April 9, 2011. It is the night before Paris-Roubaix. In hotels on the French-Belgian border, nerves have set in, silence has fallen and the competitors are falling into a restless sleep. Apart from one room, where a tall, thin man is on the phone to his father.
You must be certain about something to gamble before one of cycling’s most quicksilver races. Johan Vansummeren is convinced, so convinced that he is asking his dad to do something unprecedented.
We had been training and I found a website where you could place a bet on the race. And I was 167/1 or something. I told my father: ‘Tomorrow, I’m sure I’m on the podium. Really.’ I’d already had a few good years there, I’d been fifth, I felt great. And he placed €1,000, I think.”
Vansummeren doesn’t look like a cyclist, let alone a Paris-Roubaix contender. He is 197 centimetres tall, but his rickety arms and legs do not look like they can take such punishment. He very nearly wasn’t a professional racer at all: as a youngster, he gave himself one season to make it or return to a marketing degree in Hasselt.
From his build and background to being a rare Belgian on a French team, Vansummeren has rarely fit the mould. You know the hoary maxim that boys from Flanders dream of Ronde triumph? Not this one. “I wanted to win the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I thought I was a climber, but I was too heavy,” he says.
In case you were doubting his Flandrian credentials, Vansummeren had a poster of Johan Museeuw on his bedroom wall as a teenager; he was briefly a stagiaire on the same team as his idol too. Yet he acknowledges the caveats to be applied after supporting certain cyclists in the ‘90s.
“My idols then are all fallen heroes now.” Meaning? “You know who they are, Belgian Classics riders. I still have a lot of respect for him [Museeuw] because he didn’t do anything more than the guy in second or third – probably, eh? I don’t know exactly.”
While Vansummeren started out with ambitions of glory, he quickly came to see the value of being a domestique. In cycling, a super-talented few get busy winning and the rest get busy working. He climbs, time-trials and rides strongly on the flat: everyman abilities that render him an unremarkable leader but an indispensable team asset. After joining Davitamon-Lotto in 2005, he spent the cobbled Classics as wingman for Leif Hoste; in the summer, he’d be on duty for Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans. He ferried bottles and gels, took the wind and led bunches after errant breakaways.
“I knew after a few years that I had my qualities and a few bike races where I could be good: the Classics. When I can have it like this, it’s perfect. In the Tour, it’s also easy for me to ride for somebody else. Because if they say ‘try to win a stage’, how am I gonna do that? Get in ten breakaways when nine of them don’t go to the finish? Then when you’re not so fast [in a sprint], how are you going to beat them if it makes it? Or on a final climb?”
His strength, stamina and steadiness suited him for Roubaix. There is a difference between its pitiless pavé and the kinder kasseien of the Ronde. “The cobbles in Flanders are put there by people who know what they are doing. They are stones, but they’re okay,” Vansummeren says. “But in Roubaix, they just opened a truck, drove over it and threw them in from far away. Maybe a few hundred years ago they looked smooth, eh?”
Coming into the 2011 Paris-Roubaix, Vansummeren had two victories to his name: a Tour of Poland stage and overall. He was a footnote in any form guide, but he had a promising history: fifth in 2009, eighth in 2008. In the Garmin pre-race team meeting, it was decided that the Belgian would have a free role, acting as a foil for Thor Hushovd.
On a dusty, dry day, Vansummeren made it into a large breakaway after the Arenberg Forest and rode away from the final three survivors on the Carrefour de l’Arbre. With the favourites behind adhered to Fabian Cancellara’s wheel like barnacles to a rock, he was escaping to victory.
“Then you do what you train for. Riding the lines, if you’re alone, is the easy thing. But you have to keep on pushing,” Vansummeren says.
A puncture four kilometres from the finish couldn’t spoil the fairytale ending. “I was quite worried then,” he says, with some understatement. “Jonathan [Vaughters] came next to me with the car. I knew I had a flat but I couldn’t tell him. Because what’s he gonna do, with 20 seconds lead? When I turned into the velodrome, you see me going like that,” he says, hand moving to show the back wheel skipping. “Two hundred metres after the finish, the tyre was completely flat.”
If anyone deserved personal good karma after so many seasons of self-sacrifice, it was Vansummeren. He joined countrymen Dirk Demol and Jean-Marie Wampers as shock winners of the Classic. Unknowns perhaps, but not undeserved. You don’t fluke a win at Paris-Roubaix.
The life-changing moments continued: soon after crossing the line, he asked his girlfriend Jasmine to marry him. He’d just won Paris-Roubaix, how could she say no?
And the €1,000 bet at those astonishing odds? “I grabbed my dad on the finish line after winning and went: ‘Did you place the money? Yessss!’” he says, reliving the excitement.
“On Monday morning, I couldn’t sleep as I was so wired from the race. I was still wandering around at seven o’clock, I went to my father’s place and I looked at the computer.
