One of the greatest episodes in the history of cycling’s World Cup will come to an end Sunday when Belgian classics king Johan Museeuw races his final Paris-Roubaix.
Considered the toughest one-day race in the world, the French classic needs no introduction. Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault once described it in less-than-glowing terms.
“It’s not a race, it’s more like a cyclo-cross,” raged Hinault, who, nonetheless, had to have a go and eventually tamed the “Hell of the North” himself in 1981.
The 38-year-old Museeuw, who will finally hang up his wheels three days afterwards at the GP de L’Escaut, has become accustomed to the thick layers of mud that have become as much a part of the race’s 108-year history as the numerous sections of cobblestones, which almost makes survival and not racing the main priority.
But in that respect, Museeuw has managed to soar above the rest. As one of the few riders to win the queen of the classics three times, he has also secured a rare hat-trick in the classic that precedes Paris-Roubaix by a week, the Tour of Flanders.
After his emphatic win in 2002, the normally soft-spoken man nicknamed “The Lion of Flanders” piped up: “I’ve won Paris-Roubaix three times, and the Tour of Flanders three times – six races on the pavés (cobblestones). And I’m the only one.”
Museeuw’s first win at Roubaix came in 1996, on the 100th anniversary of the race. Controversy followed because Lefevere ordered that Museeuw be allowed to win despite the fact that his Domo teammates Andrea Tafi and Gianluca Bortolami had earned their chances at the top stop of the podium, too.
His second win in 2000 was emotional, coming nearly two years to the day that a bad crash almost led to the amputation of his leg after infection had set in on the resulting knee cap injury.
“I thought I would never ride again,” Museeuw says nowadays. “I was off the bike for three months. When I got back on it I simply rode for an hour, taking my time. I felt as though I’d been reborn. It was the happiest day of my career.” When he crossed the line in victory at the Roubaix velodrome, Museeuw immediately pointed to his knee.
Museeuw’s third win came on the race’s 100th edition in 2002. There was little in the way of symbolic references, merely the proof of his superiority in a race on which he has made the podium six times since 1995.
With 101 career wins, including 11 World Cup victories – more than any active rider – and two World Cup overall titles to boot, Museeuw’s talent is hardly in question. But the former world champion, who won two stages in the 1990 Tour de France a year after helping American Greg LeMond secure the yellow jersey in 1989, would become an even bigger legend if he managed to equal the record of four wins set by compatriot Roger De Vlaeminck in the 1970’s.
“A win for Johan would be magnificent,” said Museeuw’s mentor and team manager, Patrick Lefevere. But Museeuw faces a number of hurdles: his own strength at 38, which he has conceded is not what it has been; the defending champion and Belgian rival Peter Van Petegem (Lotto); and the up-and-coming young lions, like his own teammate, Tom Boonen, who finished, third on his Paris-Roubaix debut two years ago and has become a favorite to pick up his first major World Cup victory on the back of his win at Ghent-Wevelgem in midweek.
However, even the promising 23-year-old Boonen, who has been singled out as Museeuw’s heir and calls him “my mentor,” admits that like most adoring Belgians, he would love to hear the Lion roar again on his final World Cup race.
In an interview with the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, Boonen described his ideal scenario: “Johan wins his final Paris-Roubaix. A fourth time. Again, completely alone, against the wind.”
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