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Johan Vansummeren post-career interview (for Knack)
« on: August 13, 2016, 10:14 »
Part of the interview is dark side but doping is not the main topic of the interview so I think it still belongs here. Please don't move it.

Interview for Knack on July 26. I thought it was really interesting.

A Rider Does not Think About Death

A scar has formed on this big heart of his, both literally and figuratively. The rider Johan Van Summeren has to leave his great passion behind, forced to and much earlier than he had wanted to. And how it hurts. On the velodrome of Roubaix, setting of his most memorable triumph, he
talks about his highest peaks and his deepest downs. “Sacrifices are addictive.”

A strong wind blows on a way too bleak and grey Monday afternoon in July, through the desolate velodrome of Roubaix. How great is the clash with five years ago. On a blissfully sunny Sunday in 2011 the thinkable and unthinkable luck fell all at once on his roof. That day Johan Vansummeren won a classic many consider the most beautiful of them all. A few minutes later he made his girlfriend a proposal for marriage. She did not hesitate.

Today life looks clearly less sunny for Johan Vansummeren. “I’m still in mourning”, he says. “Of course I can still rest on the support of my wife, family and friends but they cannot help much in such a mourning process. You’ve gotta get through on your own.”

Finding consolation is still hard. “Last week I went out with friends for the first time in years. Back home still in daylight. Totally drunk! By 7.00pm we started a barbecue. A lot fun! But it does not mean that I’ve waited all these years for that moment. Really not. Finally rid of the belt? It does very little to me. You often hear riders whining about what they all had to sacrifice for their job. The feeling that I had to sacrifice something, I’ve never had. At my age many rider think mostly about retiring. I never thought about it at any moment. Why should I have? I still enjoyed it. If my body had permitted it, I could have kept racing till my forties.”

Unfortunately, the definitive verdict came a month ago for Vansummeren. Scar tissue on the heart muscle with possible life-threatening arrhythmias as consequence.

“I was not conscience at all about it, even though I had raced with it for probably more than a year already. Restrospectively it explains why the performances were a lot less good than they should have been on paper. In training and during tests it seems that was nothing wrong. My values were excellent. But in races, when stress comes by, it did not always work. I often felt short of breath. As though I had asthma.”

Vansummeren had not even linked his counter-performances with heart problem, himself. His father, GP in Lommel, eventually arranged an appointment with the renowned cardiologist Hein Heidbuchel.
“At first I didn’t want to go”, says Vansummeren. “I had to go to a training session with the team and I did not see the urgent need of it. Under my dad’s pressure I still went a week later. Before I knew it, I was in the merry-go-round which I never got out of. Had I known then what I now know I would have postponed the appointment until late April after the classics.

With all the risks of it?
Johan Vansummeren: A bit of risk rather belongs in my sport. I wanted to shine once more in Roubaix. The last edition I had to watch it on TV. It really hurt. It was the race which I for months had trained for. As the race evolved I was more and more convinced that I could have done something there. The way it unfolded, a long breakaway with eventually a survivor of it, it was taylor-made for me. I cried then and afterwards even a lot more. So much that I’m in the meantime totally dried up.

Did you already know by then that you would never race anymore?
Johan Vansummeren: In my eyes there was still hope. Okay, there was a problem with my heart but it wasn’t for certain yet that it would mean the end of my career. You also have the case of Robert Gesink, a rider with arrhythmia, just like me. He had a surgery in 2014 and was already 6th in the Tour of France a year later. In order to be absolutely sure I had myself examined by Pr. Brugada after Dr Heidbuchel’s verdict. Only when also he said it was over and out, I let hope go way. Philippe Gilbert still suggested I come to Monaco in order to consult another heart specialist. My dad talked that idea out of my mind. After all Heidbuchel and Brugada are THE heart specialists, aren’t they? If they say it’s over, I guess I need to try and accept it, don’t I?

Last year, you raced on the edge of a ravine.
Johan Vansummeren: I’ve never really paid any attention to it but the danger was for real, yeah. During one of my tests earlier this season my heart jumped. They measured 280 heart beats. While I hardly noticed anything.

The list of riders who can no longer talk about it anymore becomes gradually unbearably long
Johan Vansummeren: As a rider you cannot stop at that. I indeed often confronted death. I raced in a team with Arno Wallaard (young Dutch rider who passed away of cardiac arrest, ed.). Later Frederik Nolf passed away in his sleep. We were together in the Tour of Qatar. He slept in the room under mine. Very cruel, you know but once you are on your bike you no longer think about it. You may not do so. If you do so, you may as well stop right away.

Johan Vansummeren was not just a peculiar rider because of his height (197cm). Unlike many racing colleagues, he did not get cycling with the pudding spoon. Vansummeren raced his first race at age 15 “on a brackish bike still with these footrests of old, whereby I dropped right from the start.”

Summie quickly made up that gap. He won his first race at age 17 with the juniors with a gap lead over the rest of the field. The ambition to turn pro gradually grew but was tempered down by the parents. “After secondary school I went on studying marketing at college but my mind was in the race. My dad understood it well. He gave me one year to go all out for my sport and get a pro contract. If it didn’t prevail I had to go back to school.”

