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by José Been
September 29, 2020
The man from the barbed wire. The polka dot jersey. The tears on the Tour de France podium. That’s how most people will remember Johnny Hoogerland.
It was stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France and Hoogerland was in the breakaway, winning back the KOM jersey. With 37 km to go in the stage, a France Television car tried to sneak past the breakaway, against commissaires orders, and collided with Juan Antonio Flecha. The Spaniard went down and Hoogerland, behind him, was catapulted off the road and into a barbed wire fence.
Remarkably, he continued on, finishing the stage and earning the KOM jersey and the joint combativity prize for the day (with Flecha). He required 33 stitches to close up all his wounds.
“As a rider I didn’t want to be reminded of it all the time but I have come to accept it,” he says, more than nine years on. “It’s a part of me and people will keep remembering it, and remind me. If I look at it now it’s actually great that people still think of that day and appreciate what I did.”
Hoogerland was a footballer until he was 12. He then jumped on the bike, became a promising junior, won the U19 Tour of Flanders and joined the world-renowned Rabobank junior team. He became Dutch national champion, wore the polka dot jersey at the Tour de France, came in fifth in Il Lombardia, and 12th in the Vuelta. He retired from racing in 2016.
“That national title in 2013 was very unexpected and therefore it stands out,” he says when asked about his most memorable results. “It was a real hard race in the hilly south of the Netherlands, a race of attrition. Sebastian Langeveld and I were the only ones left at the front. He then dropped and by some sort of miracle I took the title. It was only a few months after my accident in Spain. In hindsight I should have stopped shortly after that year 2013.”
Hoogerland refers to the training accident he had in February of 2013 in Benidorm, Spain. The Dutchman broke five ribs, four vertebrae, and tore his liver. He spent two days in the intensive care unit of a Spanish hospital. It took almost two weeks before he could return home.
“I shouldn’t have continued as long as I did,” he tells me. “I should have quit two years earlier. My physical tests were pretty good but mentally I never recovered. I had fear in descents. It was mentally very hard but don’t get me wrong, I have always been and stayed passionate about cycling but I never reached my former level anymore.”
The aftermath of Hoogerland’s fight with barbed wire on stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France.
Hoogerland sits across from me in his pension in Velden am Wörthersee, in southern Austria. He is tanned from a summer of riding, working outside in the garden, and maintaining the 13-room guest house. His arms are bigger than they used to be but his legs are still as lean as a pro bike racer’s.
“I ride a lot,” he says. “Many bike groups visit us here and they can book me as a guide. I also made many cycling routes for our guests to ride themselves. That’s what I did during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I can also ride through winter here. The south of Austria can be cold but there is hardly any wind. Winter rides are beautiful if there is no snow. If there is snow, I don’t ride, or I drive an hour to Italy where it’s always 10 degrees warmer. I am not an indoor trainer kind of guy, never was.”
Hoogerland and his wife Gerda have run the pension since January of 2018. He did most of the demolition and building work himself. The pension has a range of guests: pro riders and friends from the peloton, groups of bike friends, or just people enjoying the town of Velden am Wörthersee, often dubbed the Monaco of Austria.
“That was our luck during the COVID crisis — the Austrians themselves loved coming here when the Dutch couldn’t,” he said. “When the borders were open again, we had a full house for many weeks but even without the Dutch guests we would have been fully booked. Luckily it wasn’t as dire as we would have thought in March.
“Of course, it was not as good as 2019. As a young entrepreneur after a one-and-a-half-year remodeling, the crisis was not welcome but we made it through.”
After his career Hoogerland and his wife sat down and discussed their plans for the future. He wanted to spend time with his family: wife Gerda and their two daughters Tess and Saar. They also wanted adventure.
“I could have been the 100th person in France starting a B&B but I wanted something more challenging,” he recalls. “People usually associate Austria with winter sports but bike riding is great here. Italy and Slovenia are just around the corner. You can do easy rides here or real steep climbs. It’s my challenge to make this area better-known.”
You won’t see Hoogerland back in the entourage of the pro peloton any time soon. He doesn’t want to be away from home for long periods of time anymore. He also gets car sick which makes driving a team car slightly complicated. He does love helping out younger riders though. If he would be involved in cycling again, it would be in that direction.
“The teams are now so incredibly young,” he says. “In my time they were more conservative and let you wait and grow for a few years before going to the Tour de France. Now a 21-year-old wins the Tour de France and a 19-year-old wins big Classics like San Sebastian.
“Remco Evenepoel is a special person, one that gets born maybe once every 50 years. There is always a lot of criticism on Patrick Lefevere but I think Deceuninck-QuickStep is the best place Evenepoel can be. A lot has changed in 20 years. These young guys get so much more guidance now. It’s serious right from the start.”
You won’t find Hoogerland in front of the TV watching every race that’s on. He watches when he can and usually when riders he follows are on — his fellow riders from the province of Zeeland for example, like Antwan Tolhoek (Jumbo-Visma) and Nick van der Lijke (Riwal-Securitas). But he likes spending time with his family more.
“Our seven-year-old Saar has a mountain bike now but I won’t tell her or Tess to start cycling,” he says. “They can choose whatever they want. To be honest, I’d rather not have my daughters in a peloton. It’s a very dangerous sport and I prefer them safe. This would probably also go for boys if I had sons.”
Looking back, Hoogerland has great memories of his last amateur years with the Van Vliet team. It was a time when he was young and carefree, when cycling was fun first and foremost. It was also when he was most successful.
“Cycling has always been my passion, even when I turned pro,” he says. “If it becomes a job, you have to stop. It doesn’t work. That’s what I also teach the kids here at the local club. They ride from the age of 6-7 and I just tell them that fun is the most important thing. Sometimes I see parents who feel the success of their kids is paramount. I don’t like that. Let them have fun. Bike riding is fun. Especially here.”
Since retiring, Hoogerland has found himself enjoying mountain biking. He even won two stages in a local MTB race.
“Jasper Ockeloen [former Dutch MTB marathon champion] and Riejanne Markus (CCC-Liv) came over here to train,” Hoogerland says. “Jasper asked me along to this race. I borrowed a really good mountain bike from a friend. We really worked well as a team so maybe some duo races are on the horizon. It doesn’t have to be Cape Epic straight away,” he adds with a smile.
“We can also start in European races like the Transalp. Finding a challenge in something new is nice. I also planned on doing many big gravel races this year but they got all cancelled.
“That competitive drive will never really go away, I guess. I really like this new path.”