PEZ Talk: Johan Vansummeren
Interview: Johan Vansummeren is a big guy, standing at nearly two meters tall, but he was also a man with a big engine and could be relied upon in his fifteen Grand Tour rides. Then there was his crowning glory, winning the ‘Hell of the North’ in 2011. But on the 29th of June 2016, with his wife Jasmine by his side, Vansummeren had to announce his premature retirement from the sport due to a heart problem. Ed Hood caught up with the tall Belgian to talk through his career.
Johan Vansummeren, that big Belgian guy who was the ‘surprise’ winner of Paris-Roubaix a year or two ago – whatever became of him?
Firstly, it was only a surprise if you hadn’t been observing the results of previous editions of the race; he was eighth in 2008 and fourth in 2009 before his 2011 win. And what he’s doing now is ‘not much’ – after a medical check at the start of this season he was diagnosed with a heart complaint which brought his career to a premature end.
His first results of note were stage places in 2001 in the tough Tryptyque des Monts et Chateaux U23 stage race in Belgium – long a shop window for up and coming stars. In 2002 he won the U23 Het Volk and a year later the U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege before taking silver in the U23 Worlds in Canada. Season 2004 saw him debut as a pro with the Belgo-Spanish Relax team and it was in Spain he made his Grand Tour debut – the first of six Vueltas he would ride during his career. He didn’t have to wait long on his first ride in the biggest race of them all, Le Tour 2005 in the colors of Lotto – the first of nine Grande Boucle adventures.
There was another Tour ride in 2006 then again in 2007 and a GC win in the Tour of Poland that same year. In 2008 he again rode the Tour and travelled to China for the Olympic road race – and there was the first hint of what was to come with eighth in the ‘Hell of the North’.
In 2009 he moved to within a spit of the podium in the Roubaix Velodrome with fourth and rode his fifth Tour. For 2010 the name on the jersey was ‘Garmin’ after five seasons with Lotto – and Tour ride number six. In 2011 he scored that magnificent win on the cobbles, rode the Vuelta and won the Duo Normand with Thomas Dekker. There was another top ten at Roubaix in 2012 as well as Tour and Vuelta rides. The Vuelta was on the 2013 agenda as it was again in 2014 when he also rode the Tour. For season 2015 he moved to French squad AG2R and again rode the Tour and Vuelta double; his ninth Tour and sixth Vuelta – and although he didn’t know at the time, these would be his final Grand Tours.
We didn’t think 14 seasons as a professional and a win in one of the world’s greatest races should go past without a final word with the man.
PEZ: Is it true that a Paris-Roubaix winner never has to buy another drink in Belgium again?
Johan Vansummeren: No, maybe a few time after the race but that’s all. . .
PEZ: Second in the Worlds to Lagutin in 2003, any ‘what ifs?’
I think I did everything right that day and 50 meters from the line I was full gas and thought I had it – but Lagutin came past. It was a bitter sweet day, I was disappointed to get beaten but it was nice to be up there on the podium.
PEZ: Relax, an unusual team – Belgo/Spanish.
Patrick Lefevere was behind that team, it was a good squad for young riders, you didn’t ride the biggest races so it gave you time to grow a little as a rider.
PEZ: But you rode the Vuelta that first season?
Yes, but I always liked stage races, especially Grand Tours – it was a little tough because I was the only Belgian guy there, the rest of the squad were Spanish. It’s hard to explain but your first Grand Tour changes you as riders, your body changes and you come out tougher.
PEZ: Five years with Lotto.
It was a good time, a nice team to be on, we were all Belgian and things weren’t so technical then with laptops, tablets and iPhones – the older and younger guys would sit and talk in the evening on races rather than disappearing to rooms and looking at screens.
PEZ: Then five years with Garmin.
That was a nice team, a happy period of my life – we all got along well. I mean, every team has its own mentality and as a rider you have to work a little at fitting in – cyclists aren’t difficult people to fit in with but you have to adapt to each other and learn to get along. But like I say, a nice time of my life.
PEZ: People said your Roubaix win was a surprise but you were top ten twice prior to your win.
It’s a race I always knew I could win but there are no guarantees in bike racing – it’s the race I always liked best. I’d be riding in the race and looking at guys who were suffering but I’d still be feeling good.
PEZ: Garmin had Peter Van Petegem involved in your pre-race recon, didn’t they?
Yeah, it was nice that he was there but obviously he couldn’t help in the race. It was good to have him there the night before the race, he helped with motivation, he’s a good guy, I raced with him on Lotto and it was fun to have him around but in the end you have to ride the bike yourself!
PEZ: You finished that race on a soft tyre. . .
Yes, 200 meters past the line it was completely flat, it had been losing pressure all through the last three or four kilometers – if you look at the video of me coming into the track you can see that I’m sliding around on the flat tyre.
PEZ: Nine Tours, six Vueltas – but no Giro?
That’s a little bit if a disappointment because I liked the Grand Tours, the Tour and the Vuelta – I was never a climber but was often last man on the final climbs for Cadel Evans at Lotto and Ryder Hesjedal at Garmin. The trouble was that because I did a full Classics program it didn’t really fit in with preparing for the Giro in May.
PEZ: A win in the Duo Normand. . .
Yes, with Thomas Dekker – one of those days where you just have to steer the bike. After my training for the Vuelta and Worlds I was in good shape; we beat some good guys that day, riders like Jens Mouris and Laszlo Bodrogi. As I said, when you come out of a Grand Tour it changes you – if you recover well you’re very strong.
It was different to Garmin but I liked the team a lot. People say that the French teams are not so professional but AG2R worked very hard at making sure the riders were as well prepared as they could be for their races with good trainers, nutritionists and staff. In the races the team wasn’t relaxed but after the stages or at training camp it was very relaxed. At Garmin there were a lot of US guys so maybe it’s not a surprise that they want to go to their rooms after their dinner and Skype or FaceTime with their friends and family back home – they’re thousands of miles from home for months of the year. But the French guys are closer to home and at night they like to sit and talk as a team – relaxed, nice to be part of.
PEZ: Before your diagnosis of a heart condition did you have any inclining of problems?
JV: No, nothing – the doctors asked if I’d been having black outs or other problems but I said; ‘no, not at all.’ It was just at those early season tests it was discovered. Although, in season 2015 I didn’t feel I was riding at my best, not do so strong and I wondered why. . .
PEZ: I have to ask about this result; third in the De Panne MTB Beach Race in 2004?
Yeah! I would still love to do it again, I like the MTB, I still ride it but I’m not allowed to race, unfortunately.
PEZ: What was your toughest day on the bike during your pro career?
JV: Ah! There were two actually, the day Landis lost all that time in the Tour and the next day when he took it back to Morzine in 2006. I was sick on the bike and in the hotel, I usually didn’t struggle to make the time cuts but I did those days – I had to try so hard to stay with the gruppetto.
PEZ: What do you do now?
Up to now, not much. I’ve been trying to get a job as a DS but it’s difficult; I definitely want to try and stay involved with the sport.
Generally I’m satisfied with my career but maybe if I’d thought about myself a little bit more in the early stages of my career. . .
# With thanks to Johan for his time and wishing him ‘all the best’ with whichever career path he chooses. #
We interviewed Johan back in January 2013, you can read the interview HERE.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,200 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.