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Kingmaker: Allan Peiper profile

5 Oct 2021

Last weekend's Paris-Roubaix marked Allan Peiper's last day as UAE-Team Emirates DS, a run that guided Tadej Pogačar to the 2020 Tour. He talks to Cyclist about that win, beating cancer and sharing a bed with Eddy Planckaert

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: Kevin Faingnaert

‘Really good, Tadej! OK, 600m to the bike change.’ It is Stage 20 of the 2020 Tour de France, the race’s only time-trial and the last day of GC racing.

Allan Peiper, sports director for UAE Team Emirates, is talking on the radio to Tadej Pogačar, second on GC, who is about to swap his TT bike for a lightweight road bike before the climb to the Planche des Belles Filles ski station. The pivotal moment of what is turning into the most dramatic Tour de France day of the past 30 years is approaching. In the car, Peiper’s eyes are cast wide in concentration.

All appears calm. Then suddenly a blast of a horn. A TV motorcycle has positioned itself between the car and the barriers. Peiper looks over in shock. For months his team has been planning for this moment and now a motorcycle is in danger of derailing the whole operation. ‘Get, get, get, out of the way!’ shouts an incredulous Peiper.

The motorcycle moves away. The car slows. The moment has arrived. Vasile Morari, the mechanic responsible for conducting the bike change, jumps out, swiftly removes a bike from the roof and seconds later is sending Pogačar on his way. Morari gets back into the car and Peiper reaches back to shake Morari’s hand. ‘Good job buddy,’ he says.

Perfect preparation

It is nearly two months later on a cold and grey day in late November when Cyclist catches up with Peiper on Zoom. He is in Belgium, where he has lived for most of the past 40 years, and has just returned from a three-hour bike ride with a Shimano representative, ‘talking shop’ as they rode. Now he’s nursing a hot drink, wrapped up in woolly polo neck jumper, happy to reflect on that time-trial.

‘That morning I really felt stressed,’ Peiper says. ‘I was nervous because I had made all the decisions: on gears, on the bike change, on tyres and tyre pressure and everything else that went into that day. I could just imagine something going wrong that could change the face of the race hugely. I was a bag of nerves.’

Peiper had long earmarked the time-trial as the pivotal day. He had gone to the Planche des Belles Filles climb in June, driving and riding the route, making notes on the gears that would be needed and where they should complete the bike change.

I tell Peiper that I had recently re-watched the stage and noted that while UAE conducted Pogačar’s bike change in a barriered section, Jumbo-Visma had completed then-race leader Primož Roglič’s change some 400m up the road, among the spectators. When I ask whether the presence of barriers was a factor in Peiper choosing that spot, he smiles. ‘That’s a funny story,’ he says.

On the way back from his June recce Peiper had called ASO to find out whether there was a designated bike change zone identified. He was directed to the head commissaire, Luc Herpelinck.

‘He said, “Look, we haven’t really seen it yet but if you’re down there and you’ve got ideas that would be great,”’ says Peiper. ‘So when we went back with Tadej [in July] and practised the bike change I got back in touch with him.’

Peiper told Herpelinck the spot they thought worked best: ‘Just where it gets steep and you’re down to more or less climbing speed.’ When they arrived for the stage that was exactly where the barriers were: ‘Right in the bike change zone where we had decided.’

In the hours before Pogačar rolled down the ramp there was a relaxed air around the team. Peiper went into the bus to try to calm his mind, ‘doing a couple of yoga exercises, five-minute poses, and a bit of breathing,’ prompting Alexander Kristoff to take a photo and send it around the rider group, commenting that, ‘From now on every time-trial has to have the directeur sportif meditating in the back of bus!’

Meanwhile, Pogačar, in the white jersey as best-placed young rider, spotted the team mechanics building a white Colnago road bike for use the following day, grinning to himself that not even his own mechanics believed he could win yellow.

‘Anyone else that I know in that position would have been totally stressed, not able to smile,’ reflects Peiper. ‘That’s the ability of Tadej.’

The bike change went exactly to plan – ‘Vasile really kept his cool, he did his job and we were off again,’ says Peiper – and a little under 20 minutes later the UAE car was rocking with the sound of celebratory laughter. Pogačar had won the stage and taken two minutes out of Roglič to claim overall victory. It was one of the most dramatic days seen at the Tour, but for Peiper it had a far greater meaning.

