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Throwback Thursday: Peter van Petegem and the elusive heart of Flanders

Peter van Petegem maybe wasn't one of the biggest winners in his era, but he was always a player in the spring classics, winning Omloop a record-tying three times.

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While he may not have been the biggest classics rider of his day, Peter van Petegem was one of the most consistent and reliable classics riders of his generation.

The Flemish rider was capable of producing huge performances on any given day, capped by his back-to-back victories in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2003.

But never was he better than on the opening weekend, where he won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (then known as Omloop Het Volk) on three occasions. The race was always dear to his heart.

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For this week’s Throwback Thursday, VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt look back at van Petegem’s career.

When did you realize that Peter van Petegem was special ?

James Startt: Well perhaps the second time he won the Het Volk (i.e., Het Nieuwsblad). I remember when he won the race for the first time in 1997, but he did so as a relatively little-known rider. But the next year he won again, as the defending champion. That’s when I said to myself, ‘okay, this guy could be a serious contender for Flanders or Roubaix.’ And the next year he did just that, winning his first Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Andrew Hood: Back in the days of van Petegem’s rise, the spring classics and monuments seemed like a faraway cycling kingdom. This was an era long before social media, 24-7 news feeds, live broadcasts, or riders and teams posting selfies on Instagram. The riders were elusive and mysterious, and the races themselves seemed dark, forbidding, and cloaked in mystery. Americans knew about the races by name and from reading the race reports when VeloNews would show up in their mailbox a few weeks later, but the races of Flanders, Holland, and northern France remained in a special orbit for a much longer time than say the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

Van Petegem to me in those days was like a 1960s French or Italian movie star. I didn’t speak his language, I only saw glimpses of him at races, but it was very soon obvious to everyone he was a natural on the cobbles and bergs of the spring classics.

They say once you win the Tour of Flanders, you never have to buy a beer again in Belgium.

What was your standout moment in van Petegem’s career?

Startt: I would say in 2003 when he won both Flanders and Roubaix back-to-back. You have to understand that until van Pet did it, no one had done the double for years – and he did it handily. What I really liked about van Petegem was that he was so unassuming. He was never a big winner and did not win tons of races. But he was one of those rare riders that didn’t need to win races to be able to win the biggest. And that is what made him so dangerous. A lot of big riders need to test themselves in the early races.

They need to put in a big ride and hopefully come away with a win or two for their confidence. But that also makes them a marked rider in the bigger objectives. But van Petegem could really lay under the radar and then just uncork a huge ride. I always loved that about him.

Hood: As James said, it was his big Flanders-Roubaix double in 2003 that really shot him to prominence. A feat that’s only been matched by 10 riders who’ve won Flanders and Roubaix in the same season. He won “only” 20 races in his day, but he was twice on the world championships podium and was consistently in the top-10 in all the monuments and one-day classics he started.

Overshadowed by Johan Museeuw, van Petegem was certainly one of the biggest stars of his day. And to pull off the “double” against the might of the Quick-Step regime confirms his class.

Peter van Petegem was synonymous with the spring classics during his career. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

Do you have any personal stories or anecdotes with van Petegem?

Startt: Yeah, back in 2005 I met him at his home in Brakel and followed him for a day of training. van Petegem was born and raised in the heart of Flanders and he knew every climb and every turn in the road like the back of his hand. And it was fascinating to watch. He had this core group of riders that followed him, but the group was growing or shrinking all the time as riders were constantly jumping on or off the group according to their own training needs for the day.

At one point we stopped by the bar that served as his fan club. It was late morning but already several locals were having their morning beer around an old Franklin stove. It was just timeless really. Peter chatted easily with the owner of the bar. He was in his element. It was Peter’s world.

Hood: I remember waaaaaay back in the day I went to the pre-season training camp of the ill-fated Mercury-Viatel in 2001. There were a few big names on the squad, including very young versions of Chris Horner and Floyd Landis, but by far the biggest stars were Pavel Tonkov and van Petegem. I was charged with interviewing both of them, and each proved to be very cagey to pin down. Tonkov said he didn’t speak English or Spanish, which was a bit of a stretch considering he later married a Spanish woman and opened a hotel in Córdoba, but at least we stammered through a few questions in a mix of Spanish and Italian.

Van Petegem gave a five-star performance in media avoidance. Every time we agreed to chat, he would either make an excuse, postpone it, or blow me off completely. Again, this was long before social media, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any of that. The web was still relatively in its infancy phase, and that meant journalists actually needed to speak to someone to get some quotes.

In the end, I spoke to everyone on the team, except van Petegem. I was promised a world exclusive later that spring. Only a few weeks later did the team start to unravel with rumors that paychecks were not arriving and the team missed a Tour de France bid. Needless to say, I never got that one-on-one with van Petegem that year.

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