“It’s not always easy to look inside the mind of an athlete who is always focused,” Johan Museeuw says, before taking CW on an exploratory browse. “My goal every year was to win a Monument and if I didn’t, well, then it really was not OK for me. I was a winner. To be third on the podium was OK, but it was not good enough. Nobody counts second and third place. It’s just the winner that takes it all.”
That insatiable appetite to win drove him in every one of his 17 years as a professional and in each of his 65 wins. In 1996, that thirst for success led him to retaining his World Cup jersey and to two of his most rewarding and iconic victories: his maiden Paris-Roubaix and a road race World Championship. “I won something every year, but not every year I won a Flanders, a Roubaix, a World Cup or became world champion. That year I won all the things that I could win.”
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By the mid-90s, Museeuw was already referred to as the Lion of Flanders, winning De Ronde in 1993 and 1995. “When I finally won Flanders, my life changed a lot, because Belgium is the heart of cycling,” he reveals to Cycling Weekly. “That was the beginning of my second life. I was a little bit like a star.”
Accumulating the first long rides of winter training, there was only ever one indent in his calendar. “It starts in November and December. It’s a long way to go, but you focus and train for holy week – Flanders and Roubaix. I wanted to be good for Omloop, Ghent-Wevelgem, Harelbeke, Brabantse Pijl, but just two races count – that’s the way of life at the high levels. If I win other races, even Harelbeke, but don’t win either of those two then people say, ‘It wasn’t a good season for him.’”
Museeuw had the best support imaginable to achieve his goals, and a super-domestique whose life revolved around his: Wilfried Peeters. “I remember when Patrick [Lefevere] signed Johan,” Peeters recalls. “He came to me and saw that Johan needed a rider to cycle in that first group until the Kwaremont, 60km before the finish line. I had never ridden with Johan before, but quickly we developed a very good combination.”
Together, the duo struck the perfect harmonic and working balance. “We trained together, slept in the same room together, holidayed together and went on training camps to Calpe together – which was a first. We would play about, have fun, and have wine on the table. But if there was alcohol we would do 20-50km more. When we were serious, we were serious.”
Museeuw began his season well, scoring top-10s around the continent. “I felt I had great, strong legs and I would say to my team-mates, ‘I feel great and amazing,’” he remembers. Seven days short of Flanders, his first win came: Brabantse Pijl. “My memories are that I won easily. When you win your first one it’s ‘bingo’ and it’s good for everyone: there’s no stress, everyone is relaxed, you have confidence in your winter and you know you are ready for Flanders and Roubaix. I was the favourite for them both and I also thought that. There was just one guy who had the strongest legs and that was me. I was thinking: ‘I am the strongest.’ You never think about coming sixth or having a crash. If I race tactically well, don’t have punctures or crashes, I will win the race.”
Museeuw adopts the role of a thriller author as he crescendos: “Close the door because he is strong, angry inside, and he can’t get out.” He sharpens his voice: “Let him out the day before the Tour of Flanders.”
De Ronde arrived, but Museeuw had to settle for third, beaten by Michele Bartoli. Not winning was a failure, a significance not lost on him. “When we became an Italian team, they said it’s important I won Classic races, and they counted on holy week, the Monuments. That’s why they paid me; they built a team around me.”
In midweek, Museeuw helped neo-pro Tom Steels win Ghent-Wevelgem. “He [Museeuw] was intelligent and didn’t make mistakes in a lead-out, which is very smart,” the nine-time Tour de France stage winner says.
“If there was a little confusion or doubt, he reacted like a real leader and you put down the hammer. Johan was not a man of many words, but he was a real leader.”
The team’s chief had a score to settle at Roubaix, though, where his previous best was third. A Mapei-strong breakaway formed and then with 80km to go, Museeuw and his team-mates Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi surged clear. “We were alone after 30 seconds and it was a surprise to see nobody,” Museeuw reflects. “If you attack with three guys from the same team, then it’s very difficult for the others to catch you, especially when we had Tafi and Bortolami, very good cobbles riders. We were sure that we would go to the finish as a three.”
Myths and legends
What ensued immediately became part of Roubaix legend. Museeuw punctured twice, but his Italian team-mates waited – principally because, myth has it, Mapei’s managing director Giorgio Squinzi had phoned sports director Patrick Lefevere from Italy and informed him that Museeuw must win. Lefevere has since dispelled the legend. “When the break of three went, he called and said he’d like all three riders to finish together, but he never decided on the order,” the Belgian told Cyclingnews. “That was my decision. Johan was the strongest guy and if I let them start riding against each other I no longer would have had a team.”
The trio didn’t sprint in the velodrome and crossed the line together, Bortolami taking second and Tafi third, to the latter’s displeasure. “There was no problem for the victory because they knew I was the leader and also the strongest,” Museeuw says. “One said my wife is pregnant and one said it’s his wife’s birthday, so he wants to be second. Finally we said: no discussion, Bortolami, you are second. I can’t say it was the most sporting Roubaix that I won. For the sponsor it was amazing and the Belgians
were happy, but not the Italians.”
Museeuw didn’t lose sleep. “It wasn’t so easy to win Roubaix and I had to wait longer [than Flanders]. It was important to me that I won both races as it’s something special to win them. And 1996 is in the mind
Two months after Roubaix, he became Belgian national champion for the second and ultimately final time. “It’s very special to wear the Belgian jersey: it makes you strong and aggressive because you want to show people the jersey in every race,” Museeuw comments. “The camera is on your jersey more and you race the Tour de France immediately after.”
