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Rik van Looy

Les Woodland visits the only man to have won all seven classics.
An excerpt from Woodland's Cycling Heroes

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Les Woodland's book Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Our story:

Les Woodland climbed aboard his old Carlton bike to take a nostalgia trip across Belgium and Holland to visit some of cycling's greatest riders. Cycling Heroes: The Golden Years tells the story of that journey he took in the early 1990s and the time he spent with some of the finest riders from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Rik van Steenbergen, Rik van Looy, Jan Janssen, Wim van Est, Hennie Kuiper and Peter Post were some of the most colorful and dominating riders of an era that produced many of the sport's greatest-ever champions.

In this book Woodland has collected their and other riders' precious and fascinating recollections, some going back to a time of leather saddles, cloth caps and spare tires wrapped over riders' shoulders; when screaming fans packed smoke-filled velodromes to see their heroes up close; when a stage of the Tour de France could take more than eleven hours.

If you enjoyed Les Woodland's Rik van Looy visit, please click on the Amazon link to the right to get the book, available either in print of as a Kindle ebook.

Amazon UK customers please click here.

Chapter 6. RIK VAN LOOY (1933– )

I was, to be honest, worried about my next appointment. The wind was howling and my nose streaming. There was also the nagging fear that the Emperor of Herentals wasn’t going to be easy.

I spent the morning with friends a few villages from [Wim] van Est, then rode past the abandoned border control at Essen and on into Kalmthout, the first real village in Belgium. Turn right at the end of the village and you ride briefly back into Holland before arriving at Putte (which means “well”), a village divided by the Dutch-Belgian border and home to two former world champions—Jan Janssen and Hennie Kuiper.

Belgium’s quite unlike Holland: the roads are obviously tar laid over cobbles—and sometimes not too successfully—and the villages far less like the Toytown newness of Holland and more in need of a lick of paint.
I’d given up hope of riding to Herentals and caught the train from Antwerp. It was all but snowing when I found a hotel with poky rooms and stained wallpaper at 10 p.m.

“Just ask for the Bloso center,” van Looy had said on the phone. “Everyone will know it. I’ll be there for the bike-racing school.”

Bloso is one of those made-up words of initials—physical education and development it means, roughly, and I’d imagined a school playground with traffic cones to mark a course. Instead, in a wood to the north of the town, you start seeing those triangular road signs that contain an exclamation mark.
In most countries they might mean a factory exit or a ramp. But under these signs are a word you see on warnings only in Belgium. Wielrenners, they say. Beware racing cyclists!

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If you approach from the north, you ride the cycle path along the Poederleesesteenweg. Not far from the turning to Vorselaar, where the old Belgian champion Daniel Willems lives, you pass the house of one of the smallest big men in the game. His name is Henri van Looy, better known as Rik.

And in the wood, which is why the signs are there, he has passed the last decade running the Vlaamse Wielerschool. It’s a white, single-story building between tennis courts and an ice rink. On the door is a sign. “Doping? Not me!” and beyond it a black-and-white poster-sized photograph of the man himself, his Belgian champion’s jersey sweaty as he hauls himself up one of the cobbled hills of the Tour of Flanders. He certainly wasn’t on the 53 x 13 gear that he pioneered, but he might well have been on the way to one of his 513 victories.
What you notice about van Looy, apart from how startlingly he looks as he did in his prime, are the hooked nose and the bright, concentrated, darting eyes, dark and incisive. He grins like a Halloween pumpkin and his eyes gleam. But on August 22, 1970, they were duller. Much duller. Because then, on the way back from Valkenswaard in Holland in his Mercedes, Rik van Looy decided suddenly to stop racing.

Rik van Looy in his World Champion's rainbow jersey

“I was tired,” he says, “of riding against snot-noses who, even if you took them all together, hadn’t managed a fraction of what I’d achieved. And yet sometimes when they’d beaten me, I’d hear them saying ‘Oh, we gave that old geezer a hard time today.’ I couldn’t take being called granddad. I was too good a rider for that. So above all else, I stopped because of the break of respect. In the last years I was lining up with riders who could have been my son. I had nothing in common with them. They were another generation.

