Last October, as the Giro d’Italia and the strangest season of all drew towards a close, a quiet desperation gripped the riders of the NTT team. Still without a sponsor for the 2021 season, they wondered whether these would be their final days in the professional peloton.
Victor Campenaerts’ pedigree meant that he would surely have found a home somewhere else but, like his teammates, he was still fighting for his future deep into October. In the last three days of that Giro, Campenaerts placed second as part of the break in Asti and again in the final time trial in Milan. Close, but no victory. No security, either.
Funding was secured in the intervening period, allowing the team to continue as Qhubeka Assos in 2021, but the attacking philosophy that underpinned those gloomy afternoons of last Autumn has remained in place, as Campenaerts explained after he finally secured his Giro victory on stage 15, outsprinting breakaway companion Oscar Riesebeek (Alpecin-Fenix) in a tense, two-up finish in Gorizia.
It was Qhubeka Assos’ third victory of this Giro, after Mauro Schmid’s win atop San Giacomo and Giacomo Nizzolo’s in Verona. In Gorizia on Sunday evening, Campenaerts explained that the team’s aggression on this race had its genesis in last October’s uncertainty.
“What changed is that it was very hard for the team to stay alive, so everyone who was in the team was also on the moment doubting if he would stay a professional rider. Everyone is extremely happy he has the chance to ride for this team,” said Campenaerts, who dutifully underlined that his team’s mission was to promote the message of the Qhubeka charity.
“We want to change the world with bicycles, that’s very important for us, but we need a sponsor to stay alive because right now we don’t have a sponsor for next year. I think we are giving a great commercial with three victories in the Giro d’Italia. What other team is doing this?”
No other team has a pitchman quite like the garrulous Campenaerts, who has been making an impact on this race since his debut in 2017. On that occasion, his most notable contribution was the 100 CHF fine he received for lining up for a time trial with a message written across his chest asking for a date.
In the years since, Campenaerts had repeatedly come close to winning Giro time trials, placing third in Jerusalem in 2018 after travelling to Israel with a pink bike at the ready, and second in both San Marino and Verona in 2019.
At the beginning of 2021, however, Campenaerts opted to scale back his commitment to time trialling. After leading the line for Belgium in the discipline for so long, he found himself superseded by Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, who have earned the country’s berths at the Olympics.
Campenaerts bore that disappointment with magnanimity, repurposing himself as “an aggressive road rider” this season. Following an attacking debut on the cobbles this spring, the Belgian finally reeled in a major victory in Friuli on Sunday after joining the day’s early break and punching his way clear in the finale with Riesebeek.
“Before the season I already explained that I wanted a different approach, because it was difficult for me to get results in time trials due to the incredible performances of Filippo Ganna, Remco and Wout,” Campenaerts said.
“I’m sure Remco and Wout will be fantastic in the Olympics for Belgium, they’re both contenders for gold. But my goal now is to be an aggressive road rider. I did the Classics and I enjoyed them a lot, but this is my first big victory. I tried this several times in the TT and it never worked out, but now it has, and on my road bike.”
Campenaerts dismissed the idea that he might be buoyed by this triumph to compete with Ganna et al in the final time trial in Milan next Sunday. The world hour record holder knows only too well that this is a discipline that demands rigour. “No, I’m not focused on time trials right now,” he said. “You get what you deserve, and I don’t deserve good results on my TT bike at the moment.”
The 28-year-old can, however, savour only the second road race win of his career, and his most notable triumph to date. “We were dedicated to doing something beautiful at this race,” said Campenaerts. “Tonight, I will be really, really cosy.”
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