Among all the hullabaloo of a Tour win, for everyone involved there will come a time when they are finally alone to quietly reflect on the achievement. For Peiper this moment arrived when he was still at the top of the climb.

‘Matxin [Joxean Fernández, UAE team manager who had been driving] went up to the finish line and Vasile had to take the bikes up, so I was alone with the car,’ he recalls. ‘I walked down to the Jumbo-Visma guys and congratulated them, that was my first job, then I came back to the car and I had a moment where I just got down onto my haunches and my life flashed past me, from coming to Belgium, my pro career, coming back as a directeur sportif, going through different teams, but mostly going through five years of cancer treatment and standing back up every time.’

Peiper continues, his voice cracking with emotion, ‘Trying to find your confidence again, trying to find your way again in a hard world, and then winning the Tour de France. That all flashed through my mind and I cried really deeply. It was really the culmination of my whole life.’

It’s easy to understand why the win had such an immediate emotional impact on Peiper and still does today. In April 2019 he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread to one of his lungs and his bones.

It was the second time in five years Peiper had received a cancer diagnosis and for five months he underwent intensive treatment, to the extent that when the 2019 Tour went through his town he wasn’t able to walk 100m down the road to watch the peloton pass.

‘I’ve gone through two operations and 40 sessions of chemo… hormone treatment, recovering and getting your energy back and then having to go and do it all again,’ he says. ‘Getting my life back again and then winning the Tour de France, there can be nothing that replaces that. If I was taken tomorrow, they can’t take that away from me.’

From Australia to Belgium

Peiper was born in 1960 in the small Victoria town of Alexandra, some 140km northeast of Melbourne. He has conflicting memories of his childhood. His father was in banking and the family moved frequently.

‘My father was an alcoholic and had a lot of problems with the family because of that, which scarred me in a lot of ways but which I would say was probably my propulsion in life to want to succeed,’ he says.

But there are also happier memories – recollections of riding his first bike out into the countryside with his dog by his side, setting traps for rabbits and fishing for trout. ‘I used to imagine myself as one of the first explorers in Australia, camping next to the riverside. That part of my life was very good.’

When he was 16, Peiper’s parents split. Just two weeks later his mother told him she was going back to his father. Peiper told her he wasn’t going with her. ‘She just said OK, so more or less I was on the street,’ he recalls.

Peiper, who by this time was finding success as a junior rider, moved in with a friend’s family. He also removed himself from school, working instead to earn money to travel to Europe.

He arrived in Belgium two weeks after his 17th birthday alongside fellow Australian rider Brian Gillen. The pair stayed in an old butcher’s shop with plastic over the doors and windows, meat hooks still hanging from the ceiling. Racing on the junior circuit he came across future Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix winner Eddy Planckaert, who was 18 months older than Peiper and much feared by the other junior riders.

‘I was an angry young man but he respected me because I raced hard,’ says Peiper. ‘He took a shine to me and when he saw where I was living he said to his mum that they couldn’t let me stay there.’ And so the young Australian went to live with the Planckaerts.

He had landed with Belgian cycling royalty: Eddy’s older brothers, Walter and Willy, had already won the Tour of Flanders and the green jersey at the Tour de France respectively. Even so, there was no bathroom or running water in the house.

‘There was just a pump in the kitchen but they looked after me,’ says Peiper. ‘I slept in the same bed as Eddy, Walter lived next door, Willy a little bit further away. I learned the hardness of bike riding from them. We never rode next to each other when we trained, it was always in single file, always one kilometre on the front. We would knock off 100km in three hours every day on the bike.’

Illness forced a return to Australia in 1979, and Peiper only began racing again in late 1980, before accepting an offer to join the prestigious ACBB amateur club in Paris for the 1982 season. ACBB had helped the likes of Stephen Roche, Robert Millar and Sean Yates reach the pro ranks, but Peiper says he didn’t feel particularly welcome there and nearly threw it in to go back to Belgium. In the end he stuck it out and finished the season with 14 wins. Then Peugeot came calling.

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Peiper spent 10 years as a professional rider, with a Giro d’Italia stage win and a team time-trial victory at the Tour de France, both claimed with Panasonic in 1990, probably his standout results.

He describes his racing career in three phases that align with the three teams he rode for: his early years with Peugeot, ‘finding myself and doing my job’; his five seasons at Panasonic, ‘a tough team with good riders… there were moments where I felt under-appreciated’; and finally his swansong with Tulip Computers, ‘gave me the best deal of my career… I was trying to reinvent myself but I couldn’t really find it.’

