As last summer’s Tour de France showed, former time-trial specialist Victor Campenaerts is evolving his craft to remain a threat to the peloton. The 32-year-old explains what prompted the switch in focus and why 2024 offers the promise of more success for the Belgian and his team.

“You know that if you're in the breakaway you must still have some energy left to try to win the stage. But if you think about saving energy, there’s no chance you’ll be in the breakaway.” 

Campenaerts has only one solution as he outlines the paradox facing riders when the best in the world meet at the grandest of tours. “Just switch the button to be all-in for the breakaway… and then a new race starts.” 

Whatever stage of the race is chosen, the thrill of pushing to be among the Tour de France baroudeurs (breakaway specialist) must be weighed against the self-inflicted punishment for the hours to follow. Campenaerts knows this better than anyone right now. 

For the Belgian, it equated to five ‘escapes’ and a total of 676 kilometres in the 2023 Tour – more than any other cyclist. 

It also rendered the 32-year-old’s reinvention from ace time-trialist to road race combatant complete; a transformation as explosive as the punches he delivered on stages five, nine, 12, 18 (most notably) and 19, and justly acknowledged by being ordained the Super Combative at the conclusion of the race in Paris. It’s a blessing accepted with grace. “I know I’m not the best sprinter, no longer the best time trialist, and not the best climber, but if ever in your career you can be on the podium on the Champs-Élysées, it’s quite special.”

Change is the only constant for Campenaerts

Raised in Hoboken, a southern district of Antwerp, Campenaerts is as neat a fit as a domestic (and sometime domestique) rider for UCI ProTeam Lotto–Dstny that could be found. The Belgian team was founded in 1985 and sports a proud tradition, with the longest running sponsorship (through the national lottery) in professional cycling and 20 of its 29-strong roster for the upcoming season hail from the home nation. Campenaerts is now an elder statesman, but while he concedes the physical limitations that come with age, what dwindles in raw athleticism can be compensated for with experience, as the Tour showed.

“If I only think of my age, I'd say I'm over my top already, for sure,” he explains. “Especially nowadays when you see guys like Tadej Pogačar and my team-mate Arnaud De Lie – guys who are 10 years younger than me and smashing it. But last year performance-wise was my best season ever and I still have the idea that I'm growing. I know the tipping point is close but I’ll try to extend it as long as possible.”

Contrasting the fearlessness of youth, Campenaerts instead believes a deeper understanding of his capabilities bolsters self-confidence. “I don't want to sound big-headed, but if I believe I can ride 450 watts for 20 minutes, it’s more likely that I’ll end up there. When I was 20, I was scared of doing 20 minutes over 400 watts. Now, I think I enjoy it more. I learned to be more accepting of the suffering, to push the boundaries further, to accept the new boundaries. Then repeat. 

“Of course, as a professional rider on the limit, at some point the only thing I can think about is the next pedal stroke, but the only way to push those boundaries is to make your body realise you can do it, and the only way to make your body realise is by doing it often. If this is the theory, then age comes in handy because I have more mountain stages than a kid of 20 years old.”

In more than a decade as a professional, and like many in the peloton, Campenaerts has worked with sports psychologists, but trusts in his mindset to perform under pressure. “It’s always interesting to talk and learn, but there’s nobody who knows you as well as you know yourself,” he says.

“It’s about trying to welcome pain. Don't try to run from it or think of it as something terrible. If you are healthy and riding on water and carbs, you can push yourself as hard as you want because the human body is designed in a way that you cannot really hurt yourself. Plus, the pain you experience from exercise and the endorphins is quite a special feeling that you can never experience when you have fries and mayonnaise.”

Hitting new heights

It gives some insight into the emotions required to set a new hour world record in 2019, when the Belgian travelled to the Aguascalientes Bicentenary Velodrome at altitude in Mexico to extend Bradley Wiggins’ 2015 mark by 563 metres; his renowned expertise in aerodynamics helping him punch through the rarified air to clock a scarcely fathomable distance of 55.089 kilometres. “Definitely the highlight of my career,” was how he described it at the time.

But, the part that Victor played in the four-man breakaway on the 185-kilometre Stage 18 from Moutiers to Bourg-en Bresse (that according to cycling lore should have been an exercise in futility), came close to matching that world record-setting feeling.

“That was the most special one, and also the one a lot of people still ask questions about,” he says. “How many times does the breakaway on a flat sprint stage succeed in staying ahead? It almost never happens and in the Tour de France it is even more special because the magnitude is immense, and the spectators on the parkours are incredible. It was a pure sprint stage and I was there with my team-mate, Pascal [Eenkhoorn], and we succeeded in defeating the peloton."

It says much of the spirit of cycle racing that the effort is so revered despite it ultimately ending in failure for Lotto–Dstny. With Campenaerts leading out as the pack tried in vain to claw back the deficit, Eenkhoorn was ultimately pipped by Soudal-QuickStep's Kasper Asgreen to the line. Regardless, a statement had been made. 

