By Nick Bull
Johan Museeuw must be wondering what went wrong. He loves Paris Roubaix, even
though his accident in the Forêt d’Arenberg in 1998 nearly ended his career. He
had trained for Roubaix. He was the favourite for Roubaix.
Patrick Lefevre must feel the same. His teams have won the six of the last
seven “Hell Of The North” races, so when he was selecting the riders to ride for
him in the new Belgian “superteam” in the months leading up to 2003, one of the
things he made sure of was that he had the people who would support the Lion of
Flanders in this race. At the start in Compiègne, Museeuw lined up alongside Tom
Boonen, last year’s revelation in this event, Wilfried Cretskens, who is an
excellent domestique, and Servais Knaven, the winner for Domo in 2001. Franck
Vandenbroucke was another Quick Step contender.
The team’s bad luck struck after 102km. It was that man Boonen - tipped by
many to fair well in this race - who was delayed in a crash. Along with Max Van
Heeswijk (US Postal), he made a group who were a handful of seconds behind the
main pack, who were being lead by Rabobank. They saw this as a good attempt to
raise the speed of the main pack. Boonen was forced to chase, and his chances of
a high finish were gone, and he knew it. Speaking after the race, the Belgian
said, "We (Quick Step) had a lot of bad luck. I crashed before even the first
cobble section. I sprained a muscle and I had the tears in my eyes. It was a
real chaos in our team: a very fast race and very hard to control."
The second blow to Museeuw’s chances of winning came after around three hours
of riding. Vandenbroucke was complaining of having pains in his left thigh. This
was a blow, especially as the rider had missed Ghent Wevelgem in order to
prepare for this race. But despite this, one sensed, the Quick Step team were
still the favourites for the win in the Velodrome. Despite VDB’s abandonment, it
was still perfectly poised for the team: David Bramati was in the leading group
whose lead was around 3’30 minutes as they entered the Arenberg Forest with less
than 100 kilometres left to race. From this point onwards, their gap decreased,
keeping the favourites in contention. For Museeuw, this was as good as it could
be. As he led the main bunch along the Arenberg Forest, his face was showing
little stains of tiredness. But still he rode, stamping on the pedals, driving
the pack along the cobbles. Andrea Tafi, Peter Van Petegem were just behind,
perhaps sensing a Quick Step onslaught.
On the Hornaing à Wandignies-Hamage cobbles section, Tafi attacked.
Not surprisingly it was Museeuw who marked the Italian, making sure he didn’t gain
any significant advantage. The Lion of Flanders was looking stronger by the
But then, on the next section of cobbles - at Warlaing - he punctured. For
Tafi, the World Cup leader Van Petegem and all the other outsiders to win this
classic, this was ideal. Without hesitation, the Italian rode to the head of the
peloton and drove the pack on.
Soon the leading group were caught by the first group, which contained Pieri,
Ekimov, Van Heeswijk as well as Tafi and Van Petegem. The only consolation for
Quick Step was that Davide Bramati was still in the leading group. The gap to
Museeuw was increasing. The puncture had ruined his race. Strangely, punctures
are commonplace in this event. Who would have thought that, with 70km left and
the help from Servais Knaven, Museeuw would not have bridged the gap back to the
Things became clearer with around 10 kilometers to go: the Television shots
showed Max van Heeswijk patting the thrice winner of Paris Roubaix on the back,
at the Carrefour de l’Arbre cobbles section. From then on, the pair rode
together. However, Museeuw was riding at a slow pace. He was a beaten man. He
knew that his dreams of winning this race for the third time were gone, aware of
that fact that he was not the strongest man out on the course today. But he was
not going to give up. What would everyone think of him? His puncture with 6km
left was the final straw. He had definitely had enough now. But again he
ploughed on; taking in the support he was receiving from the fans. He was riding
for them now.
In the Velodrome, 2001 winner Knaven came in with the remains of the leading
group, finishing in seventh place. Perhaps he might have finished in a higher
position, had he not have had to work for Johan. Boonen came in two and a half
minutes behind Van Petegem, exhausted. The crowd then had to wait another two
minutes to see the man they thought would be the first to ride in the Velodrome.
Alongside him was Bramati, who could not handle the pace once the leading group
he was part of was caught. Because Museeuw’s bad luck, the pair found themselves
in the same group and rode together in the final moments of the race.
Afterwards, the Lion of Flanders described what was in his mind. His speech
was very reflective; the words of a man who is probably looking forward now that
the race he wanted to win went terribly wrong.
Lefevre also was looking back on the race: “This had to happen some day. It's
easier to lose than to win.”
He is not wrong, and Paris Roubaix 2003 showed that the favourites will not
win every time.