VAN PETEGEM’s BOYS

Words by Andreas Klier with Images by James Startt

There was a time when many of the top cyclists did not live in remote, tax-free principalities such as Andorra or Monaco, but simply in the towns or villages they grew up in. This was never truer than in Belgium, where the best classics riders often preferred to train on the same roads they would race on.

In the 1990s and the early years of this century, Johan Museeuw lived in Gistel on the windswept coastal plain of Belgium, while his classics rival, Peter Van Petegem, lived just outside of Brakel — which is the gateway to the great Flemish classics such as the Omloop Het Volk (now known as Het Nieuwsblad) and the mythic Tour of Flanders. Day in and day out, Van Petegem would loop through the intricate roads of the Flemish hill country with an ever-mutating band of professionals and amateurs joining him. Some would jump on for 20 or 30 kilometers while others were more regular. ¶ One of the regulars that made up part of Van Petegem’s inner circle of training partners was German expatriate Andreas Klier, who early in his career fell in love with the Belgian spirit of cycling and moved to Flanders to be close to what he considered the hub of the sport. Now retired, Klier is a sports director with Cannondale Pro Cycling, but he still looks back at the years he spent in Flanders with fondness. And, recently, he was only too happy to sit down with peloton and reflect on images of Van Petegem training with his friends and his Lotto team on a winter weekend of 2004.

After getting a taste of riding in Flanders when I was on a small German team, I decided to move to Belgium in 1998, when I signed my first big professional contract with the TVM team. You know, sometimes I still wonder why I moved there, what drew me. But Belgium just has a beauty of its own. Maybe it’s the landscape. They don’t have the Alps. They don’t have the Pyrenees. They don’t have deep-blue seas. But the country has a rough beauty, a natural beauty. Still, today, if I see a YouTube video of, say, Johan Museeuw racing in Flanders, it just attracts me. It’s just so brutal, and when you go riding there you just hit your pedals and go for it! It’s pure.

I just fell in love with the place. There was just no question about it. I wanted to be in Flanders…and I stayed there for 11 years. It took me a while to master everything, especially the many narrow, winding roads, but I learned quickly and made a core group of friends, including fellow pros Peter Van Petegem, Geert Van Bondt and Serge Baguet. What we had there was a sort of rolling community. We met on a daily basis. Van Petegem was the biggest rider in terms of results, but on the roads of Flanders we were all just good friends.

In many ways, everything I know about cycling, I learned in Belgium. Back then, cycling was not about numbers, it was more about using your instincts, improvising. Today that is just not possible; you really have to be aware of your numbers and be 100-percent professional every day. Today’s professionals go faster because they train much better. I see a lot of advantages to all of the new-school stuff. But when I lived and raced in Flanders, I learned to be creative, to use what skills I had at the right moment and how to read my opponents — things that are crucial to being a good bike racer.

If you asked me who was the smartest rider I ever met, it would definitely be Van Petegem. I met a lot of smart riders over the years, but he was just incredible. In the early-season races, he could spend all day at the back of the pack, but when the racing got hard, and the pack was down to 25 guys, he would still be last, but he was still there. He’d spend the whole early season like this, and then in the first Belgian classics he’d just open up — bingo!

We didn’t have trainers. We were our own trainers. We just went out and rode. But we rode hard. And I actually think that the terrain in Flanders — filled with so many short, hard climbs — was just perfect for training. Each climb was an intensity workout all its own. We would just thrash each other on those climbs. Nobody waited for anyone. We trained very hard. Today you would call the efforts we made on the climbs 20-second intervals, or 40-second intervals. But we didn’t think like that. We just rode from one kicker to the next. And when the kicker came, we would go as hard as we could.

Oude Kwaremont: Wow, this is one tricky climb! There is such a fight for position before you get there. It’s not a pure, power climb. It’s 2.5 kilometers long and it’s complicated. The early section is the steepest, but it’s not the hardest when you’re racing. Once you are up there and in position, there’s little chance to change. When you hit the small village halfway up, the road flattens a bit and that’s when you really have to re-accelerate. And once out of the village, the wind can play a real role.

Flanders: Look at that road! When you see how narrow the Flemish roads can be, you start to understand racing in Belgium. And look at the sky! The weather in Belgium is so central. It has such an influence on the racing, probably more than any other place. You have to be able to read the wind, to understand how much time to give a breakaway for example. The weather is just key!

Van Petegem fan club: Oh what a special place that place was! But we wouldn’t stop there so often because, well, we didn’t have time for a beer on a training ride. Instead we just tried to find a café. It was more of a place we went after a race. But I will never forget that old stove. Boy did I burn my hand there once! I’ll never forget that place.

Zottegem: Grabbing a quick drink with Peter and the boys. We would often stop there briefly at the end of a ride since Zottegem was about 15 kilometers from Peter’s place and about the same distance home for me. We spent more time in the cafés in the summer when it was warm. In the winter, we had to be quick because we didn’t want to start getting chilled.

Wrenching: Serge Baguet working on his bike after a training ride. We all grew up working on our bikes and that could come in handy. But bikes back then were more cables and screws, easier to fix. Everything was visible. I could totally build up an old bike. But I would have trouble doing that with today’s high-tech machines.

Koppenberg: Oh the Koppenberg! It’s so steep. There is no room for error. You can’t ride too small of a gear, you can’t ride too big of a gear — and don’t even think of getting out of the saddle. The climb’s not that long, but it just gets steeper and steeper. And if it’s wet, it’s almost impossible to get up it!

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