Victor Campenaerts enjoyed one of the most successful seasons of his career in 2021, winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia and making a successful transition from being a time trial specialist to a more all-around rider. After Qhubeka-NextHash lost their WorldTour licence at the end of 2021, Campenaerts enjoyed a homecoming of sorts, returning to Lotto Soudal, where he has inspired the team to an impressive early run of form.
Victor, your team manager at Lotto Soudal said recently that you've brought ‘a new wind’ to the team. You've had an immediate impact there, is that a conscious effort on your part?
I also read those interviews, and I was flattered, but it also scared me a bit. Do I have to do something special because they say I'm some kind of a glue in the team? I just think I fit well in the team, I know about all the riders, we’re a Belgian team, I'm from Belgium…
I look a lot into marginal gains, and the guys are eager to learn from me. We have a good group of riders – this is more a group of friends than just cyclists.Campenaerts wins stage 15 of the 2021 Giro d'Italia (Image: CorVos/SWpix)
How is the atmosphere on the team?
We are all having a really good time. I’m 30 years old now and all these really big talents coming from the youth categories are eager to learn what I have to teach. For me personally, it’s quite an exceptional feeling that I play a very small part in this success. It makes me feel valuable.
And I might be thirty years old but I can still learn a lot. With a rider like Phillippe Gilbert in his last year, I try to suck [all of the racing knowledge] out of him, because he is so relaxed in races, because he's been in all the possible situations that you can imagine, and has won many races. And Tim Wellens, the way he races maybe suits me more – he has done the most impossible attacks and made them successful.
How have things changed in the two years you’ve been away?
That's quite a difficult question because when I was on the team, 2018-2019, I was a time trial specialist, and the atmosphere didn’t matter for my performance – I was an individual rider in a team sport.
That's totally different now, I'm much more part of the team. It's hard to imagine how I have been a professional for eight years only focusing on time trials because it's so much more fun right now.
The shift from time trial specialist to becoming a more all-round rider, was that a deliberate choice or just a natural progression in your career?
It was forced, a bit. I was at quite a high level in time trialling for some years, especially 2018-2019, but then in 2020, Ganna was there, and then van Aert and Evenepoel, and Pogacar and Roglic also improved their time trial, and I suddenly felt that I had no chance of even coming close to winning a WorldTour time trial. It was a little bit demoralising.
I felt that my performance level was still improving. But the others took off and I was not able to keep up with them. So, I tried to do something new, and raced aggressively. I had been close already in stage races, and I’m from Belgium so I had to ride the Classics at least once and that's what I did last year. It was a positive experience.
Do you feel the changes are improving your mindset?
Yes, I enjoy cycling maybe the most out of my career at this moment. Also, if you are doing specific time trial work, you're training alone. If you're training for classics, you do it together. I have so much fun in every single aspect of the sport. As a time trialist I enjoyed riding my bike lots… But less than I do now.
Would you say you've left time trialling behind as your central focus for good?
I still do some training on my time trial bike, but not close to what I did. Last year I was third in the Benelux Tour and if I can win the Benelux Tour that would be a highlight in my career – I need a decent time trial for that. But I have no ambitions to ever go back to the World Championships for the time trial.
I think the successes I achieved in time trialling will be nearly impossible to achieve in Classics riding and road racing. If I ever have grandchildren, I know I will be very proud to tell them about my world hour record.Campenaert's hour record attempt (Image: Getty)
You still hold that record. Who do you see being the person to take it?
It seemed sure that Filippo Ganna would attempt it after the Tour de France. If Ganna makes an attempt I’m not really concerned whether he breaks it, but rather if he breaks it by more than two kilometres or so!
Is the pressure of remaining at WorldTour level having an impact on the team?
I’m very confident in the team. I signed a three-year contract and there was never a doubt in my mind that the team would not exist next year. I'm not worried about it. We have a great atmosphere in the team.
It seems to have lit a fire under the team though. You've had some victories this season already and the team seems to have come together.
It might look like that, but that's absolutely what we did not do. We talked as little as possible about hunting for points. If you wake up in the morning, and you think let's do this hard session because we want to score points to stay in the WorldTour? That's not how I get motivated.
We get motivated because we dream of winning races. We have a good group, we train hard and have a lot of joy in the victories that we have already. They are not coming from the fact that we are driven to score points. We are just driven to perform at the highest level and to win races.
What are your personal goals for the season?
My goal is to win a race between Omloop and Roubaix. If I win a race from Omloop to Roubaix, my season will be a success.
What are your hopes in the longer term, do you have any major goals that you would like to accomplish, or one race that you hope to win?
Winning a race in Flanders, on the cobblestones, is very difficult, and it's my goal this year but it's also the goal for the rest of my career. If I can achieve it, maybe I have to stop cycling after that!
But that's my goal, and if I win a race on cobblestones, I will think about a new goal. Maybe that goal will be to win another race on cobblestones.