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Tales from the peloton, April 15, 2004

The Lion's last roar: Part I

A tribute to cycling legend Johan Museeuw

The Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw
Photo ©: AFP

Today at the Scheldeprijs Vlaanderen, the cycling world will hear the final roar from the Lion of Flanders as classics legend Johan Museeuw turns his pedals in anger for the last time as a professional. In Part I of this special Cyclingnews feature, Anthony Tan takes a look back on the most celebrated and respected classics rider of our generation, whose career began over sixteen years ago, way back in 1988.

Despite 101 victories spanning his sixteen and a half year career, Johan Museeuw said he never thought he would turn professional until the day it actually happened. "I was never certain that I would make it until it was a fact," he said modestly in an interview a few years ago.

"Eddy Planckaert and Fons De Wolf thought I had talent, and during my first year as a professional [with ADR in 1988], I was able to show myself and take some good results. Then after Paris-Tours [Museeuw finished third in 1989], I had the feeling I would make it - but I never believed I would achieve such a palmarès."

Though even the most confident or talented of riders wouldn't have forecasted such success. Museeuw's podium place in Paris-Tours, coupled with another trio of thirds in the Tour of Belgium, Dwars door Belgium and the Grand Prix Eddy Merckx was certainly promising, but it was his subsequent years at Lotto which saw the emergence of the greatest classics rider of our generation, and the man we know as the Lion of Flanders.

"For me, the Paris-Roubaix is the ideal race to win, not for the sake of revenge but rather as a symbol of my comeback."

- Museeuw speaking after his win at the 2000 Paris Roubaix

His first one-day victory with Lotto, the 1991 Meisterschaft Von Zürich, where he beat French cycling legend Laurent Jalabert and Max Sciandri at just 24 years old, was significant. But it was his second place at the Ronde van Vlaanderen behind fellow Belgian Edwig Van Hooydonck that same year - a race that he would go on to win three times, in 1993, 1995 and 1998 - that was even more impressive and carries greater importance, for the Ronde has invariably been a race for the experienced and crafty. However, back then, young Johan was unafraid of the parcours, race conditions, or even his more experienced rivals... the same way he has always been.

Roubaix win #3 in 2002
Photo: © Sirotti
Click for larger image

Asked if he has ever been intimidated or scared of anyone in the peloton, he replied, "I am frightened of nobody. Because a rider who is frightened already loses ten percent of his capacities." Museeuw said he would rather let others be frightened of him (of which there are many), because if those riders have already lost ten percent of their capabilities before the race has even begun, it makes him feel even stronger.

On first appearance, the man from Gistel in West Flanders doesn't appear the type to engage and thrive on this sort of psychological warfare, although he is considered to be a quiet and introverted man. Which is something he denies: "Look, the media plays a large role in this - I always get that label of being quiet and reserved, but that is not so," he said. "But you get this [being labelled] in every sport. It makes for a good story."

Another misconception is that Johan Museeuw and the Tour de France are exact opposites. The fact is, Museeuw rode his first Tour in only his third year as a professional and achieved instant success in his initial foray into France. Fired up after his first victory on the fourth stage from Nantes to Mont-Saint-Michel in 1990, the then 23 year-old catapulted himself into the big time by triumphing on the queen stage to Paris, hitting his straps at the perfect moment to beat Adriano Baffi and eventual points winner Olaf Ludwig.

While his victory on the Champs Elysées was to be Museeuw's last, he earned the honour of wearing the maillot jaune on five occasions and the maillot vert on another fifteen, finishing second in the points competition to Laurent Jalabert and mad-as-a-hatter-sprinter Djamolodin Abduzhaparov at the '92 and '93 Tours respectively. But it was early success that later proved to be his Achilles' heel at Le Tour, the frustration resulting from his slew of second and third placings almost prematurely ending his career. "I had some beautiful moments but also a lot of difficult ones, especially in the years where I strived to obtain wins but never succeeded," he remembers.

The 2000 Paris Roubaix: his greatest win ever?

