The Tour de France starts in Utrecht, but one popular Dutch rider is not racing there: Johnny Hoogerland. His team, Roompot, was not invited. Away at the Tour of Austria, he can’t even watch it pass through his home region of Zeeland.
But the Dutchman only has to reach down and touch the scars on his calves for a reminder of the marks the sport’s biggest race left on him.
On stage nine of the 2011 Tour, he was in a five-man breakaway through the Massif Central, racing for the King of the Mountains jersey and a stage win in Saint-Flour.
Thirty-five kilometres from the finish, a France 2 television car went to pass the escape at the wrong moment, causing Juan Antonio Flecha to crash. Hoogerland hit him and was flung off the road into a barbed wire fence.
Disregarding the deep lacerations to his legs, Hoogerland carried on to the finish. Do you remember who won that stage? Very doubtful (answer: Luis Leon Sanchez). Hoogerland was the star, and his crash catapulted him to a strange kind of notoriety: he was celebrated as the ultimate hardman, the poster boy for pushing through pain.
That afternoon, he cried as he received the King of the Mountains jersey on the podium. “I looked down at my legs and thought, ‘Is this what cycling is about?’” Hoogerland said afterwards.
Many seemed to think so. Images of his bloodied limbs, which needed 33 stitches and are still scarred, went round the world’s media. For some fans, they seemed to epitomise the indomitable spirit of the modern professional cycling. A popular T-shirt was sold, saying: “Welcome to Hoogerland; population: heroes.”
Four years on, Hoogerland says that doesn’t think about the crash anymore. The scars remain, but he has accepted them. “If I get upset about them, I’m going to have a hard life,” he says.
But the public reaction to that arbitrary accident has been difficult for Hoogerland to bear. Especially in the months after the Tour, he became the knuffelbeer – teddy bear – of the Netherlands. The attention became unbearable.
“I liked it when people respected me because of my character, because I didn’t want to give up. But at one point, I’d had enough. Because people always looked at my legs and said ‘ah, you’re the guy that hit the barbed wire.’ It’s a little bit silly.”
“Also, sometimes without asking or saying anything, people start taking photos of my legs and scars. Then I think ‘fuck off!’ Because it shows no respect: people talk about me like they think I don’t hear. It made me think: ‘This is just too much.’”
The brush with barbed wire has overshadowed the rest of his cycling career. “More people remember me from the crash than when I won the national championships [in 2013]. It’s a bit strange. It shows how big the Tour de France is.”
His famous fall was far from the worst he has experienced. In February 2013, Hoogerland was hit by a left-turning car as he cycled downhill at 60km/h from his rented Spanish house to start training.
He suffered a bruised liver, punctured lung, three broken ribs and five broken vertebrae. “In hospital, they told me everything that I had broken in bad English. I thought my career was over,” Hoogerland says.
It took him three months to recover, but there was no keeping this good man down. At his first race back, the Tour of Romandie, Hoogerland was up the road in the breakaway on day two, scooping up Mountains classification points. Typical Johnny, known for his bold, day-long attacks.
“I’m not the best climber, I’m not the best sprinter. So I need to be in breakaways to have good results… More and more in cycling, races are really controlled because sprinters are starting to climb better,” Hoogerland says.
Eight weeks later, he won the Dutch championships with more astute tactics, waiting for the right moment to make the killer attack.
It is the crowning result of his career. Hoogerland was a latecomer to the WorldTour, only turning professional at the age of 25. After a promising career as a Rabobank junior petered out after not being picked for the U23 team, he worked as a recruitment consultant.
“At one point I thought ‘if I wanted to turn pro, now is the moment to focus one hundred per cent.’ I had a very good year with the amateurs, then Vacansoleil started. Maybe I was a little bit lucky that everything happened at the right moment.”
His most consistent results came in 2009, his maiden year as a professional, winning the Three Days of West Flanders, finishing fifth in the Tour of Lombardy and twelfth at the Vuelta. Hoogerland stayed with Vacansoleil from start to its finish, completing two more Tours de France after his eye-catching debut.
“I always felt safe in that team; it was the perfect one for me,” he says.
After Vacansoleil’s dissolution at the end of 2013, the Dutchman signed for Italian squad Androni-Sidermec. “I had spoken with some teams, but they all said ‘we are interested but we want to wait, bla bla bla,’ and there were a lot of riders on the market. So when I got the choice to go to Androni, I didn’t want to wait any longer.”
It didn’t work out. Hoogerland found communication difficult with his predominantly Italian team-mates and insinuated on Twitter that there had been a problem with his salary payment, posting "Where can a rider go when your team does not pay your salary?"
Team manager Gianni Savio, in return, disputed the suggestion, called him “a champion of ingratitude” and said he would take him to a tribunal.
“It wasn’t easy, but you don’t know this before. Sometimes you make choices; in the end, this wasn’t the best one,” Hoogerland says of his experience there.
Halfway through last season, he agreed to join Team Roompot in 2015, a new Dutch UCI Professional team headed by Erik Breukink and Michael Boogerd. Hoogerland is happier, sometimes leading the team himself, other times supporting one of his younger team-mates.
“I think there’s the intention to do Grand Tours. I just heard the Giro is starting in Holland in 2016. Maybe that’s a possibility for the team. I would love to do that,” Hoogerland says.
The 32-year-old hails from Zeeland in the south-west Netherlands. “I’ve been there all my life, I love it. It’s close to the beach and quiet compared to the rest of Holland: it’s not Amsterdam, Rotterdam or all that.”
An outdoorsy character, he used to rear sheep in his garden, but after deciding to turn their housing area into a playground for his baby daughter, he put them for sale online. “Within five minutes, a Muslim guy responded saying that he wanted to buy the sheep. My girlfriend went ‘they lived with us for three years, I don’t want them to get eaten straight away.’ We put them elsewhere with other animals,” he says and laughs.
While Hoogerland will be absent when the 2015 Tour’s second stages goes within 30 kilometres of his house, he knows that the weather conditions on the road to Zeeland could wreak havoc.
“If it’s windy, it’s going to be a very crazy stage. But normally the wind blows from the south-west; when it does that, which is 80 per cent of the time, it’s a straight headwind. So in that case, it’s not going to be blown apart. Still, it’s going to be very nervous.”
The Tour de France has certainly left its mark on Hoogerland. Does he miss it? “When it comes so close to my house, yes, I miss it a bit.”