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by Shane Stokes
June 29, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
Countless riders have been disqualified from bike races over the years, but previous few have exited the race in such a bizarre way as Jeroen Blijlevens. The Dutchman was one of the best sprinters of his generation, but found himself on the wrong side of a UCI jury decision after the end of the 2000 Tour de France.
In this first installment of a new series we’re calling “Rewind,” where we’ll look back at peculiar moments in the history of pro cycling, is the story of a spat between Blijlevens and American Bobby Julich — a tale with a twist of possible mistaken identity, plus an epilogue of embarrassment.
July 23, 2000: Win or lose, crossing the line on the Champs Elysees in Paris normally results in some degree of inner satisfaction. And, equally, relief. A gruelling three weeks is over, bringing to an end the physical suffering and mental stress that riding the Tour de France imposes.
However, for Jeroen Blijlevens, neither satisfaction nor relief is anywhere on his radar as he completes the race. His first seconds following the completion of the 2000 Tour are spent searching for one rider, his eyes darting to and fro as he angrily scans the faces and team jerseys of the others around him.
Finally he sees him: Bobby Julich. Blijlevens pulls alongside the American and gives him an earful, shouting at him about what he feels was unacceptable behaviour in the bunch. Julich looks baffled but, just as Blijlevens looks set to roll away, something is said.
The Dutchman stops, swivels around and launches into the older, taller rider. He lunges with his left hand, striking Julich in the face and sending his shades flying. Instinctively, Julich lashes back, grabbing Blijeven’s helmet from his head and then hurling it back at him.
The latter throws his bike to the ground and jumps at the American, landing at least one punch before UCI commissaires break things up
Soon afterwards, news comes through: Blijlevens had been disqualified from the Tour. After 21 tough stages, days where he dragged his sprinter’s frame over the high mountains, hours where he battled the time limit, and minutes after he completed the final leg of the race in Paris, he was out.
One moment of flared tempers and his name was scratched off the results sheet.
Seventeen years later both he and Julich open up about the incident, giving their own perspectives on what happened that day and how they see it nearly two decades later.
In terms of their physical makeup, Julich and Blijlevens were chalk and cheese. The American was a general classification competitor who shone in mountains and time trials, and who had finished third overall two years earlier.
The Dutchman was shorter, stockier and, due to fast-twitch muscle fibres, was capable of huge bursts of power over short distances. Thanks to that sprinting ability, he had won stages at every Tour from 1995 through 1998, as well as taking stage victories at the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia.
One a climber, unable to sprint. The other a sprinter, unable to climb. Just like their initials – BJ vs JB – they were the inverse of one another.
And yet, in this Tour, they had something in common: pressure, and disappointment.
Blijlevens came into the race frustrated with his season up until that point. He had missed the race the previous year and was determined to make his mark. However he had struggled to hit top speed in the months beforehand. He had just one victory to his credit, a stage win in the Three Days of De Panne, and was frustrated by runner-up slots in Scheldeprijs and on Stage 6 of the Giro d’Italia.
For a sprinter who prided himself on winning a stage in his first Tour de France, on beating the world’s fastest riders, minor placings were simply not enough.
Blijlevens was determined to turn things around, yet there was a problem.
“I had moved to an Italian team that year, Polti,” he tells CyclingTips. “They had a different philosophy. They wanted me to be stronger in the hills so that I could sprint more on the harder stages. Because of that, I lost six, seven kilos. I also did more training in the mountains.
“As a result, I was better in the mountains…but I lost power in the sprint. So, actually, it was not a smart choice.”
Similarly, Julich also found himself behind where he needed to be. His breakthrough at the 1998 Tour saw him finish alongside Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich on the podium, and had raised expectations about what he could achieve in the future. He inked a big contract with Credit Agricole based on his status as a potential Tour winner, yet crashed out early on during the 1999 Tour.
Happier times: Julich (right) on the Tour de France podium in 1998 with Jan Ullrich (left) and Marco Pantani.
