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Peter Van Petegem, Filip Meirhaeghe and Bart Wellens
By Staff
Date: 12/4/2003
Peter Van Petegem, Filip Meirhaeghe and Bart Wellens

Filip Meirhaeghe. Courtesy his site.
Peter Van Petegem, Filip Meirhaeghe and Bart Wellens are the 3 favorites for the Crystal Bike trophy. But of course, only one of these three champions can win it. ďAs a road racer youíll always have an advantage,Ē Van Petegem reckons, who pulled off an impressive classic double (Paris-Roubaix and Ronde Van Vlaanderen) and a third place in the Worlds this season. But Wellens (cyclo-cross) and Meirhaeghe (mountainbike) didnít have any less of a season; they are both reigning world champions and winners of 2 World Cup races in their respective disciplines.

But will that be enough to win the Crystal Bike trophy?

Wellens: ďI wouldnít know what more I can do to win itĒ.

Meirhaeghe: ďMaybe it will take Olympic gold before I win itĒ.

Het Laatste Nieuws: Letís get straight to the point: who of you three do you guys think will win the Crystal Bike trophy?

Van Petegem: I wonít be caught saying that Iím gonna win it, Iíve had my share of bad luck in these kind of elections. But I do believe that as a road racer I have a slight advantage over the others.

Meirhaeghe: True, after all, road racing is kinda the national sport, apart from football...

Wellens: Erwin Vervecken was world champion in 2001, but still missed out on the Crystal Bike. I won the WC and the overall ranking of the World Cup last season, like Paul Herygers did in 94í when he swooped the Crystal Bike trophy. But Paul did have the ďluckĒ in that the road racers were having a rather miserable season that year. We cyclo-crossers are a bit the victim of the microcosm that our discipline is.

HN: You feel thatís unjustified?

Wellens: Well, if you look at womenís tennis; with the Williams sisters injured there isnít much competition for Clijsters and Henin either, is there? Besides, cyclo-crossing isnít that ďexclusivelyĒ Belgian, just check the ranking of the World Cup cross in Sankt-Wendel: there were only 2 Belgians in the top10.

HN: Filip, youíll probably ask yourself what more youíll have to do to win it if you donít this year. Itís virtually impossible to have a better season than the one you had last year.

Meirhaeghe: That goes for the three of us. But I do experience that few people actually know a lot about mountainbiking, so I realize it will be a bit of an unequal battle. Which also means that I wonít be losing any sleep over it anymore if I donít go home victorious, this time. And I agree with Bart; often even the maximum isnít good enough. In 2000 I won a silver medal at the olympics while the Belgian road season was a bit of a fluke, and still Tchmil won. I suppose Iíll have to win olympic gold before I win it? But Iíve got one advantage over Bart; I can still achieve something higher than what I have now. (note: since cyclo-crossing isnít an olympic sport)

Peter Van Petegem. Courtesy Peter van Petegem Classic.
Van Petegem: But thereís a similar kind of unequality on the road: I recall Tchmil winning Milan-Sanremo in 99í in an impressive manner. He had come over all the way from Italy (note: where Tchmil lives) and even had his speech prepared, but eventually VdB won the trophy. Heíd won LBL that year, which would remain his only world cup victory to date. But it apparently was enough to win that year.

HN: Road racing, mountainbiking, cyclo-crossing: itís like comparing apples with lemons.... but that doesnít mean we canít give it a shot! Out of you three, who do you think trains the most?

Van Petegem: That would be Filip, heís more hours on his bike than anyone else. His discipline requires that of him.

Meirhaeghe: I donít think you can compare sports in terms of hours of training.

Van Petegem: Yeah, the training intensity will be about equally high for the three of us, I think. Cyclists arenít spoiled, road racers arenít, and neither are the mountainbikers and cyclo-crossers.

HN: Does the build-up to a new season last equally long for all three of you?

Van Petegem: I donít rest for more than 4 weeks a year. Iím already back in training at the moment, without it Iím lost early february. And Iíll certainly wonít be at my peak during the classics then.

HN: But, Briek Schotte says: ďThat Van Petegem only rides two months a year. He doesnít work that hard.Ē

Van Petegem: I ride less races, but at the end of the year Iíll have done more kilometres than somebody that raced an entire year long. At the end of February, when we tackle the Omloop Het Volk, Iíve already trained around 10.000 kilometres. The months coming up are the most important ones of the season, but no one seems to notice that.

HN: Do you need that many kilometres to get in shape for the cyclo-crossing season Bart?

Wellens: (shrugs) Itís not about kilometres to me, rather about having a solid physical basis when the winter comes. As long as I feel ok, Iíll do ok. We donít rest for more than three weeks either. We cross till the end of August and then we let go for a few weeks, only to start with specific cross-training again just a bit later, which even includes running. Right before the start of the cyclo-cross season I participated in a street run in my hometown Vorselaar; I ran 14 kilometres in about 48 minutes. Not bad, according to the people there.

