By Steve Medcroft
Former World Mountain Bike Champion Filip Meirhaeghe is back in the saddle after fifteen months on the sidelines.
Meirhaeghe tested positive for EPO on June 25, 2004 (just before the Mont St. Anne World Cup) in an out of competition test and received a 15 month suspension from cycling, making him eligible to race again as early as January 14 of this year. At the time, Meirhaeghe was quoted by Sporza radio as saying that he felt there was actually hope for him to make a comeback. Without EPO. "...if I climb back on the bike, it will be without EPO. An ass doesn't stumble twice on the same stone."
Meirhaeghe was recently spotted in the peloton at the Tour de Langkawi. Speaking in contemplative tones to Cyclingnews by phone from his home in Belgium, Meirhaeghe says he spent his season in exile contemplating the damage he'd done to his career. "It will be easy," he says about his plans to avoid a repeat of his decision to take EPO. "My life will never be the same. Every day, I remember how it changed my life and I don't ever want to live through the same experiences again."
The break from racing also left Meirhaeghe with a gap in training that makes him wonder if he'll ever compete at the level he once did. "I didn't train for ten months," he said. "But I have been training all winter and my form seems to be all right for the moment."
The first test of Meirhaeghe's form came in Langkawi. "My goal was to be able to stay with the group and I was able to do that," he said about the nine-stage race. "I came out of it with better form than I started so I consider it a success."
Meirhaeghe has also taken in one local MTB race so far this season but admits he won't know where he ranks against the world best cross country racers until the 2006 World Cup season opener. "I'll be racing on the road for a full month so I won't race my mountain bike again until April first in Curacao (Netherlands Antilles)."
Will he be received well by his peers? "At the moment, nobody has given me any bad energy. Ninety-five percent of the people are reacting well," he says. He knows to expect some ill will though. "The thing I have to do is stay focused, know what I'm looking to accomplish, and try not to care about their reactions."
So beyond the potential for a boo or two, Meirhaeghe says he's focused on the racing. "Missing a season is my biggest question mark. I just don't know what my level my racing is at. I'm very curious to race again. And excited. And nervous."