Julich simply had to deliver in 2000, and yet things weren’t going to plan. Second in the Tour Mediterranean and sixth in the Circuit de la Sarthe were solid, but anonymous showings in Paris-Nice, the Ardennes Classics, and the Criterium du Dauphiné had ramped up the pressure.
He went into the Tour hoping to turn things around, to justify his contract as a GC team leader. However it didn’t work out. Twentieth on stage 11 to Revel was his highest result, and he was sitting 49th overall heading into Paris.
Dejected with his Tour, Julich just wanted to finish the race without any fuss. However that’s not how things went.
The American may have been resigned to disappointment but, setting out on that final stage to Paris, Blijlevens still believed that he could salvage his Tour. He had beaten riders such as Cipollini, Zabel, and Abdoujaparov in previous Grand Tours, and drew on those results plus his pride for motivation.
In addition to that, his morale had received a boost the previous day when he was third into Troyes. By far his best result of the race, it showed he still had more in the tank.
He reasoned that if he could just do everything perfectly on the Champs Elysees, it was possible to end on a high.
“That Tour wasn’t my best Tour. I didn’t win a stage and I was a little bit frustrated,” he remembers. “The day before I could actually have won, because I was very good. But I had to brake in the sprint and then just got third. So I was motivated to win the last stage.
“Paris is the most beautiful stage for sprinters to win. It is like the world championship for sprinters.”
Blijlevens won several Tour de France stages, including the fourth stage in 1998.
Setting out that morning, Blijlevens was fired up. In contrast, Julich was in a very different frame of mind.
“I was just on fumes, just limping to the finish praying that we got to Paris,” he recollects. “But for Jeroen, that was obviously a huge stage for a sprinter of his calibre. Up until that point, I think that was the first Grand Tour than he had done that he hadn’t won a stage in.”
Given what followed, it’s ironic that Julich now says he had previously viewed the Dutchman in a positive light.
“I was actually a huge Jeroen Blijlevens fan,” he reveals. “I loved the way that he sprinted. He was money in the Grand Tours. He would always win a stage. I didn’t know him, but I really liked him as a sprinter.”
However, seventeen years later, Blijlevens’ version of events contrasts with that. He suggests that there was tension there beforehand. “We had some activities in the years before,” he said, referring to past incidents. “So he was not my best colleague. Of course, when you are riding with 200 guys, it is not possible to be friends with everybody. And it is also not necessary. But, yes, we had some activities before.”
In Blijlevens’ version of events, his team was working to set him up for the sprint. Things then got snarled up amid the hustle and bustle of the bunch.
“Everybody wanted to sit in the front,” he explains. “I was fighting for positions, trying to win that last stage, and then Bobby Julich was there.”
According to the American’s own version of events, though, while they did clash, there may have been an additional case of mistaken identity.
“The ironic part about it all was that my run-in with Jeroen in the race was with two laps to go,” he states. “He slammed me and I yelled at him. I forget exactly what my comment was, but I yelled something like, ‘you are not going to win anyway.’ That was kind of due to my frustrations with my result as well.
“I didn’t even see him after that. But then I found out after the race that actually Jens [Voigt] had another little incident where they clashed wheels.
“Jeroen was so tranced and jacked up, getting ready for the final sprint, that he didn’t even see that it wasn’t me. He just saw that it was a Credit Agricole jersey and presumed.
“When we had our little run in, or clip of bars, or yelling or whatever it was, it was two laps to go. Then coming to the finish, I was actually at the back of the peloton, not even close to the sprint [he placed 52nd]. So when I was coming onto the Champs Elysees there, when we turn onto the final stretch, I was just like, ‘thank God that is over. What a miserable three weeks.’
“And I see this guy just turning around and looking for someone. I was like, ‘oh my God, is that Jeroen? Is he really going to take something that I did to him with two laps to go as the reason why he didn’t win that sprint?’ And, sure enough, what happened happened.”
