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89th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 3, 2005
An interview with Kevin Van Impe, April 3, 2005
Playing the Wild Card
As the spring is tempting the flowers and trees to show their crisp new colours, a new flock of young Belgian riders seems to be blooming as well. Vansummeren, Boonen, Devolder, Nuyens, Gilbert, Van Huffel... their names are popping up everywhere in the Belgian Cycling press, and most of all, in the results. Kevin Van Impe is one of them. The nephew of the last Belgian Tour de France winner Lucien Van Impe is only 23, but determined to confirm his promising talent this season. A solid start in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, where he finished second, has given Kevin renewed credibility and he is eager to show more. Cyclingnews' Sabine Sunderland met up with this congenial Flandrien, in the lead up to the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
Somewhat hidden away from the busy traffic in between Oudenaarde and Aalst, in the small town of Bambrugge, I'm welcomed by the warm smile of Sally Van Impe-Van Oudenhove. The interior of their freshly painted cottage is very much Laura Ashley/Flamant style, romantic and extremely homey.
"We live here with my parents," Sally explains "Our house will be built in the not so distant future. But as a young couple we have to save our pennies and it's great to be able to share my parents' place as long as we don't have our own nest."
Kevin smiles shyly, "I'll need to show my face this season and get a bigger contract next year, building a house here in Belgium costs you an arm and a leg!"
Racing bikes is something deeply ingrained into the Van Impe family. Uncle Lucien was one of the biggest climbing talents ever; the ex-winner of the Tour de France took the polka-dot jersey home six times. But Kevin's father Frank also knew how to ride a bike. He was pro for 7 years and is still very much involved with the sport as director of the Belgian Keukens Redant amateur team.
"You can say cycling is in my blood," Van Impe admits. "It's all I know. It's everything. I don't have a big degree; I live to ride that bike. I tried soccer for a while, but it was clear pretty quickly that I should stick to the bike."
Kevin started racing as a 13 year old. "At the age of 13-14 I only had one win. I showed promise and came second in the sprint all the time. The year after, I had three victories. One season later, I was "victory-king" with 42 wins. As a junior, I had 29 wins the first year, 30 the next. I think I took the most wins of the season in my age category about five years in a row back then."
In 2002, at the young age of 20, Van Impe turned professional with the Lotto-Adecco team. That year, he was the youngest participant in the 100th edition of the Paris-Roubaix classic, in which he performed excellent work for team leader Peter Van Petegem.
A year later he had grown in his role as domestique but also managed to win twice at the end of the season, he took a rewarding solo victory in Izegem (Bel) and again brought flowers home after the third stage of the Rheinland-Pfalz tour. That year he also rode the Giro, but as he recalls that wasn't the greatest experience for him.
"I don't mind riding a stage race, on the contrary, I'd like to ride another big tour. But I got really sick there and I had to quit the race after 13 stages. I'm not exactly built to fly over those big cols like my uncle Lucien used to do. Look at me, I'm a good head taller than him; I'm a real Flandrien, built for the one day classics. I can handle the cold but I don't mind the heat either; I enjoyed riding the Tour of Malaysia and the Tour Down Under and they are bloody warm!"
Although only 23, Kevin has shown he has got what it takes to become a good pro. So what happened, what made him transfer from the Lotto (now ProTour) team to the smaller continental pro team Jacques-T interim?
"Last year I rode well," Kevin explains. "I worked hard and felt very comfortable in my domestique role for the Lotto-Domo leaders. But when the time to negotiate another contract came the team directors told my manager Paul De Geyter (SEM) that I had spent too much time in the back, with Peter Van Petegem, and that I didn't have enough results myself. I was a bit confused about their statement; wasn't that my job then? I was always told to stay with Peter Van Petegem until that moment in the race where he didn't need my help anymore."
Kevin had nonetheless accumulated some nice placings in 2004 (In Zottegem, the tour of Great-Britain, the Uniqa classic (Austria), the Rheinland-Pfaltz tour, Circuit Franco-Belge, the Tour of Luxembourg, etc.) and there was some interest from foreign teams.
Kevin's wife Sally explains, "It wasn't until the day before our wedding that Kevin decided to follow director Walter Planckaert to the Chocolade Jacques team. On the 22nd of October he signed his contract...it's not what you can call an uneventful and stress free lead-up to your wedding day."
Having been Kevin's girlfriend for eight years before marrying, she knows Kevin thoroughly and supported his decision all the way. "I can imagine some other girls would have panicked, but I knew what Kevin had in mind, I understand what he needs to develop his skills as a cyclist."
"And I was happy to do what some might consider as taking a step back," Kevin explains further. "Walter Planckaert is a fantastic director and he is the perfect teacher for me, strict but in a playful way. I feel that it was a good decision. My goal this season is to grow. I'm not one of those kids who start running right after they learned how to crawl. I'm someone who needs to walk for a while first and I'm allowed to do just that in this team."
The Chocolade Jacques team obtained a precious wildcard for the first big Classic on Belgian soil this weekend, the Tour of Flanders. Kevin is quietly excited about the prospect of competing in this great race. After his second place in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne earlier this season people might expect to see Kevin in the finale. Doesn't that put more stress on his shoulders?
"Well, to be honest, I felt really good in my helper's role at Lotto, I loved doing the work for Peter and I'd like to return to such a function within a ProTour team. But I realise that being young and fairly inexperienced, I probably wouldn't even get to ride the Tour of Flanders if I were still with Lotto this year. So I'm happy to be with Jacques right now. There's no stress but I can't hide that my goal this season is to show that I'd be a great asset for a big ProTour team, for the Belgian one-day classics and the smaller stage races."
And in aiming for that Pro Tour Team contract Kevin is determined to play his cards right. "It's nice to be able to show my face a bit more at the front now that I'm one of the leaders in the very young Jacques team. I aim to ride a solid Tour of Flanders. Of course we have our captain Nico Eeckhout - the only rider in his 30's in the team - who I'll be protecting if he feels he has good legs. But "Rambo" told me he really is working toward Gent-Wevelgem and that I should take my own chances in the Tour this Sunday. So, I'll try to go in an early break and you never know how far that might carry."