“And you know what? He never made the bet, the money never went off his credit card. He had to give permission or something to place it.”
“The one time we made a bet… it would have been €167,000 [first prize for Paris-Roubaix was then €30,000]. But in the end, I’ve never complained about it because the dream I realised was more important than the money.”
The only thing that changed significantly was his salary, which doubled. Even in the post-race conference, Vansummeren was pragmatic and clear-headed. “Today’s win will not change a lot for my career. I know what I can and cannot do,” he said.
So it proved: in the years since that triumph, Vansummeren has reprised his support role. From Virenque at Domo to Robbie McEwen at Lotto, Thor Hushovd at Garmin and now Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet, Vansummeren has devoted himself to some fine champions. Who has been his best leader?
“Cadel [Evans] was sometimes not the most enjoyable person, but as a bike rider, he was super, he had a really big engine. For me, the best is Robbie by far. If you did something for him, he really showed his appreciation.”
Vansummeren describes the stage the Australian won into Canterbury in the 2007 Tour de France as one of the most beautiful moments of his career. McEwen crashed 25 kilometres from the finish and nursed his wounds as the bunch disappeared up the road.
The domestique put his captain’s chain back on and the pair rode like fury to get back to the bunch. Amazingly, McEwen found his way to the front and won the sprint for victory.
That was a rare Hollywood moment for Vansummeren in a job that often involved unglamorous hours on the front of a bunch to rein in a breakaway’s advances. The Australian regarded him as one of his “four musketeers”.
“Summy was another diesel, but he was more than a domestique,” McEwen writes in his autobiography One Way Road, adding later: “He is pretty much the opposite of me in every single way – he’s tall, I’m short. I’m relaxed, he’s emotional, and highly strung. I keep life simple, he likes it complicated, because he thinks too much.”
Perhaps the job of a domestique helps to eliminate that washing machine churn of worry and pressure that constantly turns in a leader’s mind.
“You’re either a good leader or you help them, and the few chances you have, you try to do something to win. Making a good career, that’s the thing,” Vansummeren says.
Unfortunately in recent seasons, when his own rare opportunities roll round, he has been involved in several crashes. By far the most significant came in the early stages of the 2014 Tour of Flanders. He rounded a corner going wide, after overlapping the wheel in front and hit a spectator standing on a traffic island. Marie-Claire Moreels was left permanently paralysed by the accident.
“They put me in a neck brace. But it was scary. You can hear things. I never talked about it in an interview [before], actually,” Vansummeren reflects.
“I started Roubaix the week after because that’s the thing you work for. And then I had a break from racing and it was not so easy mentally… I’m a little bit easier scared in the race. I didn’t have that before. I was really getting afraid.”
Of the same thing happening? “Yeah, scary moments. There are a lot of scary moments in cycling: you have to get over it, because otherwise you don’t make it to the front of the peloton anymore.”
Vansummeren attended sessions with a sports psychologist. Despite his wariness, he still wasn’t out of the wars. Three months later, he was involved in the Tour de France fall on stage 3 in the Ardennes that broke William Bonnet’s back. It begs the question, are there riders more drawn to crashes, or is it complete luck who goes down?
“Normally, I don’t crash that much, but in Roubaix 2015, it was [Matti] Breschel who fell right in front of me,” he says. “And in the Tour, I was in second position with Romain [Bardet, his team leader] on my wheel and the guy from BMC, the one with the tattoos, Oss, touched somebody’s wheel and crashed right in front of me.
“What can you do? Nothing. It was bad. We were going 80 kilometres an hour. And he walks away with a little scratch on his nose! The day after, he was quite good and I was so fucked. He came to apologise, but he didn’t do it on purpose. That’s the thing with this sport, it can happen.
“When you crash like that, it’s better to put your bike on the team car roof. But you lock yourself on a mountain for a month and live like a monk to be in good shape for it, so you don’t want to quit so easy.
“I was still trying, trying, trying. But in the end, it was bullshit to keep on going like that… That was what I disliked the most. It was my ninth Tour, I’d finished all eight before that. I’ve finished all five Vueltas too.”
Vansummeren abandoned on the side of a Pyrenean road in tears. He may have perspective and experience from a long career, but age doesn’t dull the heartache.
Just as he said, winning Paris-Roubaix did not dramatically alter his career – or his ego. The famous cobbled trophy went on top of a cabinet in his house. He’s still Johan Vansummeren, spindly and long on a bike, the doctor’s son who gets nervous when he has to do speeches in public.
Although questions about retirement are increasing as he enters his thirteenth season as a professional, he has faith that he can win again in Roubaix.
“I’m still training to do it once more. Maybe it will work out one day, maybe not. But at the end of my career, I can say I won a Classic and a stage race. I haven’t won many races, but the ones I won were quite good.”
This was originally published in issue 61 of Rouleur Magazine in March 2016. Johan Vansummeren announced his retirement, due to health problems, in June 2016.