It wasn’t his manner of victory that stole the hearts of Flanders, but was his tears afterwards. They flowed as freely as the Leffe around Meerbeke that wet Flanders evening in 1989.
Edwig Van Hooydonck cried as he held the Ronde van Vlaanderen trophy in one hand and a superfluous water bottle in the other on the podium. He wiped snot from his nose as race director Eddy Merckx gave him a pat on the back. He sniffed and snuffled through the radio interviews.
He was a ruddy-faced picture of innocence and honesty. The new champion was 22, the youngest Belgian winner of the race – his race – since the end of World War Two. But life was about to change; cycling was about to change. And that was worth crying about.
Twenty-five years later, that’s why our interview nearly doesn’t happen. Doping: he has been burned by it, stood up to it, talked about it and been misquoted over it. Now he just wants a quiet life.
But having scotched our initial plans, Van Hooydonck comes round to it again a day beforehand. We meet at a hotel in Wuustwezel in north-east Flanders. It is the last stop on the road before the Netherlands; he still lives in the hamlet where he was born. His friend, the race announcer René Vermeiren, accompanies him to help with memories and, possibly, to put the champion at ease.
Immediately, Vermeiren regales us with the story of catching the train from Belgium to Japan for the 1990 World Championships: a mere nine-day journey involving the Trans-Siberian Express, boats and a bullet train. It puts moaning about legroom on an easyJet flight into perspective.
Van Hooydonck stands out as he always has done, even if that ginger barnet is not as bright as in his prime. With his 6’4” frame and red hair, it’s no surprise he was the butt of a few playground taunts as a kid. But on the bike, he was the bully.
Vermeiren remembers one season where an adolescent Van Hooydonck won 30 of the 31 races he started. Dubbed de Lange van Gooreind (The Tall One from Gooreind), he never stayed in the bunch for long. At one junior World Championships road race, he was in front for 80 kilometres. “That was a little bit crazy. But for cycling, you have to be a little bit crazy,” Van Hooydonck says.
This gangly kid was dynamite. Superconfex team manager Jan Raas came round to his house to sign him for his all-star Dutch squad. The family always ate spaghetti after a race, so the Classics great joined them. “We were all nervous, even the dog,” Van Hooydonck says. “I only knew Raas from TV and the newspapers.”
Three months into his career, the 20-year-old won Brabantse Pijl, his first of four wins there. But his Ronde debut in 1987 was a sobering affair, finishing 27th after trudging up the Koppenberg on foot. At first, he didn’t have the strength or the nerves for it; indeed, throughout his career, Van Hooydonck didn’t relish the fighting for position that is part and parcel of cobbled Classics contention. “I am, by nature, slightly afraid. It has improved a little, but it will never be cured,” he once said.
In the winter of 1988, Van Hooydonck devised an austere training routine. He would drive to the Geraardsbergen house of Superconfex directeur sportif Hilaire Van der Schueren and do five laps of the Muur-Bosberg race finale. It was akin to a footballer practising a swerving free kick a hundred times on the training ground. It meant that he knew every cobble by rote and that these bergs held no fear.
On the morning of the Ronde, Van Hooydonck felt terrible. It was a blessing in disguise. “Normally when you feel good, you do stupid things, you attack. I was waiting. Then after 120 kilometres, the cold and rain started. I felt I was going better and better with every kilometre.”
He slipped into a sodden leading group of seven before the Muur. “I wanted to attack there, but Jan Raas told me ‘wait till the Bosberg.’ Going up the Muur felt easy, I was climbing it at 80 per cent. So while the other riders were hurting, I had everything under control.”
He joined up with Dag Otto Lauritzen (7-Eleven) and the pair held a marginal lead onto the race’s final test, the Bosberg. His training kicked in; he had memorised the telegraph pole from which he could attack and keep his speed till the top. Face splattered with dirt, Van Hooydonck raced away through the murk, thrashing the pedals, his head bobbing around like Paula Radcliffe’s. The long-limbed Belgian was no stylist, but it had the desired effect.
On the podium in Meerbeke, he dissolved into those famous tears of pride and surprise. “I hear a lot of people were also crying at home in front of their televisions,” he says. “I started the race thinking I wasn’t good. I was 22 years old and I had won the Ronde. I had watched it every year since I was a kid. I thought I could never win the Tour of Flanders then, it’s too big.”
That night, he refused Belgian beer and tucked into his favourite meal of red cabbage with sausages. There was Paris-Roubaix next weekend – and he nearly won it, finishing third.
His carefree, undetected days were over. The Belgian papers started comparing him to Eddy Merckx and Van Hooydonck didn’t like being stopped by people in the street or having hangers-on around him.
