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The Soul of Johan Museeuw
By Staff
Date: 3/9/2004
The Soul of Johan Museeuw

This article appeared in the Sport Magazine Cycling Special.

Johan Museeuw is an eternal struggle. Within him there are forces that are constantly fighting for dominance. Gentleness against vengefulness. Strength versus weakness. Shyness but the will to manifest himself. Storm against silence. Nerves balanced by an icy cool. Body against mind.

Photo by Anita van Crey.

Quotes from Museeuw, and five of Museeuw’s confidants, tell the story of a complex man.

Patrick Lefevere, the man who became his DS 11 years ago, and to whom Museeuw has since linked his sporting destiny.
Wilfried Peeters, for 10 years his faithful lieutenant and roommate, and later on his DS at Quickstep-Davitamon. 
Dirk Nachtergaele, his personal soigneur for 11 years, who knows not only Museeuw’s body well, but also his character.
Lieven Maesschalk, the physiotherapist with whom he twice went through a terrible recuperation.
José De Cauwer, current Belgian national coach and former DS of Museeuw at ADR.

“I’ve got my personality, and I like the way I am. I’m quiet, a bit secluded. I don’t like to make big statements, they’ll only make you more vulnerable to attacks.”

Paris, 22nd of July, 1990:
The peloton is riding the final few kilometers of the Tour de France which Greg Lemond will win, for the third and last time. Out of the mass of wheels that are storming onto the Champs Elysées at a speed of 60 km/h, one Lotto rider rockets to the front. He takes a few meters, and nobody is able to take him back. Johan Museeuw, 24, has put his name on the charts. He’s just as shy during interviews as he’s superior during the races, a trait that will remain through the rest of his career.

José De Cauwer:
“Johan always had that typically West-Flemish down-to-earth attitude: no talking, but riding. As a neo-pro he never once said, ‘I want to ride my own race’, but he knew in his heart that he wasn’t going to be a domestique for the rest of his career. One time, we had given him a few assignments for a race which he then failed to carry out, but he did ride the finale. With that he immediately gained respect in the team."

Wilfried Peeters:
“Johan isn’t one for talking. He seldom makes contact with people if they don’t walk up to him first. He’s very secluded that way. Somebody else always has to take the initiative, because Johan is really bad at it. He can do so without any problems in the race, but not outside of it. In view of that, we two make a perfect pair. For example, I’d tell him where I’m going on holiday, and he’d say: 'I’m coming with you.' That’s Johan."

Patrick Lefevere:
“Johan never made bold statements, that’s not how he works. Of course, a part of the cycling fans would like to see him do so, but in the end, what would he have accomplished by that? It’ll just give people a chance to get back at him afterwards. Johan makes his statements during the race; like 2 years ago in Hamburg: winning the sprint, when everyone thought he had lost too much of his speed to still be able to do that.

"He’s usually a bit too nice, verbally, but that has improved a lot over the past years. He’ll always try and avoid arguments though. It’s not like him to talk things through, he doesn’t like to dig too deep, emotionally. Most of the time he caves and then answers with an exploit in the race."

“When I was at Lotto, I was alone. And that brought along a fear of failing. You’re carrying immense responsibility. ‘What will the guys say if I don’t finish it?’ When they had worked their hearts out for 60, 70 kilometers and I came in second, everything they had done was in vain.”

Lokeren, 2nd of March, 1991:
Museeuw wants to be peak during the classics, but his DS Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke makes him ride a 160 races a year. The team works exclusively for him, Museeuw has to finish it off in the sprint. He’s riding around with a heavy burden, and the effects of that are already showing in the Omloop Het Volk. Veteran Claude Criquielion is his lead-out man, but Museeuw makes a mistake and finishes only 6th. The feeling of guilt towards the guys that worked for him would linger for days.

Patrick Lefevere:
“Every sprinter feels bad when they can’t finish it off and usually elaborately apologizes to his teammates afterwards. Except for Robbie McEwen; if he lost it was always somebody else’s fault. But Johan felt even worse than most sprinters, especially in that period. When he was with Lotto his main task was to perform in the sprints; he would feel much better in the role we had created for him in 1993. Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke was also very different from me, much more nervous. I try to take away Johan’s stress, not give him more."