“Physically, I could have gone on. The training was getting harder, but I could still do it. But I couldn’t take that disrespect. The big riders, the stars, they were different. They knew what I’d achieved and how difficult it was to do it. You can only know that if you’ve been in the closing phases of a classic yourself, if you’ve done it yourself. And these little riders thought they could laugh at me.”

You can’t blame van Looy for his pride. He comes from Antwerp, or rather just outside, and there are no prouder people in Belgium. “Antwerpenaar—en vier op!” say the car stickers—“Antwerper, and proud of it.” So far as they’re concerned, Brabo, the giant who ruled over the entrance to the Schelde river, rules still over Belgium (even though his slain body lies now as a statue in the city center, water instead of blood flowing through the arteries in a severed hand).

And van Looy was too proud to train, despite the 2,000 francs a month that the Garin team was paying him on his reputation as an amateur. Look up the results of the 1955 Giro d’Italia and, if they go down far enough, you’ll see van Looy among the last five riders home each day.

Once he told Pierre Thonon of La Cité: “To start with, I couldn’t be bothered and I wasn’t fussed about going training. That was fine while I was an amateur. But things changed just a bit when I turned pro!” It was a view sharpened by a drop in his next contract to just 1,600 francs.

The old manager, Lomme Driessens, entered him for the Giro on the promise that the weather was always fine, most of the course flat, and that bunches frequently ended the race intact—ideal for a sprinter. Ideal, too, for a man doing national service in the Belgian army. Driessens also told him the Giro was rarely fast.

“Needless to say,” said van Looy, “the first stage was at 29 miles per hour. Every day I finished a bit more behind the last group. On the ninth stage I finished after the judges had gone and they’d begun dismantling the stands.”

It was a tough lesson. Van Looy began training. On his return to Belgium and before returning to the army barracks, he played cat-and-mouse with anyone who dared challenge him. It began at Mechelen, on the border of the French and Dutch-speaking regions, and just carried on. Of the next 25 races, he never finished outside the first five.

From there on he won every classic—more than Merckx, who never won Paris–Tours. The first was Ghent–Wevelgem in 1956, followed by two world championships, five Tour de France stages, 12 Giro stages, 18 Vuelta stages and 12 six-day races on the track.

A Belgian journalist, looking for a new line, called him the Emperor of Herentals, and the name stuck. And Jacques Anquetil once said of him: “My main rival in the tours wasn’t Baldini or Gaul or Poulidor. It was van Looy. I had to match him in the flat stages and even in the mountains, because if I didn’t, he would turn up in the time-trials with a 15-minute advantage.”

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Rik van Looy was 13 when he started a newspaper round and 15 when he saved and borrowed enough from his parents to buy a secondhand racing bike in 1948. It was stuck in a giant gear. He knocked about with a chap called Julien Vermeulen and went to races with him.

“My admiration for Rik van Steenbergen and Nest Sterckx did the rest. Then one day I entered a race for youngsters in Herentals. I was hopeless. I was lapped five times. I swore never to go to a bike race again.” But times and attitudes changed, and (on a different bike, again paid from his paper round) he entered another race several months later and won. It wasn’t long—1952 and 1953—before he became Belgian amateur champion in Brussels and Deerlijk. He turned pro immediately afterwards.

When he started, Rik van Steenbergen was on the stage. When van Looy, another Antwerpenaar, turned up, the press named him Rik II. Van Looy didn’t complain. Nor could van Steenbergen, since van Looy won the first pro race he entered, at Kortenaken. And, for that matter, he won again the next afternoon in Heist-op-den-Berg.

Then came two Tours of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, three Paris–Roubaix, two Paris–Tours, Milan–San Remo, the Tour of Lombardy, three Ghent–Wevelgems and the Flèche Wallonne.

