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The Lion of Flanders Johan Museeuw on returning from injury, winning and doping

In-depth
10 Aug 2018
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Words Jack Elton-Walters Photography Danny Bird

It’s a palmarès that any rider would give their right arm for: three wins at Paris-Roubaix, three at the Tour of Flanders, one World Championship, four Tour de France stages (if you include two team time-trials), two National Championships and a hatful of other one-day race victories.

In Johan Museeuw’s case, he didn’t have to give any limbs, but he did come close to having his leg amputated after a horrific crash on the Arenberg cobbles in the 1998 Paris-Roubaix left his kneecap shattered and he contracted gangrene.

The tough Belgian recovered, fought his way back to race the Classics the following year and took his second win at Roubaix the year after that, going solo with 44km to go to the finish.

Crossing the line in the velodrome, Museeuw unclipped his left foot, lifted his leg and pointed to his knee, a celebration he can still be seen recreating today if there’s a camera on him during a leisurely ride.

Crossing lines

That wasn’t the only line he crossed during his career. Like many riders during the 1990s and early 2000s, Museeuw turned to performance-enhancing drugs to help him stay at the top of the sport.

After his retirement he owned up to his misdemeanours, a confession that cost him his job at top-tier Belgian squad Quick-Step and damaged friendships with former teammates.

Doping isn’t something Museeuw likes to talk about anymore, but he does understand the need to be open and admit the truth when the subject comes up.

‘I know every journalist will ask me so it’s normal,’ he tells Cyclist with a shrug. ‘For me it’s over and I can speak about it now. I don’t always like to speak about it, though, because if we keep talking about it, the new generation cannot show that they are different.

‘So we have to say, “Our generation was not OK. That’s it, that’s over.”’

Despite continued allegations of doping at the top level of cycling, Museeuw is adamant that things are different today compared to his time in the peloton.

‘Now there is a new generation and they’re OK. It’s different now. My generation made mistakes, but I can’t say more than that. Everybody did it.’

In the Lion’s den

Having retired from racing in 2004, the Belgian now keeps himself busy with a combination of activities, all centred, naturally, on cycling.

A significant chunk of Museeuw’s time is occupied with his role as tour and ride guide at the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, a museum in Oudenaarde dedicated to the famous race.

Museeuw lives just a short ride away, and it’s at his home in rural Flanders, an area that was the backdrop to so many of his biggest wins, that Cyclist meets him. The roads nearby are cobbled – even now he can’t escape the surface that gave him the most success.

He’s happy to welcome us into his living room, where he sits below a portrait of himself as a younger man. Despite this, there is no shrine to past glories like Tom Boonen has in his home to showcase his four Roubaix cobbles or Lance Armstrong has with his seven framed yellow jerseys.

‘I have one stone over there from Roubaix but the others are in the Centrum,’ Museeuw says. ‘There is a part of the museum here in Oudenaarde, there’s another museum in Roeslare [a city in west Flanders], and there is also a small museum where I lived a long time before called the Flandrien Museum.

‘Some of my trophies are over there, some are elsewhere. Here at home I have a Flanders trophy, a Roubaix cobble and World Champion trophy, so that’s enough.

'I don’t want to live in a museum.’

Museeuw plainly isn’t one for dwelling on his own history, and it takes a bit of encouragement for him to talk about how he first came to the sport of cycling. It started, as it so often does for Belgian riders, with cyclocross.

‘My father was a former pro, not for a long time, but he was a racer,’ Museeuw recalls. ‘Before cycling I was a football player, and I decided that when I turned 15 that was the age I could start cycling.’

His direction in cycling was partly dictated by the date of his birthday.

‘I turned 15 in October, and that’s the season of cyclocross. The road season is over by that time so as soon as I was old enough to ride competitively I started in the cyclocross season.

‘I liked both road and cyclocross, but in the beginning I preferred cyclocross. I believe it gave me an advantage in my career on the road too – Roubaix can get very dirty and slippery, and as a cyclocross man you learn to move better with the bike than a normal rider.’

