As Filip Meirhaeghe rolled to the starting line of the men’s cross-country world championship, an awkward silence hushed over the few hundred fans surrounding the start/finish. A few uttered muffled boos. Some clapped. The race announcer briefly mentioned the Belgian’s 2003 world championship victory and then hurriedly moved on to the next racer. He said nothing of Meirhaeghe’s 2004 positive test for EPO.
It’s the typical greeting Meirhaeghe has received at non-Belgian mountain-bike races this year. With his 18-month suspension up, and his motivation to race returned, Meirhaeghe returned to mountain-bike racing in 2006. Following him was a television film crew, shooting the events of his comeback for a Belgian TV show. Outside of Belgium, many fans and athletes alike simply aren’t ready to forgive and forget. One, Thomas Frischknecht, fought tooth-and-nail with Meirhaeghe during the world championship race. The Swiss finally succeeded in dropping the Belgian on the final climb of the day to grab sixth.
“This guy hurt me enough during my whole career, so it is nice to make him suffer for a change,” Frischknecht said. “Even if it is just for sixth place.” Still, Meirhaeghe’s seventh-place finish was a milestone. After a season of ups and downs, Meirhaeghe says he’s back.
VeloNews.com: How does it feel to be racing at the world championships again?
Filip Meirhaeghe: I have to say I was emotional even at the opening ceremonies. I was really hoping for rain here, but it dried very fast and I am very happy about my race. I had tears in my eyes coming across the finish line because it is so good to be back at the top level. It is definitely my best race of the season.
VN: The crowd booed you at Mont-Ste-Anne this year. Do people boo you in Belgium?
FM: Not at all. People in Belgium forgave me. A lot of people were disappointed, of course, but they forgave me, which is good. They have settled so they have forgiven me and they are back behind me. At the World Cup in Spa in Belgium I had so many supporters. It felt good to be wanted back. It’s only about five percent of the people that are booing me, and I’m okay with that.
VN: How do you deal with people’s negative attitudes toward you?
FM: I have to say, there is not that much negative attitude. There was some today. If I pass some guy of a certain country, always the supporters of that guy’s country are negative toward me. If I don’t pass him, they are alright with me. People have to know what they say. I made a mistake, I was punished for it and that is how it goes. If you make a mistake, you get punished and then you start again. That is why people go to jail. After they go to jail they feel their punishment. That is how I feel about it. Other people feel differently, and that is their problem. I hope those people never make a mistake in their lives because they will never be able to live with themselves if they can’t forgive.
VN: I take it has been a struggle to come back?
FM: I have been struggling with my motivation with a bit of everything. That is the normal thing with coming back. I had a very bad European championship, so I decided I needed to live more for it. I was training a lot, but not really going for it. So I lost five kilos since the European championships, just three weeks ago. This makes a big difference going uphill. I didn’t know how I would do, losing that many kilos I though I maybe lost some power. But it was really good going up. I’m so happy I fought for my placing today. I think it was definitely my best.
VN: Talk to me about the battle you had with Frischi.
FM: I think we came along well in the race because we helped each other out. Well, it wasn’t voluntarily. But I was fighting uphill and he was fighting uphill and we hung on to each other. At one moment Frischi said to me that we were 30 seconds off of fifth place, and we really went for it. We ended up sixth and second which is really good. I started in 35th after the start and Frischi and I gradually came back because we rode together for the whole race. We were riding together and fighting. I think Frischi rode a bit stronger uphill, but the whole race we were fighting together.
VN: Why did you come back?
FM: Well, first of all it took me a very long time to come back at all. I didn’t train for about 10 months. All of a sudden I rode every now and then, and then I thought about the comeback. But it’s been hard, you know. First of all, it’s hard to get back in condition, and it’s hard to start in the back and fight. I have had a lot of doubts this season. But I want to continue next year. I said I have to have a good end of the season, and have good motivation through the winter. But it is not that easy to come back. I knew a lifestyle before on only racing. Then for two years I knew a lifestyle of, I wouldn’t say party, but of living normally. I would go out for dinner with my girlfriend and would drink and not live for the sport entirely. And all of a sudden I have to make a switch again, and it is not that easy to let go.
VN: Talk to me about this film crew that follows you around.
FM: We’re making a program for Belgian TV on my comeback. I thought in the beginning it would be a little weird because it would take too much of my energy and time, but really they are just following me and it is not a big deal. People in Belgium are very curious about my comeback and how it is going. After this we will have 10 weeks in a row, one show a week for the viewers. They will be able to see how it went, how it goes with ups and down with training. How my life goes up and down.
VN: So what are your goals?
FM: First of all, I said that my sponsors that I wanted to race for two years, this year and next season. They would like me to go to the Olympics, of course. I told them I wanted to see how my condition and motivation is first. As far as I’m concerned right now, I’m definitely going to go for it and try to make a qualification for the Olympics. Then I will see.