Vansummeren never got back to school benches. In his last year as U23 he won the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège and got silver at the Worlds in Hamilton. A top talent and so did the press think. Along with generation mates Boonen and Gilbert he was seen as a possible successor to then retiring Johan Museeuw.

He knew better than anyone that he would never match these high-stretched expectations.

I always knew that I would never be a prolific winner. I’m now really that fast on the finish line. If I want to win, I need to finish alone, to drop all the others. And there aren’t too many races in which this can be. Paris-Roubaix is such a race and I won it. Beside that one I won a Pro Tour stage race [the Tour of Poland, ed.], as the only one of my generation. For the modal public of course only victories matter and I got as much satisfaction from races in which I was at the service of a leader.

The first stage at the 2007 Tour of France in Caterbury was such a race. Vansummeren raced for Lotto back then, as lieutenant for the likeable sprint bomb Robbie McEwen. The memory of this achievement made him for the first time a bit beaming during the conversation.

With 20km to go Robbie McEwen was involved in a crash. He started again. I brought him back to the peloton and tugged him all the way to the front. Robbie won that stage. If it were a game of football, they would say I made a perfect assist. Robbie only just needed to kick the ball into the net, so to speak. [a moment silence] I think that by then there was much more than today, a real team spirit. Riders still had neither Facebook nor Instagram. I had no computer myself. After such a race when we had eaten we went outside with about five guys and gossiped on the grass. Real blissful moments.

The gap between leader and domestique is sometimes very narrow inside such a team. Wasn’t the temptation particularly great to bridge that gap with a little bit of doping?

I understand the temptation but have never seriously considered it. From the very start on My dad has hammered in on it: if I ever was involved in a scandal I would not only put my career in ashes but also his career as a doctor. I could be that I lost races because I had to race against who did not race with the same weapons. But against that I never had to worry. You don’t have such tranquility if you cheat. Such a drugcheat has to live his whole life with his lies. Then you need to be a special guy, don’t you?

Johan Museeuw, among many others, was such a type.

Museeuw fought with the weapons of his generation and of that generation – a generation which is busted almost without any exception – he was the best classic rider.

A clean career was impossible if you had been born fifteen years earlier?

I don’t think so. Just look at the palmares of that era. Not many of them haven’t been busted.

[I gave my opinion several times on many forums but the “level playing field” argument does not clear Museeuw. First there existed clean riders at that time – Edwig Van Hooydonck or Frans Maassen – and second, doping is doping, regardless. EPO makes hard races look so easy and makes the sport so boring for the viewers]

On the way to Roubaix you talked about your friendship with former doper Thomas Dekker.

I am not angry with Thomas. Thomas started his career with Rabobank at Michael Rasmussen’s and Michael Boogerd’s service. These are no real examples for young riders with hot ambition to be the best.

How are you so sure that it’s so cleaner today?

I do see some clear indication. Just think of the way races are raced nowadays. Twenty years ago three Gewiss riders (Argentin, Furlan, Berzin, ed.) crushed the whole field at the Walloon Arrow. A few years later Gewiss stopped and you hardly heard anything about those Gewiss riders. You no longer see such extremes nowadays, perhaps because the mentality in the teams has changed in the first place. While teams rather used to encourage to use, they are now scared of negative stories if only because they know that sponsors nowadays also really retire. I’ve experienced it last year with my team, AG2R. When Lloyd Mondory tested positive for EPO our manager started whimpering in the bus. This case speaks volume about the chance to get busted which is a lot higher than 10 years ago. You have those whereabouts, you have those training results, that you need to send to the UCI as well as to the team. You almost need a secretary to keep up with all that.

According to a recent research it seems that the effect of EPO has been greatly exaggerated.

I again don’t believe it. In theory such a cure has the same effect as a high altitude training session. I can tell you that such a training session works. If that wasn’t the case I would have kept on training alongside the canal.

Are you now watching the Tour of France without any backthoughts?

Yes. I believe that Froome and his team Sky don’t dominate for that reason. Froome dominates because he’s the leader of a team with 7 riders who sacrifice themselves for him. Besides you need to know how Team Sky prepare for the Tour of France. Such Sky training camp, that’s the gulag. Minimum eating, maximum training, everything just at the limit in order to then be top for a few weeks. They can only do this once a year. Riders who also performed in the Tour of Italy, get ridiculed on the Tour of France because their body cannot get as deep for a second time. I don’t think that riders trained so much to the limits fifteen years ago. It wasn’t needed either. To put it bluntly, this little extra, you could still inject it.

Would you have such a penal camp?

Of course, I would. I sat often enough in that gulag. We went with the whole team to the Alps and in one day riding up the mountain passes of two mountain stages. In the evening we got a small bowl of soup, a plate of rice and a piece of fish. Afterwards it was: hup in the bed. Beside everyday training, such training camp was most of all a lot of starving.

