Escape from Hell – 1988 : Dirk Demol (I/V)

1988 : Dirk Demol (I/V)

In the end, it’s not always the strongest who wins. Certainly not in cycling, and most definitely not in Paris-Roubaix. On the roads of the Hell of the North, the „strongest“ can just as easily win in the legendary velodrome as get bogged down in the Trouée d’Arenberg. Year after year, the cobblestone crushers crash in the Mons-en-Pévèle sector or collapse in the Carrefour de l’Arbre – and one cannot underestimate the traps of the asphalt either. On these unique roads, an aspirant for glory needs to be strong, but also brave and lucky. Paris-Roubaix smiles on the bold, even those who have been out there the longest. In a race where chaos is always the order of the day, early attackers create unsuspected openings. Conquerors of the Hell of the North, they tell us about their heavenly day on the cobbles.

Dirk Demol : “When De Vlaeminck told me we were gonna stay away…”

Numbers hardly break down the brutality and magnificence of Paris-Roubaix. 120 editions held since the first one, in 1896. Some 250 kilometres of racing, with over 50 kilometres of cobblestones in the modern version of the „Hell of the North“, featuring sectors classified from one to five stars, based on the challenge they represent. Countless feats and even more dreams shattered. And extraordinary breakaways, since the French Monument ignites a special fire within the most daring attackers. How long was the longest successful breakaway in the history of Paris-Roubaix? „We did 222 kilometres at the front“, the winner of the 1988 edition Dirk Demol recalls. That year, his team AD Renting had come with a hot favourite: Eddy Planckaert. They had stellar rivals: Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, Marc Madiot, Eric Vanderaerden… But it was the „manneke“ („little guy“) Demol – hailing from Kuurne, some 25km away from Roubaix – who surged to an unexpected triumph, getting the better of his breakaway companions while resisting the bigger guns. „Numbers are unforgiving“, Jean-Marie Leblanc wrote on his way to Kuurne, as he pondered for L’Équipe the mathematical impossibility for Fignon to bridge a gap of 2’52“ in the very last kilometres. The Frenchman eventually crossed the line in 3rd position, 1’55“ after Demol. Fignon never got the numbers right in Roubaix while Leblanc went on to steer the French Monument, as well as the Tour de France. As for Demol, he now shares his unique insights as a sports director for Lotto Dstny after he worked with icons such as Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara.

KM 0. Go to the front : “I was covering the early breaks for Planckaert”

“Roubaix has always been my favourite race. I remember doing it with the Belgian national team as an Under 23 in 1980. Back then, you had to wait for a letter in the mail and I was so happy when I read I was gonna do Roubaix! I finished 2nd in a sprint against Stephen Roche, with a similar scenario to my victory in 1988. It was a long breakaway, gone before the first cobblestones, and we had the same number of riders at the front – 13 – until it gradually came down to only two. Then, I got to do it as a professional. In 1988, I was covering the early breaks with another Belgian teammate, Luc Colyn, for our leader Eddy Planckaert, who had won the Tour of Flanders a week earlier. We wanted to have somebody up there so we could avoid chasing in the bunch. There were many attempts and I was somehow lucky because I was eventually part of it when the breakaway went after some 40 kilometres of racing.”

Km44. Make the most of the break : “I was lucky to be with Thomas Turbo”

“We had quite a big group and I was already thinking my director would be happy with the job I had done. Of course, you pull. But you stay on the reserve, because you have to be able to help your leader if he comes later. I wasn’t strong enough to be a leader, not physically, not mentally. When I was on a good day, I made the top 10 of several semi-classics. But I never raced the finale of a big Classic, except for that year in Roubaix. I was lucky to be up there with Thomas Wegmuller. We used to call him Thomas Turbo, or Terminator, because he was always going full gas. A couple of years later, he attacked with Jacky Durand in the Tour of Flanders and they stayed away as well. But I was also the only one able to go with him. Gerard Veldschoten was in the breakaway, Allan Peiper… When these guys were dropped, I figured we were going really fast.”

KM 220. Listen to Mr Paris-Roubaix : “I can do it!”

“My first leader when I turned professional, in 1982, was Roger De Vlaeminck, Monsieur Paris-Roubaix. If he liked a young rider, he would teach you. In Roubaix, positioning is essential. I also learned from Roger how to go smooth over the cobbles. In 1988, with about 45 km to go, press cars moved past them. One of them slowed down as they passed us… Roger was their guest. He rolled down his window and told me: ‘‘Dirk, you know, you’re gonna stay away! It’s still three minutes. It’s the chance of your life to win.’ From that moment, I went all in. In races, I was often doubting. But that day… For some reason, I was thinking: ‘Ok, Roger said we can stay away, I feel good… I can do it!’ On every level, physically, mentally, it was the kind of day a rider likes me maybe gets once in their career. I also knew Thomas couldn’t sprint at all while I could defend myself, especially in small groups. And the wind had blown a plastic bag in his derailleur. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and everything came together.”

KM 266. Step into the legend : „It’s true, I won Roubaix!”

“When you cross the line, you don’t really realise. Especially someone like me, a gregario, a domestique… It was already my 7th year as a pro. I went to the podium, then I had to speak to the media, do the doping control… My best supporter was there, picking me up to bring me home. We had a small fan club in a café. And it was incredible how excited everyone was. At some point in the night – I stayed celebrating with them until 3 or 4 AM, even Jean-Marie Leblanc was there as a journalist for L’Équipe – they brought me the newspapers from Monday. I was on the front page and then I said: ‘Yes, it’s true, I won Roubaix!’ I went to bed, I was so tired but I couldn’t sleep: ‚is it true? did I dream?‘ It was a dream indeed.”