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‘I was afraid of nobody’: Johan Museeuw Q&A

Joe Robinson
27 Sep 2021

Classics legend Johan Museeuw is still a Belgian superstar. But the 55-year-old says this can be both a blessing and a curse

Words Joe Robinson Photography Danny Bird

Can you remember the day you were first crowned the Lion of Flanders?

Yes I can. After I won the Tour of Flanders in 1995, the Belgian commentator Michel Wuyts christened me the ‘Lion of Flanders’ live on the television and it stuck ever since.

Even now if I get a text from my old boss Patrick Lefevere, he will still call me ‘Lion’. I have to thank Michel for giving me that nickname on that day because I do like being called a lion.

Along with the nickname came enormous pressure. How did you cope?

To be successful is dangerous. When you are young and have a lot of success and get a lot of money each month it is difficult to remain grounded, especially when you are a star that everybody loves.

In my first years of earning good money I told myself that I would buy a red Ferrari, but my dad told me if I did he would stop talking to me. Instead he made me invest the money. I’m happy he did because now I don’t have to work. I didn’t have to start a new career in retirement off the bike. I could choose what I wanted to do.

It’s hard to explain to young riders that life will change when they get older. I remember I told a young rider five years ago that he should invest his money into an apartment rather than buying a Porsche. Two days later I saw a picture of him in the paper standing next to his new Lamborghini.

I understand why you want to do that, but I know that life can come at you fast. You’re only a pro for a few years and then it’s all over.

Which current Belgian riders are facing that intense spotlight?

Belgium is always looking for its next big cycling star. Tom Boonen was a huge champion but, even so, they were always looking for the next big thing. Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel are the two new stars.

For these new champions it is more difficult than it was for Generation Boonen. For Boonen there was media hype but now with the rise of social media, for Van Aert and especially Evenepoel, it is on another level.

Remco is still so young and after his crash at Il Lombardia last year I think he realised what it’s like to be in the spotlight. It was amazing the daily coverage he got after that crash, trying to get back to fitness with all that hype surrounding him. Sometimes it makes you want to go back to being a normal person again.

It’s hard being a cyclist in Belgium – cycling is our life here. Everyone knows who Remco is. He cannot even visit the bakery without being noticed. He cannot live a normal life and it will be hard for him as he will not be able to do that for a very long time now.

Throughout your career you had some big rivalries against the likes of Peter van Petegem and Andrea Tchmil. Who was your toughest competitor?

I was afraid of nobody. If you feared a competitor you had already lost the race before it had begun. Throughout my career, on the start line of the biggest races I would tell myself that I had done all the preparation needed to be good that day and that I am one of the best, so therefore I have nothing to be scared of. Being afraid was not acceptable.

Sure, I would keep my eye on guys like Tchmil, Michele Bartoli and Andrea Tafi but I couldn’t focus on them, I had to race my own race. You may have a crash, a puncture or a bad day but you cannot think about that. When you get to the start you have to tell yourself, today is my day, I will win.

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In that case, who was your ultimate teammate?

Wilfried Peeters. He was one of the best teammates I ever had throughout my career because he had the ability to work hard for me all day and still be there at the final. Not many riders have ever been able to do that.

He was a great rider in his own right. He won Gent-Wevelgem in 1994 and had opportunities to win Paris-Roubaix during his career but he never quite managed it. It’s a shame, he can never say, ‘I won Roubaix,’ which is tough because there is only ever one winner.

It’s nice on the day to say you came second or third, good for the team and the sponsors, but once you retire you will realise the only place that counts is first place. The winner takes it all.

In cycling, the term ‘Flandrien’ is used to describe the sport’s tough men who perform in all conditions. In your opinion, who is the ultimate Flandrien?

It’s difficult to define. For me, a true Flandrien cannot look perfect on the bike.

You mean they lack polish?

That’s it, that’s a good word to use: polish. A real Flandrien cannot look polished. For me, the ultimate Flandrien is Briek Schotte. He came from the generation where you didn’t look good on the bike, didn’t wear nice clothing, you didn’t wear a helmet. 

There isn’t really a true Flandrien today. Look at Wout van Aert: he looks good on the bike, has nice clothing, a nice helmet, sunglasses, training programmes, it’s all so perfect.

The closest you get today is maybe Yves Lampaert or Tim Declercq at Deceuninck-QuickStep, hard workers without polish. But even in my generation it is hard to pick someone out as a true Flandrien.

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