“It was not important for me to be a hero, I just wanted to be a cyclist and win the races I wanted to win,” he says. “All the rest did not matter. I was racing for me and my family, not for the people of Belgium.”
You’d think his emergence might have rustled feathers at Superconfex, where elders like Jean-Paul Van Poppel, Rolf Gölz and Jelle Nijdam had ambition. This is where the old racer in Van Hooydonck peeks out.
“In the team and the race, the strongest has the say. If you are 25 and I’m 20 years old, but I am better than you, then okay, I’m the best. Then it’s clear, eh?”
In 1991, he won his second Ronde van Vlaanderen, this time as favourite. The difference was confidence: he stretched the four-man front group on the Muur and took off for good on the Bosberg in the same place as two years before. Van Hooydonck was like a firework: capable of one sustained explosion up the road after 250 kilometres, not repeated bursts of speed.
This time, there were no tears and his winning margin was 44 seconds, almost double that of 1989. Soon, a new nickname, invented by his Buckler mechanic, Chris Van Roosbroeck, had stuck: Eddy Bosberg.
Van Hooydonck crossed the line in attention-grabbing three-quarter length shorts. He had the idea from team-mate Eric Vanderaerden, who took scissors to his longs at a tepid Tour of Valencia months earlier. “I said I had to do something to protect my bad knee in cold weather,” he remembers. “The other guys were all laughing at me. Then I won the race.
“A day later, I turned on the television to watch the Tour of the Basque Country and the whole peloton had them,” he says, laughing. “All the clothing producers were making them. If I had a Euro for every pair made, I’d be in the Bahamas now.”
The race that got away, one that arguably suited his powerful build best, was Paris-Roubaix. He was fifth as an unknown in 1987; three years later, as Steve Bauer and Eddy Planckaert were famously separated by centimetres, he trailed in five metres behind in third place.
It seemed certain he would win a cobbled trophy. His words from the 1992 book Kings of Cycling offer a poignant freeze-frame of a hungry, versatile champion. “I regard myself as a very good rider. In order to be great, I would have to win Paris-Roubaix and some of the other Classics. And with the exception of Lombardy, I know that I can… I am only 26 in August and I want to race until I’m 35: at least, for as long as I’m still enjoying it.”
Yet Edwig’s end came far sooner than expected. As SPD pedals and hardshells eclipsed toe-clips and hairnets, doping also developed, moving from amphetamine abuse to EPO and growth hormones. Van Hooydonck wanted nothing to do with it.
He felt the speed of races getting faster around 1992. “On the climbs, they could make attacks and they were just staying away. You saw the 1994 Milan-Sanremo, with Gewiss?
“I heard a lot of rumours. A lot of guys I was racing, I had beaten them before. What happened? I raced ten years with Raas, always strong and better.”
Was he never tempted by EPO or offered it? “No. Jan Raas said don’t do it,” he says.
Even his results leading up to retirement were not so bad: the month before quitting, Van Hooydonck was second in Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl. “But it was not enough for me. I’d won a lot of races,” he reflects.
This Flemish star walked away from the sport in May 1996, two months before turning 30. He got a job in local politics and now sells aluminium, like his father.
Nowadays, Van Hooydonck is relatively detached from the scene. He enjoys visiting Madrid a few times a year to see the art galleries and catch its leading football team at the Stadio Bernabéu. He follows the sport from afar: he thinks well of Sep Vanmarcke, and his son Dante and nephew Nathan both caught the cycling bug. Meanwhile, his bicycle comes on occasional holidays, but the around-town, sit-up-and-beg model, not a racer. Enough hard kilometres have passed under his wheels.
As revelations drip-dripped out about unscrupulous rivals in the intervening years, Van Hooydonck has occasionally spoken up: that he was against it all, that he told UCI boss Hein Verbruggen that EPO was on the rise to no avail, that Johan Museeuw doped all his career.
“Let me say that in my time, maybe two per cent of riders didn’t take EPO,” Museeuw told De Zondag in 2015. “Edwig van Hooydonck is one of them.”
If it’s true, Van Hooydonck was robbed. But doping has also become a repetitive sticking point in his occasional interviews. He doesn’t want to be made a martyr.
“The journalists always want to talk to me about drugs. I don’t like that anymore, it’s enough,” he says.
Even if it is dirty water under the bridge, it bothers me. There has been little retroactive regaining of respect for the honourable “two per cent” like Van Hooydonck. He was the two-time Tour of Flanders champion fighting nuclear arms with a sword and shield, who walked away at his peak and kept his principles. Now that’s a real Lion of Flanders.