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Made in Belgium: ex-pros on their finest Classics

18 Apr 2019

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

José de Cauwer

69, from Temse, Belgium

De Cauwer’s best Classics results came in 1975 when he was third in Het Volk and 12th in Paris-Roubaix, but he is better known for his work as directeur sportif with the ADR team, where he led Greg LeMond to Tour de France glory over Laurent Fignon in the famous eight-second Tour win of 1989.

‘In my home village we had nothing to see but cycling. My father was a big supporter of Rik Van Looy back in the 1950s and 60s.

‘There were three kinds of races that were important in Belgium at that time: kermesse races – every village had its own, and good riders like Van Looy came to these races to win – the Tour de France and the Classics.

‘For us, there were four Classics in Belgium that mattered at that time: Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, which is like a Belgian race because 75% of the people who watch Paris-Roubaix on the roadsides are Flemish. I mean, that race is part of Flemish cycling.

There was nothing else to see, nothing else was tangible. Now you can open your computer and see races from all over the world, anything you want. But that is not real cycling. You have to work at it, to build up the history.

‘The Tour of Flanders has that history. There are always a lot of people at the race. You go to the Tour of Flanders two hours before the start and there are 10,000 people in the marketplace.

'It’s crazy. Even the riders go to the start at the Tour of Flanders just so they can film it on their phones.

‘In 1988 [as DS at ADR] we had a big plan with Eddy Planckaert, who had never won a major Classic. He was always fast at the start of the season but when the major Classics came, well, he wasn’t bad exactly but he always fell away. So I said to him, “Now we go for the big one.”

‘I said, “Your brother [Walter] won the Tour of Flanders and your other brother [Willy] won the green jersey. You are going to do both in a single year. Then it is over.”

‘You see, they always used to say, “Eddy the small one, Eddy the little one”, because he was the youngest. So he always had a hard time. I told him, “We are going to change that.”

‘He was given race number 13. Before the Tour of Flanders he hadn’t won a race that year, which was not normal, and his wife called me and said, “José, we have to change his number because he doesn’t like this number 13.”

‘So I said, “OK, I can do that. But after the Tour of Flanders.”

‘“No, no, we have to do it now,” she told me. “Sorry,” I said. “We’ll do it after. You will see, he will win. He must win.”’

Eddy Planckaert did claim the 1988 edition of the Tour of Flanders after breaking away with the Australian Phil Anderson and easily winning the two-man sprint.

One week later De Cauwer’s ADR team won Paris-Roubaix with Dirk Demol. Then, in July, Planckaert stood in Paris wearing the green jersey.

Roger Rosiers

72, from Vremde, Belgium

Rosiers won Paris-Roubaix in 1971, beating a field that included Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck. He was third in Roubaix in 1973 and twice podiumed at Bordeaux-Paris

Frans Verhaegen

71, from Pulle, Belgium

Verhaegen recorded back-to-back wins at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 1975/1976 during a nine-year professional career

Roger: ‘When I was 14 years old I received a bike. Cycling was the only career I wanted – I even stopped going to school to become a cyclist. It was my dream. Rik Van Looy was my hero because he was from the same neighbourhood.’

Frans: ‘Van Looy used to come to my home and my mother gave him milk to drink from our farm. I was 13 or 14 years old and the bike maker who made Van Looy’s bike said he would make a bike for me and that I only had to pay 300 Belgian Francs.

‘So I got the bike and started cycling and I won one of my early races. That was how I started. I still have the bike. In my first year I won 12 races. I lived in the same neighbourhood as Herman Van Springel and Van Looy.

‘They were big idols for me and I wanted to be as good as them. In the end both Roger and I would go training with them.’

Roger: ‘We did many kilometres at full speed. Training was like a race. One day in 1966, at Gent-Wevelgem, I won the amateur race and Herman won the professional race.’

Frans: ‘I was not a team leader but nor was I only a helper. I was something in between. But I was also very focussed on doing my best.

‘Even the smallest race I was proud of winning, even if it was a small kermesse around the church. That was the love I had for the sport.’

Roger: ‘In 1971 I was one of the favourites at Paris-Roubaix. I was in super-good condition and I was a very good cobblestone rider.

‘There was a group of favourites: Van Springel, Jan Janssen, Eddy Merckx, Marino Basso and Roger De Vlaeminck. Eric De Vlaeminck was one minute in front so I left the group behind.

‘Everyone was riding in the gutters to the side of the cobblestones – I was the only one in the middle of the cobblestones and I just rode away from everyone. My weight, 80kg, helped me ride over the cobbles. 

‘I knew when I entered the velodrome that I had one minute over Van Springel so I knew that I was going to win.

‘Everybody started applauding and cheering and the hairs on my arms stood up, I got goosebumps. I still have them now! It transformed the rest of my career. I never had a problem finding a team after that.

‘There was a group of very good Classics riders in our time – riders like Walter Godefroot and Roger De Vlaeminck – but Merckx was the best of the best and you had to just accept it.

‘When Eddy had a good day we knew that we could ride only for second place.’

Frans: ‘A few times I felt that I could pass Eddy Merckx but I just didn’t dare out of respect for him. That was just my character. Maybe I didn’t have enough ambition, I was happy just to be there, admiring riders like Eddy.’ 

Ludo Peeters

65, from Hoogstraten, Belgium

Peeters was a professional rider for 17 years. In that time he won both Paris-Brussels and Paris-Tours twice, as well as recording podium finishes at the Tour of Flanders and the Tour of Lombardy

‘Most races in Belgium are less than 200km but the Classics are 240km or 260km so only a top cyclist can win. That is the difference between a normal race and a Classic.

