How the mighty have, risen...
In 1997, Filip Meirhaeghe was not allowed to start the world mountain bike championships in Switzerland after testing for high hematocrit levels. Then he was tested positive for EPO before the World Cup round at Mount St. Anne in 2004. At the time he admitted taking drugs openly and said that he just wanted to win:
"I wanted to win them all, and in order to succeed I made the wrong decisions along the way," he said at a press conference after his test result was announced. "I made a mistake, but just like everyone else I'm only human.
"I took EPO for the first time in my career seven weeks ago during a training camp in Austria. I absolutely did not want to fail at the Olympics, which was my ultimate goal, as soon as I heard the positive result I knew it was the end of my career."
At the time of his ban, it was big news across the cycling world and it did look like the end of his career, Mike Sinyard Specialized's founder and Meirhaeghe's sponsor at the time said:
"Filip is a great person and an exceptional athlete who exercised exceptionally poor judgment, it truly saddens me to see his accomplishments diminished this way. I believe that as a person, he is fundamentally above such things, but [he] made a grave mistake."
Specialized's policy with its athletes is as Sinyard put it: "zero tolerance. If you cheat, you're fired."
Well, fast forward a couple of years, ban over and it's back to winning ways for Meirhaeghe, at 35 he's a spring chicken in Belgian road racing terms and has returned to the podium in the GP Rudy Dhaenens last Sunday - which just goes to show that the game's not over until the fat lady sings...
Results - GP Rudy Dhaenens- 170 km
1. Filip Meirhaeghe (Bel) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago 4.02.11 (42.12 km/h)
2. Aart Vierhouten (Ned) Skil-Shimano
3. Matthe Pronk (Ned) Unibet.com
4. Kevin Neirynck (Bel) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
5. Jan Kuyckx (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto 0.21
6. Andy Cappelle (Bel) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
7. Jurgen Van Loocke (Bel) Landbouwkrediet-Colnago 1.02
8. Denis Flahaut (Fra) Flanders
9. Kenny Van Hummel (Ned) Skil-Shimano
10. Nic Ingels (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto
We've added a flashback to 2002 and an interview first published on Bikemagic.com by Mark Dangerfield, with the then World MTB XC Champ, Filip Meirhaeghe...
What is the most important thing you take with you on every ride?
I have nothing. I try to remember to take an inner tube but that is about it. Sometimes I forget and it's always when I forget I get a flat tyre.
How often, and how hard, do you really train?
Every day. I think I train harder than most other riders, not so much in hours but in intensity. I do extremely hard training, and I think this gives me a mental advantage on race day. Other people tell me that I train very hard, even my trainer says that I am crazy with my programmes. I suffer more in training so I have to suffer less in racing...
Do you see MTB racing as an extreme sport?
No, because maybe I am into it too much. It is a very beautiful, fun sport. I can see people from outside may think it is dangerous but not for us as we are under control, you know. We know how to ride a bike. Even the downhillers, it may look dangerous, but they have everything under control, even to them it must not seem extreme anymore. Maybe freeriding is getting extreme now with the organisations they have and the drops that they jump off, that's different.
Where do you see XC racing in ten years?
I know that there are people who want to have shorter races. I am not in favour of this, I would like to see it as it is now. Maybe, the way downhill has 4X, XC can have a short circuit also. Maybe it will evolve into longer marathon races. The mad thing is that mountain bike races use to be long, three hour races, but they evolved into shorter and shorter races, so maybe the same thing will happen to the marathon races where they will become shorter and shorter. I think we have to pay attention to preserve the nature of MTBing and not change it too much. I think it is fine as it is and I would like to keep it like it is.
Is there good camaraderie among the riders at the start, or is focusing on the race too important?
At the start I am very focused. There is some kind of friendship always, but most riders are too focused. Like I said, I have to shut myself off. At the beginning of most World Cup races I have my head on my handlebars so I am not looking to anybody. After the race there is good camaraderie amongst most of the riders.
Did you have that feeling at the World Champs? Did you know that you were going to win?
No, I didn't have that feeling. I have that feeling a lot but I didn't have it at Lugano. I knew I had a very good chance and I felt very strong. When I knew I was closing 20 seconds per lap on the leader I knew that it could be my day. At the world championships I did not want to be sure because so much can happen especially as the course was so rocky that I did not want to have a flat tyre or make a mistake and crash. It was a difficult course to ride. I only allowed myself to be sure 500m from the finish line and that was just grass.
Are you riding cyclo-cross this winter?
No, I rode some last year but this winter I don't want any competition. I want to take a break from competition.
Which would you value more, the World Championship, being World Cup champion or Olympic champion?
Definitely Olympic champion, it's the highest in sport you can achieve. Olympic champion, no doubt.
Is that your goal now?
It's the only goal. I wouldn't want to give away either of the others, but if somebody said beforehand, make your choice, I would choose Olympic champion.
What do you see yourself doing in ten years time?
I have no idea. Really. It is so far away. I know I will keep racing for the next few years but that's it.
Are cross country riders glorified roadies?