Dirk Nachtergaele:
“You’ve got riders that, when they suddenly find themselves in a position in which they have a chance of winning, start to panic and fail. Johan was a bit like that too, but it didn’t show much. He’s very cool now and takes the right decisions, but in the period right before what we call “that sacred week in April” the nervousness builds up. He becomes quieter each day. On moments like that he makes sure he surrounds himself with quiet people that he trusts.

"The former GB-MG team worked together with Giancarlo Feretti for a year once, and he couldn’t get through to Johan, at all. During breakfast he’d sit next to Johan and go over the race kilometer by kilometer. Johan always looked the other way, because he couldn’t stand that nervous stuff. In Patrick Lefevere he found the ideal man for that. Patrick is a listener, Feretti is more of an orator."

“I don’t like the word ‘domestique’. Don’t you underestimate it, somebody giving everything they have in function of the team. You have to let go of every idea of personal success. You can forget it, if you had even the tiniest of hopes. Then you’d never go à bloc.”

Nice, 11th of February, 1993:
In Paris-Nice Johan Museeuw, a new arrival at the big GB-MG team, pilots Mario Cipollini to victory three times. He’s so delighted with Museeuw’s work that he at his turn pilots Johan at a finish that goes slightly upwards, allowing Museeuw to win with meters advance on the pack. A bond grows between the eccentric Tuscan and the silent man of West-Flanders. During dinner Cipollini declares that he’ll personally bring Johan in the best of positions to the foot of the Muur in the Tour of Flanders, carrying him by foot, if necessary. Two months later, the GB-MG armada dominates the peloton in the Tour of Flanders. Johan Museeuw makes his jump in the Tenbosschestraat and gets Frans Maassen along, whom he beats with relative ease at the finish.

Wilfried Peeters:
“Johan knows what it’s like to be a domestique. When he was younger he rode for Lemond at ADR. He’ll always give something first, and gets back double later on. The other guys say, ‘Wow, Johan Museeuw works for me,’ and felt obliged to do something back. Johan never said much, he demanded respect with his actions. In ten years we had only one fight, of just a minute at that. But, Johan doesn’t forget it either if you cross him. It works both ways."

“I’ve always been a restless sort. The feeling that I might not be doing enough for my trade, always made me go out and train some more.”

Gistel, December 1994:
A lonely Museeuw is fighting against a ruthless southwestern wind. He’s training by the Italian procedure for the first time in his life, with a heart rate that tells him exactly when he hits his max. He goes in the red up to three times for some 20 minutes, and there are days that his training schedule imposes an average speed of 43 km/h. He’s forced himself to train alone for 4 months, as he’ll never be able to achieve the same training results in a group. It’s not the pain, but the loneliness that is the hardest on him.

Wilfried Peeters:
“Out of 100 pros, 95 won’t be able to deal with Johan’s training rhythm. A young rider who tries to constantly keep up with him will, so to speak, destroy his body. Johan has both the body and the willpower to work those heavy training schedules. He sometimes has some riders that live in his region ride with him, but very few can keep up for a few days in a row.

"For example: in the period that we still rode together, we used to train 180 kilometers, 5 hours and 35 minutes on the bike. When arriving at the hotel, Johan rode another half hour extra, so he’d have 6:15 hours. That was mentally very important to him."

“I’m a very emotional person off the bike. If I have an outspoken opinion on something I usually keep it to myself. I don’t want to hurt people. There’s rarely a good reason to.”

Lugano, 13th of October, 1996:
After a close sprint with Mauro Gianetti, Museeuw puts both hands in the air, in pure ecstasy. He’s the new world champion. On the stage he receives a watch, which he immediately gives to soigneur Dirk Nachtergaele: “Dirk, you’ve become a bit world champion too, today”. Three hours later, the new champ is working off the last of a long series of post-race interviews in a damp cabin with Swiss radio. Just as he is leaving the cabin, he notices an envelope with a postmark, dated the day the World Championships had begun. He takes it with him for Dirk, who’s a die-hard collector.

Dirk Nachtergaele:
“On a moment like that you become very quiet. Riding 280 kms, so much stress and emotions, and still having attention for something like that. Johan is deeply human. When I broke my hip in 1998, there were two people standing next to my bed when I woke up, apart from my family: Eddy Merckx and Johan Museeuw. Johan entered the room, took my hand, and held it without saying a word. We sat like that for three minutes, we didn’t need words. Johan never makes an entry with a waterfall of words, he only talks about things that he has to talk about. We are deeply connected."

