The other week I penned a piece about riders who had come back – or not – from bad crashes. When one writes a piece a like that it’s never intended to be a definitive list, just personal opinion and recollections; there’s always someone you’ll overlook. One name that came to mind after the piece appeared was that of Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland, who most will remember as the victim of a terrible crash in the 2011 Tour de France when he and Juan Antonio Flecha were brought down when a car overtaking their five-man escape group swerved right to avoid a tree after executing an irresponsible overtaking manoeuvre on the grass verge.
Hoogerland was forced through a barbed wire fence and suffered painful injuries which required 33 stitches. I interviewed Johnny on that Tour, after the incident and whilst he was sore, his morale was good, he finished the Tour and had a successful post-Tour criterium campaign including a win at the famous Acht van Chaam.
What’s less well known is that in February of 2013 whilst training near Benidorm in Spain he suffered another crash where he broke five ribs, four vertebrae, tore his liver and spent four days in the intensive care unit of a Spanish hospital.
It was two weeks before he could return to The Netherlands. Remarkably, in June of that year he won The Netherlands Road Race Championships, beating the cream of Dutch cycling – Tom Dumoulin, Sebastian Langeveld, Pim Ligthart, Nike Terpstra… but he says that after the Spanish crash he was never the same rider, we chatted to him recently at his new passion – Pension Hoogerland in Velden am Wothersee, Austria:
You won the Junior Tour of Flanders in 2001 was that the breakthrough for you, Johnny?
“Of course that’s a nice race to win but I was with the Rabobank junior team so my ability was already recognised.”
Second in the u23 Paris-Roubaix in 2005, any ‘what-ifs?’
“Not really, I was riding for the national squad and we hadn’t checked out the parcours, that didn’t help.
“I felt good that day but the Russian guy, Dimitry Kozonchuk was stronger than me.”
You had a great season in 2008 with 11 wins.
“I realised that it was my last chance to get a full pro contract, I was serious about my preparation and it all came together.”
The team we most associate you with is Vacansoleil – old school Belgian, hard racing, you signed in 2009 and fitted right in.
“When someone offers you a pro contract, you take it!
“But it was a good fit yes, and our team manager Hilaire Van Der Schueren gave me a lot of good advice as a young pro.
“I don’t speak to him every day but I keep in touch with him.”
You won The Three Days of West Flanders as a neo-pro.
“Yes, I won the first stage from Kortrijk to Bellegem and then we had to defend my jersey for the next two stages – I learned all about the stress of defending a leader’s jersey during those stages!”
The incident in your career you must be tired of talking about – that crash in the 2011 Tour?
“No, it’s Ok, we can talk about it, my insurance claim got sorted out eventually but it took a long time and a lot of stress to reach an agreement.
“It was sad, the insurance company weren’t willing to see it from a human perspective.
“I never heard from or received an apology from anyone.”
Tell us about the crash you had in Benidorm, 2013.
“It was much worse than the Tour crash, I remember the date – February 03, 2013, the beginning of the end of my career. I was in a lot of pain and spent four days in intensive care, 15 days in hospital.
“I never had the same fire anymore, my numbers were still good but from that time onwards I was always frightened of crashing.
“In the Ronde van Vlaanderen I’d finished 11th and 12th which aren’t so bad finishes in that race – I knew I had to be in the first 20 positions going into the Kwaremont and would fight to be there.
“It’s only the really strong guys who can move up on that climb so I knew that I had to be positioned at the front coming into it – after that crash I never had that fight for position in me again, the fire was gone.”
But you won the National Championship that year, ahead of Dutch Cycling’s top guys?
“When I came back after that crash I rode the Tours of Romandie, Picardie and Belgium and then the Dauphine – and I wasn’t going well at all.
“Hilaire wanted me to ride the Tour of Luxembourg but my team mate, Juan Antonio Flecha said to me; ‘don’t do that, come down to my home near the Pyrenees and we’ll train at altitude for 10 days.’
“The Nationals were on a hard, technical parcours but I never felt stressed at all and after I won it thought to myself; ‘that’s it, I’m back!’
“But I rode the Tour and the Vuelta and was nothing special in both races.”
I read that with hindsight you wish that perhaps you should have quit at the end of 2013?
“No, I didn’t think that, cycling is your life and you want to keep going and trying to get back to your old level.”
Vacansoleil folded at the end of 2013 and you went to Androni Giocattoli Venezuela for 2014.
“That’s a period I don’t really want to talk about … let’s just say it wasn’t so much about the cycling team as the ‘Big Savio Show.’“
Your last two seasons with Roompot but no real results?
“Like I said, I was never the same after that crash in Spain.”
What was your favourite kind of race?
“I liked ‘heavy’ races with hard climbs, but not mountain passes that take an hour to climb, races like San Sebastián, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy where I was fifth in 2009.”
You rode all of the Grand Tours, which was your personal favourite?
“The Vuelta, where I was top 12 on GC in 2009, is my favourite.
“The Tour is the biggest for sure and the Giro is a beautiful race but the Vuelta is the most relaxed of the three.
“In the Vuelta the stages start late and your time is your own much sooner after the stage ends than in the Tour.
“In the Tour you’re up at 07:00 am and often still on the go at 11:00 pm.
“All that said, when you’re a young cyclist, the first thing folks ask you is; ‘have you ridden the Tour de France?’.
“It’s the biggest and best known.”
Your ‘finest hour?’
“That would be winning the Dutch Nationals – I was very proud of that result.”
Some say that if you’d ridden more with your head than your heart then you may have win more?
“Looking back you can always think of what you should have done differently – I was too focussed, too serious, I could only hold that for a couple of months but then it would skip away.
“I should have looked for more balance in my approach.”
The transition from professional cyclist to civilian?
“I have my wife and two lovely kids; we sat down and we looked at what to do next – we made new plans.
“We have a 13 room hotel now, here in Velden am Wörthersee – some say it’s the Monaco of Austria – since January 2018 and have had no problems integrating, we’ve been made very welcome.
“Things have been a little tough with the pandemic and economic worries in Europe but with the Covid situation easing things are looking optimistic for the future.”
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So, if you fancy some good Dutch hospitality in the scenic splendour of Austria, not to mention top quality cycling chat, check out www.pensionhoogerland.com.