Museeuw won two stages – including on the Champs-Elysées – in the 1990 Tour, but in the middle of the decade he was no longer in contention in sprint stages, and used the 1996 edition as preparation for his next big goal: the Olympic Games road race in Atlanta, United States. It was the first time professionals were allowed to ride in the Games, and a rolling course appealed to an array of riders, including Museeuw. “The goal was to take the gold medal and it was a good circuit for me. It wasn’t too hard, but hard enough,” he reflects.
But the experience was soured, first by logistics and then by racing. Eddy Merckx, the Belgian coach, chose to house the Belgians far away in a B&B and not in the Olympic village. “It was maybe better to stay in the village and have the atmosphere and see other things and athletes, but all we did was the race and that was it.”
Peeters remembers the morning of the race. “On our way to the start, the police had blocked a road. Eddy was in discussion with them, explaining that we were the Belgian national team, and even after 20 minutes of phone calls to everyone they didn’t let us pass. They eventually did, but there were other roads blocked, too.” Eventually permitted to start, Museeuw finished 10th. “I didn’t really get into the race tactically. I wasn’t 100 per cent, but I had the legs to win. The Olympics were very disappointing.”
His stature and aura earned him respect inside and outside the peloton, but he frequently called on his trusted right-hand man for help. “I would look at him in a race, I would know what he wanted,” Peeters says. “Sometimes he was tired, but Johan was a fighter and his body could do a lot. He didn’t talk in races too much and I would sometimes make the decisions for him. I would say: ‘OK, the group is two minutes ahead, let’s try and close the gap now,’ and he would say it’s not a good place or he didn’t have good legs. ‘But we won’t win if we don’t close the gap’, I’d say, and then who would win the race? Johan.”
Museeuw was student Steels’s teacher. “He was very consistent. He had the patience to wait in a race, but also knew when to take the risk to go from afar,” Steels says. “He could move at the right moment and he was smart in the final. He didn’t lose many finals once the selection was made and it was a man-to-man race. He showed that on the bike he was the strongest.”
After the Olympics, Museeuw returned to Europe energised and with two focuses: to retain the World Cup jersey he first won in 1995, and then win the World Championship. “The World Cup jersey was important because it was essentially for the one-day Classics rider of the year,” he says. “It’s not the Worlds, but it’s similar. It wasn’t easy because you had to take points everywhere: Milan San-Remo and Lombardy and in between to win it. You had to be a complete rider.”
He finished third at both the Leeds Classic and GP de Suisse to maintain his lead in the overall standings, and then won the opening stage of the Giro di Puglia, ahead of Paris-Tours, the third to last race in the World Cup and just a week shy of the Worlds in Lugano, Switzerland.
“At the Giro di Puglia, I won the first stage and I said, OK, I am ready for the Worlds and won’t do anything more from now. But then there was also Paris-Tours and I had to be in the top 10 to be sure of my World Cup jersey. Lefevere made a decision to sprint with both myself and Tom Steels, who was our sprinter, but I disagreed because if you count on two horses you can lose a horse. It was a bad idea because Tom didn’t win and I finished 20th.”
Change of heart
Museeuw’s composure had evaporated and he announced a bombshell: he was going to retire immediately. “After Paris-Tours I was disappointed, a little bit deep and depressed. It had been a long season and I said to the press: ‘It’s over. I won’t race anymore.’ I went home and everyone including me thought I was stopping.” Peeters received a phone call. “Someone called me and said, ‘Johan’s stopped cycling, what do you think about this?’ I thought, ‘He has lost his head.’”
His family tried to dissuade him, and two days later he travelled to Italy to visit Mapei. On the Wednesday, he teamed up with Laurent Jalabert and rode over 270km to St Moritz. “I thought, if I could stay with Jalabert for almost 300km, I had a chance of winning the Worlds.” His decision was reversed.
He had seen the undulating Worlds circuit a year before, judged it “maybe even too hard for me,” but backed himself. “I could do well in harder races and could be quite good in the hills below 1,000m, but I would have to be in good condition.” There was no questioning the latter. “I arrived two days before the start and trained with Johan and it was such a hard frequency,” Peeters recalls. “My heart rate was very high during our ride. I was in good shape but I saw him and said, ‘Wow, he is in good shape.’”
The day of the race was Museeuw’s 31st birthday. With more than 30km and three climbs to go, he attacked and led. He was joined by Lugano-born Mauro Gianetti – a strong breakaway ally, a better climber, but a weaker sprinter. They collaborated well to keep the chasers back, and Museeuw tamed Gianetti’s attacks, before beating him in a sprint to claim the rainbow bands. “I wasn’t the strongest rider out there today, Mauro was,” Museeuw said afterwards.
“But I was smarter. This is the greatest victory of my career.” It’s a belief he still holds, almost a quarter of a century after. “One week before, I was depressed: I didn’t want to cycle anymore. Three days later I rode almost 300km and three days after I was world champion. That’s how much an athlete’s thinking can change.”
He’s right: it is hard to understand elite competitors. It’s better just to marvel and admire their achievements.
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.