“Not for one second did I regret riding for Pascal. Of course, we would have loved to win the stage, but we gave it our all and we were very satisfied. [The team’s specialist sprinter] Caleb [Ewen] had already left the tour at that point, so to be competing for the victory was special.”

In some ways, the sight of Campenaerts drilling it at the front of the race, nose into the wind for mile after mile was a throwback to his professional baptism as a dedicated time-trialist. Yet for career longevity, there was a dawning realisation that he would need to alter his approach, and then the slamming post-pandemic reality that the environment had changed.

“It always felt strange when I started in cycling as a pro purely focused on time trials that it was so easy to take advantage because other riders never looked into small things,” he explains. “Those riders could push massive watts but I could kick their arse with my aerodynamic position. At quite short notice I became successful, but I was also open that I was not physically strong, and winning with very small watts.

“The Covid pandemic provided a lot of time for teams to go into wind tunnels, invest in aerodynamic positions and train these positions. Suddenly, I wasn’t able to beat them anymore. That’s when I decided I had to change to be focused a lot less on TTs. Instead, I started to ride in road races with time-trial suits and booties. At first I was laughed at. Now, you see other riders in full TT suits on the road bike.”

The impact was magnified because the long lay-off gave riders time to prepare rather than jump from race to race in a draining schedule. “Never was the pace of the peloton so high than after the pandemic,” he continues. “It was very noticeable. Let’s say, position 100 in a stage in a grand tour is 20 watts higher since Covid, which is significant.”

Keeping a low profile

While Campenaerts believes that the limits of aerodynamics have almost been optimised for time trials, his view is that there is still scope to find advantages in road racing where riders spend (too much) time on the hoods. He is optimistic that this can play to Lotto–Dstny’s advantage as the team targets the spring classics with a multi-pronged approach anchored on the emerging sprinting talent of 21-year-old De Lie.

“The coming year will be quite special, as we have a favourite for each classic on cobblestones with De Lie. When you get him to the finish it’s quite likely that he wins the race, but it also gives us other opportunities. It’s not like a tour mountain stage where a team rides a tempo until the final climb before its leader does a 20-minute test. In the classics, it’s not about being in control at all times. 

“I’m changing my training approach and will lose a bit of explosiveness so I can attack early and for longer, with the team safe in the peloton. If other riders join me I won’t ride [aggressively] anymore because I have Arnaud coming. This is how we can create a scenario where we are in control and can ride defensively at the front or the back. Either Florian [Vermeersch], Brent [Van Moer] or me must finish it off. Or, if the peloton comes back, Arnaud will have to win the race. It gives us a great opportunity.”

Campenaerts’ bidon half-full view is a reminder of his devotion to embrace the monastic lifestyle of a professional cyclist that is far from easy. Races come thick and fast – “every year the off-season is getting shorter and the season is getting longer” – and time to properly prepare is at a premium. 

The flipside is being able to race yourself into shape. Campenaerts capitalised on his Tour de France form to clinch victory at the Druivenkoers Overijse in August, conquering a lumpy course of 30 hills and winning a two-man sprint. Another time-trial victory in the Tour of Luxembourg in September sent him into the off-season, and to his rented apartment in Malaga, Spain, buoyed for 2024, but also ready for a rest.

Not that winding down is ever taken too far, even with the culinary delights his country offers. “I enjoy beer and Belgian frites, and I would say when a Belgian cyclist comes home from the Tour de France, the first thing he would do is have some Belgian frites [double deep-fried in beef fat] with mayonnaise – you can’t compare them to anything else. But in general I'd say I enjoy taking care of myself more, training in good company, and feel that my body is getting stronger and stronger.” 

Select teammates will be hosted in Malaga, but they must share his values. “I would only invite riders who are of the same mindset,” he explains. “We enjoy the professional life. We train very seriously but have fun on the bike. We don't need more than that, and we don't think we need to go out to party. The past two weeks have been structured but beforehand I was also riding 20 hours a week, more relaxed, often stopping for a bit of cake, but it comes in handy not having an extreme desire for fast food and alcohol.”

The first main goal will be the Tour of Flanders, before a week’s respite and then dedicated focus until the end of the Tour de France, which this year starts in Florence, Italy, and for the first time finishes in Nice due to the Paris Olympic preparations. Until then, Campenaerts wants to keep life simple.

“I’ve decided to keep my home base in Spain where I can do all my training, and it’s a 90-minute drive from Sierra Nevada for altitude preparation for the Tour. I don’t have to fly, can load the car and rent an apartment.”

An altitude tent at home to boost his body’s ability to use oxygen will suffice before the spring classics, and Campenaerts has thought about the practicalities. “I bought a long pipe so I can have the machine far away and won’t have noise. If I want real altitude, it will be long travel and I want limited stress.”

As well as the home comforts, there is also one other advantage to staying put: “Malaga is a wonderful region and largely undiscovered by cyclists. If you want a Strava KOM it’s easy. I took eight today and I’m proud of that.”

Further reading