Blazin' Saddles: Johnny collared?

Blazin' Saddles


He is set to sit out the first waffle of Belgian classics while he cobbles together a plan to beat the demons in his head and maybe, just maybe, one day stand on top of the podium for anything other than a Most Combative Rider award or a token KOM jersey.

Inside sources have disclosed to Saddles (ie. this bit has partially been made up) that Vacansoleil-RunDMC team management have given the 28-year-old compulsive live-wire a series of questions for him to ponder over with his "saddle shrink" — the famous bow tie-sporting Austrian psychologist Gunther van Pommel Strudel — during his enforced absence.

Vancansoleil-DCM bigwigs feel that Hoogerland should be competing for top places and wins — rather than battle it out for scraps (or a top 20 place) on the Italian Riviera alongside the likes of Mark Renshaw and Tom Boonen.

(As far as priorities go inside the team, the "Hoogerland Reform" is right up there with the on-going Twitter campaign to make sure journalists don't forget to add the DCM suffix to their name.)

Devised to help him better understand his feelings and reconcile the contrasting factors that make him a human yo-yo on two wheels, questions submitted to Hoogerland include:

- Would Charlie Sheen classify scattergun attacking as "winning"?

- Why did you see the need to chase down someone as insignificant as Paxti Vila on the Cipressa?

- Regardless of the timing of your San Remo attack, given your own testosterone-based nickname, do you not think it was rather clumsy to stick so close to someone of Vila's hormonal provenance?

- What part of "Cipressa attacks are doomed to fail" did you misunderstand at the pre-race briefing?

- Was it really so you could do the descent alone and not have to worry about crashes around you in the pack?

- When you close your eyes do you see barbed wire?

- Does Thomas Voeckler's success hurt or act as an inspiration?

- Pick a card, any card. Is it a joker?

- For an outgoing guy who loves Spanish discos and beaches, where does your fear of riding alongside your fellow professionals stem?

- In the light of Vincenzo Nibali's third, do you think 20th place was a good enough result for someone who is climbing well and finished fifth in Tirreno-Adriatico?

- Does it not make you rethink your strategy when you see an inferior climber like Gerrans stay fresh on the Cipressa and then make the decisive break on the Poggio?

- Does it make you happy that #Hoogerland trended on Twitter when you made both your flawed attacks last weekend?

- Why, in short, are you so tactically inept and yet at the same time such a legend?

Speaking after Hoogerland's debut Milan-San Remo, Vacansoleil team manager Hilaire ven der Schueren said the Bull of Beveland's increased ADS on the bike was becoming a "problem". (The feeding zone is often fraught with difficulty, while don't get Hilaire started about what happens when it's Johnny's turn to refill the bidons.)

Hilaire is probably right. Saddles loves to see a Hoogerland attack as much as the next person, but it's surely reached a point for Johnny where his main aim of a race has to be a bit more than giving the sponsors a nice bit of TV time.

Indeed, everyone else at Vacansoleil seems to be winning — think De Gendt, Marcato, Larsson, Westra and Lindeman — and maybe it's time Hoogerland's palmares included something bigger than a Milk Race climbing jersey, a few minor wins as a junior and something called the Mijl van Mares.

According to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf (and this bit is true), in the coming weeks Vacansoleil-DCM will hold talks and try to analyse the "impulsive attacking behaviour" of Hoogerland to see if it stems from a fear of failure.

Saddles always presumed Hoogerland's attacking verve was more to do with the fact that he got bored in the peloton; the day he actually wants to win, he'll no doubt time his attacks with a little more precision than someone deciding whether or not to buy a Mars Bar or a Snickers.

(In the above scenario, Hoogerland would just buy both chocolate bars, get an instant energy rush, then feel rather sick and have to leave his friends while being ill in the bathroom.)

You could even see his mind ticking away in Milan-San Remo — after almost 200km of pretty much flat racing at the start of the monument, it's a surprise Hoogerland didn't even have a pop on Le Manie as well.

On the recent Tour Down Under, Saddles chatted to Michel Cornelisse, the Vacansoleil directeur sportif, about Hoogerland, his horrific crash in last year's Tour and his flamboyant style.

Cornelisse instantly went on the defensive, claiming: "It's good he attacks. 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?"

He continued: "Hoogerland deserves a win after all his effort 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."

But that's the thing: you don't forget stages in which Hoogerland attacks; but you remember them for the pain on his face once he realises he has bitten off more Mars and Snickers than he can chew; you remember it for his shorts being ripped from his hind quarters and his legs being bloodied by a sharp wire fence. What you don't remember them is for his arms going aloft over the line then on the podium.

And this is where it gets a little bit awkward for Vacansoleil — for Hoogerland has over the past couple of years become the team's poster boy, their most famous rider.

If you do a Google search for Vacansoleil-DCM, the snippet of information that is revealed reads: "official site with the latest news about the team, the riders, Johnny Hoogerland, events and photos".

So these talks that Vacansoleil management are going to have about their man's "anxiety" will sure be interesting. The team owes a huge amount of its popularity and notoriety to Hoogerland — and yet he is a luxury rider who brings in more positive PR than he does UCI points. (It's a bit like having a football player in your team who won't guarantee you wins, but will still lighten up the pitch most Saturday afternoons and put a smile on people's faces.)

Saddles hopes Hoogerland finds a happy medium for it would be everyone's loss if Gunther van Pommel Strudel talks Johnny out of being the flamboyant guy he is on two wheels.

And yet everyone compares Hoogerland's attacking nous and never-say-die attitude to that of Voeckler — without making that point that the Frenchman has a palmares bigger than Jan Ullrich's weekly grocery list.

It would be a travesty if Hoogerland goes another year without breaking his major race duck: he just needs to take a rain check when, say, the voice in his head tells him to attack at the bottom of a first-category climb 130km from the finish in a gruelling Alpine stage.

Failing that, he could always hitch a ride in the Cancellara taxi with Simon Gerrans...

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