Has Victor Campenaerts finally emerged from his own shadow?
Before last month, as far as most people were concerned, the most noteworthy thing the Belgian had ever done on a bike was ask someone out. On the off-chance you don’t remember during the stage 10 time trial at the 2017 Giro d’Italia. As he approached the finish Campenaerts unzipped his Belgian national champion’s skinsuit to reveal the self-translatory words: “CARLIEN DATEN?”
Although it cost the rider a 100 Swiss franc fine, it was probably worth it. Carlien Cavens said yes. There was no fairytale ending for the pair but it at least left them both with a good (or embarrassing) story.
After that Campenaerts returned to relative anonymity. He won the European Championships TT that same year, but at that time, in only its second year, it was hardly high on any rider’s season target list.
Last season he retained that title, and regained his national one. His biggest results, however, were probably a trio of podium places. Firstly he finished with only Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin ahead of him at the Giro d’Italia in Jerusalem; he took another third in the Vuelta’s opening stage – this time losing out to Dennis again, with Michał Kwiatkowski separating them. Lastly he finished on the same time as Dumoulin at the World Championships in Innsbruck, with only Dennis ahead of les deux. There was little fanfare, and he was still without a really big win, but it looked like he’d arrived amongst the time trialling elite.
There was similarly little fuss when, in early 2019, with rumours abounding, he announced his intention to have a go at breaking Bradley Wiggins’ four year-old hour record. He would conduct his attempt at altitude, in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It wasn’t that far-fetched that he would succeed but it didn’t exactly seem likely, either. Apart from his relatively unspectacular palmarès, his preparation for the season hadn’t gone as he’d have hoped, due to a knee injury he’d suffered over the winter.
Campenaerts spent the first part of the season training in Namibia then just… went and did it. The attempt was broadcast live on YouTube to an audience of dozens (actually as of Wednesday it had 192,532 views, though for context, this is 140,000 fewer than have so far watched 6 Weird Thing Professional Cyclists Do On Their Bikes on GCN) with a few more bemused onlookers in the velodrome itself. Watching a Belgian ride round in circles for an hour is, granted, not the most exciting watch, but even us ignormami in the Rouleur office were impressed. By the end it was probably just us and Michael Hutchinson watching.
Dr Hutch, rather better informed than us about such things, having attempted The Hour himself some years ago, tweeted approvingly: “Clearly [Campenaerts] was on the edge for much of the ride, but critically, never quite over it. Just balanced on that edge of what he could do and what he couldn’t. Perfect.”
Afterwards Campenaerts went back to Belgium and got on with his season. The hour trophy he lent to his local bike café, Peloton de Paris, where it’s displayed alongside copies of Rouleur. One of the biggest titles in cycling and it’s like, “no biggie”.
He’s currently riding the Giro d’Italia and on Sunday came within a dropped chain and a dodgy bike change of breaking his Grand Tour duck. You might have expected him to be furious but he just took it in his stride. Asked by Daniel Friebe if the mechanical cost him the victory he replied simply “we will never know”, adding “second is a good result.”
His next opportunity comes on the final stage TT in Verona, on a course which he’s said suits him better than either of the previous two. Unlike Primož Roglič, he won’t be aiming to do more than get over the mountains, so should have a bit more left in the tank than the Slovenian. We’re betting on him finally taking the step up. Then maybe people will forget about that little incident from two years ago.