HN: But to you the season in actuality doesnít last much longer than 4-5 months, does it?

Wellens: True, but in that period I do ride over 40 crosses. We get our share of it every week again!

HN: And what about Mr. Meirhaegheís hard labor?

Meirhaeghe: After a two-week vacation I took up training again in november. From now on everything is building up in view of the Olympics in Athens. Part one of my training schedule will cover 15 weeks, till somewhere in mid-February. In that part I mostly train on explosiveness. After that I start training more on endurance in part two of my schedule, in view of the the road races I will ride. Then via the World Cup mountainbike races it goes straight to Athens.

HN: Have you ever tried each otherís disciplines? Everybody has ridden on the road, but did you ever try mountainbiking or cyclo-crossing, Peter?

Van Petegem: I did a few mountainbike trips, just for fun, nothing competitive though. And in 1990 I participated in the military championship cyclo-crossing, in Asper. As usual I started in the back of the peloton, but in cyclo-crossing thatís not a great tactic (laughs)! I abandoned...Iím a pistier. In the winter I improve my steering skills on the track.

Wellens: It was too cold for him!

Van Petegem: No, I just really stunk at it. I wasnít made for crossing, you canít just say, ďOh, Iíll ride the first half hour nice and easy and weíll see what gives after thatĒ. Youíre in overdrive from start to finish. If you donít start within the first ten youíre done for. Youíll never see me at the start of a cross, like Nico Mattan in Hooglede and the national championship. Iíd make an ass out of myself.

Wellens: Well, Nico really isnít all that agile either...I once saw him seriously misjudge a turn in a cross somewhere, Groenendaal tripped over him, and so did Nys and a few was a real mess!

Van Petegem: I do find that young riders should be able to taste a bit of every you should taste this glass of wine Bart, come on!

Wellens: Well, ok, but only one.

HN: Did you ever try mountainbiking, Bart?

Bart Wellens at Monopoli. Courtesy his site.
Wellens: Iíve ridden two national championships as a junior, and one with the elite. In my first championship with the juniors I jumped on my mountainbike, which I had gotten only 3 days before, and started - like Iím used to in cyclo-crossing - like a rocket. After the first round I had a two minutes lead, but two rounds later I was already taking a shower. I learned a lot from that. In the elite championship I finished 6th or 7th.

HN: Filip, you once said: ďIf youíd put those cyclo-crossers in a mountainbike race and theyíd get doubled 4 timesĒ.

(General hilarity) Meirhaeghe: I never put it quite that bluntly! If youíd let the crossers and mountainbikers adjust a year theyíd be able to follow in each otherís disciplines. But thatís not the way it works of course...Iíd get doubled too in a cyclo-cross World Cup race.

HN: Is it impossible to combine the road and the field on a top level, like the De Vlaeminck brothers did, or Adri Van Der Poel?

Van Petegem: As far as I know Eric de Vlaeminck never trained 10.000 kilometres building up to a road season.

Wellens: And Van Der Poel only rode 15 crosses a season.

Van Petegem: Nowadays the top riders hang on a lot longer...Tchmil, Museeuw, etc., theyíre all riding till their 37 or 38. Because they carefully divide their season and pick their races, unlike that group of some hundred riders that rode everything every year in the past. When I was young, I was often told: ďIf you have a ten year career itíll have been a nice and long oneĒ. Iíll have ridden 15-16 years when I quit. And every year weíre supposed to get stronger, we know where we can succeed, weíre winners in our specific area of expertise. Even within our own discipline weíre forced to make choices. Eddy Merckx would like to see me ride the Tour, but I ask myself why? If Iíd win a stage, itís deemed normal, and if I donít Iíd get all kinds of criticism.

HN: Do those ďwisdomsĒ that former riders lay onto you ever bug you, guys?

Van Petegem: They do bug me, yeah. When Roger De Vlaeminck starts about how it was ďback in the daysĒ, Iím gone.

Meirhaeghe at Les Gets 2002. Courtesy his site.
Meirhaeghe: Theyíre always trying to make comparisons with their era, when thereís nothing to compare really.

Van Petegem: It almost seems like youíre doing nothing when youíre not racing to them. Well, I hereby invite them to come along on training with me, I suffer more on training than I would in some small stage race.

HN: Are you satisfied with your paychecks? Mario De Clercq once said that, as a cyclo-crosser, you can never make enough to never have to work again. Are road racers much better off? And how do the mountainbikers fare?

Van Petegem: Of a thousand riders, thereís maybe 5 that can say that they wonít have to work ever again...5, not more. I make a very good living, but when I see what those tennis players make, I often wonder why there isnít a Porsche or something like that waiting for me when I win the Ronde! (smiles)

Wellens: Then youíre better off Filip; if I recall correctly you already won a car once on an indoor mountainbike race in Ghent! (laughs)

Meirhaeghe: Iím not making the most of it though, but Iíve got myself to blame for that more than anything else.

