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Words — Andy Waterman
Photos — Jeremy Dunn from 2011 Fidea Cyclocross in Leuven, BE
If you had done a straw poll of the 61,000 spectators that swamped the dunes of Koksijde on Sunday, very few would have predicted that Rob Peeters would be there to steal second place from his more illustrious countrymen. Nys, Albert, Pauwels: these were the names on people’s lips, and with good reason. Between them these four have dominated the present cyclocross season, as they have done for the previous half a decade (or decade in the case of Nys). Cross throws up innumerable surprises, but this year the form book predicted it was going to be a whitewash for the big four. The writing was on the wall: the rest would be fighting for scraps.
The British love a sporting underdog, and I suspect, where cyclocross is concerned, our English-speaking cousins across the Atlantic do too. Dominance is admirable, to a point, but variety is more entertaining, especially when it flatters our own nation's attempts to infiltrate the cyclocross elite. The underdog provides a glimmer of hope that success could come to our countrymen too, that their sacrifice and our support won’t forever be in vain.
On Sunday, Rob Peeters, one of seven Belgians to fill the top seven positions at the Cyclocross World Champs, was the nearest thing to an underdog we could find.
Rob Peeters is perhaps a rider more casual followers of international cyclocross will be unaware of. My first recollection of him dates back to January 2010. The national championships of various European nations had taken place under a blanket of snow and ice, everywhere except the UK, where the snow was so severe that the organisers postponed their championship race by one month. The unexpected weekend off meant that I could stay in the warmth of London and watch the only national championships that really matter – or that receive television coverage – Belgium.
The course was an ice rink and in those conditions Sven Nys was once again the master of his small but influential nation. Behind, a guy named Rob Peeters came in fourth, just 12 seconds down. It had been a good race, with a worthy victor but as always the riders in the lower placings were quickly forgotten.
One week later was the final round of the British National Trophy, the UK’s national series UCI ranked events. The race was being promoted by legendary organiser Colin Clews at Rutland Water, a gigantic reservoir in the English midlands known for its sailing opportunities more than its potential to cyclists. From the moment we approached the venue it was clear the course was a quagmire, the previous week’s snow had melted to leave foot deep puddles of cold, wet mud on the majority of the circuit. The course prompted a sense of fatalism that was only compounded by the sight of a Fidea team RV parked up in the car park. Was a European Pro really racing in our tinpot version of UCI-level cyclocross?
The answer was yes, and that rider was Rob Peeters.
Needless to say, he lapped me and went on to take the win, comfortably but not with such a huge margin as to embarrass the local favourites. He had underlined his superiority but in a typically Belgian manner, businesslike, with no crowd-pleasing antics or showmanship.
I suppose one might feel humiliated at being put in one’s place so firmly on home turf, but in this instance, I didn’t. In fact, no one I spoke to did, and by the time Peeters had completed his post-race interviews, he’d won himself a pocketful of new fans.
In that interview he explained that the Belgian selectors didn’t really like him, and as a result he hadn’t been selected for the World Cup that was also taking place that day. Despite being on the podium just one week previous at the Belgian Champs, the forces in control of the Belgian team had left him on the bench. Consequently, with the World Championships looming, he’d gone searching for the next best race in Northern Europe, and this was it. No start money, no expenses, and prize money barely sufficient to cover his fuel bill. He didn’t seem to mind though: as the interviewer asked his questions, Peeters appeared humble, spoke excellent English and seemed genuinely happy to be there.
From that point on I became “a fan” – maybe not in the “Supporters Club Van Rob Peeters” way, with a branded jacket and a flourescent wig but I certainly followed his results with interest.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this season that Peeters really forced his way into the public eye. At the beginning of the season, before the first races in Europe had really begun, he travelled to the USA with Bart Wellens, his Fidea teammate, to take part in a series of UCI events, including Cross Vegas. Whilst there he raced, was filmed checking out courses, baseball games and theme-park rides, all the while with Wellens at his side.
Was this an indication that Peeters had put his previous wranglings with the Belgian authorities behind him? Maybe, maybe not – we’d have to wait for the first World Cup for that.
As it happened, Peeters still wasn’t in the selectors’ good books and it wasn’t until the fourth round of the 11/12 World Cup, at Igorre in Spain’s Basque country, that he got a ride. In fact, he didn’t even get to ride the Koksijde round of the current World Cup series on 26th November, meaning he’d be going into the world champs without any race experience on the course this season.
So on Sunday, when the Belgian armada lined up across the front row of the start grid in Koksijde, I saw just one underdog: Peeters. As is true of any underdog’s rags-to-riches story, the race didn’t go entirely our hero’s way – for the majority it appeared that Pauwels and Nys would battle it out for the second and third steps on the podium behind the incomparable Albert. But then, Pauwels and Nys got caught by the chasing four, and that chase was driven largely by Peeters. So it happened that after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, by the final lap, Rob Peeters was alone in second place.
The only way I’d have been happier would have been if it was the British champion Ian Field racing toward the podium.
I don’t know Peeters. I’ve never met or spoken to him but in this instance his success seemed well earned; a nice guy who had fought his way onto the podium with dogged determination, hard work and talent. It went to prove that sometimes second is better than first and it’s my guess Rob Peeters gained a whole lot more new fans on Sunday than Albert. Everyone loves an underdog, after all.
Vandaag ben ik supporter van Rob Peeters
Andy Waterman is the Deputy Editor at Privateer Magazine, the Mountain Bike magazine from Rouleur
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