People that say that, don't know anything, they don't know what they are talking about. Cross country riders are good riders. If you put a roadie with us on a mountain bike you will see the difference. They can't even turn right. It's weird but I say that they can't ride a bike. They can ride a bike on the road and they can go fast and stuff like that, but what we call riding a bike, they cannot ride a bike at all. We go fast down hill in races with the seat up high, with the heart rate up high. I would like to see a lot of good downhill riders do the same thing. Go as fast downhill as we are in the same conditions. They would be surprised. I am sure we would beat a lot of them.
What do you think is worse, a flat tyre on the last lap, or a complete mechanical failure at the first lap?
Complete mechanical failure on the first lap, definitely!
Do you find racing as draining mentally as it is physically?
Racing is not draining mentally, but the training and preparation is. I think physically I could race a lot longer than mentally. I think that will be the reason I will stop.
Given the choice between an XC World Cup race and a ride in the countryside with some friends, which would you choose?
If it is going to be a good World Cup race for me then I will choose the race, if it was to be a bad one then I would choose the ride. I am a racer, I have a very competitive mind.
Given the success of mountain bikers who've gone to road recently, have you ever been tempted?
I have never had an offer of really good money for the road, so its different there I guess. In my heart I am a mountain biker and this is important to me. I have a lot of fun on a mountain bike, just doing normal rides, singletrack rides. It's so beautiful, you realise you are alive. I like racing on the road and I do it to get ready for mountain bike races, but only for a couple of weeks at a time then I have to get back on my mountain bike. I am a mountain biker in my heart. I started as a mountain biker and I will die as one.
What about as you get older?
No, I race on the road now, as I do every year, but to go only on the road? No. I am a mountain biker and that's it.
What do you think would help encourage more people to take up the sport?
They need to get it on TV more. That's the same with every sport. We are always fighting as mountain bikers to get our sport more in the spotlight. In Belgium the world championships were live on TV for two and a half hours, but we need more than this because as a product it is very good. Downhill is very spectacular, and they can make very nice programmes about cross country. This way it could get people into riding just for fun, not competition, but this is how it starts. It was great for Belgium with a first and a third. A lot of people who were not really into mountain biking got interested and are going to follow it a lot more now.
Filip on Filip
If you could ride only for one more day where would you go and who would you go with?
I would like to ride slickrock in America even though I have never been there. It is supposed to be very beautiful, smooth and fast. And I think I would like to ride with Jesus, he looks like he was a cool guy and I am sure he would have liked mountain biking. He would never fall either, and be so smooth when he was riding.
Why are you nicknamed Popeye?
At the beginning when I started riding for Specialized, the team manager came up with the name of Popeye because I was more muscley than most other cross country riders. There was a World Cup race in Germany where, when I was crossing the line, my arms looked really big so it stuck.
Chocolate or cake?
Coffee or tea?
Tea, but I drink both.
Eastenders or Coronation Street?
I have heard the names but I don't know them. Eastenders is very funny is it not?
Shower or bath?
The Simpsons or Futurama?
I know the Simpsons but don't know Futurama
Beer or wine?
Wine with a good dinner but beer to go out. And definitely beer with Flemish food.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
Star Trek. I like Spock.
What is your biggest vice?
I don't do anything bad, I am a very boring person. I used to go out every now and then, but that was years ago. I would blow up and go out and get drunk but that's over now. I would feel it in my training for up to two weeks, it was bad. Most of the time I am really focused on my goals - in the past few years I have been desperate to win more and more. You have to stay focused or you can't win.
A lot of people have commented on how approachable you are - Thomas Lining said, "Filip is a true champion, I am the Race Director for the Youthcycling.com team, and at Mount Snow this year Filip took time to invite our boys up to his condo and talk with them about racing, riding and training - they will forever remember it!" We've heard of other riders being unapproachable - do you think race focus has to stop you from being a nice guy?
When I am focused I am thinking only about racing, but when there is time I think it is important for the fans to be able to reach their idol. I consider myself to be just another rider. I don't like people who think they are more than somebody else. I cannot allow myself to think I am more than somebody else, and I honestly don't think that I am more than anybody else. I just happen to be able to ride my bike faster than, at the moment, all other riders, but that doesn't change me as a person. So, it's normal for me to be available. Before a race I try to stay really focussed, and it is in my nature to stop and talk to people so it takes a lot of energy to shut myself off. Before the start of a race I would have to look only to my team mate's wheel to get to where we were going and not look up, because I know if I did I would be distracted. It makes me happy to see these kids, they were proud and they were very happy. It is easy for me to go and sit on the couch and talk to them for a while. It gives me energy also.
Where do you ride just for fun?
I love singletrack. I went to America last year in December, we went to Colorado and California and did some singletrack rides that were just so beautiful. In Lugano this year there was some singletrack that we could take back to the hotel, just for fun. Sometimes the national team would wait until everyone was finshed, then they would come to the Specialized stand and we would ride home together on this piece of singletrack. It's beautiful, this is what is all about, this is what we do it for. I still love riding my bike just for fun.