Wellens: You canít always look up either...I canít imagine what it must be like for someone like Benny Vansteelant for example...multiple world champion duathlon, but what he makes is nothing compared to how and what he performs athletically speaking.

HN: Howís the respect in todayís cycling?

Wellens: I always was a bit starstruck when Van Der Poel or De Bie gave me advice when I was younger, and now itís a great honour for me to train together with Erik Zabel, like in Mallorca last year. But nowadays the youngsters even tell you what to do; if weíre doing a reckon for a World Cup race they tell me where to ride and when to attack, stuff like that. I donít want them to look up to me, but they donít have to tell me how to do my job either.

Van Petegem: In my first year at PDM I rode together with guys like Breukink and Van Poppel. I didnít dare eat at the same table with those guys in the evening. And when I agreed to train together with Dirk De Wolf and Marc Sergeant I always was the first to show up. But when I train with young riders nowadays I can almost hear them think ďIím not training with that Van Petegem fella againĒ.

HN: But isnít it good that young riders want to find out on themselves what works best for them?

Wellens: You should see some juniors arrive at a cross; they bring along the most sophisticated material, 3 or 4 bikes worth some $3,750 each. And then their parents are complaining that itís so expensive....itís absurd. I didnít get anything from my parents, rode in Holland for small prizes. The only way I could buy myself something was with the money I saved that way.

Meirhaeghe: Only recently a father asked me what kind of bike I rode on, ďfor my sonĒ, he told me. Thatís equipment I couldnít even dream of myself only 5 years ago...apparently that kid wanted the exact same bike as me, otherwise it wouldnít have been good enough.

Van Petegem: Iíve never been spoiled either. My dad expected me to do everything for my sport, but he also found that I had a right to go out from time to time.ĒYou go out and drink a good beer, thatíll give you a taste of real life,Ē he said. But the next morning he always woke me at 8 oíclock, with some kind of chore for me to be done.

HN: But now no one has to come and tell you guys what to do and not do...youíre the heroes yourselves now.

Wellens winning at Monopoli 2003. Courtesy his site.
Wellens: I wonít deny that I get a kick out of the attention. I love it how people recognize me, every top athlete enjoys that taste of fame, I think.

Van Petegem: Thereís nothing more beautiful than being cheered to by a crowd of fans while youíre standing on the P-R podium. But fame is temporary, so I try to put those moments past myself quick enough. Iíd rather have a beer in a simple farmer cafť than visit some posh joint, just to get noticed. I canít have a cup of coffee on a terrace in Bruges or Ghent anymore without someone addressing me for a chat or an autograph. But I know: itís part of the job.

Wellens: When people started recognizing me when I was still a junior or ťspoir it was fun, but these days Iím usually back home in 15 minutes if I try to visit the local fairground.

Van Petegem: The day I quit cycling will be the day that I will remove myself from the publicís attention. No more television appearances, no more actes de prťsence. Iíll have better things to do then, like watching my children grow up and leading a normal life. Like someone with a normal job. And Iíll make sure Iím successful after my sporting career. Because it always gets to me when I hear Roger De Vlaeminck ranting about how we donít do enough for our job. That man lives in the past, after his professional career he hasnít done much worth mentioning, while someone with his name and fame should have been a citizen of the world by now. No, I have more respect for how Eddy Merckx made the most out of his post-racing life.

HN: But Roger De Vlaeminck does still maintain a spartan life-style; he lives like a professional athlete and is in an incredible shape for his age. Which canít be said of Merckx. Is it ok for a professional sportsperson to enjoy him/herself a bit during the season?

Van Petegem: Why not? You can build a good party and be in bed at midnight.

Wellens: (laughs) Iíve never been a type to go out a lot, but I do take out time to drink a beer in my fan clubís bar and make a chat with the fans.

Meirhaeghe: Iím a bit stricter in those things. As a kid I only very rarely went out, I wasnít allowed to. And the few times I was, I had to be back home by 23.00. Only the last few years have I learned to enjoy myself a little bit more, like drinking a good bottle of wine from time to time, together with my girlfriend Susan.

Peter Van Petegem and Dario Pieri - Paris Roubaix.
Photo courtesy

Van Petegem: Learning to enjoy the finer the things in life is an art. Just take the WC in Hamilton: Sunday evening, after the race, we all went out for dinner together. At around 11 the bus took us back to the hotel. We had agreed to go for a drink afterwards, but the representative of the Belgian Cycling Association deemed it necessary to send the younger riders to bed. I told him ďCome on man, what are you thinking, itís the end of the season, let those kids have a bit of fun!ĒAnd they could.

Source: Het Laatste Nieuws, Thanks to Jans Janssens for the translation.

Note: Eventually Peter Van Petegem won the Crystal Bike trophy, with Meirhaeghe (2nd) and Wellens (3rd) as runners up. Van Summeren was named best ťspoir, Bruyneel best DS and Tchmil was awarded a trophy for his career.

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