Blijlevens was feeling acute frustration and put the blame on one person. “He’d blocked me, he had contact with me,” he explains, explaining his frame of mind. “My team was riding in front and he blocked me. He had also the right to ride there, but at that moment…I couldn’t handle it. It really was not good.”
Seventeen years later, Julich seeks to understand the other rider’s frame of mind.
“Let’s face it, I think Jeroen was frustrated with his form, his condition, and obviously was looking for a way of exercising that frustration a little bit,” he says.
“It was really just two guys under a lot of pressure, a lot of disappointment, just coming together and a misunderstanding happening.
There was plenty of suffering on the way to Paris.
“If he thought that it was me one time, okay, that is one thing,” Julich says. “But if he thought that I did it to him again, then I can see why he was justifiably upset. For me, it was such a surprise that it escalated like that. I was like, ‘wait a second, a lot of things happen in the final sprint but this was like 15 kilometres to go, or something like that…’ I didn’t know then that Jens had had a run-in as well, closer to the finish.
“That is why I was so freaking surprised that he was looking for me. At the time, I couldn’t believe that this was happening, and it was happening right on the finish line. Everyone is getting their drinks from their soigneurs and stuff. It should be a happy moment. It should be the moment where everybody just enjoys it. Instead, it escalated so quickly.”
The TV footage of the fight shows how things played out, but it is also missing some details. The video is of poor quality and there are also riders in the way. They obscure the view and make it more difficult to establish exactly how things unfolded.
Almost 20 years later, Blijlevens sounds embarrassed about the fight. He wants to forget it. Julich is also embarrassed, but gives a little more detail about what it was like in the centre of the storm.
“I must have been absolutely lucky,” he says. “Jeroen is a strong, little compact dude. We were face-to-face, point blank. He brushed me once and knocked off my glasses. How he didn’t connect straight on and break my nose was a miracle. He was swinging, and I don’t know how I was missing it.
“For me, it was hard to fight back because I didn’t have that same adrenaline, that same motivation to do it. I was still standing there trying to figure out why the hell this was happening. I guess it was funny.”
However something happened to raise his ire.
“I was trying to get the hell out of there. Then the thing that really escalated, the thing that really got to me, he swiped my glasses off my face. I had the Oakley prescription glasses. It is not like they are a five-dollar pair of glasses that you can go and get another pair.
“So I am sitting there [astride his bike] looking for my glasses, because there are a thousand people there. He sees them and he smashes them. That definitely got me going a little bit more. I remember I kind of pushed him away and I had his helmet wrapped up in my fingers, and I kind of swung his helmet at him.
“It was a typical embarrassing cycling fight,” he adds, laughing. “I wouldn’t know how to fight even if you paid me, let alone after the Tour de France with 1000 people around and cycling shoes on cobble stones.”
Fortunately the UCI commissaires were close at hand – in fact, Blijlevens couldn’t have picked a worse place for the fracas – and they quickly broke up the fisticuffs. Julich says that he wasn’t seeking retribution, but just wanted to move on.
“For me, it was absolutely over that moment that I walked away. I was just lucky to get out of there with very little physical contact, because he would have killed me.
“People were coming up and saying, ‘should we press charges? Do you want to go to the UCI?’ And I am like, ‘oh my God, just forget it, it is over. Nobody got hurt.’
“I told my directeur Roger Legeay to just forget it. He went over to their team bus and said something, but it was just two very frustrated people’s frustrations coming out. That was it. At least from my part. Like I said, I was a huge fan of his.”
It was only afterwards that he got the full picture. “As I said before, I couldn’t understand what I did that got him so mad. But if Jens had done the same thing and Jeroen thought it was me, then voila, there it is…”
At the time Blijlevens described the incident in a unique way. “I wanted to talk to him after the race, but he keep nagging me,” he told media at the finish.
“I gave him some friendly taps.”
Julich in action in the 2001 Criterium International race
To some — including this writer — disqualifying a rider after he crossed the finish line of a three-week tour seemed a bit harsh. For any rider, least of all a sprinter, getting to Paris is an achievement.
