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Filip Meirhaeghe - more than a mountainbiker...
By Lucy Power
There's no denying that Belgian Filip Meirhaeghe is a multi-talented rider. Racing for Specialized in the MTB discipline and Domina Vacanze-Elitron on the road, Meirhaeghe is a rare breed of professional. His strength is off-road, recently winning round two of the MTB cross-country at Fort William in Scotland. However a couple of days afterwards, he was en route to Spain's Basque Country to race the Euskal Bizikleta, a demanding five day road race. In addition to this, during the winter he is a player in the extremely strong Belgian Cyclocross scene, and he's also been known to 'have a go' on the track, successfully riding in the Amsterdam Six-Day in 2002.
What drives someone to compete at the elite level in the relatively disparate skills that make up track, road and MTB? How on earth do they keep their heads together riding that many races? Cyclingnews found out...
Winner of the mountain bike cross-country World Cup round 2, at Fort William, Scotland, Filip enjoyed the course so much that he entered the world cup 'chaser' event the next day
Cyclingnews: So you loved the course that much?
Filip Meirhaeghe: Yes, it's a great course! I did it the second time for the training, I didn't go too hard. Also the weather was great - probably the 2 best days that Scotland's going to have this year!
Filip was heading off to Spain to meet up with his road team, Domina Vacanze-Elitron, for the Euskal Bizikleta (Bicicleta Vasca), a hilly stage race used as preparation for the Tour de France by many Spanish teams. Although Filip is the first to claim that he's not a natural climber on the road, he hopes to achieve some results there and justify the faith Domina Vacanze have shown in him. They are the highest-ranked road team he's ever raced with, and he'd like to extend his one-year contract with them.
FM: I've been really happy with the team, they understand that MTB cross-country is my number one priority, but they've been flexible and really easy to work with. They are so professional and organised.
Filip has raced a full spring programme with Domina Vacanze-Elitron, starting in most of the Classics: Driedaagse van De Panne-Koksijde, Ronde van Vlaanderen / Tour of Flanders, Gent - Wevelgem, Paris - Roubaix, Rund um Köln, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège Bastogne Liège.
CN: How do you train for the different events, and handle the transitions from road to MTB and back?
FM: Well, the road racing is great for overall endurance, but to prepare for a MTB cross-country event I usually have to spend a few days beforehand doing hard intervals and sprints, to get the speed I need for those events.
CN: Do you take any time off from racing and training during the year?
FM: Not really. Two or three times a year I'll take four or five days off the bike - any more than that and it's difficult to come back to fitness quickly - maybe that's a factor of age!
Filip (unlike a lot of Belgian racers) doesn't come from a family with a cycling background - no-one else in his family rides, and he started out riding trials at the age of six, mixed in with a little motocross. Cross-country mountainbiking is his first love, and he started riding pro MTB in 1987. In 1996 he added professional road racing to his repertoire, joining SEFB, although he'd always raced amateur road events. Filip has raced with Specialized since 1998. MTB XC is obviously his strength, and he has an astonishing palmares in this discipline (see right).
CN: What career highlights are your personal favourites?
FM: Winning the silver medal at the Sydney Olympics, winning the MTB World Cup overall in 2002. But the victory that gave me the best feeling is possibly my win at Houffalize in 2000. [Houffalize takes place in the Belgian Ardennes, and has been described as the closest thing in mountain biking to a Belgian classic]. I first had to race the qualifier, and no-one expected me to win the race. The support from the local fans was fantastic.
In 2002 Filip also partnered with fellow Belgian Lorenzo Lapage to race the Amsterdam Six-day, but he isn't planning to race more track events in the immediate future, as the training required to perform in events like the six-day is too specialised and doesn't fit in with his short-to-medium term plans.
CN: What are your goals for the future?
FM: Well, having won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics (MTB XC), I would like to get the gold in Athens, so I'm working towards that. I'd also like to win the MTB XC World Cup again this year. [Last year Filip won two of the five-race series, and was 195 points clear of his nearest rivals, Christoph Sauser and Bart Brentjens.]
CN: And finally, how did you acquire the nickname 'Popeye'?
FM: Back when I first started with Specialized, Gert-Jan Theunisse was the team manager, and he gave me the nickname because I had good upper-body strength, more than most cyclists. I don't get called 'Popeye' much these days though!
Read more about Filip on his website, www.filipmeirhaeghe.com (and see the rest of his impressive palmares - we had to cut it down to fit it on the page...)