As part of Cyclingnews' special Belgian Week before Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad race, our Belgian correspondent Brecht Decaluwé, interviewed the legendary Roger De Vlaeminck during a game of billiards to talk about the Classics, Tom Boonen, Peter Sagan and his favourites for the big races.
Three-cushion billiards helps Roger De Vlaeminck get through a miserable rainy day in February. "There's not much else one can do in this weather," he tells Cyclingnews, as competitive with a cue today as he was in the Classics in the seventies and early eighties.
It's less than a week until the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad kicks off the Belgian cycling season and cycling's Classics season. De Vlaeminck plays his daily game of billiards in the Montana pub in Eeklo, Belgium. He has helped give the electric bike brand Beafort some exposure in recent years but describes himself as 'professionally retired'. He reveals that he turns 70 but we promised not to tell anyone.
Roger De Vlaeminck is known as Monsieur Paris-Roubaix. He won the cobbled Classic four times -a record he shares with Tom Boonen since 2012. Fabian Cancellara is riding his final year as a professional rider and can level with De Vlaeminck and Boonen this spring, while Boonen is still in the running to break the record in what could also be his final season.
De Vlaeminck laughs at the comparison, showing his natural pride, despite his age.
"That's okay. Records are there to be broken. Although no, there's one record that will never be broken. I've won Tirrenno-Adriatico six times in a row. Anyway, there's more than just records. It's the palmares that can't be taken away from you. I've won all five monuments. Only Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy managed to do the same."
Roger De Vlaeminck does feel both Boonen and Fabian Cancellara can still win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix as he considers the favourites for this year's major Spring Classics.
"They dominated the podium in Roubaix in the past decade. Together they won seven times and they both are still capable of winning. For Boonen much will depend on how he recovered from his crash. Other than these two Zdenek Stybar and Greg Van Avermaet are names I'm thinking off. Someone like Greg Van Avermaet needs to finish solo. He's got to get away before the sprint," he says.
"I love his style. I hate riders who just sit in the wheels and wait for the sprint. He's a great rider, always battling for the victory but winning is so difficult for him. To win you also need to read the race, play it tactically. It'll work out for him. I saw him on TV and he was breathing confidence. It's the rider I like the most."
"Sep Vanmarcke? It's 10 times harder for him than for Van Avermaet. Van Avermaet has a better sprint. Vanmarcke is not that strong and needs a super day."
"Kristoff is in a great position. The others have to drop him. He doesn't need to reach the finish solo. He only had to fear John Degenkolb but since he crashed out Kristoff the fastest by far. Last year he nearly won Flanders solo but he doesn't need to bother about that."
Sagan: He needs to start winning monuments
Peter Sagan, the current world champion has failed to win any of the monumental Classics up until now. De Vlaeminck is not afraid to share his opinion on the charismatic Slovakian rider.
"Sagan won the World championships but other than that... Okay, he's won E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem but those are not monuments. Podium in San Remo and Flanders? That doesn't matter. He needs to start winning. He's very good but maybe he's exaggerating a bit. I mean, with his long hair... I think it's too long but it's probably fashionable to have one these days, I assume. To me, football players are okay to have a beard but not cyclists. I don't think I would be able to stand it as a rider. I've never had it and I never will."
Sagan's sprinting speed, his Classics skills and ability to win even stage races makes him one of the few riders who are capable of building a palmarès that could equals that of Roger De Vlaeminck. However De Vlaeminck does not agree.
"Hmmm," he says in disagreement. "What did he do in the past in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and in Lombardia? Twice abandoned in Lombardia and it's not even as hard as it was in our days. Now there are three climbs I think and when we rode it there were five long climbs. I want to see how he goes in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Sagan isn't much of a climber, is he? If it goes uphill he drops back to the team car. In my days I won tough mountains stages in the Giro d'Italia. I also beat the fastest riders of my era, like Patrick Sercu."
Roger De Vlaeminck not only has a impressive palmarès in the road cycling but also in cyclo-cross, a discipline where his older brother Erik excelled. Erik De Vlaeminck passed away last December. He was a cyclo-cross legend, a seven-time world champion. Both Erik and Roger competed in both road racing and cyclo-crossand Erik was also a good road rider, winning a stage in the Tour de France and finishing twice on the podium at Flèche Wallonne.
"Riders no longer do that. It's seldom that I'm asked about my cyclo-cross history even though I won 120 out of the 180 races I took part in and became World champion. Meanwhile Erik was winning hundreds of races himself," Roger points out.
De Vlaeminck often gets in a media storm when he speaks out. Back in 2012 his comments about the lack of rivals for Boonen created a lot of buzz. In February 2013 a similar situation occurred when he suggested Sven Nys was not even the best rider of his generation. It even sparked a Twitter hashtag #inthedaysofRogerDeVlaeminck.
De Vlaeminck just shrugs his shoulders and gets on with his life and his billiard match.
"That's a while ago. I'm not on that Twitter thing so I don't care. I just give my opinion. There's nothing wrong with that. Just don't turn around my words because otherwise you don't need to come back," Roger De Vlaeminck concluding the interview with a warning as strong as any of his opinions.