For the love of the game

After retiring in 1992 Peiper spent more than a decade out of the sport. He returned in 2005 when Marc Sergeant offered him a sports director job at Davitamon-Lotto.

‘A lot had changed in those years so there were things I had to learn,’ he says. ‘But what I did come back into the sport with was an unending enthusiasm for the job and that made a huge difference in comparison to what I had lost.’

He has stayed ever since, directing riders such as Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert and Mark Cavendish. At Garmin he guided Ryder Hesjedal to the 2012 Giro d’Italia. I ask what comparisons he can draw between that and the 2020 Tour.

‘In 2012 we had two climbing helpers in Christian Vande Velde and Pete Stetina so we knew we needed to use their resources really well,’ he says. ‘The same thing happened this year because we lost Fabio Aru pretty early. Davide Formolo had a broken collarbone, David de la Cruz had a cracked coccyx, so we were sort of limping along on one leg as a team. On the first rest day I explained the similarities and my belief that if we could do it then, we can do it now. I think they all thought I was just blowing smoke up their arses but I really believed that we could do it.’

Our time is drawing to a close but before he goes I tell Peiper I want to read him a passage from a book I’m reading, written by the former NBA coach Phil Jackson, that I think might resonate with him. To my delight Peiper knows of Jackson, having read one of his previous books.

I open the book and read aloud: ‘Some coaches are obsessed with winning trophies; others like to see their faces on TV. What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus, with their heart and soul, on something greater than themselves. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s something you never forget.’

I glance up at my screen to see Peiper nodding. ‘That rings really true for me,’ he says. ‘To facilitate the riders reaching their maximum potential is what I really want. From the feedback I’ve had from a lot of champions over the years that is what they remember the most. I think that would be my trademark. What gets me, what makes me tick, is wanting to get the most out of a rider and to support them in the best way that I can.’

From a land down under

The cycling life of Allan Peiper

1960: Born on 26th April in Alexandra, Victoria.

1977: Moves to Belgium to race as a junior but is forced to return to Australia due to ill-health two years later.

1982: Moves to Paris to join the ACBB amateur club. Wins 14 races including the amateur GP des Nations.

1983: Turns professional with Peugeot.

1984: Claims three prologue wins including at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Makes the first of an eventual five starts at the Tour, wearing the white jersey.

1989: Narrowly misses out on a spot on the Tour of Flanders podium, losing out in the sprint for third place. He finishes 7th.

1990: Wins a stage at the Giro d’Italia in his final season at Panasonic. Moves to Tulip Computers for 1991 and retires the following year.

2005: After more than a decade out of the sport joins Davitamon-Lotto as a sports director.

2008: The first of four years at Columbia-High Road. The team counts 47 Grand Tour stage wins and two Milan-San Remo titles among its haul.

2012: Moves to Garmin and guides Ryder Hesjedal to a 16-second Giro d’Italia victory, secured on the final-day TT.

2019: After five years with BMC joins UAE Team Emirates. In April is forced to take a sabbatical after being diagnosed with cancer for the second time.

2020: Returns to stage racing at the Tour Down Under. Eight months later guides Tadej Pogačar to Tour de France victory.

Peiper on…

…Managing Mark Cavendish

‘The most joy I’ve had out of cycling was with Cav. Those years of him winning five or six stages in the Tour de France, there is nothing that compares. Not that we always had the best relationship. I once took a few strips off him because he was overweight and he didn’t talk to me for four months!’

…His bike helping him through cancer

‘Cycling for me was never about turning pro. As a kid I just loved riding my bike; I just wanted to rip everybody’s legs off. When I went through all the chemotherapy treatment last year, getting out on my bike gave me something to look forward to every day.’

…What cycling can take from 2020

‘Every race was a cliffhanger. Racing from January until October, there is a form of mental and physical tiredness that gets into the riders and affects the races. We somehow need to compact that WorldTour programme so it’s a more sellable package.’

…His toughest day on a bike

‘Gavia in the 1988 Giro – the snow storm, riders crying and getting in the cars. It was just ridiculous. Now that they have a bad weather protocol we get nice photos of sunny bike races and a lot of dust, but they aren’t the photos that cycling legends are made of, are they? I’m proud to have been there.’