The Belgians have a knack for exalting their favorite sons. Before Tom Boonen there was Johan Museeuw, whose nickname, the “Lion of Flanders,” still follows him today. Now 51, Museeuw won Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders three times each, and snagged the 1996 world championships. Beyond those results, Museeuw was Belgian cycling’s most famous man during the 1990s and early 2000s. During Museeuw’s final Roubaix victory in 2002, he shared the podium with Boonen, who was then just 21 years old.
Like Boonen did this year, Museeuw retired after riding one last Roubaix. We caught up with him to discuss “Tommeke,” his own retirement from cycling, and the importance of cycling heroes in Belgium.
VeloNews: What role does cycling play in your life these days?
Johan Museeuw: My life now is still cycling. After I retired I went two years without cycling but then I restarted again. Now I have a second career. I have my own cycling academy. I am a cycling guide for people. I have a place in Spain and at Mont Ventoux and the [Passo dello] Stelvio where I go with customers to bike a lot. I still love cycling and the bicycle is still in my heart. I bike a lot of kilometers still. Some ex-riders [put on] a lot of kilos when they retire. I prefer to not add more than 15 kilos. I bike a lot and I drink a lot and I am enjoying a lot.
VN: How closely do you follow professional racing?
JM: I love to follow the new generation. I have followed Tom Boonen and [Fabian] Cancellara, and now we have to follow a new generation of Belgian riders. [Peter] Sagan is especially popular in Belgium — same with [Greg] Van Avermaet and [Philippe] Gilbert.
VN: In 2007 you admitted to having doped during your career. Afterward, you had a few years out of the public eye. Why did you come back?
JM: I wasn’t away from cycling, not at all. I was still in it. Yes, it was a difficult moment. I don’t want to speak more about it. Now we have a new generation. The past is the past. What is done is done, and it is over. I am still a three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders, a three-time winner of Paris-Roubaix. That is it. My generation was not correct, but there were big riders and big champions. Lance Armstrong was, for me, a big champion, and he still is for me.
VN: Is cycling cleaner now than in your generation?
VN: How do you know?
JM: Because I say it is.
VN: Tom Boonen was Belgium’s cycling hero after you. How would you compare the level of popularity he achieved to yours?
JM: The same level as [Rik] Van Looy, Freddie Maertens, and Johan Museeuw. Tom Boonen was like Roger De Vlaeminck, and perhaps Eddy Merckx was another level. I was the best in my generation and Tom Boonen was the best one-day classics racer in his generation — together with Cancellara. Tom Boonen was immediately ready to race at the top when he was first a pro. I don’t know if somebody is ready to [take over at] the same level of Tom Boonen [today], because that level is very high.
VN: Who is Belgium’s next cycling hero?
JM: For the moment we don’t have a new Tom Boonen. Not at all. There are a few young riders who are quite good. They have the body and the talent and they can become a classics racer. But we’re speaking about winning a big classic each year. That is very different. We’re not talking about winning Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad] or E3 Harelbeke or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. We’re talking about monuments: Flanders, Sanremo, Roubaix. It’s not easy to win these races every year. Gilbert is still good — maybe he can do another couple of years. We have some riders: Tiesj Benoot, Jasper Stuyven, to say some names, but at the moment they are not really ready to take the torch from Tom Boonen.
VN: Is Flemish cycling in a crisis?
JM: No, not at all. We are still growing here in Flanders. The week before Flanders there were so many people out riding. We have something special. I was at Strade Bianche at the start of the season. It is a very beautiful race, very special. You go to the start and finish and you are not seeing more than 200 to 300 people. If you go to the Tour of Flanders you see tens of thousands at the start, hundreds of thousands out on the circuit. We are different than other countries. The heart of cycling is here in Flanders. That is why Cancellara and others, they want to be here in Flanders. We are still the center of cycling and will stay like that.
VN: What impact did Tom have on Flemish cycling?
JM: He grew it. He was and is, still, a star. We need stars. If our country is without stars then maybe cycling goes down in popularity. Every 10 years we have a big champion. A star. Lance did good things for cycling. Sagan does it for his country and around the world. So cycling will live with him.
VN: Does Peter Sagan remind you of any past riders?
JM: I don’t like to say people are like other rider from the past. He has a little bit of the rock-and-roll style of Mario Cipollini. He was different, of course, but he was special in these public things. Sagan has the same. But sometimes I love what he is doing and sometimes I’m like, ‘Uh, that is a little bit over the top.’
VN: What are your lasting memories from your final year of racing?
JM: My last year will be the same as Tom Boonen’s last year. He stopped after Roubaix and I also stopped after Roubaix. Then it’s over. Maybe he doesn’t realize it now, but he will realize it after one month. I don’t know if he will be happy or not. I was not happy to stop, but sometimes you need to stop. I don’t think Boonen is happy to stop, but that is cycling.
VN: What was the most challenging thing about retirement?
JM: I was ready. It’s very important that you understand that it is over when you retire. Some riders aren’t ready and they think they are still a big rider. I knew I was an ex-rider when I retired. I had my palmarès — I won Roubaix and Flanders and worlds and the World Cup and many races, so I was happy with that. Now we have other riders, and I am enjoying cycling, [watching] these other riders — they need to be in the media. If you have problems with that as an ex-rider, then it is a problem with yourself.
VN: What is your favorite Tom Boonen memory?
JM: That he was on the podium with me at his first Roubaix; that I told him he will be my successor. He wasn’t surprised. He already knew that he would be a big rider. He didn’t know he’d win Roubaix four times and Flanders three times and be a world champion and win other big races, but he knew he would be a big rider.