An Easter in Flanders with legendary team boss Hilaire van der Schueren
“Laziness is an illness,” he says. The voice hits you, a baritone that is as gravelly and tough as a Strade Bianche kicker. If his timbre or presence does not command respect, his experience certainly does. Hilaire van der Schueren has been a directeur sportif for longer than most professional cyclists have been on this planet.
It is Easter in Flanders. Forty-eight hours before the 2015 Ronde, we sit for koffie and advocaat in a Geraardsbergen café. The iconic Muur and Hilaire’s farm – being Flemish, of course he owns a farm – are a few kilometres up the road. Surely handling a bunch of skinny cyclists is child’s play for a man used to herding heffers.
Van der Schueren is a rarity in the cycling world, a directeur sportif who never raced a bicycle. In his youth, he was a defender for Atembeke football team who would watch his brother-in-law Freddy at the amateur kermesses every summer. When the squad’s manager fell ill before a race one day, this 22-year-old filled in. The oldest directeur sportif in the bunch was once the youngest too.
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After suffering with knee injuries, he quit football and turned his hand to directing a leading Belgian amateur cycling squad, backed by a local Volvo dealership. Directeur sportif Lomme Driessens came in for a car and ended up leaving with several of his young talents.
However, Driessens had spotted the former-defender’s aptitude with riders and invited him to the 1980 Tour de France as second sports director for the Boule d’Or team. “My experience was that we were more professional with my amateurs than with the pros,” Van der Schueren says.
In that debut, Van der Schueren had the unenviable task of washing riders’ shorts after long days driving the team car. It was a very different time, of toe-clips, dormitory accommodation, steel frames and home nation Tour de France winners.
With bad blood brewing between Kwantum talisman Jan Raas and Driessens, Van der Schueren got a permanent opportunity after the 1984 Tour de France. The Dutch star invited him to his house and asked him to be directeur sportif.
He recalls a subsequent meeting with the fearsome team sponsor, ex-boxer Joop Steenbergen. “He said ‘I want you to make discipline in this team because there’s no discipline.’ Every time he made a point, he banged the table with his fist,” Van der Schueren says, pounding the table himself. “I went ‘Oh, I must discipline Jan Raas, Hennie Kuiper, Joop Zoetemelk, Adri van der Poel…’”
Much-needed organisation was brought in. “With Lomme Driessens, you had nothing. Before the Tour of Sicily, we needed to take a plane from Brussels to Milan, then one on to Palermo. But what time? Nobody knew.”
Van der Schueren sent information by post and, later, by fax. Working as a public works minister until the early 90s, alongside his directeur duties, gave him a fine eye for management and detail.
As Kwantum evolved into Superconfex and Buckler, Van der Schueren and Raas had a tight-knit dream team on their hands: riding classy Colnago Masters, the likes of Frans Maassen, Jelle Nijdam, Jean-Paul van Poppel (pictured above) and Edwig Van Hooydonck supplied big wins.
The latter’s 1989 Tour of Flanders win remains the favourite of Van der Schueren’s career. He claims that, given the youngster’s flimsy pre-race form, Jan Raas wanted to select Cees Priem instead, but he had persuaded him otherwise. Incidentally, Van Hooydonck suggested to Belgian journalist Noël Truyers in 1993 that Van der Schueren was the one who didn’t want to pick him.
Later, he talks of how Roger Hammond and Marco Marcato were wrong to transfer to bigger teams, Discovery Channel and Cannondale respectively. But if you believe Hilaire, he is always right. There is more to the man – and some of his stories – than meets the eye.
While he has an avuncular appearance, you’ve got to be tough and wily to survive 30 years in this sport. Professional cycling is often about who you know, and Hilaire is friends with just about everyone. His favours stretch back to the 80s. For instance, he’d take Buckler to all the Spanish tours when it was unfashionable and organisers repay his loyalty to this day. That’s partly why Wanty-Groupe Gobert gain invites to WorldTour races like the Volta a Catalunya.
The Jan and Hilaire show ended when Rabobank came on board ahead of 1996. He became the manager of Belgian squad Collstrop, starting a new chapter of overseeing small-budget, attacking Benelux teams, from Palmans and Unibet, to WorldTour squad Vacansoleil and Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
For Van der Schueren, hard work is the foundation of everything. If a rider errs, he will set him straight in no uncertain terms. He cares for his boys, but can switch between the roles of doting father figure and incandescent drill sergeant when necessary.
“I say exactly what I think. Face-to-face is best… If it’s Marcato, Leukemans or a small rider, it’s the same. If they disagree with what I say, okay, we can discuss it. When you have no respect, then you have a problem, eh?”
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Most of his budget at Wanty-Groupe Gobert is spent on salaries alone, so Van der Schueren has learned to make a little go a long way.
“Some things I see in the big teams are not necessary. You live and eat in a hotel, it doesn’t have to be five stars. If we take a plane, we are looking for low-cost, Ryanair and Easyjet. If they race in France, they take the train.”
Van der Schueren is also shrewd with recruitment, taking on talented riders whose results have plateaued. That means their contract is significantly lower, then he attempts to return them to success.
While involvement in a big race breakaway will often satisfy the sponsors, his small fry sometimes exceed expectations spectacularly: take Thomas De Gendt’s 2012 Giro d’Italia stage win on the Stelvio (pictured above) or Marco Marcato’s Paris-Tours victory five months later.
When I ask who is the most talented rider he has worked with, it’s no wonder that he pauses for thought: from Abdoujaparov to Zoetemelk, 500 professional cyclists have passed under his watchful eye.
