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TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — Two weeks ago, Tom Meeusen would have been a top pick for a place on the podium at the world championships this weekend here in the Czech Republic. Then he was out — deleted from the Belgian roster for the race, the result of his role as a witness in the Belgian investigation into doping by doctor Chris Mertens.
Days — and a trip to the Belgian Court of Arbitration for Sport — later he was back, permitted to race after the court clarified that only riders suspected of doping offenses should be prevented from racing under UCI rules.
Meeusen returned to action last weekend, with a dismal but emotional finish at the final World Cup stop in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. On Friday he spoke with VeloNews about his ordeal, a season of steady improvement, and his aspirations for Sunday’s championship race.
VeloNews: Can you tell us about these very strange two weeks that you had? About how you learned you were not going to be on the Belgian national team for worlds?
Tom Meeusen: I was in training camp in Spain, and I had just done my hardest trainings for the preparation for worlds. And in the evening I got a telephone from journalists, and I knew already that there was something wrong in Belgium. And the day after, I got telephoned that I couldn’t ride.
So I flew directly home and took a lawyer, and we went to BAS [the Belgian Court of Arbitration for Sport], and we got the decision back to ride the worlds and Hoogerheide.
It was a really hard week. I was really tired from the preparation for worlds, after the nationals, a hard December month, so I was tired. And then I needed to recover, and then I got the case, so I got sick. That’s the reason I got sick, all the troubles, and there I lost all of my chances to be good at the worlds.
VN: Can you talk about your emotions going through all of this? It’s not even the first time this has happened to you.
TM: No. I didn’t ride Louisville [the 2013 world championships] also. I didn’t ride two of the World Cups that season. So it’s stupid that it’s such a long case, but now I have my own lawyer, and after the worlds I hope everything is finished and that I can ride fast with a clear head, because that’s really necessary to compete on this level. If you have something like this two weeks before the worlds, the head is not ready for the race.
VN: It must be really frustrating, because your involvement in this case is — you didn’t have a positive test …
TM: No. Nothing.
VN: There’s no question about your character. You just happen to be named in an investigation because you went to a doctor.
TM: Yeah, true. And my type of riding is also nothing suspicious or something. I have to [get victories] in the fast, technical races. When there’s power I’m just a few percent off, so I don’t get it. So I hope it’s over fast. I think that can be my biggest victory of the season, that the case is finally behind me.
VN: Can you use it as some motivation to ride harder on Sunday? Can you channel some anger into your riding?
TM: I tried it, but I got sick, so that’s the reason I was not good in Hoogerheide. But I wanted to show myself there, and that’s the reason for the fast start there. But now I’m just busy trying to prepare as good as I can, and I will do my best.
VN: Let’s talk about the worlds.
TM: Yes! Thank you!
VN: How do you like this course?
TM: It’s a very hard course with very hard intervals. You have your stairs, and then after the stairs, you have the jump up on the bike, and then still a little bit of uphill. And then after that, the barriers and then again the uphill, and then down. So it’s really hard intervals, so guys like Mathieu [van der Poel] and Wout [Van Aert] can take the tempo to such a high level it can be hard for everyone. But I hope it can be a tactical race.
VN: What do you need to happen, with the weather, with the dynamics of the race, for you to have a good race?
TM: They all talk about the weather and snow here, but you have to take all the meters from the lap, so hard parts of the race are still as hard when it’s snowy. It’s only a little bit more technical. But I think when it’s a little bit muddy, it’s also technical in the corners.
So I’m not that busy with the weather as everyone thinks. But the track from Tabor is a really hard track.
VN: What do you think your best ride here was, from World Cups, past world championships?
TM: I was here in the past worlds fourth [in the under-23]. I was riding in third place behind the first two guys [the Polish Szczepaniak brothers, Pawel and Kacper, who both tested positive for EPO after finishing first and second, respectively -Ed.], and I was at that time such a favorite that I didn’t want to step for third place on the podium. So I got fourth. Arnaud Jouffroy passed me still. And a few months later, he’s world champion and I’m second! [The Kacper brothers were stripped of their first- and second-place finishes -Ed.]
In the World Cup here I was two times sixth, I think. Not a really great result.
VN: So it’s a race where you could do well, but maybe not one where you would feel confident you would win.
TM: No, no. It’s not my best course.
VN: So what are your expectations? What are your hopes?
TM: I hope I can come over the third or fourth lap, because I think Mathieu van der Poel is going to have such a high pace that everyone drops. I hope that the Belgians don’t give him 15 seconds and ride for second or third place, that they, as a team, keep riding and that it’s for Mathieu much harder to keep the gap for the win.
In the world champs only one place counts, and that’s the jersey, so they have to all ride to follow Mathieu.
VN: Looking back at the season, was it a success for you?
TM: It was a season — just not quite a really good season. I was always second or third. I don’t know how many podium places I have, but a lot. [Meeusen has 12 -Ed.] And I have only two victories, so that’s not enough.
VN: But podium places are very good.
TM: But it’s the winning that counts. It’s always — the winner is always the guy who is talking [on TV]. So that’s something more.
VN: But more and more you are on the podium, so don’t you see some kind of progress?
TM: I was better on the nationals. We had a really hard course there, so for me it was an improvement that I got on the podium there. But last year when I got one chance — I didn’t get so many chances, but I finished it. This year, it happens sometimes that I got the chance for the win, and I didn’t take it. And I have to be sharper on the attacks, and when I get the chance I have to take it.
I hope there will be some races that I can take my chance again.