Given that Blijlevens was fined and given a month’s suspension, was eliminating him after the completion of the event over the top?
That question was one to the forefront when contacting him 17 years later. He states that personally, he considers himself to have finished that Tour. But, surprisingly, he agrees with the UCI decision.
“We had words, and then I did something stupid,” he says, giving a frank Mea Culpa. “It’s not good when you do those sort of things. It is not good for the sport. It is not good for him, it is not good for me or for anybody.
“Normally, you don’t have to do that. Of course, when you have a lot of adrenaline – and sprinters have sometimes a little bit too much adrenaline – it happens. I know that it is not correct, but it happens.
“Some riders fight on the bike and there are crashes. We did it after the finish line and nobody crashed or anything, but still it is not good.”
Years later, Blijlevens has built experience working as a directeur sportif. He is currently with Marianne Vos’ WM3 squad and is responsible for guiding riders.
Perhaps because of that, he can see both sides of the coin. He says he is able to understand the disqualification. “What the UCI decided was correct. It was correct. If you do something like that, you need a penalty.
“I was also suspended for a month. That was also correct.”
Julich appears more uncertain about the expulsion from the results.
“Did it really change anything? No. He finished the race,” he says. “So he was disqualified…the reason why he was disqualified was he just wouldn’t let it go. The UCI commissaire, the big tall Dutch guy was there. I was just trying to walk away, get away, and Jeroen was rip-roaring and ready to go. There was no two doubts about it.
“But it didn’t change anything. It is not like he was in GC, and he didn’t win the stage. I guess they had to do something. But at the same time, I didn’t feel happy about it. I just felt more embarrassed about the whole situation. I am sure he did as well.”
Years later, they have both had plenty to think about. They each worked for teams after their careers, and each had to exit those roles after they admitted to having doped in the late 90s. Blijlevens now has that WM3 directeur sportif job. Julich owns a coaching business and is hoping to get back into working with big teams.
Time has moved on and, so too have they. Well, as much as people allow them to.
“There is one photo where we have each other [by the jerseys],” Julich says. “That was the famous photo. My friends send me it once a year, reminding me of what I did almost 20 years ago. I absolutely regret that, but what I see is two people who were very miserable and very disappointed. It was just frustration.
“When I see the photo now, it is just like, ‘boy oh boy, is that what I am remembered for? That is pretty sad.’
Asked if they ever spoke after the incident, both give different answers.
“No,” says Blijlevens, responding to the question. “But some old colleagues worked with him later on. They said to me, ‘we saw Julich, we talked about it.’ So a lot of guys talked about it.
“Okay, it happened…. It shouldn’t have happened.”
So if their paths happened to cross, would he speak to Julich now?
“Oh yeah. For me, it is no problem. No problem,” he says.
As for Julich, he reveals that they did already talk to an extent. His description of the circumstances is one that hints at the embarrassment they each have felt.
“The following year, 2001, my first race of the season was the Tour Down Under. There is one hotel that every team stays at,” he says. “I saw Jeroen walking around, because obviously we eat in the same place and stuff like that.
“I was on the bottom floor and was heading to get a massage. The restaurant was on the second floor. I got into the elevator, it went up to the second floor and then Jeroen walks in.”
“I was like, ‘…hello.’ He was just like ‘…hello…’ Maybe we went up three floors, but that felt the longest elevator ride of my life.
“It was so uncomfortable. Normally you are in there with ten other people, but this time it was just me and him. Finally, when the door opened, I said, ‘Jeroen, I really have to ask you…what is your problem?’
“He turned around, and he looked at me, and he goes… ‘I just don’t like you.’ I said, ‘okay, so be it.’ And after that, he just said, ‘okay, see you, bye bye.’
“I think that was the last time I ever spoke to him.”
“Looking back now, it was funny. It was so uncomfortable. For us two to connect on that final day of Paris in July of 2000 and then for us to have that moment in that elevator…it was just like, ‘come on…’ You couldn’t [make that story up].”