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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Dirk Demol didn’t win a lot in his professional career, but when he did, it counted. In 1988, he made history by riding into an early race breakaway, and holding on to win Paris-Roubaix. His feat of riding 222km in the escape remains the longest breakaway victory in Roubaix history.
Flash forward 25 years, and Demol will be back at Roubaix, driving the Trek – Segafredo team car Sunday behind what will be Fabian Cancellara’s final stampede across the famed French cobbles.
VeloNews sat down with Demol earlier this season for an in-depth interview. In the first part, he compared Tom Boonen and Cancellara. Now, he talks of his days as a racer, how the peloton has changed, and how he vowed never to go back to the carpet factory:
VeloNews: What were conditions like when you turned pro?
Dirk Demol: I turned professional when I was 22. I always had one- or two-year contracts. In this business, you have to prove yourself every day. There was a not a minimum salary. They could give you a bike and some clothing, and you had to prove yourself, and then maybe a contract would be coming. My first pro contract was for 300,000 Belgian kroner, about $7,500 today. That was for the year.
VN: How did you turn pro?
DD: When I was 14, I was already working in a carpet factory. That [first contract] was more or less what I was making in the factory. It was a chance to take to become a professional. I left the factory on December 23, and I looked back as I was walking away and said, ‘I will never come back to this factory, and now I will go to see the world.’ I had a contract with a good team, De Vlaemick and Kuiper were the leaders. I was a pro for 14 years. At 35, I was done.
VN: That’s a long time by any standard; how was the job in those days?
DD: We had to race 120-130 days a year, and today, it’s 70-80. I was lucky that I didn’t have that many injuries, and I could race year-in, year-out, but after 14 years, my head was cooked. As cyclists, we live in our own world. We don’t live in the real world. We don’t see any problems; we just want to race our bikes. After your career ends, you have to go back to reality, and I said, what do I do now? I didn’t have a college education. All I knew was how to race a bike.
VN: So that’s how you decided to become a sport director?
DD: There was no way I was going back to the carpet factory. Lucky for me, there were some [second-division] teams starting, and I could work as a sports director. I worked with a young team in Kortrijk. During that time, we had Boonen, Stijn Devolder, Jurgen van den Broeck. We had some good riders. Thanks to that, I could join Johan [Bruyneel] at Postal Service in 2000, and I have stayed here at the top level ever since.
VN: What does it take to become a good sports director?
DD: You have to have some luck to have a spot open, to be at the right time and right team. Johan and I, we knew each other from racing, and he needed someone for the classics, and I was lucky to have that chance. Today, it looks like more riders want to do this job. A lot of ex-riders went to the [sport director] course in Aigle. I always try to do my best. They know my qualities. I am never afraid when someone joins the team. All I can do is the best possible job. If you live with fear, then you are wrong. I always try to think in terms of the team first.
VN: Staffers spend a lot of time away from home, just as much as the riders?
DD: We do so many camps these days. In mid-December, the boys are already riding 150km per day. Back in the mid-1980s, we were just thinking about training a little bit in December. The last race was October 10, and you put the race bike aside until Christmas. Two and a half months of not touching the bike was normal. Today, a few weeks is normal, or a month off, if they finish the season early. This year, I pushed Devolder to put his bike down for six weeks without hard training. That’s a lot today.
VN: How has the pace of racing changed since you were a pro?
DD: In our first races of the year, the first 100km, we were riding 30-32kph. It was like training, and then it was hard in the last hour. Now, to go to any race, it is so hard now from the gun, it is full-gas. That is so completely different than before. We saw guys like Merckx winning 30-40 races per year, but these days, there is no way they could do that. The big champions of the past would still be the best, but the idea of winning during the classics, the Giro, the Tour, and the worlds, well, that is just impossible in today’s peloton. You still have some big riders and stars that are above, but today, there is a much larger group of very good riders who are just behind.
VN: It also seems that there are more riders from all over the world, does that make it harder in the peloton today?
DD: The difference is when you go back to the 1970s and 1980s, how many different countries did we have? Just four or five, Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, Holland, and that was it. There were 10 to 12 teams, with a smaller peloton. Today, every race is a full house, with 25 teams for the classics, with 200 riders. Now we have 25 to 30 nationalities, and they are all good riders. Imagine those riders from Australia, America, Colombia — they have to leave behind their families, they come over for months, so these guys already have a strong character. They have to make it. They’ve given up everything to come to Europe. And they’re the absolute best of their home country. The competition today is so much deeper and wider.
VN: Today the peloton seems so much specialized, and there are few riders who can win across all disciplines, like Merckx or Hinault used to do, why is that?
DD: Today you have to be. Now it’s impossible to be good all year long. The best then would be good all year long, but you cannot do that today. Everyone targets their specific races.
VN: Can you compare riders like Contador or Froome or Boonen or Cancellara to the Merckx or others in the past?
DD: It’s impossible to compare generations. The good riders then would be good now. Today is more specialized. The last eight or 10 years, it was Boonen-Cancellara in the classics. You have riders who can stand above, like Froome and Contador in the grand tours. These guys are in the game to win. They were just better and stronger than the rest. That is the same story with Merckx or Hinault or any other big champion. It’s too difficult to compare. You cannot compare De Vlaeminck to today, or Boonen to them? In this period, there is Tom and Fabian above everyone.
VN: Who do you see coming up for classics?
DD: [Peter] Sagan, Tiesj [Benoot], [Yves] Lampaert, [Edward] Theuns, Jasper [Stuyven]. I do not see a rider who will have a career like Tom or Fabian, but there are some new young riders coming up. Degenkolb, already with Sanremo and Roubaix, and he is strong in the sprint. It will be among that group of guys. I hope that Tom and Fabian are really in the game, with good preparation, without crashes or illnesses, could be interesting to see the old warriors against the young guns.
VN: Why have the northern classics become so popular?
DD: People have discovered the magic of these great spring classics. Today, they can see it on TV or the Internet today much easier before. When you go back to the States, you see how Fabian is so big there. When I was back in USA, in my first camp with Postal Service, Johan told the guys, hey, this guy won Paris-Roubaix. Everyone was like, wow, Roubaix, but Roubaix has always been big. Now you see how big Flanders is, Harelbeke, all these races are very big now. It’s exciting to see. The people love these races. When George [Hincapie] came to Belgium, he was a big star. You could see the people asking him for autographs when he was walking around, and he said that never happened in the States.
VN: Also there was some big news with Segafredo coming into the team. How big is that, and what does it give?
DD: The deal with Segafredo is for three years, and that gives the team a chance to build up for the future. We lost [Danny] Van Poppel and [Bob] Jungels because we couldn’t give them more than a one-year contract. Now we know the team structure goes on longer, and that helps us to know we’re secure for the future. When you want to work with young riders, you don’t have to put them under too much pressure when you have two or three years contract with a sponsor. It’s great to see some of the teams have been around 10 to 15 years already. We hope to be around that long as well. This is a global sport now, so let’s hope more bigger sponsors are coming in.