Belgian cycling great Criquielion dies at 58

The former road world champion suffered a stroke earlier this week and never recovered.

BRUSSELS (AFP) — Belgium’s former world champion cyclist Claude Criquielion died Wednesday at age 58 following a severe stroke, according to an announcement from the Alost hospital where he was being treated.

A professional road racer between 1979 to 1991, Criquielion’s finest hour was winning the road world championship in 1984 at Barcelona.

He was hospitalized overnight Monday when he was described to be in a “critical condition,” and never recovered.

He nearly added a second world title in 1988, at Renaix in his homeland, when he was leading a sprint finish down the stretch only to be knocked over by Canadian Steve Bauer, which allowed Italian Maurizio Fondriest to go on and unexpectedly take the world title.

Criquielion, whose best finish in the Tour de France was fifth in 1986, also won the Belgian championship in 1990 as well as the 1987 Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the 1983 San Sebastian Classic, and La Flèche Wallonne in 1985 and 1989.

“My training ground wasn’t located in the Ardennes but on the much more hilly Flanders,” he liked to say to explain his success on “Flanders’ finest.”

Criquielion’s biggest regret, however, was not winning the Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic despite finishing in the top five on five occasions.

“They waited for me to retire to change the course so that it would finally end on a hill!” Criquelion once told Belgian daily Le Soir.

He later turned to a life in politics, notably as an assistant to the mayor of Lessines, and was responsible for sport.

Retired pro and Belgian Eddy Merckx, considered by many to be the greatest cyclist all time, reacted to the news from the Tour of Oman.

“It’s really a drama, 58 years, that’s very young. It’s a moment of morning for cycling,” Merckx said. “He was a very charming person, world champion, a strong man. He had a handicapped son as well, it’s just awful for the family. To disappear like that when you are only 58 is terrible, really really hard, what more can I say?

“He has won a lot of big races, it’s a pity that it happened. He leaves a wife and two children that really needed him, it’s really, really hard. My condolences to the family.”

Gregor Brown contributed to this report.