For over a decade Johan Museeuw was the king of classics. From his first Tour of Flanders victory in 1993 to his last Paris-Roubaix in 2004, Museeuw was the most feared rider on the cobbled classics. Today he still rides as much as some professionals. But he is only too happy to watch others do the racing, especially when it comes to the current crop of champions. And while Museeuw is fascinated by Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe and, Primož Roglič, he is sometimes puzzled. We caught up with the Lion of Flanders this week as he reflected the non-stop, winner-take-all mentality of many of the current stars.
VeloNews: Johan, you may have not been a professional cyclist anymore but you still seem to be training like one. How many kilometers did you do last year?
Johan Museeuw: Oh I think I still do about 25,000 kilometers a year. That’s what I did last year and I am on schedule for that again this year.
VN: Wow you are still living to ride. That’s impressive! You were of course the best classics rider of your generation, winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix three times each. You must be having fun watching the current crop of classics rider. It just seems like Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Julian Alaphilippe put on an amazing show every time they go to a race!
JM: Yeah, it’s fun. But sometimes I am afraid for them. And sometimes I say that what they are doing is really stupid. Sometimes I think it is great. This generation is just crazy! They just follow how they feel. If they feel good, they go! It doesn’t matter where they are in the race or if their director or the trainer thinks that they should ride easy on a particular stage. They just go! They are different from our generation.
For example, when I would race Tirreno-Adriatico, I would always go full gas on one day, just to see where the condition was, maybe go for the victory. But the rest of the week I was just in the peloton or the gruppetto, putting in the kilometers and preparing for Milano-Sanremo and upcoming classics. Those were the big objectives.
VN: Were you worried that if you went too hard in Tirreno that you would peak early?
JM: I never went to Tirreno for the overall. For me, it was not necessary to go all out in Tirreno. I always worked hard in the winter and came into the season strong. But sometimes you have to play with your fitness. Sometimes, when you are good, you need to save your energy and keep your condition longer. But these guys never think about saving energy. They are just full gas all of the time. And sometimes that is hard for me to understand. And guys like van Aert or van der Poel have a double or triple program because they do the road, cyclo-cross, and mountain bike. That is more intense than anything we ever did.
VN: Also when you are on fire before the big classics then you go into them even more marked than usual. I remember guys like Peter Van Petegem were masters at hiding their condition. Some guys need to win to have the confidence going into the big race, but Van Petegem could really lay low.
JM: Yeah but this generation doesn’t think like that. Don’t get me wrong. I really respect them and love watching them. It’s great for cycling. It’s great for the spectator. But I watch them as a former racer thinking about peaking for the biggest races. And I just don’t understand this need to win everything. Guys like van der Poel and van Aert, their big objectives are not Tirreno but Milano-Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. If they win one of those races it is great. But if they don’t it’s not okay. But hey, they have team directors, doctors, and trainers so I guess they know what they are doing.
That said, I called Adri van der Poel, Mathieu’s father, after the day where he won on the big solo attack. Adri was a professional in my time and big classics rider too. I just said, “Why did he do that?” And told me that he was asking himself the same question.
VN: I mean Mathieu was just empty at the end of that stage. Was that necessary? He is really digging into his reserves and at some point, they have to think about recovery. Afterward, van der Poel said that he just attacked because he was cold and wanted to warm up. But he could have just gone back to the team car and gotten an extra jersey and rain jacket and stayed in the pack and recover a bit.
JM: Again it is great for cycling. It’s fun to watch. It’s terrific! But for these guys, the objective is Sanremo, Flanders, and Roubaix. That’s the level they are at. That is what the fans expect, and what the sponsors expect. And if they don’t win there then it is not okay! And generally, if you go all out for an entire week like in Tirreno, then you need a week to recover. I know from personal experience that if I went full gas all week in Tirreno, I would never be able to recover in time for Sanremo. And Sanremo is only days away. And in a race like that, you have to be better than good. But that was me. These guys are different. They are more complete riders. So we will see on Saturday.
For me, Alaphilippe had a better preparation. Alaphilippe won one stage in Tirreno, but I really think his eye is on Sanremo. Okay, he had a mechanical on one day as well, but he wasn’t trying to win every stage or trying to make big solo efforts. But these guys, especially van der Poel and van Aert, are very special riders. Not everybody can race so hard in cyclocross and then be as good as they are once the road season starts. They are really special riders.
VN: Yes back in the day, there were always guys that mixed cyclocross and the road, but generally they were not able to maintain peak condition very long into the springtime.
JM: Yeah I know, but these guys erase the logic of the past. They have the body to do it. That is the only reason. They are very special riders.
VN: This is an amazing rivalry between van Aert and van der Poel that we are watching unfold. Does it remind you of any rivalries from your generation or in the past?
JM: Not really. There are almost two races now. The one between van Aert and van der — and also Alaphilippe. And then there is the race with everyone else. If you are at the start of a classic today, the rest of the peloton knows that it will be almost impossible to win. And there are a lot of great riders, but they know now that they have to be in great shape or really play off the circumstances in a race. But those guys know that if they wait until the Poggio in Milano-Sanremo or they wait until the last lap up the Kwaremont and Paterberg, well, it is going to be very difficult to win.
VN: And then there are guys like Pogačar and Roglič in the grand tours. Did you also watch Paris-Nice? If so what did you think about Roglič’s rise and fall?
JM: Well, Roglič was obviously very, very strong. He was winning everything but then it all fell apart. Roglič was clearly the strongest rider, and he wanted to win everything. That’s a choice. But sometimes it is also good to let others win once and a while. And that really could have played a role in Paris-Nice.
VN: On stage seven it looked like Gino Mäder, who was in the early breakaway, would hold on until the finish. But then Roglič sprinted by in the final meters. He felt strong and wanted to win another stage. That’s fine. That’s his choice. But was it the right thing to do?
JM: You know you need friends in the peloton, and if you are always crushing everyone, well, you are not going to have friends. And that may have been why nobody waited for Roglič when he crashed on the final stage. Normally the unspoken rule in the sport is that you wait for the yellow jersey when he is down. But nobody was waiting on Sunday. I mean Roglič was close to chasing back on. He got to within four seconds of the pack I think. And for a guy like Roglič that is nothing. But he couldn’t get back on. That’s how fast the pack was going! And for the peloton to be going that hard, well, somebody has to be making that decision, either the riders, the team directors, somebody.
It was fascinating. I am not saying it was wrong for Roglič to want to win everything. And of course, nobody has to wait for a rider when they crash. Generally, though, we do wait for the race leader after a crash. But Bora and Astana were not waiting. They were breaking the unspoken rules of the peloton. But when a rider is too strong, then the peloton will seize any opportunity to beat them. And the same will be true in the classics this year with van der Poel and van Aert.
VN: Well it was interesting because I saw Roglič after the finishes last week. He was not at all apologetic about sprinting past Mäder, but at the same time, he was not at all bitter that the pack accelerated when he crashed. It’s a whole new way of bike racing.
JM: Yes, and we have seen some amazing bike racing this year. It’s exciting and it’s definitely good for cycling.