Interestingly, when reminiscing, Museeuw makes no mention of Paris-Roubaix. Otherwise known as 'The Hell of the North' for its brutal, bomb-cratered parcours, the race is often complemented by equally atrocious weather conditions; the sight of mud-encrusted, seemingly lifeless bodies entering the Roubaix velodrome in ones and twos after more than 270 kilometres of racing has been a common sight in many of its 102 editions. Certainly, the race appears to evoke a love-hate relationship with its participants - even its winners - but it was also the race that almost cost the Lion of Flanders not just his career, but his life.

Smashing his knee into a pole at full speed entering the Forest of Arenberg in the 1998 Roubaix, Museeuw almost lost his leg due to a gangrene infection and spent the best part of a year in and out of hospitals, having to learn how to walk again. His subsequent wins in 2000 (the first being in 1996) and again 2002 is testimony to just how determined and courageous Museeuw is, and although he makes little mention of it, his Roubaix victory in the year of the millennium is considered to be the finest of them all, where he triumphed not just over Van Petegem, Zabel and the rest of the field, but over adversity itself.

Patrick Lefèvere, manager of Mapei and now Quick.Step-Davitamon, said at the time: "Now Johan has nothing more to prove. At 34 he is still on the summit. I am very emotional - this is the biggest win of his career." In fact, Lefèvre was so overcome with emotion, he had to be taken to hospital, where he was treated for stress and low blood sugar levels!

"It's a dream indeed," said Museeuw to Cyclingnews after the finish. "Two years ago I almost lost my leg; I have taken a lot of medicine, and I have worked enormously. For me, the Paris-Roubaix is the ideal race to win, not for the sake of revenge but rather as a symbol of my comeback. During the race I was not more afraid than the others, I only feared the falls and the punctures. I held my concentration, and looked after myself. But my greatest victory is that I've have come back to racing at all," he finished.

Love-hate relationship with Le Tour; here with son Gianni at the 2001 TdF
Photo: © CN
Click for larger image

After doing the double in 1990, Museeuw was being labelled as a pure sprinter and a man who would succeed Ludwig and challenge Abduzhaparov and Jalabert for the maillot vert. However, in the following five editions, while the "Tashkent Terror" Abduzhaparov and Jalabert went on to achieve great success, sharing five green jerseys and numerous stages between them, it left Museeuw empty-handed and seemingly empty-headed. In 1995, despite winning the his second Ronde, the Meisterschaft Von Zürich and the Four Days of Dunkirk, rumours of retirement spread like wildfire among the press - most hoping it wasn't true.

Museeuw went on to ride eleven Tours de France, his last in 2001 after a four-year hiatus (read his Tour de France diary), but intelligently switched his focus from summer to spring after his outings at the Tour bore little fruit. He said at the time: "After 11 years as a professional, I want to choose the races in which I want to go really deep. I can afford to put the bike aside but still love the job, the taste of victory, the team, the atmosphere too much."

The subtle yet significant change brought about arguably his most successful as a rider with no less than seven victories in 1996, highlighted by wins in Paris-Roubaix, the Belgian road championship, overall victory in the World Cup, and the possibly the sweetest of them all, the world road championship held in Lugano, Switzerland.

Still today, after another two victories in Roubaix and one more in the Ronde to make it three apiece, the softly spoken man of steel regards his triumph at the World's to be the most special. "I say this with great difficulty, but if I had to choose, it would be my world championship win. To be world champion was always a huge dream of mine, and the win was especially satisfying because I thought it would never come. But my first win in Flanders was superb... not that the other two weren't fantastic, but my first win in the Ronde still holds a special feeling."

Riding his final Roubaix
Photo: © Luc Claessen
Click for larger image

Looking at his palmarès post-1996, it was a good thing Museeuw didn't hang up his wheels early. Besides, he would have missed the pain - this insatiable appetite for suffering is something he said he will continue to feel nostalgic about and attempt to find in other forms following his retirement. "I will still experience [pain] but in a different way, now that I will be an ordinary person."

