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Studying Flanders 1998: Lion of Flanders roars for the last time

Johan Museeuw won his final Flanders title with a display of dominance by his Mapei team, which ruled the classics in the 1990s.

VeloNews takes a look back at some of the most memorable editions of the Tour of Flanders. The race usually favors the strongest riders, but tactics are critical at the end of an epic day of cobbled Belgian climbs. What can we learn from the history of this beloved monument classic?

In the 1990s, the Ronde van Vlaanderen saw the emergence of classics powerhouse Johan Museeuw. Though his legacy was later tainted with doping allegations, no one was bigger or more commanding than the “Lion of Flanders” during his heyday.

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During his run, he reached the Flanders podium eight times. Three of those finishes were victories, making him one of six riders to have a trio of Flanders wins.

His most emphatic victory was his last, in 1998, when he and his Mapei team pummeled the field into submission. Museeuw put down a searing attack on the Tenbosse and no one could answer.

What happened: By 1998, Mapei riders were the undisputed kings of the cobblestones. Though there were efforts by rivals Andrei Tchmil and Peter Van Petegem, no one could match Mapei’s firepower in the spring classics. Not only did they rule Flanders, their dominance at Paris-Roubaix was even more pronounced. During a run from 1995-2000, Mapei won five of six Roubaix races. A week after Museeuw roared to victory at Flanders, Mapei swept the 1998 Roubaix podium (but without Museeuw, whose crash in the Arenberg Forest nearly ended his career).

Coming into the 1998 Ronde, all eyes were on Museeuw to join the three-win club. And he didn’t disappoint. After jumping clear, Van Petegem tried in vain to chase, but Museeuw was racing like he had a swarm of wasps on his tail. The “Lion of Flanders” cemented his legend and surged away over the Muur and Bosberg (on the old-school course), while his Mapei cohorts controlled the action from the rear. After Museeuw took the solo win, some 43 seconds ahead of the chasing pack, Mapei packed three others into the top 10, with Stefano Zanini taking second, Tchmil finishing third, Franco Ballerini in eighth, and current Quick-Step Floors sport director Wilfried Peeters in 10th.

What did we learn: Numbers count, and it’s a tactic that Patrick Lefevere — who at the time managed Mapei and now manages the Quick-Step squad — still lives by. Few teams have the depth (or budget) to stack their classics teams with so many potential winners. While Museeuw was the top dog in those days, riders like Zanini, Ballerini, Andrea Tafi, Gianluca Bortolami, and Peeters all won big races. Having several cards to play is critical in the classics, where a puncture or a crash can wipe out ambitions in an instant.

Could it happen again? Lefevere is still in the game, and still with a team deep enough to flood the race-breaking moves with Quick-Step jerseys. It’s a tactical ploy we will see again this weekend, as Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, and Zdenek Stybar all have their cards to play at Flanders. Last year, Gilbert delivered the big classics win that Quick-Step needed. Plus, the peloton is more competitive than in the 1990s. While the Boonen-Fabian Cancellara rivalry dominated the post-Museeuw era, today’s field is packed with riders like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, John Degenkolb, Sep Vanmarcke, and Alexander Kristoff, making it hard for one team to completely dominate a race.

Read about it in the April 27, 1998 issue of VeloNews: