Most of you will know Johnny Hoogerland as the rider who ripped himself to shreds on a barbed wire fence during Cadel Evans’ win in last year’s Tour de France.
In his debut Tour Hoogerland, of the Dutch Vacansoleil-DCM team, was in a break of five riders when Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha was hit by a passing media car. The accident brought down Hoogerland and catapulted him into the fence at top speed.
The Dutchman managed to finish the stage, but the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey was scant reward after such a huge scare, one which occurred while the tragic death of Belgian rider Wouter Weylandt was still fresh in the mind.
Hoogerland broke down in tears on the podium but vowed not to change his attacking style of racing. The episode won himself a legion of followers worldwide – many of whom were already attracted to the rider, who readily admits he gets bored rolling along in the peloton and would much prefer being further up the road in a break – even if it fails.
Now 28, Hoogerland first made an impression during his debut Vuelta a Espana in 2009, in which he finished 12th after a series of scintillating attacks in the mountains.
The barbed-wire incident last July merely made Hoogerland more of a cult figure than he already was, and inadvertently gave his little-known team an identity.
If you do a Google search for Vacansoleil-DCM the snippet of information displayed reads: “Official site with the latest news about the team, the riders, Johnny Hoogerland, events and photos.”
It’s quite remarkable that Vacansoleil-DCM’s most famous rider is one who we rarely see on top of the podium.
The problem with Hoogerland is that he has never won a major race in his career. For all his attacking verve, his trophy cabinet remains bare.
After a solid ride to fifth place in the General Classification of the recent Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, Hoogerland was back on our screens during Simon Gerrans’s win in Milan San-Remo.
Making his debut in the monument classic, twice Hoogerland went on the offensive, breaking the unwritten rule of ‘La Primavera’ that says attacks on the Cipressa are doomed to fail.
Hoogerland’s first attack showed scant regard to any tactical awareness, with the seemingly impatient Dutchman following an attempt by the lowly Spaniard Francisco Javier Vila on the penultimate climb of the day.
The pair were swept up, but Hoogerland still had enough gas in the tank to have a pop on the famous Poggio climb moments before Vincenzo Nibali made the decisive break, taking with him both Gerrans and the Australian’s taxi to victory, Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.
“I felt a bit more confident after my first attack,” San Remo debutant Hoogerland told Dutch reporters after the race.
“It didn’t work but I was not fully gone so I was able to try on the Poggio again. I’m not afraid to fall but I did not know these slopes. I now have that experience, and I will return stronger next year, but I did not want to take risks.”
But Hoogerland’s latest display of plucky, yet ultimately futile, attacking is a concern to his team management, with directeur sportif Hilaire Van Der Schueren admitting that “it’s a problem”.
The Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf has reported that in the coming weeks the team will hold talks and try to analyse the “impulsive behaviour” of Hoogerland to see if it stems from a fear of failure. While us supporters revel in Hoogerland’s attacking verve, there are fears that the rider is driven by uncertainty and anxiety.
“It’s a shame for a rider who is currently in the form of his life and who, with a more measured plan, could have been one of the major players in Milan San Remo,” the paper concluded.
Two months back, during the Tour Down Under, I actually talked to another Vacansoleil-DCM directeur sportif about Hoogerland, his impact in last year’s Tour and his distinctive racing style.
“It’s good he attacks all the time,” said Michel Cornelisse, eager to defend his countryman. “Cycling needs more riders like Johnny Hoogerland. The Tour has been so boring recently. What use is it if people don’t race and let Cavendish win seven stages?”
“Hoogerland deserves a win after all his efforts and his crash. Now he’s so popular in France he’ll definitely do the Tour again this year. If more riders were like him the races would be more interesting. You don’t forget stages in which he attacks in.”
What Cornelisse said was for the most part true. You don’t, for instance, forget a stage in which Hoogerland attacks – let alone a stage in which you see his shorts ripped from his backside and his legs torn to shreds.
But Hoogerland only deserves a win as much as I deserve an award for writing: just because I produce an article or two on a weekly basis does not put me in line for a Pulitzer.
It’s not enough simply to attack and attack if you don’t have any plan.
Look at Frenchman Thomas Voeckler, another rider celebrated for his never-say-die attitude and attacking nous. The big difference, however, is that Voeckler has a huge palmares to show for his efforts. He has won stages; he was won races; he has worn the fabled yellow jersey for 10 days on two occasions.
Look at Gerrans, who left it until exactly the right moment before launching his drive to victory last weekend. You don’t have to be the strongest to win a race, but you often have to be the cleverest.
Hoogerland needs to learn when to attack and how to attack and then the rest will follow. It would be a travesty if a rider as exciting, promising and charismatic as Hoogerland always fell short.
He’s too good a rider to become a mere sideshow – to provide the “ah, here it is, Johnny’s attacking” moment in every race.
But until he develops some kind of tactical armoury, then “doomed futile attacks on the Cipressa” may become a euphemism for his career.
Still, it sure does make the races interesting. And for that Hoogerland cannot be criticised.