Meeting with Johan Museeuw, the greatest Classics rider of his generation
Johan Museeuw, the “Lion of Flanders”, was the greatest Classics rider of his generation. He has won the Tour of Flanders three times, Paris-Roubaix three times, and became world champion in Lugano in 1996. Add a few stages of the Tour de France and almost every Spring Classics imaginable and Museeuw is gone. nothing to wish for. But there are a few races he wants to win.
“I regret not having won Gent-Wevelgem or Milan-San Remo,” he told me. “Second or third places aren’t wins, but you can’t change those things. It’s like that.
In 2004, just after ending his long and successful career, Museeuw looks back on his racing days with his father Eddy in an interview for Het Nieuwsblad. They thought over the top five worst moments in Johan’s career. The highest on the list were his accident at Paris-Roubaix 1998 (which broke his kneecap and led to an infection threatening the limb), and the motorcycle accident in 2000 it left him in a coma. He laments the missed opportunities in his career but now, 17 years later at 55, he sees it differently.
“I was in a coma for eight days and [in 1998] I almost lost my leg and my life, ”he says. “If your life is on the line twice, you want to look at the positive things. I don’t want to go back to that day in Roubaix or my doping confession. Life is just too vulnerable.
Museeuw speaks to me as he visits his 95-year-old grandmother. Already today he rode his son Stefano on the scooter for hours and had his hair cut. Museeuw is a busy man but mostly spends his time riding a bicycle, which he still enjoys the most.
“When I quit cycling in 2004 I wanted an easier life, but cycling was and still is a big part of that,” he says. “I ride a lot now because I like it. I ride with friends, my son, my girlfriend, but then we don’t go in the rain anymore. I give clinics to all kinds of people and enjoy this life. I never made the decision to go back to cycling as a sports director. I want to wake up everyday and decide what my day will be like. Working as a team means living this rhythm all the time.
Museeuw is a soft-spoken guy. He doesn’t brag about his career but he is definitely proud of what he has accomplished. In Belgium, everyone knows all the details of his career. “Winning the Tour of Flanders once will give you a place in eternity in the cycling world here,” he says.
At one point, Museeuw gently tells me that he hasn’t done enough research (I blame COVID) and he’s right. Growing up in the Netherlands, I saw Grand Tours, not Classics. We do not honor champions like Flanders does. In the Netherlands you are as good as your last race. The culture of the northernmost of the Netherlands is that of the Grand Tour riders. In Flanders, it is more of the classics.
“This is why the pressure on Remco Evenepoel is so great,” says Museeuw. “Belgian cycling fans have been waiting for a Grand Tour rider for a long time. The pressure is enormous. I was the best driver of my generation but those times were different with the media attention. I didn’t look for it, but the cycling journalists had my number. Sometimes I was called multiple times a night with the same questions, but there was only a few media.
“In Tom Boonen’s time, that had already changed and now with Evenepoel, it’s even more. It’s good that these runners have press officers and are protected. Everything is bigger but there is more distance between the runners and the press.
“Runners also get help on social media. ”
Museeuw always follows sport closely. He’s busy riding a bike but watches the races online when he can’t catch them live. There is not much missing. “I am a consultant on VTM TV and write my column in [French-language Belgian newspaper] In the evening so I have to follow the sport but I also want. I still like him a lot.
It also often appears in television programs. I can understand why. He can explain cycling to almost anyone. He has a clear vision of the sport and a keen sense of talent. “I didn’t think Mathieu van der Poel would beat Kasper Asgreen [at the 2021 Tour of Flanders]He said as an example. “I also had Anthony Turgis in my fantastic team,” he adds factually. He knows things, but he is not arrogant about this knowledge. He’s the kind of guy you’d happily buy a ticket for and hear him talk about his career all night long.
“My landmark year was 1990,” he says when I ask him questions about this long and illustrious career. “People who knew the sport had already seen me but winning two stages of the Tour de France that year [at Mont-Saint-Michel and on the Champs-Elysées] catapults you into the eyes of the general public. The following year, I won my first World Cup race: the Zurich Championship [a race that doesn’t exist anymore – ed.]“
When he started his professional life in 1988 on ADR-Mini Flat-IOC with iconic riders like Fons De Wolf, Roland Liboton and Eddy Planckaert, Museeuw was a sprinter. When he joined Patrick Lefevere within the MG-GB team in 1993, he gradually transformed into a Classics pilot. This immediately culminated in his first victory at the Monument: the Tour of Flanders.
