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Classic jerseys: No.1 Flandria

Giles Belbin
11 Jun 2018

In the first of a new series, we uncover the stories behind classic jerseys, starting with a team as legendary as the region it hails from

On 27th September 1979, Alain De Roo crossed the line first to win the 136km Omloop van het Houtland.

The result was notable only for it being the final victory claimed by Flandria, the Belgian team that for 20 years had been a dominant force in the professional peloton.

Flandria’s foundations lay in the late 1890s when a Belgian blacksmith called Louis Claeys made his first bicycle in the family’s forge in Zedelgem, West Flanders.

Four of his children, Alidor, Aimé, Remi and Jerome Claeys, later formed Werkhuizen Gebroeders Claeys (The Claeys Brothers Limited), to manufacture bicycles and related products.

The enterprise was successful and in 1940 the brothers rebranded the company as Flandria, Latin for the Flanders region that was their home.

By the mid-1950s the company was producing more than 250,000 units per year, manufactured across six countries.

Despite Flandria’s growth, it wasn’t all good news. In 1956 a family feud erupted that resulted in the dissolution of the company and Aimé and Remi building a wall to divide the Zedelgem factory between them.

Aimé, who had been the real force behind the company’s growth, retained the Flandria brand name and called his new company A.Claeys-Flandria.

The Flandria team was formed in 1959 when Aimé Claeys coincidently met a Belgian rider, Leon Vandaele, in a Belgian coffee shop.

The 25-year-old had won Paris-Roubaix riding for Faema during the 1958 season, having been among a group of 20 riders that had caught a two-rider breakaway just before the bell rang out in the old velodrome.

Vandaele hit the front early and held on to take the sprint and the biggest victory of his career.

But there was a problem. One of the men Vandaele had beaten in the sprint was his team leader, Rik Van Looy, who had finished third.

That simply wasn’t in the script – Faema was Van Looy’s team. Vandaele’s reward at the end of his season’s work was to have to find a new ride.

When Claeys heard about Vandaele’s situation he offered to create a new team under the Flandria name, providing a team for Vandaele and a platform on which to further develop the Flandria brand.

From that fortuitous cup of coffee, things progressed swiftly and by the start of the 1959 season Claeys had brought in the medicine company Dr Mann as principal sponsor and recruited the Belgian legend Alberic ‘Briek’ Schotte, who would go on to manage the squad.

Vandaele took the team’s first win on 6th March, Stage 3 of Paris-Nice-Rome. Flandria would win 44 races in their first year. 

To the Emperor the spoils

The team hit the big-time in 1962 when, for one season only, they joined forces with Vandaele’s old Faema team and Van Looy.

The Emperor of Herentals promptly won the Flanders/Roubaix double wearing the rainbow jersey he’d claimed the previous season, while teammate Joseph Planckaert won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the overall at Paris-Nice.

This was the year of Van Looy’s ‘Red Guard’ leadout train, a squad full of super-strong domestiques that would tow Van Looy to within 200m of the finish line.

It was a new tactic and one that Italian legend Gino Bartali considered ‘morally reprehensible, and entirely against the spirit of cycling’. The team took 101 wins that year alone.

Flandria forged a reputation for spotting talent early. In 1970, their 21-year-old recruit Jean-Pierre Monseré won the World Championships in Leicester.

Tragedy struck a few months later when he collided with a car while riding a kermesse in his rainbow jersey and was killed instantly.

Elsewhere, legendary riders such as Peter Post, Walter Godefroot, Joop Zoetemelk, Roger De Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens all rode for Flandria during their careers.

In 1976 pre-race favourite Maertens crashed out of Paris-Roubaix with 35km to go, leaving Marc Demeyer to claim a surprise win for the team, an event captured by Jørgen Leth in his legendary film A Sunday In Hell.

Maertens in particular was synonymous with Flandria. He spent the first eight years of his professional career with the outfit, taking 54 and 53 wins in 1976 and 1977 respectively and claiming the Worlds in 1976 and the Vuelta in 1977, winning a remarkable 13 stages.

Over the years Flandria scored wins in every major race bar Milan-San Remo and the Tour de France.

They came closest to winning the Tour in 1978 when Michel Pollentier took yellow six days from Paris, only to be discovered with a rubber bottle of urine under his armpit that was connected to tubing running under his jersey during the dope control test.

Pollentier was thrown off the race and handed a two-month ban and a fine of 5,000 Swiss Francs.

Flandria were the first European pro team to use Shimano components, in 1973 – a move that perhaps contributed to the decades-long fallout between Maertens and Eddy Merckx after the pair managed to lose the 1973 Worlds in Barcelona despite being away with Felice Gimondi and Luis Ocaña in the closing moments.

With two Belgians in a group of four, including by far the best sprinter (Maertens), the result should have been a foregone conclusion, but Gimondi won after Merckx couldn’t follow Maertens’ lead out.

Cue the conspiracy theories…

The day before, Maertens had been training with his Flandria teammate, Walter Godefroot, when Tullio Campagnolo drew alongside and asked Godefroot who would win the following day.

Godefroot pointed to Maertens. ‘Oh no, not him,’ said Campagnolo, ‘he rides with Shimano.’

Maertens later raised the possibility he had been tricked into leading out for Merckx in order to deny himself, and Shimano, the win.

Despite the team’s success, by the end of the 1970s Flandria was struggling, and without the funds required to run the team, the outfit folded at the end of the 1979 season. Two years later the company was declared bankrupt.

• This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of cycling memorabilia, which will be on display in the new Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium, from 23rd June. For details, visit deschorre.be/develodroom.html

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