In 1988 Museeuw made the transition to road, signing with Belgian squad ADR, and it wasn’t long before he tasted his first successes.

In 1989 he was part of the Tour de France team that carried Greg LeMond to victory, and the year after that Museeuw took two stages of the Tour, including the bunch sprint on the final stage in Paris.

Throughout the 1990s, a raft of wins at one-day races such as Flanders, Roubaix, Amstel Gold and E3-Harelbeke, as well as the World Championships road race in 1996, cemented Museeuw’s reputation as the pre-eminent Classics racer of his day.

However, he had as many upsets and near misses as he did victories, and his record of wins could potentially have been much greater.

Despite often being the strongest sprinter in the peloton, he failed to secure another individual stage at the Tour de France, being perpetually thwarted by successful breakaway groups.

In 1994 a mechanical robbed him of an almost certain victory at Paris-Roubaix, with the same thing happening at Flanders in 1996.

In 1997 he crashed at Milan-San Remo, and at Flanders, and then he punctured at Paris-Roubaix while in a break of three riders in the later stages of the race. But all of these misfortunes were overshadowed by his crash at Paris-Roubaix in 1998, where he shattered his kneecap on the cobbles of the Arenberg Trench.

‘It was hard,’ Museeuw says, recalling the period after the crash when doctors suggested he might lose his leg to gangrene.

‘Only me and my family, and the doctors, know how hard it was. You don’t talk to other people about how hard it was to come back and to suffer a lot.

‘Maybe that was my biggest victory: just to come back. If you win Flanders or Roubaix or another race, or you’re World Champion, everybody knows about it, but not everybody knows how hard it is to come back.’

Come back he did. Just two years later he rode away from the field to cross the line alone at the Roubaix velodrome. So was this, perhaps, his greatest victory? Museeuw thinks for a moment, as if trying to remember how he felt at the end of each of his famous race wins.

‘If you have won a couple of races, then you can say, “OK, that one is the most beautiful.” But I won three Flanders and three Roubaix and other World Cup races, Paris-Tour, the Amstel Gold Race, the World Championships, the World Cup…’

He is obviously enjoying reeling off the highlights of his palmarès.

‘I have to say, as I always say, that to become World Champion is something special. Of course, it is special on the day, but for the whole year after you get to wear that beautiful jersey at every race.

'As World Champion it’s a special year. So, if I have to choose, I would say the World Championships in Lugano.’

Warming down

After retirement, moving from the intense bubble of pro cycling back into civilian life can be a difficult transition, and Museeuw admits that at first he struggled with the changes.

‘I was 38 when I stopped. The first two years were difficult, because you don’t have to train, you don’t have to ride, you don’t have to do anything anymore.

'It’s quite hard, but you have to find a new way to live.’

Museeuw took on a non-riding role at Quick-Step in 2004, but his efforts to build a new career in cycling off the bike were hampered by persistent allegations and rumours about his doping, and in 2007 Museeuw finally admitted his wrongdoing, telling a hastily gathered press conference that he ‘did not play the sporting game honestly’ towards the end of his career.

Fined €2,500 and given a suspended prison sentence, the Lion’s career was over.

With time and openness, however, Museeuw has become comfortable with his legacy and has managed to restore his reputation to the extent that he remains popular with cycling fans. He has also managed to forge a new career within the broader cycling community.

‘I do bike guiding, I do bike holidays – now I have something to do. Now I can look ahead to what I have to do tomorrow or later in the week.

'If you stop racing and you have nothing to do then it’s quite difficult.’ Museeuw says he doesn’t feel as old as his 52 years and he certainly still rides like a younger man. ‘If I have nothing to do I go cycling. But even if I have something to do, I still ride a lot, I still love cycling,’ he says. ‘I always believed that I could do it – that I’d come back.’

Thanks

Thanks to Velusso for facilitating the interview with Museeuw and arranging logistics to and from Flanders.

This article first appeared in issue 73, May 2018 of Cyclist. You can subcribe here