We meet Peter Verbeken in the service course of INEOS Grenadiers in Deinze. For the 55-year-old former cyclist, it is a familiar place, as he has been manager of the site since 2015. "As manager I have a very diverse range of tasks. I mainly deal with stock management. I place orders for food, helmets and drink cans, among other things. I also take care of the maintenance of the team cars. The mechanics of the bikes is less my job. That is the job of a colleague. The interview takes place in the office, where a signed yellow jersey of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome hangs on the wall. "He is the most maniacal rider I have met so far," Peter says.
The Colombian city of Duitama, 170 km northeast of the capital Bogota, was the setting for the 1995 World cycling championships. "Drug cartels plagued Colombia and the unsafe situation in the country resulted in many cancellations, including from the Belgian team," Peter explains. "The fear of travelling to South America was evident in a few men. I think of Johan Museeuw, Johan Bruyneel and Frank Vandenbroucke. Those were riders who were otherwise sure of their place in the selection. Nevertheless, I earned my place at the world championships." Earlier that year, the East-Fleming won a stage and the final classification in the Grand Prix Guillaume Tell (GP Willem Tell), a stage race in Switzerland that has since disappeared from the calendar.
The World Championships took place at an altitude of 2,500 metres, something the Belgian team had prepared for. "Three weeks before the race we went on an altitude training trip to Woodland Park in Colorado (United States). Coach Eddy Merckx systematically built up the training regime and we gradually adapted to the altitude."
A week before the World Championships, the Belgian team settled in the vicinity of Duitama. Due to the unstable situation in Colombia, training took place under police escort. "We had two or three armed motards with us at every training session. At the time I thought we were sufficiently protected, but afterwards I realised that the police escort was actually not much."
Due to the cancellation of several favourites, the Belgians were without a real leader at the start of a very difficult World Championship on Sunday 8 October 1995. Despite protests, the UCI maintained the 265 kilometres: "It was every man for himself. It was survival. We had prepared ourselves well for the many climbs and had adapted to the height difference, but we couldn't simulate the course of the race in training."
After six rounds, Peter was the only Belgian left in the Colombian high mountain range. Fellow country men Nico Mattan, Geert Van Bondt, Kurt Van de Wouwer, Geert Verheyen and Luc Roosen had already given up by then. "I also gave up at the start of the eleventh and penultimate lap. I was riding together with Mexican Miguel Arroyo at dozens of minutes from the leader and didn't see it coming. Now I look back with some regret that I was unable to finish the World Championship. I should have kept going, even though we were so far behind." Miguel Arroyo eventually finished in nineteenth place at 37'55" from Spaniard Abraham Olano who crowned himself world champion. Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani completed the podium. Of the 93 riders who started, only 20 made it to the finish.
Verbeken remembers that there was little or no criticism from the Belgian press on the mediocre performance of our compatriots. "Of course there were extenuating circumstances. There was the difficulty of the course and the absence of some riders. We couldn't do more than our best. The journalists were realistic enough to realise that. National coach Eddy Merckx was disappointed afterwards and that's logical. But I think he also realised after a few days that there was not much more in it.
One year later, at the 1996 World Championships in Lugano, Peter was initially one of the substitutes, but after a virus infection in Frank Vandenbroucke, the East-Fleming was allowed to participate. Six days before the World Cup, Verbeken heard the news. "At the time I was honoured to go to Lugano, but I wasn't ready for it. I was not at a high enough level. That became clear pretty quickly because after three or four rounds I had to give up. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better not to go."
National coach Eddy Merckx commented before the World Championship that the course was almost as difficult as in Colombia a year earlier. "It was a different type of course. In Germany it was more for the real climbers. Although you can ask to what extent Olano was a real race climber. In Lugano the climbs were shorter but steeper. At the first reconnaissance I was really shocked by the difficulty. I didn't expect Johan Museeuw to become world champion there."
Peter Verbeken thus participated in two World Championships during his cycling career. Something he could never have dreamed of as a child, because the East-Fleming only discovered his love for cycling at the age of eighteen. "Until that age I swam at a pretty high level, but suddenly I stopped swimming. It was never my intention to start cycling, but my neighbour was the chairman of cycling club KVC Deinze. He gave me a pair of trousers and a jersey and that's how I ended up in the racing world. Of course, I had no experience of riding in a peloton and that has been a handicap for me throughout my career. Some riders can still pick it up when they are older, but I couldn't. I didn't have that skill, I didn't let it happen. I didn't have that skill, always let myself get pushed away and was always too far behind. I was always scared on the bike."
Despite the terror on the bike, Peter Verbeken won La Côte Picarde (1993), twice the final classification at the GP Willem Tell (1993 and 1995) and twice the Flèche Hesbignonne-Cras Avernas (1997 and 1998). "I look back on my two victories in the GP Willem Tell with pleasure. It was a multi-day cycling race, which meant you had to be there every day. The course was not to be underestimated. It is a race that has given me a lot of satisfaction."
In 1994, Verbeken made it onto the podium at the Belgian Championship in the Flemish-Brabant town of Liedekerke. "I was part of the breakaway of the day and for a long time it looked like it was going to last until the finish. But then there was some hesitation and gambling. A group, including Wilfried Nelissen and Dirk De Wolf, was able to return. At a few kilometres from the finish I played all or nothing and placed my final attack. Wolfke' had to pull out all the stops to close the gap. When I was lucky that the chasers looked at each other for a moment, I was gone. My legs were certainly not empty yet." In the end, Nelissen won the sprint ahead of Michel Vanhaecke and Verbeken.
After his active cycling career, Verbeken signed on with US Postal, the team of Lance Armstrong and others, to work as soigneur. "I came to US Postal in the spring of 1999 via Johan Bruyneel. My first race was Liège-Bastogne-Liège. After that there was a training camp and the Tour de France. Armstrong set the fastest time in the prologue and immediately took the yellow jersey. We followed the race in the motor home via the race radio and I could hardly believe that Armstrong had won. A year and a half earlier I had a conversation with Freddy Viaene, an attendant of Armstrong at Motorola. He told me Armstrong was suffering from testicular cancer and was fighting for his life. Then you don't think it's possible that someone like that can win the prologue and three weeks later the Tour."
Peter didn't have a front row seat for the doping saga surrounding Lance Armstrong. "A year later, in 2000, I moved to the German Telekom as a caretaker and without realising it, that may have been my luck. I had nothing to do with the whole doping affair, but you know how it goes. If you are involved for years, you are always watched a bit. Because of my short stint with US Postal, fortunately that hasn't been the case."
In 2013, Briton Chris Froome took his first of four Tour de France victories. At the time, Peter Verbeken was a soigneur at Team Sky, now INEOS. "Froome was phenomenal. He was driven to extremes. Once he sat next to me in the car after the Natour criterium in Roeselare. We drove to the north of the Netherlands. He phoned his personal mechanic Gary Blem for an hour. Froome asked him to change two screws on his derailleur from steel to titanium. I was listening in amazement and wondered if I had heard correctly, but of course, something like that typifies him. He is very meticulous, especially when it comes down to his job."
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