The spotlight will descend once more on Belgian champion Wout van Aert.

The Belgian paradox: 10 years without a Flanders win

Johan Museeuw gives his thoughts on homeland pressure and how he thinks this year's Tour of Flanders could be won

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“I see it as going into a sauna,” Johan Museeuw begins. “Now, it’s 90 degrees because it’s Flanders, everybody’s speaking about it and everybody wants to also speak to the ex-winners, especially three-time winners.

“It’s the same with Roubaix, but it goes down a little bit, maybe 60 degrees. It’s very hot and everybody wants to speak with me at the last moment. Okay, I try to do it, but I can’t do it for everybody.”

While the now 56-year-old Lion of Flanders will no longer be competing for the Ronde title, it doesn’t mean he won’t be exhausted by the end of the race. The day after we speak, he will be riding the fabled cobbled climbs that made his legend as part of an American sportive group, which is why he’s doing his media obligations today.

It’s easy to tell the Flandrien is growing tired of trotting out his predictions for the race, how it’s almost impossible to pick between the supreme talents of Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, how a long-range move should be expected, how that trio, in particular, will be watching each other like hawks. “It’s open, it’s the first time in a long time we have three favourites,” Museeuw tells CyclingTips.

Instead, a more pertinent topic to discuss is what it’s like to be a Belgian favourite with the weight of a cycling nation on your back, in what ultimately amounts to a self-defeating cycle of disappointment these days.

Ten years ago, Belgium completed the hat-trick of Flanders, Roubaix and the World Championships. Since then, only three titles in those races have been claimed. Of course, the sport has internationalised since the early editions of both Flanders and Roubaix, but only once up until 2012 did the Belgians go more than three years without winning a Flanders title and at Roubaix they have won nearly half of the 118 editions in the race’s history.

This current drought came to a head at the Flanders Worlds last year, an unforgettable circuit in the heart of cycling country, raced by riders such as Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, who possess the ability and willingness to ride anyone off their wheel if the moment takes them. It didn’t quite work out like that, however. Both heavy hitters finished outside the top 10, Jasper Stuyven left to collect a miserable fourth place after losing out on the sprint for the podium places. The fallout was ugly, fingers pointed by and at all parties. How united the national formation will be in Wollongong later this year will be of the utmost intrigue.

The insatiability of the country’s cycling public is also weaponised to a degree by their cycling media. At Remco Evenepoel’s debut Giro d’Italia last year, hordes of Belgian reporters traced, tracked and questioned his every pedal stroke, a Tour de Remco. No matter how many interviews he or Wout van Aert give, they will always need to do more.

“It would be better if Remco Evenepoel was living in the UK or in Spain or in Italy,” Museeuw argues. “Because Belgium is too much pressure for them. Okay, [Evenepoel] takes the pressure too though. He says, ‘okay, I will try to win Lombardia, I will try to win Tirreno-Adriatico,’ and then he doesn’t win and ends up 10 places and a couple of minutes behind Pogačar [at Tirreno]. Then, they [the Belgian media]…don’t kill you…but they say ‘okay, he wasn’t strong enough’. That is true.”

Belgians scrutinise their cyclists in the same way the English heap expectation on their national football team or Americans quietly demand their quarterbacks to become the next Tom Brady. Museeuw will have experienced his fair share of this during his career, and no matter how much you win it’s never enough. While his next sentence is how he hopes Remco Evenepoel takes that next step up which his talents seems to beget, he then mentions how Biniam Girmay is the same age as the 21-year-old Belgian and has already won Gent-Wevelgem.

Would Museeuw have preferred to be in his pomp nowadays? He begins answering by pointing out the differences that have transpired in the intervening decades. How the money and science is better, how nowadays you can arrive at a race perfectly tuned solely through training to contest the victory, as Mathieu van der Poel has done this year, whereas in the 1990s you needed hard racing to get in shape.

“I can say I was the best one-day Classics racer of my generation in the 90s,” Museeuw says without hesitation. “After me, it was Boonen and Cancellara and now you have Van Aert, Van der Poel.

“I don’t want to look back to when I was rider now, what I would do now. I know that I was the best one in my generation and not [the best] of other champions.

“That’s how it is. You can’t change it,” he continues, as if you needed any further proof of how Belgian Museeuw is. While his sauna is set at 90 degrees this week, imagine how much warmer it will be for the countrymen trying to follow in his footsteps on Sunday.

Johan Museeuw stars in the ‘How To Win The Tour Of Flanders’ documentary, currently available to stream on GCN+.

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