Posted by Editoress on 05/27/06
In 2004, while he was the reigning cross-country world champion, Belgium's Filip Meirhaeghe tested positive for EPO after a pre-race rest at the Mont Ste Anne, Quebec World Cup. The result came out shortly after a victory under incredibly adverse conditions at the Calgary World Cup. Meirhaeghe was leading the World Cup at the time, and was a favourite for the Athens Olympics a couple of months later. He was immediately fired by his professional team, Specialized.
He called a press conference when the results were released, admitted to using EPO and promptly retired. While his drug use was not condoned, he did receive praise for stepping forward, admitting his drug use and retiring.
The Belgian Cycling Federation announced a 15 month suspension, which many thought was too short (most first-time offenders receive a minimum of two years), and then Meirhaeghe announced last year that he would return to cycling once his suspension was up.
He was on the start line for the first World Cup of the 2006 season, in Curacao. After starting well back, he rocketed up through the field to finish 31st. At the next round (Madrid), with a better starting position, he managed to finish 18th, and in the third round (in Spa, Belgium) Meirhaeghe was on the podium, finishing 4th. This moved him up to 10th overall in the standings.
His return is controversial, with even some fans in his native Belgium booing him at the Spa World Cup (although the majority cheered). We managed to speak to Meirhaeghe for a few minutes in Spa after his podium appearance.
Canadian Cyclist - You seem to have returned to the top very fast - your third World Cup and back on the podium.
Filip Meirhaeghe - Yes, it's amazing. At the beginning of the season I was hoping for maybe one top-10. But today was perfect for me. I knew the course was perfect for my riding - very technical and wet. I was actually very nervous at the start because I knew this was my (best) chance to do well in a World Cup this year.
CC - We heard cheers and boos out there, so some people are still upset about your comeback.
FM - The boos I expected; I knew that this would happen. Those people, they have negative energy, and I don't accept their negative energy. But I think it was only a small number that were booing, 99% were in support of me.
CC - Some people seem to be more concerned about your suspension being too short - 15 months - and that you retired and then came back. Do you think that this is part of the reason for some people being upset?
FM - Was it too short? What can I say, that is the suspension that I was given. It was what it was. But I know that there will always be comments, statements - I was actually out of competition for 20 months, don't forget.
CC - So how did you deal with being off so long and when did you decide to come back to racing?
FM - At first it was all mental, it was all in my head. I took it day by day (after the suspension); at that time I didn't think that I would race again. Then I started to ride my bike a bit again, but I didn't start training seriously until last year. It was September 6 last year that I started to train again.
I had to stay calm, be realistic. Now I have to continue working to get better again. I am not at the same level as before - today (Spa) I was lucky that it was super technical and suited me, because I am not at the same level as those other guys; I can't go as hard as them for so long in the race. It will take a while to get back to such a high level. To be honest, as I said, it was a top-10 finish that I was hoping for this season, no more than that.
CC - What about in the future, as you get back into shape? You missed Athens (Olympics), when you were one of the big favourites, are you thinking about Beijing?
FM - No, not at this point. I came back to racing for two years - 2006 and 2007. That is what I told my sponsors when I started (Groep Versluys, Sportstech, Landbouwkredie). We will see at the end of 2007; at that point I will decide (whether to keep going). But now my only aim is to ride for two years.
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