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Victor Campenaerts: Testing His Limits on Ventoux

The Lost Boys of the Tour de France Part 9

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Though Victor Campenaerts has been racing as a professional for eight seasons he’d never ridden the Tour de France until this year. He finally got his chance with the Qhubeka-NextHash team. He was particularly looking forward to stage 12, the one on Wednesday that went over Mont Ventoux a couple of times. Not that the 29-year-old Belgian is a climber. But he remembered how 15 years ago he’d ridden up the Ventoux with his dad—and his dad was going to be there on Wednesday to see his son riding in the Tour. That’s a big deal!

Campenaerts is a very talented bike racer. He is the current holder of the world hour record—the 55.089 kilometers he rode at Aguascalientes, Mexico, in April 2019 made him the first Belgian to beat the record since Eddy Merckx set his historic 49.431-kilometer mark in 1972. And Campenaerts has won both the European and Belgian time trial championships. Despite his great success in racing alone against the clock, he’d never won a pro road race until a couple of months after his hour-record ride, when he won stage 4 of the Baloise Belgium Tour that featured half a dozen Liège-Bastogne-Liège climbs; he beat eventual race winner Remco Evenepoel in a three-man breakaway.

Victor Campenaerts on stage 8 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia. Image: Chris Auld.

Those 2019 performances should have helped Campenaerts get a contract renewal with his team of five years, Lotto-Soudal, but that offer never came. Instead, he signed a three-year deal with South Africa’s Team NTT—a Japanese company that was hoping Campenaerts could earn them a TT gold medal at the 2020 Olympics. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the Games postponed and in an abbreviated season, Campenaerts’ only significant results were second places in time trials, beaten three times by Filippo Ganna and once by Wout Van Aert—the new generation was taking over.

When NTT withdrew its sponsorship at the end of last year, most of his teammates were lucky enough to get contracts with other squads; and Campenaerts’ career was only saved when team manager Doug Ryder cobbled together a 2021 budget with the Qhubeka nonprofit and Assos clothing—joined by NextHash, a digital financial group dealing in cryptocurrencies, just before the Tour. Realizing that his former strengths were fading against younger competitors, Campenaerts said, “This year I’ve really tried to change my way of riding and not focusing on time trials anymore.”

His change of focus saw him take a couple of top 20s in the spring classics before starting the Giro d’Italia. After his team leader Domenico Pozzovivo dropped out after a week, the Qhubeka-Assos riders focused on stage wins. They did great. Mauro Schmid won from the breakaway group on the “white roads” stage to Montalcino; Giacomo Nizzolo won the stage to Verona in a bunch sprint (helped by Campenaerts); and then, between two stages in the Dolomites, Campenaerts won stage 15 into Gorizia, the strongest in a breakaway group on a day of heavy rain. He finished the next mountain stage in horrible weather, but that was the end of his Giro.

Campenaerts winning stage 15 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia. Image: Chris Auld.

His next race was the Belgium Tour in early June. The opening stage was in Flanders. “I was really super-focused, and the team was really motivated,” Campenaerts reported.

“I tried everything I could; I went totally over the limit and totally cramped at the end.” What he did was work with Belgian phenom Evenepoel to chase down a breakaway and then charge clear in another attack. On the Berg Ten Houte climb, the cramps forced Campenaerts to stop and get off his bike, though he did restart and finish the stage; it was decided he wouldn’t start the next day’s TT. “The cramps hurt the tendon that was inflamed in the Giro, so we choose, with an eye on further objectives this season, not to take any risks,” he said.

The injury didn’t stop him competing in the Belgian nationals later that week—taking third in the TT—and being on the start line of his first Tour the following week. But, as with dozens of riders caught up in the mass crashes of opening week, the Tour wasn’t kind to Campenaerts. After narrowly making the time cut in the two alpine stages and ending the sprint stage to Valence in the final group eight minutes back, he said. “I’ve been having a difficult Tour and have been very tired.” But he still wanted to get to the Ventoux on stage 11.

He said it was “a special mountain…the first mountain that I ever did on a bike, long before I was a bike rider, when I was 14 in 2006. I did it with my dad, and today on Mont Ventoux at the Tour de France my dad was waiting there to shout for me.” Campenaerts’ spirit kept him going. “I got in difficulties early on in the stage and some riders around me were abandoning,” he reported, “but I wanted to continue to at least do Ventoux once to ensure I saw my dad. It was a nice moment to see him there at the top and then it was quite clear that the time cut was not realistic, so we had an opportunity to stop and spend a moment together.”

After greeting his dad, the Belgian racer descended to Malaucène, where the finish was sited, but the loop back over the mountain was not an option. “We tried to see where my limits are and that’s why we’ve had such a busy racing schedule,” he said. “I always give it my all in every race that I start but I’ve suffered during this Tour and today I was just not able to stay in touch and so my race ends.”

The Tour’s Lost Boys

Following the 19 who dropped out before the rest day in Tignes, Jonas Koch of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert did not start stage 10 because of sickness. On stage 11, seven riders abandoned the race: Campenaerts; Tiesj Benoot of Team DSM (suffering from crashes earlier in the race); Tony Martin of Jumbo-Visma (concussion after crashing 30km into the stage); Dan McLay (fatigue) and Clément Russo (back pain from earlier broken rib), both of Arkéa-Samsic; Miles Scotson of Groupama-FDJ (sickness and heatstroke); and Tosh Van der Sande of Lotto-Soudal (fatigue). Luke Rowe of INEOS Grenadiers (fatigue) finished six minutes outside the time limit. Peter Sagan (BORA-Hansgrohe) did not start stage 12; and five riders did not finish stage 13 because of crashes: Michael Gogl of Qhubeka-NextHash; Roger Kluge of Lotto-Soudal; and Lucas Hamilton and Simon Yates of Team BikeExchange. So, prior to stage 14, the Tour’s 184-strong starting field has been reduced to 151.

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