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Book Excerpt:

Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story
The rocky roads of the Ronde van Vlaanderen

By Les Woodland

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This excerpt is from chapter six of Les Woodland's delightful book about the Tour of Flanders (De Ronde van Vlaanderen). It's available in both print and Kindle eBook versions. For more information about Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story and how to get your copy, click here


Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story cover

A short time before world war one, a man found guilty of murder was cleared in court in Brussels thanks to the evidence of an old woman who insisted she had seen the man at the moment of the crime, a Sunday morning, in the company of two other people. The police found these two others and they confirmed what the woman had said. “I was on my doorstep when Monsieur X crossed from the other side of the road. It was Sunday, April 30, at 11.05 in the morning.”

The judge was astonished.
“But how can you be so certain of that?”

“Because that was the day the Ronde went by and I didn’t want to miss that. At 11.05 it had gone by and I could get on with preparing lunch.”

The Ronde van Vlaanderen had just saved an innocent man—which is why we can pardon the Ronde for a lot today!

—Memories of Karel van Wijnendaele [father of the Tour of Flanders]

The first year that Eddy Merckx won the Tour de France was the first time a Belgian had won since 1939. Three decades. That year you could buy flags, tea-towels and even balls of chewing gum printed with his face. There was even—until he went to court to suppress it—a poster of his naked backside in a changing room. That incident apart, he had restored Belgian pride beyond the narrow world of cycling and he had done it, what’s more, as a linguistic neutral.

Eddy is a French name, short for Edouard. Dutch-speakers form a diminutive by taking the final part of a name: for the Flemish, he would have been Ward. The name Merckx, on the other hand, is not only Dutch but distinctly Belgian. The improbable collection of consonants shows that. So far so good. But, better, he came from Brussels, a largely French-speaking enclave in Dutch-speaking Flanders. He spoke Dutch and French without hesitation. He was the son neither of the rich nor of the toiling folk of factories: his father was a grocer in a bourgeois suburb. His wife, Claudine, has a French name and her mother’s decision that the marriage should be celebrated only in French was the one sore point in this divided nation. Especially since the couple’s language at home was Dutch.

Eddy Merckx in the 1969 Giro d'Italia

Eddy Merckx in the 1969 Giro d'Italia.

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The problem was that he had never won the Ronde. He had tried and he had failed and men sat in bars and said that he would never do it. The course wasn’t made for him, they said. And what’s more, his domination of every other race, his first pick of teammates, the prizes he swept up and even how his appearance money reduced the kitty for everyone else, all that led to resentment. Team sponsors, if they were prepared to come into the sport at all, saw better than to spend a lot on riders who would at best come second. They could get more wins and more publicity from a cheaper team that won round-the-houses races.

The outcome was that those not in his team rode as much to defeat him as they did to win. In 1969 Merckx simply got off his bike during the world championship at Zolder, frustrated that every move he made was followed by a dozen men anxious to stop him. So determined were they to stop Merckx that they had no plan for what to do next. A minor Belgian and an unknown criterium rider recruited into the Dutch team at the last moment to make up the numbers escaped and stayed away. Harm Ottenbros, the Dutch stand-in, won. Merckx’s tormentors then turned on Ottenbros instead, an unworthy champion. He was never allowed to win anything worth winning. He earned less as world champion than as a criterium rider and within a short time he dropped out of cycling and lived in a squat.

Not that Merckx had made things better for himself. The French historian, Pierre Chany, recalled: “The natural law of sport is that the best should win, and that the best in turn will become the target of others. That was the case with Merckx, who had so often crushed his opponents in 1967. But he had committed ‘faults’ in the eyes of his opponents. The fault, for example, of ridiculing Italians in the Tour of Sardinia, a second-category race which most riders used for training.”

It was an unfortunate side that Merckx had, a lack of discretion and of any understanding that others had to make a living as well, and a reputation for being what the British rider, Barry Hoban, called “the biggest cry-baby in the business” when he didn’t win.

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That lack of subtlety, and the resistance that it created, led him to ridicule the field in the Ronde of 1969. He would grind the others until they could frustrate him no more. The weather was suitably Wagnerian and Merckx played the Flying Belgian, if not the Flying Dutchman. Rik Vanwalleghem describes 1969 as one of the race’s top 10. “While the cream of cycling kept moaning about the awful wind and rain that Flanders had inflicted, the Cannibal [Merckx’s nickname, an unflattering allusion to his treatment of others] went off on a cool lone attack for 70 kilometers. His team manager, Driessens, tried to get the great master to ease back a bit and got the less than courteous reply ‘Kust gij een beetje kloten’ flung at his head.”

It’s a difficult expression to translate but its color shows a man with a French first name had no trouble with Dutch invective.

Merckx plowed into the wind between Ninove and Nederbrakel, the others on his wheel. And, if it hadn’t occurred to him before, he decided he would go no slower if they weren’t there and that he might well go faster alone. He attacked repeatedly, shedding more riders each time until, with 70 kilometers to go, he was by himself. It was then that Lomme Driessens drove up in his Peugeot, a mechanic and a federation representative as his passengers, to gesticulate and demand an explanation. And it was then that Merckx told him to, er, mind his own business.

Merckx then minded his business. He struggled to get his first 30 seconds’ lead but after that the chasers gave up hope. He crossed the Valkenberg with more than two minutes in hand, riding the Kastelstraat with five minutes and finishing five and a half minutes ahead of Felice Gimondi and with eight minutes on the last survivors of an original group of 20.

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“It was typical Ronde weather,” Merckx remembered years afterwards. “It was cold and raining.” As a matter of accuracy, that isn’t typical Ronde weather at all; there have been many more days of unremarkable weather than of rain, wind or snow. But bad weather is the reputation and the romance of Ronde day, so…

“Even before the Kwaremont the head of the field was reduced to 22. On the road from Ninove to Nederbrakel we got the wind full in our face. The others began to string out on my wheel. And I thought to myself that if I was going to do all the work on the front, I may just as well ride off alone.” And he did, despite Driessens’ orders to behave himself and go back to the bunch and await developments.

“At the finish,” Merckx said, “Driessens was full of how we had pulled it off together. He was full of that sort of nonsense. We never did get on well. He could make a lot of noise but he knew a lot less about racing and organization.”

Curiously, Freddy Maertens has the opposite view. Having adopted Driessens as a father substitute—throughout his life he has been nothing without a dominant figure to tell him what to do—he had his greatest years with him and recalls that his organization was faultless. The extent to which Merckx saw it differently led to his firing Driessens, adding another rival to the cast. Driessens, on the other hand, could point out that it took Merckx six years to win another Ronde without his guidance.

For more information about Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story and to get your copy, click here.