherapy]. I have had four sessions of the six on a three-weekly routine. [The] first week is pretty tough after ‘chemo.’ I have a week where I am getting some energy back, and then a week of basically recovery to do it again.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel which is going to be welcome. But unfortunately, I am [several days] away from the start of the Tour de France. I was meant to be there with my team, UAE-Team Emirates, in the first car with Australian Neil Stephens.
“It is a blow that I won’t be there. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing — the start in Brussels, passing here at Geraardsbergen, 100m from my house. But … I have a challenge ahead of me that is more important, and that is staying alive.”