“I attacked with Frans Maassen in Brakel,” Museeuw recalls from the 1993 Tour of Flanders. “At one point we had a lead of over a minute and sporting director Jan Raas [of Frans Maassen’s Wordperfect team] comes to us. He said to Maassen: “don’t ride anymore”. I’m not the type to panic and I had two options: keep riding with Maassen or give up the attack. It was a choice of legs.
“I knew I would beat Frans on the line. We continued and the gap widened. Frans also embarked on the attack when it became clear that the pursuers [with Maassen’s teammate Edwig Van Hooydonck] would not come back. We climbed the Muur and the Bosberg and I won. I respect Frans and he is always a good colleague. It was an excellent time, but he lacked the killer instinct.
Museeuw also speaks fondly of Jan Raas himself legend of the classics. “We need more charismatic people in cycling, especially today,” he says. “It’s a shame he’s no longer in sport. Jan Raas had balls and that’s what I sometimes miss these days. It’s too much about the numbers, the data. Fortunately, we have runners who follow their instincts, but many sports directors are too scared.
“Mathieu van der Poel’s coach did not support this attack at Strade Bianche. It was Van der Poel listening to his own body. These days runners panic if they don’t have a power meter. It’s like living without their Instagram or TikTok. ”
The Lion of Flanders was one of the most successful runners in the history of Paris-Roubaix, winning it no less than three times (and almost four times).
He won the “Mapei” Roubaix in 1996 with his teammates Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi joining him on the podium. Museeuw is adamant that the final order did not come from Mapei boss Giorgio Squinzi, as the story continues. Museeuw had been appointed chief that day.
His second victory at Roubaix comes two years after he almost lost his leg in this horrible accident in the Arenberg forest during the 1998 edition. He broke his kneecap but an infection almost took his leg and even his life. . In 2000, he arrived solo in Roubaix and showed his left knee. It is one of the most iconic images of cycling.
Museeuw’s last win at Roubaix dates back to 2002 – one of the muddiest editions in modern history.
“I wanted to say goodbye to cycling on the velodrome in 2002,” he says. “It was the plan in my head.” Museeuw had all the time in the world to think about what he would do on the velodrome line. He attacked 50 kilometers from the finish and was three minutes ahead of the competition.
“I intended to lift my bike at the finish and hang up my wheels for good,” he recalls. “When I entered the velodrome, I couldn’t do it. I loved sports too much and couldn’t miss it. Looking back, it was a bad decision. I should have stopped that day. It would have been perfect but I couldn’t say goodbye.
“We now also see it with runners like Mark Cavendish or Philippe Gilbert. You can’t change the decision, but I shouldn’t have continued. I had dominated Paris-Roubaix for years and it should have ended immediately.
Museeuw continued to ride for another two and a half seasons and got closer to this fourth Roubaix. A flat tire on Hem’s last cobbles put him out of action in the 2004 edition. He won more races and acted as a mentor for Tom Boonen. It was Boonen who won the 2004 Scheldeprijs, the last race in which Museeuw ever landed a number.
“Fame comes and goes,” Museeuw says as we return to his status in Flanders today. “I learned this very early on. When I was in the Tour de France, I met Freddy Maertens. He won green jerseys in the Tour, the stages [15 in total], wore the yellow jersey, but in the VIP village, people wanted to talk with me, not with him.
“I am always recognized in the street, mainly in Belgium. At the time, I didn’t go out to buy bread on Sunday mornings because 15 people at the bakery wanted to ask for something. Now I do my own shopping; I’m an ordinary guy, ”he laughs. “I don’t see how people look but my girlfriend sees it. I’m just living my life now. People ask me about cycling, about Evenepoel now that the Giro is on, but also about politics or COVID, but I’m not politically involved.
The 55-year-old from West Flanders is never short of opinion. It is a welcome presence in the Belgian media. He brings his opinions without being demeaning and has an air of “everything was better in my time.” He loves watching Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert or Gianni Vermeersch – the generation of cyclocross, a discipline he also tried himself.
“My son Stefano also started cyclocross and I told him to focus on the road, which he does now. [with BEAT Cycling]», Says Museeuw. “I said the same about Van der Poel and Van Aert and told Gianni Vermeersch to do the same years ago. Cyclocross is very local. It’s fun, I tried it myself but it’s very local. At the press conference before the Strade Bianche where Wout van Aert finished third  no one outside of Belgium or the Netherlands knew who he was. Look how it has changed in such a short time.
“In my day you had to walk for miles in the winter. This is what the trainer said. These guys prove over and over again that there’s more than the Coach’s Word and numbers on your power meter. I like this. Forget the numbers. Race.