“In real life, and among teammates in the hotel, I poke a lot of fun and am constantly trying to fool people.”

Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini and Johann Museeuw at HEW Cyclassics 2003.
Courtesy Quickstep-Davitamon.

Marennes, 11th of July, 1997:
In sheer frustration, Tom Steels aims a bidon at the head of Frédéric Moncassin in mid-sprint in the 6th stage of the Tour. The race committee is stern, and Steels has to pack his bags. Four months later he gets married. Wilfried Peeters, Johan Museeuw and many other colleagues of the Mapei team arrive at the wedding carrying big bags. A few hours later, Tom Steels is being pelted by hundreds of bidons.

Wilfried Peeters:
“I could tell you hundreds of anecdotes like that. Johan is very playful. If something strange happens within the team, there’s usually two people to suspect: Yvan Van Mol [the team doctor] and/or Johan Museeuw. Johan brings diversion to the team, he very rarely talks about racing. When we slept in the same room during the Tour we usually only talked about 5 minutes a day about racing."

José De Cauwer:
Johan and Eddy Planckaert were the ‘bad boys’ at ADR when it came to joking around. Daring Johan about something wasn’t a good idea, because he always was the last to quit.

"I remember a dinner with the team once, during the Tour of Ireland. Planckaert put some butter on the tip of his finger, held it close to Johan’s cheek and then asked him something, causing Johan to turn his face and get the butter all over his cheek. He immediately reacted by emptying an entire pack of butter on Planckaert’s head, who at his turn started to mess around with the sauce, etc. etc. After a while, when the entire restaurant started to stare at our team table, the two looked at each other, waved to their crowd, and went upstairs to take a shower."

“A rider is a very fragile something. It shows in the smallest of details. We’re very easily irritated: material, clothing, homesickness, you name it.”

5th of April, 1998:
In the Tenbosschestraat, Museeuw powers by Hendrick Van Dyck so hard that Marc Sergeant, sitting on the motorcycle as race director, has to perform acrobatics to get out of his way. Museeuw failed to perform during the opening weekend and is now pedaling away all the rage after having to read articles saying that he’s “becoming old” and is “on his way out”. He finishes in Meerbeke with 3 quarters of a minute advance on the 2nd and wins his 3rd Tour of Flanders.

Patrick Lefevere:
“That rage helps Johan to perform. He has to be able to drain that ‘stress-barrel’ of his from time to time, and then shut up everyone on the bike. I’ve seen him do that a few times in his career. In 1996 he could have safeguarded his World Cup jersey in Paris-Tours, but he misjudged the sprint completely, and then it all came out at once. Without anyone of us knowing anything about it, he announced: I quit.

"An hour later he already regretted those words. I was alone in the car with him for the 550 kilometers between Tours and Kortrijk, and he cried like a child for an hour long. On Monday he called me and told me to order tickets for Lugano, and on Sunday he was the new world champion. On a parcours that absolutely wasn’t cut out for him.”

“I already was on morphine, then gave myself a bit more of it with my pump, and still the pain hadn’t gone away. When morphine stops helping, that’s when you know pain.”

Gent, 14th of April, 1998:
Johan Museeuw is in the university hospital, staring at the ceiling in a surgery dress. Because some doctors deemed it unnecessary to properly clean out an open wound to his knee, his leg has swollen to three times its normal size. The muscles are dying, the infection is spreading through his body and an amputation of his leg is being considered.

Museeuw’s eyes are dim because of fever and morphine. His mother tries to cheer him up: “Look at that funny pajama our Johan is wearing!” To which Museeuw says, “That’s the sort of thing they put someone in whom they’re carrying to the grave.”

Dirk Nachtergaele:
“When I first saw him in the hospital, I was thinking: it’s over and out for cycling. A few days later he asked me to massage his back a little. While I was working on him, I knew: I’m never letting go of this man. I was convinced he’d come back, because even at that time you could see that amazing willpower and dedication. I consider those two times he recovered as the greatest victories of his career. They tell what kind of a person he is.”

Lieven Maesschalk:
“Johan’s re-invention was both physically and mentally very difficult. After three weeks in intensive care, where he suffered from very high fevers, he started doing 3.5 hours physiotherapy a day, in order to be on his bike again as soon as possible.

"In order to be able to make a circle with your pedals you need to be able to bend your knee at least a 110 degrees. In Johan’s case we had a fracture, infection of the muscle tissue and a stiff and swollen joint, which meant that he could bend his knee only for 10 degrees.

