Race star Hilaire Van der Schueren: ‘It would hurt if they pushed me aside’

At 73, he is one of the oldest in the peloton. But the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert sports director is still happy as a child when the cycling season begins. Breakfast with De Tijd.

When the word testing comes up, Hilaire Van der Schueren sighs deeply. There are the corona tests that the cycling teams have to undergo three times a week. ‘I understand that. But in October I was in hospital for a week with corona, I am full of antibodies. Now, of course, there are those variants that pop up. It’s always something like that. ‘

And then there is the annual test he has to take to be allowed to drive the car in the race. According to a rule of the UCI cycling federation, sports directors over seventy are no longer allowed to do so unless they pass a test. ‘And so every year I have to drive through the streets of Brussels for half an hour with an instructor. While I still drive 60,000 to 70,000 kilometers a year. ‘

Van der Schueren is sitting behind a plate with two fried eggs in the Zuidwege hotel in Zedelgem, just before the start of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which kicks off the Flemish cycling season. At the tables next to our food, riders of the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert cycling team are breakfast cereals, yoghurts, cake and sandwiches with cheese or meat. ‘I date back to the days of steaks for breakfast. Then it was the spaghetti’s. But that has diminished dramatically. You still sometimes have someone who eats rice, but a normal breakfast works just as well, ‘he says with his characteristic no-nonsense attitude.

My dad could be hard on me. Sometimes too loud, yes.

He has recovered 80 percent of the corona infection. “They told me that I may never heal 100 percent. Apparently that is usually the case with people who became ill in the second wave. ‘ Van der Schueren is still short of breath. ‘If I’m just alive, I won’t be bothered. But when I need to get things done quickly on my farm, someone tells me, ‘Stop it, boy.’ ‘

The farm still has 15 cows, to be slaughtered for the freezer or to sell. It lies at the foot of the Bosberg, where the race passes later that day. All riders know that Van der Schueren lives there. ‘We used to do the reconnaissance from my house, and afterwards they all came for dinner. That is also something that is no longer allowed due to corona. ‘

This is a transition year for Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert. Really famous riders are not in the team, except for names such as Aimé De Gendt and Jan Bakelants. The sporting goals are modest: top eight in a monument or stage win in a grand tour. “But if none of us are in the leading group today on the Muur or the Bosberg, I will still be disappointed with a bag of ice on my head tonight.”

© Brecht Van Maele

Yesterday there was a big briefing about the course and the team strategy in the team bus, soon a PowerPoint presentation will follow with the most important passages. Although he has been in the race for 48 years, it continues to itch now that the cycling season really starts. ‘It used to be more special than now, you put things into perspective more. But it remains exciting. The opening is the opening. You have to score, you cannot go off. We have been working abroad since January 3. Yet it is only now really starting. ‘

Initially, Van der Schueren wanted to become a veterinarian. ‘But that was seven years of study, plus another year of military service before I could work. Then I created my account. If I started directly with the government, I might be earning peanuts. But anyone who graduated as a veterinarian or engineer had to work until the age of fifty to catch up with me. That’s why I applied for a job with the government, so I could start right away. ‘

He became responsible for the personnel department at the Ministry of Public Works, under the then CVP minister Jos Chabert. ‘I had a key position there, as I attended many meetings and was also responsible for appointments. I learned a lot there. ‘

I am close to my drivers. But when necessary, I distance myself and put them in their place.

Via his brother-in-law, he ended up by accident in the following car at the amateur cycling club Jette Sportief. ‘We drove the tiles off the roof, after which sports director Lomme Driessens asked me to go to the Tour de France. I am no longer off course. ‘

Van der Schueren has two sides. He comes across as sympathetic and seems like everyone’s friend, but to his riders he can be strict and blunt. ‘I am close to my drivers. But if you need to, you have to distance yourself and be able to put them in their place. That is catching on. Saying something to someone’s face is always better than talking behind someone’s back. ‘

He learned that attitude from his mentor and friend, the Dutch rider Jan Raas. But especially from his father. ‘Although he had finished his high school, which was exceptional at the time, he took over his father’s farm when he died suddenly. He had a three-year-old sister and a five-year-old brother. “I’ll do it, and don’t go to college,” he said to his mother. That made him a tough man. ‘

Too hard? He takes a sip of his cappuccino, hesitates and then says: ‘Sometimes too hard for me, yes. Especially in my face. I could never do anything right. When I was going to plow the field, he would come and look and say, ‘Can’t you see that, young? That one piece is much higher than the other. ‘ But he would tell others that I was a good boy. ‘

© Brecht Van Maele

Van der Schueren offers a unique insight into the cycling history of the last fifty years. In the beginning of his career he drove with a Dutch top team, in which riders such as Jan Raas, Joop Zoetemelk and Adrie Van der Poel rode in one beautiful victory after another. Afterwards he achieved success with, among others, Edwig Van Hooydonck, but he was also confronted with the false competition from epo.

‘Edwig was Belgium’s greatest talent, and that boy suddenly couldn’t win a prize anymore. At one point he said after the Brabant Arrow that those riders came from another planet. He was blamed for that, to the extent that they threatened to drive him into the side. ‘

How difficult is it as a sports director not to respond to that temptation? ‘We won six stages in the Tour. And the following year we started with almost the same team and drove the broom wagon from the first to the last ride. You have to experience that. Yet we have stuck to our position: we are not doing it. I have always kept a long way from that myself. I didn’t want to end up in prison. ‘

For several years now, the peloton has been in the grip of ketones. They are not prohibited, but they are extremely expensive. ‘We have a medical staff with four doctors, that is theirs’, Van der Schueren. ‘They have decided until now that we are not going to work with it. If a rider wants to do it, we can’t stop him. ‘

Are such expensive resources again not anti-competitive? ‘They seem to be better for recovery. But you also have to have the budget for it. A team like Ineos may be able to do that, but we cannot. Even now that our new main sponsor Intermarché has joined, we have to see how our budget evolves. ‘

Last year, Van der Schueren’s team was able to buy the license of the professional team CCC thanks to the new main sponsor. As a result, the team now has a WorldTour license and plays in the Champions League of cycling. This also means that Van der Schueren now has to operate in a much larger whole, with dieticians and also a performance manager around him.

It is rumored that he does not always appreciate this modern thing. ‘Of course I evolve with the times. But if I don’t like it, I’ll say it too. And if they don’t appreciate that, then so be it. They should stop looking at me. ‘

© Brecht Van Maele

Is there a parallel with his good friend Jan Raas, who was put aside and radically said goodbye to the race? Raas was very straightforward. He had to come across as more sympathetic from the sponsor Rabobank. That is why he has been pushed aside. That can happen to me too. If they think they can do better, they should do it, huh. They’ll find out if that’s the case. ‘

Is he preparing for a goodbye? ‘I definitely want to continue until my 75th birthday. I’ve been building on this for so many years and with so much energy that it would hurt if they pushed me aside. ‘

Winning a classic or a stage in the Tour would be a great parting gift, he says. At the same time he realizes how relative success can be. ‘We have already been able to win the Amstel Gold Race with Enrico Gasparotto in this small team. But in the same period we lost a rider: Antoine Demoitié. The accident, in which a motorcycle ran over his head, happened right in front of me. The low point in my career. ‘

Van der Schueren himself is known as a speeder in the support vehicle. Whether he has become more careful over the years? ‘Of course. Twenty years ago I was the most reckless driver in the pack. Now I see it passing by on the cycle path and I think: ‘Manneke, you are not going to ride here for twenty years.’ ‘

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