Though it hasn't all been smooth sailing: Museeuw has endured two life threatening events as well as a drugs scandal since his win in Lugano. The first occured at the '98 Paris-Roubaix (see breakout box); the second just over two years later after he was knocked off his Harley Davidson along with his wife and his son, which saw him comatosed for almost three weeks. More recently, the recent drugs affair involving veterinarian Jose Landuyt affected the Lion of Flanders deeply, who was one of the first riders questioned in early September last year. However, Museeuw has maintained his innocence and non-involvement, always saying that he would retire in a manner of his own choosing, and has stayed true to his word. He has previously said: "Fate won't decide when Museeuw will stop, only Museeuw will."

While it would have been fitting for Johan to win the Ronde or Roubaix for a fourth time - or even Milan-San Remo, a race he has said he would have liked to have won at least once - Museeuw in his last years has often selflessly ridden at the service of others, as well as providing advice when appropriate to the likes of Tom Boonen or Michael Rogers, even Paolo Bettini on occasion. Museeuw has always maintained one is never too young to learn: "I've always tried to listen as much as possible to other people," he said.

"If someone provides me with advice on a certain way of training, then I will try that and see what impact that has on me. Do I go better? Or worse? Also, with regards to diet, I listen to a number of people and adjust my dietary habits accordingly. I may have been a professional for more than 15 years but I can still learn."

Hmmm... where to now?
Photo: © CN
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With his willingness to learn and desire to impart knowledge onto those who listen, it's no surprise the now 38 year-old (he'll be 39 in October) will continue to stay in cycling; he already has a position as a Quick.Step team director, debuting in the Tour of Belgium this year alongside his long-time directeur-sportif, Patrick Lefèvre. However, as reported recently on Cyclingnews, Museeuw's ambitions stretch further still: "I dream one day of becoming the national coach," he told the Belgian RUG papers.

"Don't get me wrong, [current coach] José De Cauwer is very valuable, but I am prepared to take my turn. I would do it with the same motivation I had as a rider." Naturally, Belgian Cycling Federation president Laurent De Backer can't wait: "It is a complete honour when such a champion offers himself. Museeuw is an experienced expert. I hold him in very high regard as a man and as a rider. With his name, he can bring a lot to cycling in our country," he said.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: Johan Museeuw will depart the peloton a champion.

Part II: How the peloton will remember Johan Museeuw.

Johan Museeuw's palmarès

Age: 38
Born: October 13, 1965, Varsenare, Belgium
Lives: Gistel, Belgium
Height: 6'1" / 1.85 m
Weight: 161-172 lbs / 73-78 kg
Marital status: Wife Véronique, sons Gianni and Stefano
Turned professional: 1988

(note: World Cup, world championship and national championship victories highlighted in red)

2004 - Quick Step - Davitamon

5th, Paris-Roubaix
15th, Ronde van Vlaanderen

2003 - Quick Step - Davitamon

1st, Het Volk
1st, Stage 3, Danmark Rundt
3rd, Memorial Rik van Steenbergen
7th, Gent - Wevelgem

2002 - Domo - Farm Frites

1st, Hew-Cyclassics
1st, Paris - Roubaix
1st, Stage 2, Guldensporentweedaagse
1st, Stage 3, Tour de la Region Wallonne
2nd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
2nd, World Cup
3rd, Grote Prijs E3-Harelbeke
3rd, Stage 3, Guldensporentweedaagse
4th, Guldensporentweedaagse
5th, Classic Haribo
10th, Gent - Wevelgem

2001 - Domo - Farm Frites

2nd, Paris - Roubaix
5th, Amstel Gold Race
9th, World Cup
10th, Ruta del Sol

2000 - Mapei - Quick Step

1st, Fleche Brabanconne
1st, Het Volk
1st, Paris - Roubaix
2nd, Stage 2, Ruta del Sol
3rd, Gent - Wevelgem
15th, Milano - San Remo