"When he could finally get on his bike again after two months, he realized that he’d have to build up his form again from below zero. In the meantime we had to reinforce the muscles that were either severely damaged or completely destroyed; something he still does regular exercises for. And every time the factor pain came on top of that. He went right through that wall of pain. He did not once ask me to quit an exercise or such. Never. Giving up simply isn’t in his vocabulary.

"Johan had an enormous will to come back, but never failed to stay realistic and ask himself the right questions: is it still possible? When I was renovating my practice two years ago, he took a piece of wallpaper of the treatment room with him. I had to sign it. I try to do my job in a very professional manner- that’s what a sports person expects of you – but both as a person and a physiotherapist I have deep respect of Museeuw.”

“I’m not bitter or cramped. Do you know that Aretha Franklin song? Respect. That’s all I’m asking for.”

Courtesy Quickstep-Davitamon.

Gent, 5th of April, 2001:
At the end of the Three Days of De Panne Johan Museeuw gives a painful press conference. The assembled journalists expect the Flandrien to announce his farewell, but Museeuw would instead like to talk about his comeback as a cyclist after his motorcycle accident in the summer of 2000.

He’s bitter, and demands more patience and respect. When there are barely any questions, Museeuw rises and leaves. The introverted but friendly man of earlier is gradually becoming sterner and even drives it a bit too far at times. In several interviews Museeuw declares that the Italians should have long ago put up a statue for him, and he’s outraged when a 15-yr old cyclist wins the sports trophy of his hometown Gistel, instead of him.

Wilfried Peeters:  
“Nobody had seen this side of him; he used to be the man that always thought for 10 seconds before saying something. After his last accident, with that skull trauma, Johan’s character has changed a bit. He became a harder person. In the first year following his accident he said things of which I thought: what are you saying? All the interviews he gave in that period should not be taken too seriously, in fact. It was hard and painful to admit and believe at that time, that he wasn’t completely himself anymore. Luckily, things have improved tremendously since then.”

Dirk Nachtergaele:
“It’s a bit a game of teasing the press, to him. He’s being more talkative now, partly because of the evolution of the press, and partly because of some people that abused his trust in them. Johan tends to take it much worse than it is when they write something false about him. He acts like he doesn’t care, but I’m almost sure that he does. He doesn’t read much on cycling, but he hears the stories, of course. ‘People don’t know me’ has become a bit of his motto in the last few years.”

“When I quit, it has to be my decision, I won’t have it imposed on me. I’m dreaming of a beautiful end with one major victory.”

Meerbeke, 7th of April, 2002:
In an elite leading group, the Mapei-tandem of Tafi-Nardello skillfully takes on the likes of Johan Museeuw, George Hincapie and Peter Van Petegem. Tafi takes it away; Museeuw wins the sprint for the 2nd spot in Vlaanderens Mooiste with remarkable ease. On stage he can barely hide his disappointment, and after the ceremony he strolls like a beaten old man to the team bus, where he breaks out in tears in the arms of Dirk Nachtergaele. He wanted to win his fourth Tour of Flanders, to end in beauty.

Wilfried Peeters:
“Johan’s afraid of quitting, afraid of what will come after that. I’m 100% willing to help him make that step, and I’ve already told him what problems might occur and what he has to look out for. After saying goodbye he has to go to the races again as quickly as possible, and try to see things from the perspective of team leader, rather than rider. It’ll be harder for him than it was for me. Great champions are always very much focused on themselves. Everyone always did everything for him, and now he’ll have to learn to take care of others.”

Patrick Lefevere:
“Johan wasn’t ready to quit yet in 2002. Even now I've had to help him determine a date, because you can’t keep on saying that you’ll quit and then continue. I already pointed it out to him out a year ago: ‘See to it that I don’t have to be telling you that you’re doing a year too much’. It can’t become pathetic. And up until now, it certainly wasn’t.

"In October he’ll be 39, and it’s been good. For now Johan refuses to think about his farewell, he just wants to ride. He wants to make it a beautiful end. I think I’d like him to win another Tour of Flanders, but in view of his age I think Paris-Roubaix is more within his capacities. I’d welcome it if he proved me wrong, of course. On the bike, that is.”

Thanks to Sport Magazine Cycling Special and Jan Janssens for the translation.

Ruta del Sol 2003. Courtesy Quickstep-Davitamon.

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