By John Wilcockson
When Johan Museeuw began racing as a professional cyclist, in 1988, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” was selling out movie theaters, and the Netherlands became the first European country to be linked to the Internet. Museeuw, now 39, competes in his final four races in the first part of April, determined to add at least one more victory to his record haul of 11 World Cup classics.
Nothing could make Museeuw happier than winning Sunday’s Tour of Flanders (the Ronde van Vlaanderen), or April 11’s Paris-Roubaix. The legendary Belgian rider has won both of these cobblestone classics three times. No one has won four times in Flanders, while only one man — Roger De Vlaeminck in the 1970s — has ever won four editions of Paris-Roubaix.
Should victory elude him in those two World Cup races, Museeuw would be almost as pleased with successes at his other two final events: Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday or the Scheldepreis at Antwerp the following Wednesday.
VeloNews.com will provide live coverage of the Tour of Flanders beginning at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday (don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour before hitting the sack tonight or you’ll miss some of the action). Then stay tuned for the full story from VeloNews editor Kip Mikler and photos from Graham Watson.
Museeuw has been Belgium’s best and most consistent bike racer for the past dozen years. He had eight podium finishes at the Tour of Flanders between 1991 and 2002, and a year ago he was planning to end his career with another shot at the record fourth win. But he fell sick just before La Ronde for the first time, and so he decided to extend his career into 2004.
This season, Museeuw hasn’t added to his list of 102 career victories, but that doesn’t mean he can be counted out on Sunday. Two years ago, he was again in the winning break that emerged over the infamous bergs, the rugged cobbled climbs of Flanders. But Museeuw and his chief national rival Peter Van Petegem hesitated too long when Italian veteran Andrea Tafi dashed clear in the flat finale, and Museeuw had to be content with second place.
Last year, with a sick Museeuw not a factor, his younger Belgian teammate Frank Vandenbroucke was the Quick Step team’s secret weapon. Vandenbroucke has, of course, been discredited in recent years for his involvement in various drug scandals, but he appeared to be back on a clean path last spring. He raced brilliantly in Flanders, but he lost out to arch-enemy Van Petegem after a joint breakaway effort.
This week, Vandenbroucke — who moved from Quick Step to the Italian team Fassa Bortolo this winter — caused a furor when he disclosed that his Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefévère was furious after the 2003 Ronde. “He said I shouldn’t have worked with Van Petegem,” Vandenbroucke told the Belgian press, “but I didn’t have any teammates in the group behind, and surely finishing second is better than seventh.”
Later, Vandenbroucke said he was cold-shouldered by teammates because of rumors that he took money from Van Petegem in exchange for the win. “I’m more in need of victories than cash,” stated Vandenbroucke, 29, who hasn’t won a major race since taking Liège-Bastogne-Liège five years ago.
The apparent animosity between Fassa’s Vandenbroucke and Quick Step’s Lefévère is bound to be a factor in Sunday’s race should a group of a dozen leaders emerge from La Ronde’s succession of 18 climbs in the second half of the 257km classic. That could again open the way for Van Petegem — although Lefévère is unlikely to let the Lotto leader steal another Flanders bouquet.
Should the years catch up with Museeuw, Quick Step can rely upon its ever-aggressive Italian World Cup champion Paolo Bettini or Belgium’s new hope Tom Boonen — who last weekend scored his first victory in a one-day race at the Grand Prix E3.
The other strongest teams are Rabobank (with the ambitious Michael Boogerd and 2004 World Cup leader Oscar Freire); U.S. Postal-Berry Floor (whose George Hincapie won the Three Days of de Panne on Thursday, his first significant win in three years); Saeco (with Italians Dario Pieri and Mirko Celestino); T-Mobile (headed by German strongman Steffen Wesemann); CSC (with former Flanders winner Michele Bartoli); Cofidis (led by last year’s third-place finisher Stuart O’Grady); and Fdjeux.com (with another Aussie, Baden Cooke, a stage winner at De Panne).
There may be too much pressure on Museeuw in a race that passes though his hometown to expect a fourth victory at La Ronde, but the veteran Belgian is sure to be a factor in what could be a rain-affected edition of Paris-Roubaix on April 11. A fourth Roubaix victory would make his farewell appearance at April 14’s Scheldepreis one big party. And after a career spanning 17 seasons Museeuw is ready to celebrate.
Today, George W. Bush is president, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is packing the movie theaters, and the Internet has now stretched to old-timer Johan Museeuw — even if his Web site is entirely in his native Dutch. Some things will never change.
World Cup standings (after 1 of 10 races)
1. Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank, 100 points
2. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile, 70
3. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, 50
4. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo, 40
5. Max van Heeswijk (Ned), U.S. Postal, 36
6. Igor Astarloa (Sp), Cofidis, 32
7. Romans Vainsteins (Lat), Lampre, 28
8. Paolo Bettini (I), Quick Step, 24
9. Miguel Angel Martin Perdiguero (Sp), Saunier Duval, 20
10. Peter Van Petegem (B), Lotto-Domo, 16
11. Erik Dekker (Ned), Rabobank, 15
12. Mirko Celestino (I), Saeco, 14
13. George Hincapie (USA), U.S. Postal, 13
14. Philippe Gilbert (B), Fdjeux.com, 12
15. Josu Silloniz (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 11
16. Fabio Baldato (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 10
17. Guido Trenti (USA), Fassa Bortolo, 9
18. Markus Zberg (Swi), Gerolsteiner, 8
19. Cristian Moreni (I), Alessio-Bianchi, 7
20. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 6
World Cup team standings
1. Cofidis (F), 12 points
2. Fassa Bortolo (I), 9
3. T-Mobile (G), 8
4. Euskaltel (Sp), 7
5. U.S. Postal (USA), 6
6. Rabobank (Ned), 5
7. Gerolsteiner (G), 4
8. Alessio (I), 3
9. Phonak (Swi), 2
10. La Boulangere (F), 1