FROM INSIDE PELOTON: THE LION OF FLANDERS
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As dominant as Cancellara was in 2010, as incredible as Boonen has been this year [keep in mind, this was from issue 12], neither of these riders possess the aura of invincibility Johan Museeuw had at his peak. To win Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde van Vlaanderen during his reign was to beat Museeuw rather than conquer the race. The Lion of Flanders was the personification of the great Belgian classics rider, cut from the same cloth as De Vlaeminck, Van Looy and Rebry, hard men whose careers lived and died in the two weeks surrounding Easter. But his greatness was twinged with enough struggle to make him truly loved.
Words: Ben Edwards
Images: Yuzuru Sunada
After all, as it says in Job 1:21, “the classics giveth and the classics taketh away.” While he may have won Roubaix and the Ronde three times each, a heavy crash on the infamous Arenberg cobbles almost ended his career in 1998. With a shattered knee the hope was that his leg could be saved, however riding a bike again was not on the table. But riding cobblestones well is not the purview of mortal men, so Museeuw came back to win the race again in 2000 and 2002. His bid to equal De Vlaeminck’s record of four Roubaix wins ended in 2004, when riding in the winning break he flatted and could muster no more than fifth behind the big Swede, Magnus Bäckstedt. It is said that the great man shed tears in the velodrome that day.
After his racing career ended, Museeuw looked to be enjoying the same retirement of many Belgian champions like Dirk Demol and Tom Steels in a team car. This retirement was to be short lived, as an admission to doping at the very end of his career forced Museeuw out of team management. Today, the classics seem to be ready to give back to Museeuw. He has a bike company using a unique flax technology, inspired by his years on the cobblestones, and he is a TV personality in Belgium, commentating on racing as well as starring in a cycling-based reality show.
Do you miss being a racer, or part of team management? Is that something you would like to do again?
You cannot really miss being a racer because as a racer you know that your professional career can only last for 15, or max, 18 years. Just after the end of it, I did miss being around the peloton. It was my working environment for a long time, so obviously when that changes it is something that you have to deal with. I am happy with what I do now; I am taking care of the public relations for Museeuw Bikes, doing a lot of product testing.
I am also training some young guys like Klaas Lodewyck who rides for BMC, but also my youngest son Stefano. And for the second year in a row I am in a TV reality show called De Pedaalridders (The Knights of the Pedals). This show is about two teams of recreational riders who prepare for a mountain stage in the Tour de France. I train one of the teams. The show is a big hit in Flanders. Of course, cycling here is very popular, and more and more people are starting to ride.
Your company, Museeuw Bikes, uses a flax/carbon mix for its frames. How did you hit on such a unique recipe?
It was the engineer who invented the material who found me and proposed to me to do a test ride with a frame he made. I had been riding very stiff carbon frames the previous 10 years of different brands (Colnago, Time, Merckx), so I immediately felt that this frame was different.
Do you think your appreciation for the bike’s compliance has to do with your years of experience racing on cobblestones?
I always paid a lot of attention to my bike, especially for the races on cobblestones. The spring classics always were the most important races for me, so there was Formula 1-like attention for all the components. I know that if I had the flax/carbon frames in the cobblestone races it would have made a difference. Not only for the comfort but also for less fatigue.
What did it mean to win Roubaix in 2000 after your knee injury and almost losing your leg?
This experience for me was indeed very emotional, almost religious. The amount of work I had done first to recover, then to be competitive again and to be competitive on the highest level, was gigantic. I was focused on recovery and the comeback 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The final lap on the Roubaix velodrome was of an intensity that I have only experienced a couple of times. Winning the Worlds in Lugano 1996 was a similar experience.
What is the one race that you never won but wish you had?
There is not really one particular race. The Ronde, Paris-Roubaix and the world championships were for me the most important races. I managed to win them all. I could never win Milan-San Remo, but I never had the same feelings for this race as I had for the spring classics. There is one edition of the Ronde that I should have won though, the sprint against Bugno. I should have won that day and that would have made me, in the end of my career, the sole record-holder.
What was it like riding with LeMond in 1989 on Team ADR? The ’89 tour is legendary in the states, did you know Greg would do something special?
I was a young rider, 23 years old and trying to find my way in the peloton. We had a strong team and had achieved a lot of results before. There was in the ADR team an atmosphere of “anything is possible.” Greg was somebody I looked up to. His focus was an example to me. His approach was different from the European style. So for me it was not a big surprise. After three weeks of the Tour de France you know that the fatigue can make a big difference. I think Greg was both mentally and physically less exhausted than Fignon.
With so much pressure on a Belgian to ride well at Flanders and Roubaix, did you find it tough to deal with the expectation?
There were times that the pressure was too much and I reacted in a negative way to the media. For me it was not so easy to close myself off from reactions and expectations. Although, I knew that it would have been better if I could.
You spent a lot of time with Boonen, is he doing anything differently this year to become such a consistent winner again?
People seem to have forgotten what happened with Tom. The injury on his knee after the crash in the Amgen Tour of California in 2010 was a lot worse than most people thought. Preparation for the spring classics starts already in November, but Tom missed the end of the 2010 season and had no solid base to start with. I think this is what made the difference. It can also be a mental thing: his team is in a winning mood, there is a good ambiance. This is also important for Tom.
Who do you think will be the next big Belgian star?
That’s really difficult to say. We have some youngsters, U23, that I think can win important races in the future, but it’s way too soon to predict if they will win as much as Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert or myself. I hope that Tom and Philippe will race for another 3 to 5 years because it looks like we have a gap between this generation and the next, hopefully successful, generation. The only name that comes to my mind now is Sep Vanmarcke; I think he can win both the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix in the future.
Johan Museeuw climbing the Kapelmuur.
From Issue 12. Buy it here.