Fun job

I found it a fantastic feeling. Your condition gets better every day. Your muscles get more and more tightly delineating. In the long run you don’t weigh a kilo too much. For the outsider it might seem like Froome is only suffering but believe me, this guy is having the hell of a lot of fun. Of course he does. Sacrificing everything, being fully in control, that is on the verge of addiction. And Froome is even rewarded with the best feeling that there is. If he wants, he drops everybody.


Dropping everybody and then winning. Vansummeren hasn’t celebrated so many times as to get used to this ultimate cycling delight. Though this one time it hit dead centre. Johan Vansummeren – the Master Domestique – wins Paris-Roubaix. That is not a race that just incidentally appeals to the imagination.
Roubaix is damn hard, not to compare to any other races. On France 2 they covered the race from start to finish this season. You should see how they started it. Already after three kilometers, all in echelons. Paris-Roubaix is a race where you can really get everything. Sometimes you get on the grass or you land in the ditch or break your wheel. The particularity is that even if you have a mechanical, you can always come back and even win. When I transferred from Lotto to Garmin in 2010 it was for Paris-Roubaix in the first place and the promise that I could get my own chance in it. I have always known that I could get close. At the start of 2011 I was even convinced of it. It should have been at least the podium. A few days before, I dropped Thor Hushovd in training (laugh), runner-up the previous year and our leader in theory. It was as bad for his self-confidence as it was good for mine. Oddly enough I don’t remember too much from the race. A few flashes but not more. I still remember that I was in the lead with 15km to go at the start of the Carrefour de l’Arbre. I took a turn there without braking, like in motocross. The man behind me – Maarten Tjallingii – lost 10 meters right away and never could get my wheel anymore. From the last kilometers I only remember my own nervousness. I could only think of my rear wheel which was slowly but surely getting flat. A hundred meters after the finish line, I was on my rim.

What followed was a Hollywood series in a setting that generally lends itself to art house cinema [in English in the text]. A euphoric rider hugs his beloved and a proposal for marriage followed. The scene is deeply engrained in the collective memory but not in that of the rider himself.
When I remember it I only see the Youtube pictures. No idea where that comes from. Is it possible that some things are so big that the brains cannot record them?

The Knock

Memories are like a dog that goes to lay wherever he wants to
said Cees Nooteboom once. Sometimes this dog is a venomous little beast. Vansummeren remembers so little about his greatest triumph but this knock still clearly stands in his mind.

It was the 2014 Tour of Flanders. Somewhere mid race the rider hit a spectator at full speed. The spectator stood on a refuge, 65-year-old Marie-Claire Moreels. The women stood in the coma for months, survived but will never fully heal.

It was impossible for me to avoid her. Just ahead of me the peloton split into two pieces. I was on the right side of the wheel and could not get away by any means. I was – bam – popped at full speed. The clash was so violent that the clasp of my shoes was all done. I felt really bad about it. The next Sunday I had to ride Roubaix. During that race I felt something I never felt before: angst on the bike. I think I did not finish in the top30. I was mentally down. I haven’t raced for six weeks afterwards. Of course I phoned that lady’s family right after the accident. Even a few times. A bit later Jasmine (Vansummeren’s wife, ed) also contacted them. At that moment they say they’d rather have no more contact. We respected that wish. Not long later we learned in the newspaper that the family wondered why we didn’t give any news. Yeah. Maybe their words had been transformed by the newpaper. That’s possible though I keep wondering why we only communicate by newspapers. I cannot understand that.

Do you still have kept things from this crash?
I hardly dare to talk about it. Hein Heidbuchel – my first doctor – said that the scar on the heart can be the consequence of an infection during a flu. My father claims that this is almost impossible. A rider’s blood is almost permanently watched out for. Such infection would have been immediately noticed. According to Dr Brugada the scar can be the consequence of a small bleeding as consequence of a crash.

If you knew your story as a rider was to end this way, would you have started again?
Directly! It’s terribly hard to take leave of my sport this way. But the pleasure of it still outweighs it. 99% of it I had a lot of fun.

Do you now have any idea what you’ll do next?
I’ll think about it in the next few weeks. I’m lucky about the fact my team is decent enough to still pay me till the end of the year. That does not seem straightforward. Niels Albert has had the same experience as I have and he was almost from one day to another in the street. I had got time in order to think. And I’ll use this time. Maybe I will resume studying and I’d also like to do something for the cycling youth. At the end of the day youth sport is the very best. There the race is still a passion and not abstemious bread winning.

Our conversation is coming to its end. Vansummeren is staring ahead of him and his eyes are caught by a huge poster at the end of the Velodrome. The poster shows what the cycling jargon calls an “unchained peloton”, frenzied on the cobbles.
Powerfully beautiful! I would like to be there in the front of such peloton now. Drawing an echelon along with your team! Knocking off a whole peloton. This kick is hard to outperform
Maybe you need to be a rider to understand how good that can feel.
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  • "Paris-Roubaix is the biggest cycling race in the world, bigger than the Tour de France, bigger than any other bike race" (Sir Bradley Wiggins)


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    Very nice interview, thank you for posting it Echoes. It would really be great if Van Summeren would be able to continue working in cycling.
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