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Monument man: Roger De Vlaeminck profile

In-depth
24 Aug 2020
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To celebrate his 73rd birthday, revisit our profile of Roger de Vlaeminck, one of the greatest Classics rider of all time. ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’ is one of only three riders to have won all five Monuments, but he was far more than just a Classics specialist

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

Roger De Vlaeminck is wary of the sun. It is mid-afternoon in early July and over 30°C when Cyclist asks the man also known to the cycling world as Monsieur Paris-Roubaix to pose for photographs in his garden.

As butterflies flit among the lavender, De Vlaeminck removes the cap that shades his face only briefly, and only when prompted by our photographer.

His wariness is a legacy of years spent riding under merciless Mediterranean skies, wearing only a casquette as protection from the sun’s glare.

As we head to the shade of trees to offer him a little respite, his dogs, Aiko and Snoopy, prowl the perimeter of the garden. Earlier Aiko had greeted us at the gate growling and snarling, the perfect protector of his master, before being quickly called off.

De Vlaeminck is patient and professional, agreeing to our requests to play with his dogs or to sit beside the barbeque built from cobblestones (of course) for the benefit of the camera.

He’s still trim as he approaches his 71st birthday. The trademark 1970s sideburns may be long gone, but the cycling frame remains, thanks to hard hours spent working the land of his smallholding in East Flanders, not far from Eeklo where he was born.

‘I have deer, goats and chickens,’ he says. ‘It is a lot of work. I have 10,000 square metres to maintain. Every day I work, not too much, but a little bit. It keeps it manageable.’

A winner from the start

To understand how good a rider De Vlaeminck was, you only have to ask the two men with whom he shares the honour of being the only riders to have won all five of cycling’s Monuments.

Rik Van Looy, the first to reach that mark, claimed De Vlaeminck was the ‘most talented and the only real Classics rider of his generation’.

And Eddy Merckx once said, ‘Roger was just better than the rest. I respected everyone but he was the only one I really feared.’

De Vlaeminck was the real deal. A master of one-day Classics and week-long stage races, he won 11 Monuments in total and claimed a record six consecutive victories at Tirreno-Adriatico.

It was only the three-week Grand Tours at which he never troubled the GC podium, although he still claimed three points jerseys and 22 stages at the Giro d’Italia, finishing fourth overall in 1975.

Growing up in a poor family – his father a market-trader – cycling wasn’t De Vlaeminck’s first sporting love. That honour fell to football.

‘I played third-tier football when I was 16. That’s good, no?’ he says over lunch, sipping a Campari Orange before tucking into a large bowl of mussels.

Despite the cycling exploits of his elder brother, Erik (who would win a record seven cyclocross world titles as well as having a good career on the road), De Vlaeminck didn’t try cycling until he was nearly 17 years old when a friend asked if he wanted to ride in a race.

‘I did one training ride,’ De Vlaeminck says. ‘There were 25 starters and I was fourth. After that I rode 23 races and I won 18 times. For my first race I stole a bike from my brother. He never knew I used it!’

After winning the amateur cyclocross world title in 1968 on the same weekend his brother won the pro race, in 1969 De Vlaeminck turned pro with the Flandria team. His director was the legendary Alberic ‘Iron Briek’ Schotte.

‘There would be 10 cyclists at the hotel and Briek always said if all of you attack 10 times each, one of you will make the breakaway,’ De Vlaeminck says laughing. ‘That’s the one thing I remember him telling us… 10 times! That is a lot.’

De Vlaeminck’s first race for Flandria was the Belgian semi-Classic Het Volk. ‘At the start I was wearing my cyclocross shoes – it was a different era,’ he says.

‘Near the finish I was in the front with Merckx and Patrick Sercu and all the best riders. I stayed on Sercu’s wheel thinking then I will be second.

‘Everybody did the sprint but it was not difficult to stay on his wheel. I thought, “My God, I’m 200m from the line, I’ll try to pass.” And I won the race.’

His career took off from there. In a little over six months De Vlaeminck finished second in Milan-San Remo, fifth in Paris-Roubaix and claimed the national title ahead of Flandria teammate Walter Godefroot.

Trying to get him to identify quite why or how he made such an impact so early in his career proves difficult.

‘When you are good, you are good,’ is all he says, before adding, ‘If you can keep up with Eddy Merckx you know you are good. That was my mindset.’

Schotte is quoted as saying that De Vlaeminck had an uncanny knack of knowing exactly where to be at exactly the right time, but the man himself disagrees.