1999 - Mapei - Quick Step

1st, A Travers la Belgique
1st, Omloop Mandel-Leie-Schelde
2nd, Kuurne - Bruxelles - Kuurne
3rd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
3rd, Stage 1, Omloop Vlaamse Ardennen
4th, Fleche Brabanconne
4th, Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
4th, HEW Cyclassics
4th, Ronde van Nederland
6th, Het Volk
9th, Grand Prix de Fourmies
9th, Paris - Roubaix
12th, Amstel Gold Race
12th, World Road Championship
13th, Meisterschaft von Zürich

1998 - Mapei - Bricobi

1st, Ronde van Vlaanderen
1st, Grand Prix E3 Harelbeke
1st, Fleche Brabanconne
5th, Het Volk

1997 - Mapei - GB

1st, Breitling Grand Prix
1st, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne
1st, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
1st, Stage 2, Ruta del Sol
1st, Stage 4, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
1st, Stage 4, Ruta del Sol
1st, Stage 5, Ruta del Sol
1st, Trois Jours de la Panne
2nd, Grand Prix l'Escaut
2nd, Ruta del Sol
2nd, Stage 3b., Trois Jours de la Panne
2nd, Stage 7, Paris - Nice
3rd, Paris - Roubaix
3rd, Stage 3, Ruta del Sol
6th, Liege - Bastogne - Liege
6th, Ronde van Nederland
8th, Paris - Nice
8th, World Road Championship
9th, Gent - Wevelgem
9th, Paris - Bruxelles
13th, Ronde van Vlaanderen

1996 - Mapei - GB

1st, Belgian Championship
1st, Fleche Brabanconne
1st, Mandel - Leie - Schelde
1st, Paris - Roubaix
1st, Stage 1, Giro di Puglia
1st, World Cup
1st, World Road Championship
2nd, Paris - Bruxelles
3rd, Amstel Gold Race
3rd, Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
3rd, Grand Prix Schweiz
3rd, Leeds Classic
3rd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
3rd, Stage 3, Giro di Puglia
4th, Grand Prix Telekom
5th, Tour du Haut-Var
5th, Tour Mediterraneen
5th, Trofeo Laigueglia
6th, Grand Prix de Nations
6th, Grand Prix E-3 Harelbeke
8th, Milano - San Remo
10th, Olympics
13th, Giro di Lombardia
15th, Tirreno - Adriatico

1995 - Mapei - GB

1st, Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
1st, Meisterschaft von Zürich
1st, Overijse
1st, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
1st, Ronde van Vlaanderen
1st, Stage 6, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
1st, Trofeo Laigueglia
2nd, Stage 7, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
3rd, Belgian Championship
3rd, Haribo Classic
3rd, Paris - Roubaix
3rd, San Sebastian - San Sebastian
3rd, Stage 4, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
3rd, Teleport Derny Criterium
4th, Fleche Brabanconne
5th, Leeds Classic
5th, Paris - Bruxelles
5th, Stage 17, Tour de France
5th, Telekom Grand Prix
6th, Het Volk
7th, Amstel Gold Race
8th, Rund um den Henninger Turm
12th, Milano - San Remo
13th, Liege - Bastogne - Liege
14th, Paris - Tours

1994 - GB - MG

1st, Amstel Gold Race
1st, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne
1st, Overijse
1st, Stage 8, Tour de Suisse
1st, Teleport Derny Criterium
2nd, Binche-Tournai-Binche
2nd, Grand Prix Impanis
2nd, Meisterschaft von Zurich
2nd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
2nd, Stage 4, Hofbräu Cup
2nd, World Cup
3rd, Gent - Wevelgem
3rd, Stage 1, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 4, Tour Mediterraneen
4th, Harelbeke GP E3
4th, Het Volk
4th, Paris - Bruxelles
5th, Stage 2, Tour de France
5th, Telekom Grand Prix
12th, Milano - San Remo
13th, Paris - Roubaix

