Thor Hushovd retired on Saturday after completing the GP Impanis-Van Petegem, which won by his BMC team-mate Greg van Avermaet. The 2010 world champion and winner of ten stages of the Tour de France put an end to a 27 year long career! Jean-François Quénet looks back at his history as a young rider.
Hushovd hails from Grimstad, a charming harbour city overlooking a fjord on the south coast of Norway. He was never a lazy kid whinging for a ride to school. Whatever the weather was, a lift in his parent's car was not on the agenda. "The school was three kilometres away from home", he remembered. "In the winter time I made the trip on my skis. When the roads were cleared of the snow, I always went on my bike. I suppose I had a lot of energy to spend."
From the age of 9 onwards, the young Hushovd has been a competitive cyclist. Following the path of his brother Ronny who raced before he did, he won almost all the races he took part in as a teenager but he didn't grow up with the aim of becoming a star, even in September 1993 when he took part at the age 15 in Dag-Otto Lauritzen's farewell criterium in Grimstad alongside the likes of Sean Kelly and Sean Yates the day after Lance Armstrong won the world championship in Oslo, which was supposed to be Lauritzen's last race but he eventually carried on for one more year with TVM. "For me, cycling was only something fun to do", Hushovd said.
But he got bored of winning all the time. In Norway in the 90s, most of the bike races for youngsters were time trials – "tempo", as they're called. His first win was a 5km ITT in Vårtråkken in April 1988.
After collecting sixteen titles of Norwegian champion (those between the age of 10 and 16 were unofficial), he was eager to experience the normal teenagers' life. In September 1997, having given up cycling in his mind, he went on holiday to the Canary islands with a group of mates but a news brought him back into the sport: Kurt Asle Arvesen became the world champion for road racing in the U23 category. "Then I thought: if a Norwegian can be a world champion, it means I can do it as well", he recalled.
Only a year after Arvesen, he won the title for U23 world's time trial in Valkenburg, the Netherlands. He was the most versatile rider of his generation, having won both U23 Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Tours as well as climbing well enough to finish 7th overall in the Ronde de l'Isard in the Pyrénées. He was courted by a few professional teams, especially in France but also by Mapei, however he turned all the offers down.
"I wanted to do my military service first, I thought it was a duty to my country", said Hushovd who served as a simple soldier without being obliged to do so.
In his first pro year with Crédit Agricole, he earned some respect in his country when he was ranked a finalist (top 8) at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He finished the individual time trial in seventh place! It was a nice surprise and an encouraging sign to see him preceding on the result sheet the likes of Serhyi Honchar, Tyler Hamilton, Chris Boardman, Andreas Klöden, Christophe Moreau and David Millar. "As a teenager, my Olympic culture was bigger than my cycling culture", he remembered.
"In 1997, I was at a training camp with the Norwegian national team and the boys were talking about this 'Museeuw guy', as Milan-San Remo was coming up. I didn't know who he was but I won the bet we organised because I said Zabel, but this was the only name I knew in cycling. I had no idea if he was a sprinter or whatever, or if he had a single chance of winning Milan-San Remo."
The young Hushovd was more familiar with the names of cross-country skiers Vegard Ulvang and Bjørn Daehlie, the mega stars of the 1994 winter Olympics in Lillehammer, and the one of track and field's Vebjørn Rodal who won gold at the 1996 Atlanta games for the 800m.
He turned the attention of his compatriots to the Tour de France when he won stage 8 in 2004 with the national champion jersey on his shoulder only a few days after wearing the yellow for the first time. "That day, Norwegians realized: 'this guy is one of us", he said.
In reality, the legend of the "Thor de France" begun in 2001. Way before his personal achievements were glorified, he put a winning performance on at his first attempt to the world's biggest race. His relays were instrumental in the stage victory of Crédit Agricole in the team time trial from Verdun to Bar-le-Duc.
"Thor was strong the whole time", remembered Jonathan Vaughters, one of his team-mates that day, "but the last 10kms, he was a team unto himself. He kept our momentum going when the rest of us were dead."
A prestigious career was just in the making...