“I had to fight to dominate van Steenbergen,” he said. “When you’re at the top, you fight to stay there. You don’t give that away easily. It was the same when Eddy Merckx was coming up. It is for the newcomer to prove himself.”

Some people could be fended off. Merckx could not. By that time van Looy all but controlled Belgian racing and he didn’t take well to the matinée idol from Brussels stealing his ground. Van Looy is not the kind of man to take a rival into his heart; he didn’t with van Steenbergen and I doubt he ever did with Merckx. There are many who crossed van Looy or foiled him and who lived to regret their impudence.

But Merckx, in the end, triumphed.

“To beat him, I would have to have been born several years later. He impressed me from the start. On a good day, maybe one in ten, I could beat him. For me, he is the greatest rider of all time.”

And it was age, and maybe Merckx as well, that forced van Looy out.

“Everything I did,” he recalled, “I did impulsively. If I thought I could win, I’d win. If I couldn’t, I wanted one of my team to win. I stopped racing on instinct. I just stopped. I told my wife as we were driving, and I don’t think she believed me, but it was true, and I don’t regret it.”

There were no Sinatra-like or even Anquetil-like farewell performances. In his last race, van Looy missed the break but still won the bunch sprint to come eighth. Those who were there, just like those who saw Eddy Merckx in the Omloop van het Waasland some years later, didn’t realize they’d seen a bit of history fade to black.

Van Looy racing Gent-Wevelgem in 1962.

Both men rode for the last time in insignificant races; neither realized at the start that they were lining up for the last time.

“By that time, I wasn’t as impulsive as I used to be. I’d learned to spread myself out a bit more, as you do when you get older. To keep your strength better. I was 37 when I stopped. I wasn’t worn out. On the right days, I still felt like a star and I’d ride like one. I could still have won a classic if I’d really wanted to. But off the bike, it was different. It was harder and harder to go out training every day.

“I didn’t want to lumber on, like an old man. So that was it. I stopped. Curtains.”

Much more than van Steenbergen, and in quite a different manner from Merckx, van Looy controlled Belgian racing. He brought in sponsors and organized teams. He was friends with agents and the criterium organizers, who were far more important then than now. He had fingers in many different operations and his influence was considerable.

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Benoni Beheyt was a good rider until the day at Ronse when he beat van Looy for the world championship in 1963. Neither would speak of the incident for years except in the most diplomatic words.

“Beheyt had agreed to ride for me,” van Looy says now, as he has said for years, “but you can’t blame a rider who sees an opportunity like that so close to hand and then reaches out and takes it.”

Unfortunately Beheyt did more than reach out. The official explanation was that he’d stretched out his arm to avoid a collision, that he’d only been fending van Looy back to safety. Years afterwards he admitted that, Maradonna-style, he had reached out and then gone further—as far as tugging the Emperor’s jersey.
“It’s still a painful memory and a great disappointment,” van Looy said. “I was convinced I was going to win. There were seven Belgians in the front group in the last lap and everyone had agreed to ride for me. For me, the whole world turned upside down when Beheyt made out he had cramp and then attacked me. But looking back, I can understand his reaction.”

For all the oil slicks of diplomacy, Beheyt was never allowed to be a happy man again.

“I believe in having a top man in a team,” said van Looy, to whom it rarely occurred that the top man wouldn’t be him. “Coppi taught me that. I was impressed by the way he got himself ready for each season. I got to know about that when I was riding for [Bianchi-Pirelli-]Touring in 1954. It really appealed to me.

“I was a born leader. It’s my nature, but I couldn’t just walk in and say ‘I’m going to lead the Red Guard [the nickname for van Looy’s successive teams, which had a taste for red jerseys]’. It took me two years to prove that I could do it.”

Briek Schotte was his first real team leader. Jos Schils, the Belgian champion, was next on the ladder, then Germain Derycke, who’d won Paris–Roubaix, and then Willy Vannitsen. Van Looy, if he was anything at all, was fifth.

