Good luck, it’s often said, only happens to those that are prepared for it. And such truths are among cycling’s unwritten rules. It is the motivation in fact for nearly every breakaway attempt, as riders know that the circumstances of a particular race may provide unexpected favors to those that jump ahead early.
That adage was never truer than in the 1988 Paris–Roubaix, when the modest Belgian rider Dirk Demol jumped into the early breakaway—and came away the winner more than 220 kilometers later. And for a rider like Demol, who started working in a carpet factory at age 14, winning the Queen of the Classics was more than a dream come true. After all, he was only too happy to line up at the start of Paris–Roubaix that year as a support rider for Belgian strongman Eddy Planckaert, the winner of the Tour of Flanders just one week earlier. But when the opportunity arose, Demol was ready to seize the day. And it was a day that would forever change his life.
Dirk, you had one of the most amazing rides in the history of Paris–Roubaix and turned out to be a very unique winner. It was undoubtedly your greatest-ever ride. What do you remember about that day? Well, perhaps my greatest strength that day was that I never expected to go all the way to the finish, and hence I was never stressed. I jumped into the early break, but of course the early break never makes it to the finish in Roubaix. In the end this was the longest breakaway ever to go all the way to Roubaix. But in the morning, when I first got into the break, I never thought for a second we would go to the finish. There were non-stop attacks from the gun and the break finally broke free about 40 kilometers into the race. But we still had 222 kilometers to go!
My team leader on the ADR team was Eddy Planckaert. Eddy had just won the Tour of Flanders and was a big favorite. Now, I had finished second in the amateur Paris–Roubaix [in 1980] so I was pretty good on cobbles. But my mission that day was to get into the break so that I would be there when Eddy and the other favorites caught up to us. There were 13 of us in that first break and we hit the first cobbles with nearly eight minutes on the pack. Our team director, José De Cauwer, gave me very clear orders. I was to take my pulls, but not all out. I had to have something left when Eddy bridged up.
But the longer we were off the front, the smaller the group got. I remember that Allan Peiper, who was a very good rider, was in the break with us. But then at one point he got dropped just before Orchies. Now Peiper was a really good rider, so for him to get dropped, I understood that we must really be going fast!
Is that when you understood that you guys could make it to the finish? Well, I’m not sure. Don’t forget there were no radios at this time and my team car had trouble getting up to us. I saw my team car for the first time maybe 5 kilometers from the finish. But at one point, with say 45 kilometers to go, a press car slowed down while passing us and Roger De Vlaeminck—who was my teammate on my very first pro team—rolled down his window and yelled out to me, “Hey, Dirk, you are going to stay away,” he said. “You still have three minutes and they are all dead in the back. The winner is here in this group!”
I was like, “Can this be true? Can we really stay away?” Now I was feeling good, but I knew I had to watch out for one rider, Thomas Wegmüller. We called him “Thomas the Terminator,” because he was a strong finisher. At one point, just before the Carrefour de l’Arbre, he attacked hard and I was the only one able to follow.
And the two of you finished together, although there was that uncanny mishap in the end where a plastic bag got caught in Wegmüller’s derailleur and he could no longer shift gears for the sprint—which is not the way you hope to win, right? Yes, for sure. I have two regrets about the finish in Roubaix. For one, we didn’t finish in the velodrome that year but on the streets in Roubaix. That’s just not the same. And then, of course, the incident with the plastic bag…. But that said, I was sure that I was going to win. I can guarantee you that Thomas was the strongest that day. But I was riding smart all day, and when I was strong, I had a good finishing sprint. It was only in the last 25 kilometers where I was really going all out, because until then, I was saving my energy for my leader. But that day, everything came together.
Wow, talk about a day that changed your life! Absolutely. You know, I never went to school and at the age of 14 started working in a factory making carpets. Back then it was possible to start working so young. For seven years I worked in a factory from 7 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon and then I would go out training. I remember the last day I left the factory. I said to myself, “I’ll never come back here! I’m going to see the world!” That said, I was a solid rider. I won a lot of kermesse races in Belgium. But I was definitely not strong enough to be a leader. But that day everything came together for me.
Obviously, winning Roubaix was your greatest day as a rider. But you have now been a team director for 20 years, now with Katusha-Alpecin. What was your greatest day as a director? Oh, hmm…. Well, of course, I was part of many Tour de France victories. But I would say Stijn Devolder’s first Flanders victory when I was working with Quick-Step [in 2008]. We come from the same village in Flanders, Bavikhove, and his parents were actually fans of me when I was a pro, so I have known him since he was a kid. He had trouble finding a big pro team because when he was younger he was pretty inconsistent. And even that day, I think nobody really thought that he could win in Flanders. But I believed that he could win.
What is the most lasting value of your Roubaix victory? Well, that if you work hard and believe in what you do, there will always come a day where you get something back. That is something I try to communicate with young riders on my teams today. Okay, I never thought I would win one of the biggest races in the world. But it just goes to show you what is possible.
Well, that’s one of the true lessons of this sport. You might not be the strongest. But if you work hard and get yourself into good position, great things can happen. Absolutely. When you have a chance in cycling, you have to take it. Roubaix changed a lot for me. Before I won Roubaix I was just a professional rider, but who would have remembered me? But ever since that day, I have been a Paris–Roubaix winner.
From issue 88. Buy it here.