A chat with Johan Museeuw, the greatest Classics rider of his generation
Johan Museeuw, the “Lion of Flanders”, was the biggest Classics rider of his generation. He won the Tour of Flanders three times, Paris-Roubaix three times, and became world champion in Lugano in 1996. Add a couple of Tour de France stages and almost every Spring Classic imaginable and Museeuw was left with very little to wish for. But there are a few races he wishes he won.
“I do regret not winning Gent-Wevelgem or Milan-San Remo,” he tells me. “Second or third places aren’t wins but you can’t change these things. It’s how it is.”
Back in 2004, just after he ended his long and successful career, Museeuw looked back at his racing days with his father Eddy in an interview for Het Nieuwsblad. They reflected on the top five worst moments of Johan’s career. Highest on the list were his crash at the 1998 Paris-Roubaix (which shattered his kneecap and led to a limb-threatening infection), and the motorcycle accident in 2000 that left him in a coma. He laments the missed opportunities in his career but now, 17 years later aged 55, he looks at things 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 hangs in the balance twice you want to look at the positive things. I don’t want to look back at that day in Roubaix or my doping confession. Life is just too vulnerable.”
Museeuw is speaking to me on his way to visit his 95-year-old grandmother. Already today he’s piloted his son Stefano on the scooter for hours and had a haircut. Museeuw is a busy man but spends his time mostly with cycling, the thing he still loves most.
“When I quit cycling back in 2004, I wanted an easier life but cycling was and is still a huge part of it,” he says. “I now ride a lot because I like it. I ride with friends, my son, my girlfriend, but then we don’t leave in the rain anymore. I give clinics to all sorts of people and I enjoy this life. I never made the decision to get back into cycling as a sports director. I want to wake up every day and decide what my day is going to look like. Working in a team means living that rhythm all the time.”
Museeuw is a softly spoken guy. He doesn’t boast about his career but he is definitely proud of what he achieved. In Belgium everyone knows all the details of his career. “Winning the Tour of Flanders once will get you a place in eternity in the cycling world over here,” he says.
At one point Museeuw kindly tells me off for not having done enough research (I blame COVID) and he is correct. Growing up in the Netherlands I saw Grand Tours, not Classics. We don’t honor champions like Flanders does. In the Netherlands you are as good as your last race. The culture in the most northern of the low countries is that of Grand Tour riders. In Flanders it’s more about the Classics.
“That’s why the pressure on Remco Evenepoel is so big,” Museeuw says. “The Belgian cycling fans have been waiting so long for a Grand Tour rider. The pressure is huge. I was the best rider of my generation but those times were different with media attention. I didn’t look for it but the cycling journalists had my number. Sometimes I got called multiple times a night with the same questions but there were only a few media outlets.
“In Tom Boonen’s time that already changed and now with Evenepoel it’s even more so. It’s good that these riders have press officers and get protected. Everything is bigger but there is more distance between riders and press.
“Riders also get assistance with social media. Social media can be great because media presence is now equally important as winning but social media is also the most dangerous thing where one quote can travel around the world in seconds.”
Museeuw still follows the sport closely. He is busy riding his own bike but watches races back online when he can’t catch them live. There is not a lot he misses. “I am a consultant on VTM TV and write my column in [French-language Belgian newspaper] Le Soir so I have to follow the sport but I also want to. I still love it very much.”
He also shows up often in television programs. I can understand why. He can explain cycling to almost everyone. He has a clear view on the sport and a keen eye for talent. “I didn’t think Mathieu van der Poel would beat Kasper Asgreen [at the 2021 Tour of Flanders],” he says as an example. “I also had Anthony Turgis on my fantasy team,” he adds matter of factly. He knows things, but he’s not arrogant about that knowledge. He is the kind of guy you would gladly buy a ticket for to hear him talk about his career all night.
“My breakthrough year was 1990,” he says when I ask him about that long and illustrious career. “People who knew the sport had seen me before but winning two stages in the Tour de France that year [at Mont-Saint-Michel and on the Champs-Elysées] catapults you into the eye of the general public. The year after I won my first World Cup race: the Championship of Zürich [a race that doesn’t exist anymore – ed.]”
When he started his pro 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 at the MG-GB-team in 1993 he gradually morphed into a Classics rider. It immediately resulted in his first Monument win: the Tour of Flanders.