But by the time he got his own team, Faema, there was no doubting who was the boss. And there was no shortage of riders to choose. While Britain had Brian Robinson and English was a rare language in the bunch, tiny Belgium—no larger than East Anglia—had 279 professionals in 1956, half as many again as neighboring France and five times as many as Italy. One in seven Belgians holding a racing license was riding as either a professional or an independent, a semiprofessional.

“The first time I’d been able to pick any teammates was when I was with Schotte, when after a while Lomme Driessens said I could choose a couple. But when I got to Faema, I chose them all, on the basis of their qualities and what they’d achieved. In the classics, everyone had to ride for me; in the other races, they were able to ride for whoever was in the best position on the road. It was that richness which produced so many successes among my teammates.”

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Van Looy makes his teams sound like an amicable cooperative, a happy collective working for an amiable boss who regularly threw sovereigns of gratitude into their midst. Talk to Vin Denson, though, and you get a different story. Denson rode for van Looy when the two were sponsored by a margarine company called Solo.

“It was Solo by name and solo by nature,” Denson recalls. “You rode for van Looy and did whatever he wanted, including the fetching of beers, which he had a great fondness for in mid-race. Domestiques were reduced to chasing long miles to bring the great man a bottle of Stella.”

When van Looy climbed off or had a bad day, teammates didn’t so much ride for whoever was best placed as fight against each other to no great general benefit. That van Looy could stamp discipline and fear across a bunch of ill-educated, table-sprawling, uncouth Belgians with no team sense of their own shows the strength of personality that the Emperor could display.

Indeed a born leader.

He confesses to never having started a tour with the ambition of winning it. He did win, of course, but he insists it was more by piling up stages, like building bricks, until they became so substantial that nobody could knock them over. He even insists that had his employers allowed him to ride the Tour de France then, in the days before Anquetil at least, he might have won. But the Tour then was for national teams, and van Looy had an Italian sponsor; the Italians told him to ride the Giro instead. Van Looy regrets it to this day.

In 1963, released to ride, he came tenth. On the stage from Pau to Bagnères-sur-Bigorre, across the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, he lost ten minutes. It was the same margin that Anquetil had on him by the finish in Paris.

Even so, tales are rife that he rode as much with money in mind as eventual success. Cynics say that there were still criteriums during the Tour in those days and that van Looy could push up his price with a Tour stage or two, then return to Belgium for more start money than he could hope to win in the Tour, and win prizes against a field diminished precisely because the best had gone to France. Van Looy, doubtless, would see it otherwise.

And when he had nothing more to ride, he was at a loose end. He kept horses, helped out with the IJsboerke team, and then he took to driving about with reporters from Sport 70, adding his comments to the day’s racing.
But there was still a void.

The Flemish wielerschool, where riders are coached, weighed, guided and taken on trips to Spain, is where his heart lies now. It was closed when I arrived and the venetian blinds were drawn. Van Looy, who was collecting papers before going to see his doctor about a back pain, couldn’t stay long. The doctor, a man called Claes, is the one he used through out his career and who works now at the bike school.

The wielerschool is part of a huge sports ground. Its politics are immensely complicated, as befits a small country with three official languages. There are more than a hundred riders there all winter, some staying a week, some just coming for Monday-to-Friday training. The youngest is 12, the oldest 25. A few are professionals. Van Hooydonck is among those who learned their skills there. Van Looy sees them all come and go.

If he could wave his hand now, he’d have the toppers ride in different teams. At the moment Belgium maintains a permanent amateur team and they ride as such in all the big amateur races.

“But if I had my way, they wouldn’t,” he says. “I’d have them riding against each other. It’s the only way to improve. They need to fight more. I refuse to believe there’s no more talent in Flanders. But that’s why there’s no new van Steenbergen, van Looy or Merckx.

“They take the easy way out.”

But then, once again, you’re up against politics and van Looy’s influence is no longer what it was.