They say a picture speaks a thousand words. I say that 500 is a more realistic figure.
The above is a slightly curious image from the 2000 Tour of Flanders. The rider on the left has paired a conventional helmet with sunglasses. If it wasn’t for the Mapei logo on his chest he could easily slide into a photo from the present day without causing much disturbance. He’s less than a wheel behind a far different creature. No sunglasses in sight and a look of crazed determination beneath a retro – and somewhat laughable – helmet. How can these two be from the same decade? And where are they racing to?
Despite their contrasting appearances, these two riders have shared podiums and have a great deal in common. They’re actually just three years apart in age. Both are incredibly talented classics specialists and two of the toughest individuals in the peloton. They’re also both Belgian… sort of.
The rider in front is 37-year old Andrei Tchmil – a widely appreciated performer whose nationality is disputed in a four-way tug of war. Tchmil was born in Russia (just 19 miles from the Chinese border), but competed for Moldova from 1992 where he had joined a cycling school. His family resided in Ukraine, who he began representing in 1995 after the fall of the Soviet Union. He became a naturalized Belgian in 1998 after four years riding for Lotto. He learnt French and later Flemish. Just hours after this photo was taken he was asked about his nationality replying “I leave that for you to decide”.
Most importantly, Tchmil rode like a Belgian. He believed that hard cobbled races suited him and proved this when winning the 1994 Paris-Roubaix with a long range solo attack. He started his pro career at the late age of 26 for Italian outfit Alfa Lum. By 2000 he was 37 and fighting some signs of aging. He doesn’t resemble most riders from this century, so it’s hard to believe that three weeks after Flanders he would race against Lance Armstrong and Alexander Vinokourov in the Netherlands.
Behind him is the great Johan Museeuw; the first man to complete a hat-trick at both Flanders and Roubaix. In 1998 he shattered his kneecap, and the year 2000 was somewhat of a renaissance. His career hung in the balance but Museeuw showed ferocious resolve to return to a competitive level faster than anybody had expected.
At the Tour of Flanders both men were showing defiance. Tchmil was fighting the effects of age, whilst Museeuw was determined to prove he was his old self. The Flanders weather was (disappointingly) calm in April 2000 and there was little mud splatter throughout the peloton. Museeuw launched attacks on both the Bosberg and Grammont, but lacked his vintage sparkle and was caught both times.
Tchmil went solo after the Grammont and would become the oldest winner of Flanders. He was easily recognisable in his old school helmet and cheered home to victory, just four seconds ahead of the sprinting pack. For Museeuw disappointment was short lived; the following week a brave solo move led to a superb third Roubaix victory.