Farmers know the value of patience. Everything in order, nothing rushed, life proceeding at the same speed as the turn of the seasons: slowly but surely. Seeds sown in late winter, minutely sprouting as the earth warms in the early-year sunshine, watered and fed by the spring showers, then growing, ripening, until it is finally time for harvest, many months later. The cycle of life cannot be rushed. Things happen when they happen.
This is something that Yves Lampaert, the winner of stage one of the 2022 Tour de France and the first yellow jersey of the race, understands. Lampaert, the son of a farmer, and therefore a farmer himself, grew up among the fields of the 60-acre family farm in Ingelmunster, West Flanders. The stereotype of the tough Flemish cyclist, out in all weathers, working hard, always persevering and embracing the challenges of a hard life, is an anachronism from the early 20th century; however in the case of Lampaert it is literally true. “Farming gives you an undeniable work ethic,” he once told Peloton magazine. Lampaert grew up surrounded by fields, but he also grew up surrounded by bike racing. Ingelmunster sits between the Flemish towns of Roeselare, Kortrijk and Waregem. He’s a product of a land that is fertile for the vegetables of the family farm, but also for bike racers. (He’s not a complete stereotype, however - he was a judoka in his teens, rather than a cyclist, and got his black belt.)
Lampaert’s victory in Copenhagen was a surprise, perhaps even to the man himself. “I’m just a farmer’s son from Belgium,” was his initial attempt at rationalisation. At the same time, we shouldn’t have been so shocked. We are always told that cycling is being taken over by numbers, logic and science, yet the only thing it took to upend all that is a heavy rain shower that turned up an hour earlier than forecast. This is the Tour, and chaos always finds a way.
The favourites all took early slots in their teams’ allocated starting times, expecting the later riders to be hampered by the rain; instead the rain started with the early riders, got heavier as the main favourites rode, then relented, though the roads stayed slick throughout on a claustrophobic circuit. This had the effect of levelling the playing field. Chris Boardman, on the ITV coverage, hinted that the much vaunted aerodynamic suits worn by some of the top contenders don’t actually work so well when they’re wet; it also turns out that tyres optimised for riding at 50kph on the flat are sketchy as hell when going around a wet corner. All this meant that something other than pure sporting logic would define the final hierarchy: the boldness to hit the course hard, the judgement in getting the cornering speed perfect, and the luck not to hit the wrong piece of white road paint at the wrong angle.
Lampaert was off 40 minutes after the last of the big hitters had gone through. Maybe the roads were a modicum less slick than during the heaviest of the rain, but the course was still treacherous. He’s a good time triallist - he’s the current national champion and has come fourth in a long Vuelta time trial. Good enough that when the element of unpredictability caused by the rain was factored in, he was faster than them all - world champion Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and Tour champion Tadej Pogačar filled out the top four behind him.
Lampaert has waited a long time for a win of this magnitude. He’s been on the podium in Paris-Roubaix and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and top five in the Tour of Flanders; his biggest results are his back-to-back victories in Dwars door Vlaanderen, plus two world TTT champs gold medals. He is 31, and born a year after what was then seen as a golden generation of cyclists: the class of 1990 included Nairo Quintana, Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews, Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, Michał Kwiatkowski, Rohan Dennis, Thibaut Pinot and Fabio Aru. He spent his formative years in the shadow of these riders; for better and for worse, he has also spent his career in the shadow of more illustrious riders on his own team: Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Kasper Asgreen… However, he carved out an indispensable place on his Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl squad as a Classics stayer, but also as a quintessentially Flemish rider. In the last few years he has plugged on while another golden generation - Pogačar, Van der Poel, Van Aert, Vingegaard, Bernal et al - has risen to the fore.
Lampaert is now the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, and he has a chance to wear it through Denmark and on to the cobbles of stage five, just over the border from his home region. He will fear nobody on that stage, and if he’s still in yellow, the support on the roadside will be fervent. His farmer’s pragmatism will acknowledge that he probably wouldn’t keep it on the uphill finish at Longwy, and definitely not on the Super Planche des Belles Filles. But this has been a yellow jersey years and years in the making. Yves Lampaert has patiently been tending his talent, marking the passage of the seasons and paying heed to the cycle of life and of cycling. Things hadn’t been right for him to win at this level before Copenhagen, but when the time did come for harvest, Yves Lampaert was ready.