“I attacked with Frans Maassen in Brakel,” Museeuw recalls of the 1993 Tour of Flanders. “At one point we had a lead of over a minute and sports director Jan Raas [of Frans Maassen’s Wordperfect team] comes up to us. He says to Maassen: ‘don’t ride anymore’. I am not one to panic and had two options: keep on riding with Maassen or give up the attack. It was a choice of the legs.
“I knew I would beat Frans on the line. We continued and the gap widened. Frans also committed to the attack when it became clear the chasers [with Maassen’s teammate Edwig Van Hooydonck] wouldn’t return. We climbed the Muur and the Bosberg and I won. I respect Frans and he is still a good colleague. He was a great time-triallist but lacked the killer instinct.”
Museeuw speaks fondly of Jan Raas too, himself a legend of the Classics. “We need more people with charisma in cycling, especially today,” he says. “It’s a shame he is no longer in the sport. Jan Raas had balls and that’s what I miss sometimes in these times. It’s too much about the numbers, the data. Luckily, we have riders who just go and follow their instinct but many sports directors are too afraid.
“Mathieu van der Poel’s trainer didn’t support that attack in Strade Bianche. That was Van der Poel listening to his own body. Nowadays riders panic if they don’t have the power meter. It’s like living without their Instagram or TikTok.”
The Lion of Flanders was one of the most successful riders in Paris-Roubaix history, winning it no less than three times (and almost four times).
He won the ‘Mapei’ Roubaix in 1996 with teammates Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi joining him on the podium. Museeuw is adamant the finishing order didn’t come from Mapei boss Giorgio Squinzi, as the story goes. Museeuw had been designated leader that day.
His second victory in Roubaix came two years after nearly losing his leg in that horrible crash in the Foret d’Arenberg in the 1998 edition. He broke his knee cap but an infection almost took his leg and even his life. In 2000 he arrived solo in Roubaix and pointed to his left knee. It’s one of cycling’s most iconic pictures.
Museeuw’s last victory in Roubaix was in 2002 – one of the muddiest editions in modern history.
“I had wanted to say goodbye to cycling on the velodrome in 2002,” he says. “That was the plan in my head.” Museeuw had all the time in the world to consider what he would do on the line on the velodrome. He had attacked 50 kilometres from the finish and was three minutes ahead of the competition.
“I was planning on lifting my bike up on the finish and hang up my wheels for good,” he recalls. “When I entered the velodrome, I couldn’t do it. I loved the sport too much and couldn’t miss it. In hindsight that was a wrong decision. I should have quit that day. That would have been perfect but I couldn’t say goodbye.
“You see it now too with riders 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 there and then.”
Museeuw rode on for another two and a half seasons and got very close to that fourth Roubaix. A flat tyre on the last cobbles at Hem took him out of contention in the 2004 edition. He did win more races and acted as a mentor to Tom Boonen. It was Boonen who won the 2004 Scheldeprijs, the last race Museeuw ever pinned a number on for.
“Fame comes and goes,” Museeuw says as we return to his status in Flanders today. “I learned that early on. When I was in the Tour de France I met up with Freddy Maertens. He won green jerseys in the Tour, stages [15 in total], wore the yellow jersey, but in the VIP village people wanted to talk with me, not with him.
“I still get recognized on the streets, mostly in Belgium. Back in the day I didn’t go out to buy bread on Sunday mornings because 15 people at the bakery would want to ask something. Now I do my own groceries; I am a regular guy,” he laughs. “I don’t see how the people stare but my girlfriend does. I just live my life now. People ask me about cycling, about Evenepoel now the Giro is on, but also about politics or COVID, but I am not politically engaged.”
The 55-year-old from West-Flanders is never short of an opinion. He’s a welcome presence in the Belgian media. He brings his opinions without being demeaning and doesn’t have an air of ‘everything was better in my days’. He loves watching the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert or Gianni Vermeersch – the generation from cyclocross, a discipline he also tried himself.
“My son Stefano also started in cyclocross and I told him to focus on road which he now does [with BEAT Cycling],” Museeuw says. “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. In the press conference before the Strade Bianche where Wout van Aert got third  no one outside of Belgium or the Netherlands knew who he was. Look how that changed in such a short time.
“In my days you had to make miles over the winter. It’s what the trainer said. These guys prove again and again there is more than the word of the trainer and the numbers on your power meter. I like that. Forget the numbers. Just race.”