The final Paris-Roubaix of Johan Museeuw Words by Dries De Zaeytijd w/images from Jelle Vermeersch & James Startt

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. One of the guests in the Quick-Step team car is star Belgian singer and former Elvis impersonator, Helmut Lotti, a huge cycling fan and a Museeuw acquaintance. The evening before the race Lotti saw Museeuw relaxed at the dinner table, drinking wine and joking with his teammates. It seemed to him that 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 Lotti wound down the car window. Johan started to sing “Are you loooonesome toniiiiight?” Lotti was shocked by the singing qualities of his sports hero and laughed. It seemed that Museeuw felt all right.

When the racing got serious, Lotti watched the race on a small TV screen in the car, next to team director Wilfried Peeters. Outside, on the cobblestones, riders were crashing or waiting for support after a flat tire or mechanical. Afterward, Lotti said he 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. Lotti, who’d taken a place in the team bus, 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.”

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

From issue 101. Buy it here.