‘Tactics don’t exist,’ he says. ‘Sure, you can arrange things between you – I’ll stay in the wheel of him, you stay in the wheel of them – but when it comes to winning there are no tactics. One kilometre before the finish, I just went.’

Monumental moments

De Vlaeminck’s first Monument win came in 1970, his second season as a pro. At Paris-Roubaix, Merckx had soloed to a five-minute win, a result hailed by journalists as one of history’s great rides.

But De Vlaeminck, who had punctured 40km from the finish, saw things differently. ‘If I hadn’t punctured, Merckx would never have dropped me,’ he said at the time.

One week later came Liège-Bastogne-Liège. ‘I said to the press, Merckx will not lose me,’ De Vlaeminck recalls.

Entering a tunnel into the velodrome finish, De Vlaeminck was in a small leading group. ‘We were six riders,’ he says.

‘The tunnel curved to the right. My brother was on the front, I was on the right and Merckx was on the left. I said to my brother, “Go a little to the left,” so he did. I accelerated away and Merckx was closed off.’ De Vlaeminck’s winning margin was 12 seconds.

Asked how that race changed his life, De Vlaeminck hesitates. ‘The money changed my life,’ he says finally. ‘The race wins are also nice, but…’ he trails off.

Was it just about the money, not the prestige? He bristles slightly. ‘We had nothing in the beginning so when you can make money it’s important,’ he says. ‘It is both the prestige and the money.’

Two years later came the first of a record four wins at Paris-Roubaix, the race that would define him.

I want to find out why this race was such a good fit for him, how bike-handling skills learned during cyclocross helped – his director at Dreyer, Franco Criboli, said De Vlaeminck’s wheels post-Roubaix were still as good as new. But De Vlaeminck doesn’t want to talk much about Roubaix today.

‘In my career I won time-trials, I won against the best sprinters, I won hard stages in the Tour of Italy, 250km over five or six mountains,’ he says.

The message seems clear – ‘I won more than Roubaix.’ Can anyone beat the record he shares with Tom Boonen? ‘Maybe Peter Sagan,’ he says. ‘Or Mathieu Van der Poel. He is crazily good.

‘In my time I had Merckx and [Bernard] Hinault but he has no rivals so he is going to win everything. He is very strong.’

To say De Vlaemink’s career was not without controversy is an understatement. Two incidents stand out. In 1975 the World Championships were held in Yvoir, Belgium.

The Belgian squad was packed with hugely talented riders – De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Freddy Maertens. On race day 100,000 Belgians, in a frenzy of anticipation, came to watch their team deliver a rainbow jersey they considered a formality.

‘The Belgian media presented their team as the most formidable war machine imaginable,’ French journalist Pierre Chany would later write.

In a meeting before the race their team manager told them they were a team of 11. ‘Ten and a half,’ said De Vlaeminck, pointing to the diminutive climber, Lucien Van Impe.

Later, when Dutchman Hennie Kuiper attacked on the penultimate lap, De Vlaeminck asked Van Impe to pull him back.

‘But I’m just a half,’ Van Impe retorted. With strong riders sat on his wheel waiting for him to make the move himself, De Vlaeminck was stuck. He finished second.

There was a huge fallout in Belgium. How could such a strong team fail at home? De Vlaeminck would never win the road Worlds, the one glaring omission from his palmarès.

Merckx, who crashed before pledging support to De Vlaeminck, said, ‘I made a monumental mistake by sacrificing my chances. No rider has ever helped me in a World Championships like I did De Vlaeminck.’

Today De Vlaeminck is phlegmatic. ‘Yes, we had to win but you cannot win everything. I could have chased after Kuiper but there were five or six strong riders on my wheel.

‘I couldn’t drop them. We let Kuiper attack, but the others wouldn’t let me go. They were still on my wheel.’

He’s less composed when I ask about the 1977 Tour of Flanders. De Vlaeminck, riding for the Brooklyn team, won after spending some 60km at the front on the wheel of Team Flandria’s Freddy Maertens, who could no longer qualify for first place because of an illegal bike change.

De Vlaeminck, who came off Maertens’ wheel metres from the line, was roundly jeered and told in no uncertain terms by one furious spectator he had ruined a beautiful race.

It was reported that a financial deal had been made between De Vlaeminck and Maertens although, in the fallout that followed, the truth became increasingly blurred.

