I think my first Paris-Roubaix was 1980. I’m getting older! It has always been a mythical race, but it really is a lot bigger now.
Even when you talk about fans, the crowds are huge, and also the entries. I don’t know in how many countries they show the race on TV and how many journalists are there. It’s amazing, the attention that it has now is like 10 times more than in the Eighties, .
But the parcours. I remember it has always been the same, with only one or two sectors changing. It’s a special one. But just like it was yesterday, I have a good memory of it.
If I’m honest, when I won Roubaix it was a big surprise. Even for me. A long time before I had made peace with the fact that I was not a leader, I was not strong enough physically or mentally. I tried to be a good domestique and most of the races I did, that worked well.
I was a rider who stayed with the leaders from the start. By the second feed zone, my race was over, most of the time I was done.
Once in a while I had freedom to go in a breakaway and that day, I was there. It’s only the one time I think that the breakaway stayed away; I read that in the history of Roubaix, that was the longest breakaway ever, it went to the end. 222 kilometres, I believe. At first there were 13 and the group just got smaller and smaller.
Maybe for me, I can say it changed my life that day. If I’d been second, who would have remembered me? Maybe I’d never have been a directeur sportif.
I think it helped to get me the job. When I retired in ’95, I spent four years with young riders and I liked it, Tom Boonen was there, Stijn Devolder, even Jurgen Vandenbroeck as a very young kid were all riding on that team in Kortrijk wielspurters. I really liked it, then one moment Johan [Bruyneel] offered me the chance to become director in Postal because he needed someone for the Classics.
We had been teammates in Lotto for a couple of years and were from the same neighbourhood, so he gave me a chance. Back then you had the Tour de France and Roubaix. In that period they were the two biggest races, and it’s still like that.
I remember when I went to America for a training camp for the first time in December ’99 when Johan introduced me to the team, and some of the sponsors there. Then he said: ‘he’s our new DS for the Classics, he’s even been a Paris-Roubaix winner in 88.’ There was a joint exclamation of wow. The riders already knew it, but the other people in the room maybe not. It’s a result that gave me so much more respect. It helped me, that’s for sure.
It’s surprising that a result like that doesn’t have a huge affect on salary. When you go back to that time, there wasn’t so much money in cycling. It changed later of course. But when I started as a professional in ’82, there wasn’t a minimum salary.
If you were given a chance, they’d give you a bike and clothing and you could be a pro. In Belgium, it wasn’t until ’85 that they even previewed minimum salary, and it was 10,000 euro per year that was 412,000 old Belgian francs.
You either accepted it or not. But like I say, that was over 30 years ago. When I won Roubaix, my contract the year after was around double. But it still wasn’t a lot, the big money was not there. When the real money came, I was already retired!
My trophy is in my house, in the living room. I just kept that one trophy and it’s now next to a nice photo that I got from Graham Watson, only last year. They’re the only things I keep from my riding days. Actually, I still have my jersey, untouched from the race. The numbers are still on, it never went in the washing machine.
The bike didn’t quite stay the same, the frame broke three weeks later. But the jersey still has the number 12 on from that day. It’s funny, I grew up and my parents lived in number 12. My daughter bought a house a few years ago – number 12. It’s a number that always seems to come back to me. And that day actually, I slept in room number 12 in a Campanile in Compiegne. It’s strange.
But of course, this race is incredible, everything has to align, it’s my life’s biggest souvenir.