1993 - GB - MG

1st, A Travers la Belgique
1st, Grote Prijs Wielerrevue
1st, Paris-Tours
1st, Ronde van Vlaanderen
1st, Stage 1, Tour de Suisse
1st, Stage 4, Paris-Nice
1st, Stage 4a, Hofbräu Cup
2nd, Points Competition, Tour de France
2nd, World Cup
3rd, Druivenkoers
3rd, Paris - Bruxelles
3rd, Stage 13, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 7, Tour de France
3rd, Tour de Luxembourg
4th, Paris - Roubaix
4th, Tour du Haut-Var
4th, World Road Championship
5th, Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
5th, Omloop Mandel - Leie - Schelde
8th, Wincanton Classic
12th, Liege - Bastogne - Liege
13th, Amstel Gold Race

1992 - Lotto

1st, Belgian Championship
1st, Grand Prix E3 Harelbeke
1st, Points Competition, Tour de Luxembourg
1st, Points Competition, Vuelta Valenciana
1st, Stage 1, Bicicleta Vasca
1st, Stage 1, Vuelta Valenciana
1st, Stage 1b, Valles Mineros
1st, Stage 2, Vuelta Valenciana
1st, Stage 5, Ruta del Sol
2nd, Amstel Gold Race
2nd, Grand Prix de L'Escaut
2nd, Grand Prix Scherens
2nd, Guecho
2nd, Points Competition, Tour de France
2nd, Stage 1, Tour de France
2nd, Stage 3, Kellog's Tour of Britain
2nd, Stage 3, Trois Jours de la Panne
2nd, Stage 5, Tour de Luxembourg
2nd, Stage 5a, Vuelta de Valencia
3rd, Kuurne - Bruxelles - Kuurne
3rd, Milano - San Remo
3rd, Stage 1, Kellog's Tour of Britain
3rd, Stage 18, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 2, Bicicleta Vasca
3rd, Stage 2, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque
3rd, Stage 21, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 5, Paris-Nice
4th, A Travers la Belgique
4th, Stage 10, Tour de France
4th, Vuelta Valenciana
5th, Stage 6, Tour de France
6th, Kellog's Tour of Britain
7th, Gent - Wevelgem
7th, Paris - Roubaix
9th, World Cup
14th, Meisterschaft von Zürich
14th, Ronde van Vlaanderen

1991 - Lotto

1st, Meisterschaft von Zürich
1st, Stage 3b, Grand Prix Midi Libre
1st, Stage 5, Quatre Jours des Dunkerque
2nd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
2nd, Rund um den Henninger Turm
2nd, Stage 1, Tour of Ireland
2nd, Stage 2, Tour of Ireland
2nd, Stage 5, Tour of Ireland
2nd, Stage 7, Tour de France
2nd, Stage 11, Tour de France
3rd, Paris - Bruxelles
3rd, Quatre jours de Dunkerque
3rd, Stage 3, Dauphine Libere
3rd, Tour of Ireland
4th, Belgian Championship
5th, Stage 3, Tour de France

1990 - Lotto

1st, Stage 3, Driedaagse van De Panne
1st, Stage 3, Tour of Ireland
1st, Stage 4, Tour de France
1st, Stage 21, Tour de France
2nd, Driedaagse van De Panne
2nd, Gent - Wevelgem
2nd, Tour of Irelands
2nd, Trois Jours de la Panne
4th, Omloop Het Volk
4th, Tour of Belgium
5th, Belgian Championship
6th, Paris-Brussels
8th, Dwars door België
9th, Amstel Gold
9th, Milan - San Remo
11th, E3-Prijs Harelbeke
12th, Paris-Roubaix

1989 - ADR

1st, Stage 5, Tour of Belgium
3rd, Dwars door België
3rd, Grand Prix Eddy Merckx
3rd, Paris - Tours
5th, Tour of Ireland
6th, GP Formies
8th, Belgian Championship
16th, Paris - Brussels

1988 - ADR

1st, GP Briek Schotte
7th, Paris - Brussels
8th, Tour of Luxembourg
12th, Tour of Belgium
31st, Amstel Gold




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