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VN Archives: Mapei back on track in Flanders

Johan Museeuw power like a locomotive to his third Tour of Flanders victory in 1998.

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VeloNews April 1998 cover

With the 2022 Tour of Flanders coming up this weekend, we dove into our archives to find a report from our April 1998 issue on how cycling star Johan Museeuw won his third Tour of Flanders.

When the Mapei-Bricobi team is on, it’s unstoppable. But lately, friction between the squad’s Italian and Belgian factions has severed the unity between star riders and left them vulnerable. After dominating the 1996 World Cup rankings, the team’s 1997 classics campaign chilled in comparison. And when the Italian-based squad failed to win the sacred Milan-San Remo season opener this year, rumors of the team’s imminent extinction echoed through the halls of European cycling. But with a stunning one-two finish by Johan Museeuw and Stefano Zanini in the grueling Tour of Flanders on April 5, Mapei once again proved its class at the head of world cycling. And maybe — just maybe — it saved its own shirt.

The opening of that year’s Tour of Flanders revealed a flagrant face-lift. Instead of its small-town start in Sint Niklaas, the 82nd Ronde van Vlaanderen received a warm welcome from historic Bruges. With the race preliminaries unfolding in the central square of this ancient northern Renaissance city, the accent was firmly on tradition. And packed around the cafes and tearooms of this canal-lined tourist center were some of the world’s most devoted bike-racing fans, all of them awaiting a glimpse of their favorite stars.

Long before the 25 teams arrived at the start line, Eddy Merckx adjusted and tested the official race radio in his car. According to the race program, Merckx was one of the event’s directors. But according to the world’s winningest cyclist, he was just a driver along for the ride — a ride he knows well, having won the race twice, in 1969 and 1975.

“Today, you can count on guys like Johan Museeuw, Andreï Tchmil, and Peter Van Petegem,” predicted Merckx. “This race is made for them… But don’t overlook Erik Zabel. I know his best place here is 20th, but he has had plenty of bad luck. And after winning Milan-San Remo, he is going very strong.” Then, as he glanced over the new race route, Merckx added, “And watch out for the wind. These early kilometers go up along the coast, and the wind could really break the race up early.”

Soon after leaving Bruges, the 194 starters quickly ventured to the coastal road alongside the North Sea. But the nonstop string of condominiums and housing complexes buffered the pack from the brunt of the stiff winds. Even though the pack sometimes opted to split into echelons, they weren’t the full-throttle kind; the groupings were formed just as protective measures.

In the opening kilometers, a 15-man break did form, but none of the pre-race favorites opted to jump on this particular train. The eager group included second-year U.S. Postal Service pro Anton Villatoro and Jacky Durand of Casino. Durand was the only one in the break who could boast of real Flanders experience. Several seasons have passed, however, since Durand has demonstrated the same strength that carried him to victory here in 1992.

Two-page spread of article from original publication

By the 50km mark, the breakaway had etched out a 2:20 lead. Unfortunately for this generous band of risk-takers, the lead didn’t increase much more.

Approaching the first of the 15 grueling climbs that litter the second half of the 277km course, all of the favorites cruised at the front, transforming this delicate balancing act of cobblestoned cycling into a twisted sort of ballet. Defending champion Rolf Sørensen of the Rabobank team was there. So was U.S. Postal rider Viatcheslav Ekimov, a regular among the top 10 in Flanders. And, of course, there were plenty of Belgians. After all, they consider the Ronde on par with the world championships. So TVM’s Van Petegem and Lotto-Mobistar’s Tchmil never left the front rows of the race.

But the most visible block of riders belonged to the Mapei team. Between Belgians Frank Vandenbroucke, Wilfried Peeters, and Museeuw, and their Italian cohorts Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi, and Zanini, it was hard to separate the individuals from the mass of blue-and-white jerseys. It was also impossible to distinguish who appeared stronger.

The only conspicuous absentee among the leaders was World Cup leader Zabel. Despite Merckx’s words of warning, the German rider still has not mastered this Belgian affair.

That is not to say that the other favorites were having a leisurely stroll on this Sunday in the country. No, many had their share of misfortune — especially Tchmil. Before his day was done, Tchmil tallied a total of two flats, two mechanicals, and a blob of bruises from a crash. And just after the Molenberg (the fourth climb, 119km from the finish), Museeuw took a tumble. Although he immediately took up the chase, he injured his back and broke a pedal. Later, he would insist, “If this was any other race, I would surely have dropped out. But this is Flanders.” A new bike and some painkillers from his team doctor put him back in the race.

Just after the seventh hill, the Old Kwaremont, 61km from the finish, La Française des Jeux rider Frédéric Guesdon attacked. With the defending Paris-Roubaix champion hovering off the front, the favorites suddenly awakened … and, soon, Guesdon was joined by a virtual dream team: Museeuw, Van Petegem, Tchmil, Italy’s Michele Bartoli of Asics-CGA, France’s Emmanuel Magnien of La Française des Jeux, Australia’s Scott Sunderland of Palmans-Ideal and Denmark’s Jesper Skibby of Home-Jack & Jones. But it seemed that too many favorites were present at the front too early, and other riders started to rejoin the front group.