He plumps for Jelle Nijdam, Jean-Paul Van Poppel and Edwig Van Hooydonck, with a thought for Frank Vandenbroucke (below), who raced under him at Unibet: “He was so gifted intellectually, he knew art and culture. Too intelligent to race. He thought too much.”
Cycling has evolved greatly since Van der Schueren’s 1985 debut. In his opinion, what have been the biggest changes?
“I think it’s the big money that has come into the peloton. I am not so happy with that, because 30 years ago, there were also a lot of teams of [bicycle] constructors, like Flandria, Splendor and Cinelli.
“You see the problem; these people come and it’s possible that the next week, they say the team is finished, like Astana or Katusha.”
However, you can rely on Hilaire Van der Schueren being there for the long haul. They will literally have to stop him: a UCI rule stipulates that he has to retire at the end of 2018, the year of his 70th birthday. Good luck to the blazer brigade tasked with enforcing that.
“I think I will never take my pension because this is my passion,” he says. “It’s very important that you can do what you like. Then you are a happy man.”
Three riders, past and present, recall working for Van der Schueren
Frans Maassen – raced for Van der Schueren at Superconfex, Buckler, Wordperfect and Novell (1987-95)
“I spent my whole career with Hilaire and Jan Raas. Those two often lit up in the team minibus, there was a lot of cigarette smoke. In those days, it was normal.
“I often got good results in the races he loved the most, like the Tour of Flanders, Brabantse Pijl and Tour of Luxembourg. Hilaire understands racing really well, although it’s not easy to speak with him. He has a special Belgian dialect and words stick in his mouth. He’d say a lot while passing from the team car and we could never understand anything.
“He had a good relationship with the race jury. We often had riders who had difficulty making the time cut in Grand Tour mountain stages; me too – sometimes I got a hand from the team car. But often, we stayed in the race. We’d joke that the officials were going home with Buckler-branded clothing or, when we were sponsored by [electronics company] Yoko, a small TV.
“Nowadays, I’m kind of an adversary, as I’m directeur sportif for LottoNL-Jumbo. Sometimes he thinks I will flick him in races. I always say “Hilaire, after all these years, you still don’t trust me,” and we laugh.
“As a joke, I go: ‘If they fire me, can I come work for you?’
“He says, ‘of course, no problem’. So I reply ‘will you call me?’ And he says ‘no, no, you have to call me. Then the price is lower.'”
Roger Hammond – raced with Hilaire at Palmans and MrBookmaker.com (1998-2004)
“Hilaire didn’t beat around the bush, he told you exactly how he felt, happy or disappointed. I saw him off his trolley, shouting and screaming at us. He was a taskmaster, there was no space for the weak, but the smart ones realised. You’d be churned out the other end pretty quick if not.
“He’d race you fit: you’d do kermesses until you could follow again. He’d get all his riders to start them because he got start money for every single competitor. Even if they were sick and abandoned, it would help run the team – or feed the cows on his farm, I’m not sure which.
“My shortest season was 96 days long and that was including time off with a broken arm. The first time I did Paris-Roubaix, we did it Hilaire-fashion: I did Harelbeke, De Panne, Scheldeprijs, GP Pino Cerami on the Friday and Paris-Roubaix on the Sunday. I wasn’t recovered, obviously.
“I wasn’t afraid of telling Hilaire if I was sick or injured. He was pretty good for that; he’d make an effort. And when someone works really hard and is present at every occasion, you get the feeling you can’t let them down.
“We got basic equipment. Before finishing third at Roubaix in 2004, I had to source my own tubulars and equipment. The special Paris-Roubaix ones wouldn’t fit into the forks, there wasn’t clearance, so I rode it on a standard road bike.
“If you got summoned to Hilaire’s farm, you’d either had a special or bad day. Fortunately for me, it was after my podium at Roubaix. Afterwards, he gave me a part of a cow to say thank you. It was still warm when he brought it round to my apartment… I didn’t quite know what to do with 100 kilograms of meat, but it lasted me through the season. When he was pleased, he wasn’t a man of many words.
“What’s the judge of a directeur sportif? Is it the ability to get good results from a team on the budget you have? Then there’s the longevity of riders who stay with you – and Björn Leukemans has spent his whole career there.
“I can’t imagine what Hilaire would do without it. Everyone was involved, all his friends and relatives: I think his wife’s father, who must have been ancient, drove the team minibus. The whole team was made by friendships, it had that family feel. I can’t picture him doing training camps on top of a volcano in Tenerife. He’s the last of those DSs, real old school.”
Marco Marcato -raced with Hilaire at Cycle Collstrop, Vacansoleil and Wanty-Groupe Gobert (2008-13, 2015-present)
“Hilaire is not your ordinary sports director. I think all the riders are a little afraid of him, but they also love him. He’s like a second father sometimes, for the advice that he gives you.
“I remember meeting Hilaire for the first time at the Etoile de Bessèges. I was a bit surprised because he looks like someone who doesn’t know anything about cycling. With his face and his manner, you go “how is it possible that he can be a sports director?”
“But soon I got the feeling that he really knew cycling. Every time at the team briefing before Belgian races, when he said “look out, there could be a break here,” it always happened.
“If you do something wrong in a race, he’ll come straight up and tell you directly to fix the problem. And also when Hilaire says something, it’s like that; his word is his bond.
“Sometimes Hilaire has difficulty understanding new systems of training. But in the end, new technology can improve you, but if you don’t have the base from the old school method, you can’t get the best result.
“After winning Paris-Tours [in 2012], I went behind the podium and Hilaire was there. He gave me a big hug, he was really emotional. I don’t forget people like Hilaire, he does it because he has a real passion for cycling.”
The full version of this feature was first published in Rouleur 61
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