2min reading time   by Helmut Lotti on 27 June 2021
Paris–Roubaix, April 11, 2004. At 38, Belgian cycling legend Johan “The Lion of Flanders” Museeuw is at the start of his final classic. Three days later he will retire from professional cycling. Museeuw is in good shape and is desperate to win the Hell of the North for a fourth time, just as Mr. Paris–Roubaix, Roger De Vlaeminck, did. Museeuw has invited his family, friends and sponsors to witness his race to victory. I was honored to join Wilfried Peeters, team director, in the car and receive a front row seat to watch cycling history unfold.

The evening before the race Museeuw was relaxed at the dinner table, drinking wine and joking with his teammates. Johan was mentally ready for his retirement. Next morning, the riders took off in dry weather. After 30 minutes, Museeuw dropped back to the team car, where I wound down the car window. Johan started to sing “Are you loooonesome toniiiiight?” I was shocked by the singing qualities and laughed. It seemed that Museeuw felt all right.

When the racing got serious, I watched the race on a small TV screen in the car, next to Wilfried. Outside, on the cobblestones, riders were crashing or waiting for support after a flat tire or mechanical. Afterward, I felt like a soldier riding in a tank.

Museeuw was attentive, constantly racing near the front. With 15 kilometers to go, at the Carrefour de l’Arbre secteur pavé, Museeuw made his move, thinning out the leading group to six riders. But then fate struck. Over the cobbles at Hem, Museeuw punctured—at the exact same spot where he flatted a few years earlier. Unlike then, Museeuw didn’t have teammates around him. With some 6 kilometers left, he found himself in a losing position. No, Museeuw would not be celebrating at the Roubaix Velodrome—it was Swedish rider Magnus Backstëdt who won his first (and only) monument.

It’s unnecessary to say that Museeuw was gutted when he reached the finish. I’d taken a place in the team bus and watched Johan approaching. The Lion stepped on the bus, unstrapped his helmet—a personalized one with a lion on it—threw it on the floor, smashed it with his foot and exclaimed: “The Lion of Flanders. It’s all over. I’m finished.”

I quietly watched the scene and noticed tears in Johan’s eyes. After a few minutes, I dared to raise my voice and asked Museeuw if I could keep the smashed helmet as a souvenir. Johan wanted to offer me another, brand-new helmet, but I insisted. I cherished the lion helmet for many years before donating this historic item to KOERS, the Museum of Cycle Racing, in Roeselare, Belgium.

Johan Museeuw

Johan Museeuw (born 13 October 1965) is a retired Belgian professional road racing cyclist who was a professional from 1988 until 2004. Nicknamed The Lion of Flanders, he was particularly successful in the cobbled classics of Flanders and Northern France and was considered one of the best classic races specialists of the 1990s. He won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris–Roubaix three times and was road world champion in 1996. Other notable career achievements include two individual stage wins in the Tour de France, two final classifications of the UCI Road World Cup, two national road race championships and several classic cycle races. In 1996 he received the Vélo d'Or, awarded annually to the rider considered to have performed the best over the year.
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