‘I started at IJsboerke. It was a small Belgian team and it was not well organised. It was not a real team. But then I went to the Dutch team run by [1964 Roubaix winner] Peter Post, TI-Raleigh, which you could say were the Team Sky of the 1980s.

‘There was a real structure. You had to ride for the nominated leader and we would go to a Classic days before the race. Before that I won a lot of races, yes, but my real career started at Raleigh.

‘Riding for a team managed by Peter Post meant there was a strict plan and the closer a race like De Ronde came, the more tense the atmosphere became.

‘Jan Raas was the number one rider while I was one of a few second-string riders. If Jan had a bad day it was down to us to try to win, but when Jan was good we had to ride for him.

‘At the Tour of Flanders in 1983 I had one of the best days of my career. I was second that day but I couldn’t try for the win because Raas was in a breakaway so I couldn’t ride. I was second with my fingers in my nose.

‘That was perhaps my best Classic ride ever, but I didn’t win. I also rode a good Paris-Roubaix in 1982. I was away, alone. I had a few minutes but Raas was Dutch, like Peter Post, and he preferred that Raas won Paris-Roubaix.

‘A lot of other riders told me they had heard that Post had paid Bernard Hinault to close the gap [so Raas could win]. It was reported in the paper. That’s a bad feeling because it was not right. I could have won that day.

‘I didn’t confront him about it – there was no point. I won seven Classics but I’m missing a Paris-Roubaix or a Tour of Flanders. I’m missing a really big Classic.’

When Cyclist puts it to him that if circumstances had been different he could have been talking to us as a Roubaix and Flanders winner, Peeters only smiles and shrugs. As an aside, ‘With my fingers in my nose’ is a Belgian expression that roughly translates as ‘easily’.  

Nico Mattan

47, from IzEgem, Belgium

Mattan rode professionally from 1994 until 2007. His best result was his win at Gent-Wevelgem in 2005. He also recorded top 10 finishes at both Paris-Roubaix and Flanders

Rik Van Linden

Rik Van Linden, 69, from Wilrijk, Belgium

Van Linden rode from 1971 until 1982. He won Paris-Tours twice and had top 10 placings in Flanders, Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem. He also won stages at the Tour, Giro and Vuelta

Nico: ‘I was born in the region of the Classics, in Izegem. It’s near Harelbeke, it’s near Kuurne, it’s near Wevelgem, so I know all the roads of the Classics, all the small roads.

‘My father liked cycling and he was always on the roads watching races. When I was little I was already at the start line of Gent-Wevelgem with my father. He never rode a bike but I was born into cycling.’

Rik: ‘I started when I was 12 years old. I was very attracted to cycling and I was a very good junior rider – one year I won 74 races out of 82, which was really special.’

Nico: ‘It’s a small area and all the big races are here: Flanders, Wevelgem, Harelbeke. Everybody knows everybody so if you train on these roads you know the roads and the people know you.

‘You pass them every day on the same roads – Kemelberg, Kwaremont, I’ve done them maybe 300 times in my life. This is how you become a Classics rider. You must train on the roads.

‘In Belgium the roads are different, they are small – left, right, up, down. You can’t compare Italian Classics with Belgian Classics.’

Rik: ‘Here, every corner, every hill, you have to fight to be at the front, but in a race like Milan-San Remo, yes you must also be at the front, but you have more space.’

Nico: ‘My best performance was at Paris-Roubaix in 2002. I was seventh [sic – he is reported as finishing ninth].

‘I won Gent-Wevelgem in 2005 but I was much stronger at Paris-Roubaix in 2002. If I was too strong though, I was also too stupid. I was on the front too much. I worked too hard.

‘Most of the races I won were when I was at 95%. If I felt good I was too stupid and then at the end of the race, in the final 10km, I was too tired. It is true, I was stupid.

‘Every 10 years or so cycling changes a lot. When I was racing – my first Tour de France was in 1996 – we went to the start in cars. Now they come with a hotel on wheels.

‘The bus – it’s a hotel! Last year I was with Peter Sagan to take him a bottle of Kwaremont [the beer he helps promote] and they even had a restaurant in their truck.

‘Sagan didn’t eat in a restaurant, he ate in a truck. They had their own cook – it is incredible. So it has changed a lot. I don’t know what it will be like in another 20 years’ time.’

Rik: ‘In the morning, at 6am, we started to eat rice before a race. We ate red meat. Now they eat pasta and special shakes.’

Nico: ‘I think it should be more open to the public. It’s boring to eat in a truck, no? Even if it is closed to the public it is better to eat with the team in a restaurant.

‘I remember riding with Mario Cipollini at the Tour. The hotels were no good and Cipo didn’t have a cook so he cooked the spaghetti himself! I still remember this.

‘He said, “Screw this! What kind of food is this? Get out, you cannot cook. I will cook for the team.” So he spent 15 minutes cooking the spaghetti himself. You cannot imagine it now.

‘With the earpieces the racing has changed a lot. I would get rid of them. If you didn’t have them I think you would have fewer sprints because if there is a break of 20 riders or so and you don’t have earpieces you don’t know if you have a teammate at the front or not.

‘With the earpieces a group of 20 forms and within 10 seconds the DS is on the radio: “Hey guys, we don’t have anyone at the front – chase!”’

Rik: ‘If they’d talked all the time into my ear it would have driven me crazy.’

Nico: ‘I don’t like it because it is not natural. It is good for safety but not for the race. Let the race go. Let the riders race.’

This article was originally published in issue 86 of Cyclist magazine