When I raise it now De Vlaeminck asks if I know the outcome of the race. I nod. Then he looks me squarely in the eyes, ignores our translator and speaks in English. ‘Tell me, who won the race?’

‘You did,’ I say. ‘And second?’ Before I answer, he carries on. ‘Disqualified for doping. I was the only rider who did not take anything. The second and third riders were positive.

‘You say that in your story. I won the race. There is nobody second in the Ronde van Vlaanderen 1977.’

It’s notable that De Vlaeminck takes care not to name anyone. He will later tell our translator he hasn’t agreed to an interview for years because of the fallout that still comes when he talks about the past.

But it is a matter of public record that both Maertens and Walter Planckaert, who crossed the line second and third that day, were later found positive for an amphetamine-like stimulant.

Joker in the pack

De Vlaeminck’s success was hard won, and he was happy to put in the hard kilometres. ‘At 5am I would ride behind a derny and in four hours do 180km,’ he says.

‘Then I’d eat, freshen up, get on the bike and do another 200km with a car behind me. I used to do 180km behind the derny before 9am and then I’d call up [teammate] Walter Godefroot and ask, “Are you ready to go training?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he’d say. He lived 20km from me. I’d ride to his house and he would be getting the bike from his garage. I already had 200km in my legs, but I said nothing. So we’d start and after 130km or so I’d say, “Oh I’m tired, I’m going home.”

“Me too,” he’d say. But he found me out… Some cyclists need to be stimulated by someone else but I wasn’t like that. I only needed to motivate myself.’

Any rider of that era had to contend with the supremacy of Merckx, but De Vlaeminck gave the Cannibal as torrid a time as anyone.

He tells a story from the Tour of Lombardy when he was trying to escape the peloton only to realise Merckx had most of his Molteni team on the front, setting a punishing pace to bring him back.

As the road went over a bridge, De Vlaeminck hopped off and hid underneath. When the peloton had passed, he wound his way back through the group to find a surprised Merckx.

‘I said to him, “Who is at the front?”’ he laughs. What was Merckx’s reaction? ‘Asshole!’

De Vlaeminck says his era is incomparable with today’s. ‘In my time there were six or seven versatile riders: Merckx, Hinault, me, Maertens, Saronni, Moser. They could do everything. Now there is no one like this.

‘For me a good rider must win 20, 25 races a year, every year, for 10, 15 years. I won 278 races as a pro, 509 races in total.

‘In today’s papers they say Quick-Step won 40 races! But that’s with 13 riders or something,’ he laughs. ‘It is two different worlds.’

I ask De Vlaeminck for one special memory from his career. He doesn’t miss a beat. ‘The 1975 Tour de Suisse,’ he says.

‘On the final day, in the morning I won a 120km stage and Merckx was second. In the afternoon, I won the time-trial and Merckx was second.

‘I won the GC and Merckx was second. Eddy Merckx stood three times beside me on the podium that day, but every time he was one step lower.’

Roger De Vlaeminck profile

1947: Born on 24 August in Eeklo  
1968: Wins the amateur cyclocross World Championship  
1969: Goes professional with Flandria. Wins first race: Het Volk  
1969:Beats Flandria teammate Walter Godefroot to win national title by 13 seconds  
1970: Secures the first of 11 Monuments, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège after finishing second the week before in Paris-Roubaix  
1972: Claims the first of four Paris-Roubaix wins, soloing to a two-minute victory  
1973: Wins the first of three editions of Milan-San Remo  
1974: Wins the Giro di Lombardia for the first time  
1975: Wins the professional cyclocross World Championship. Later finishes second at the road Worlds in Yvoir  
1977: Wins the Tour of Flanders in controversial circumstances to secure a complete set of Monument wins  
1981: Wins a second national title. Retires three years later.

 

De Vlaeminck on…

... his relationship with the press

‘I only had a problem with the Walloon press because I couldn’t speak French. When I won Paris-Roubaix in 1975 one of the French speaking journalists said, “Merde, De Vlaeminck won” because he couldn’t do an interview with me.’

… why he rode mainly for Italian teams

‘The money. Italian teams were very strong. The Italian teams were more organised and professional: better equipment, better bikes, better tyres, better clothing, better support… everything.’

… up and coming riders

Remco Evenepoel [who will ride for Quick-Step from 2019] has started well. He’s a big talent but it is just the start of his career so we have to wait. Also the British cyclocross rider Tom Pidcock. When you are a very good rider in cyclocross then perhaps you can also be a good rider on the road.’