Two-page spread of article from original publication

So, with attacks accumulating as the race entered its final hour, Museeuw took the opportunity to study the situation — and he liked what he saw. “As I looked around,” the Belgian said, “I felt I was the strongest of the bunch.” With the confidence of an experienced veteran, he waited for the right moment. It came on the inauspicious Tenbosse climb, 27km from the finish.

For the record, the Tenbosse is the 13th of 15 climbs. Compared to the up-to-20-percent grades of the penultimate Mur de Grammont and the final Bosberg climbs — both of which feature cobblestones — it is relatively minor. But on this day, the well-paved rise served its purpose. While the others looked around, Museeuw jumped.

No one can claim Museeuw’s attack came as a surprise. The two-time winner was an overwhelming favorite, and this climb had been pivotal in both of his previous victories. Still, the 32-year-old Museeuw no longer possessed the same explosive punch he once did. So his attack was more like a locomotive acceleration that never ceased. Behind, there was only silence and frustration. Museeuw immediately gained 30 seconds, and his teammates Ballerini and Zanini made sure it stayed that way.

On top of the next climb, the mythic Grammont “wall,” local fans were waiting, having camped out for hours to have the best view. Inside the ’T Hemelrijck tavern, beer had been flowing in abundance for hours; and local fans — Museeuw’s fans — were in high spirits. On the single television screen pitched in the back corner of a makeshift tent alongside the tavern, spectators watched the approach of their star while chanting, “Jo-han, Jo-han.” A hero could not hope to receive a better welcome.

Over the top of the Muur (as the locals call it), the Mapei rider held a solid, minute-strong lead. Perhaps the chase group — which now included Magnien, Tchmil, Ekimov, former Flanders winner Bartoli, and two-time Het Volk winner Van Petegem — could have brought Museeuw back. But with Ballerini and Zanini controlling, there was little hope.

Besides, Museeuw had been privy to some added insight. “Last night,” he revealed, “I got a call from a friend who won the cyclo-tourist version of the race on Saturday. He said that after the Bosberg climb, there was a good tailwind, and he flew at over 50 kilometers an hour.” If a cyclo-tourist can manage 50 kph, one can only imagine what Museeuw could muster.

Two-page spread of article from original publication

Whatever his speed, it sufficed. “I was in my 11 and 12 (tooth cogs) all the way to the end,” he claimed. And the winningest classics rider of his time added yet another trophy to his collection, bringing his classics count to eight, four more than his next closest rival, ONCE’s Laurent Jalabert.

Not satisfied with Museeuw taking first, Mapei continued to hush the competition when, 43 seconds behind the winner, Zanini sprinted past the unfortunate Tchmil for second. “I’ve never been so unfortunate in all my career,” said Tchmil, who ended in third. “I attacked before and after the Muur, but they came after me and refused to chase. While Museeuw was doing his thing, Ballerini and Zanini watched us all.”

Needless to say, there was plenty of celebrating from the two Mapei riders on the victory podium. “For me, this is my greatest win in Flanders,” a jubilant Museeuw stated. “Because, today, I was the heavy favorite, and I rode like one.”

It was a great win for Museeuw — and a great day for Mapei. As the disappointed, sixth-placed Bartoli described it, “It was difficult to do much against the Mapei team. It’s like a regional soccer team going up against the Juve (i.e., Juventus, Italy’s star soccer team).”

Was this the start of a new winning streak from the Mapei machine?

Race Notes

Adding to his victories in 1993 and 1995, Museeuw became only the fourth rider to win a third Tour of Flanders. He joins Belgians Achille Buysse (1940, ’41, and ’43), Eric Leman (1970, ’72, and ’73), and Italian Fiorenzo Magni (1949, ’50, and ’51) in the record books.
While the Tour of Flanders was only the second monument of the season, the battle for the trophy was already fierce. Previous leader Zabel of Telekom lost contact with the lead group on some of the first cobbled sections — but his runner-up in Milan-San Remo, La Française des Jeux’s Magnien, was doing his best to take over the white jersey with the rainbow stripes. He succeeded in making the final break over the Mur de Grammont ... but so did Mapei’s Zanini.

With Magnien cramping in the final kilometers, Zanini — who was fourth at San Remo — easily stormed to second. The Frenchman still managed to take fourth, so the two riders were tied on points; however, since Zanini scored the highest place in the most recent event, he took over the leader’s jersey.
At the start of the Tour of Flanders, U.S. Postal Service team manager Mark Gorski was more than upbeat. “Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I felt this confident going into a World Cup event,” said Gorski. And his optimism was well-founded. Along with Ekimov’s strong seventh place, Americans George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu finished in the second group, only 58 seconds off Museeuw’s pace. Hincapie finished in 17th, while Andreu rounded out the group in 22nd. With its Tour de France selection a lock, the team opted to start slower this season. Apparently, its patience is paying off.