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Tour de France history: Freddy Maertens returns from the dead

In-depth
13 Apr 2021
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At the 1981 Tour de France, everyone believed Belgian sprinter Freddy Maertens was burnt out – a has-been. How wrong they were

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: L'Equipe

The opening day of the 1981 Tour de France didn’t go the way Freddy Maertens would have wanted. For just the third time in its history the race had headed to southern France for its Grand Départ, with Nice having the honour of hosting the big send-off for the first time.

To the bemusement of many observers, Maertens was among the riders assembling on the Mediterranean coast.

Maertens had suffered a terrible previous two seasons, finishing few races and winning nothing of importance. He was a shadow of his former self – a rider who had won 54 races and the rainbow jersey in 1976; who had led the Vuelta from start to finish in 1977, taking 13 stage wins along the way; who had won the green jersey at the Tour twice (1976 and 78). He seemed little more than a fast-fading memory.

After six years of success with Flandria in the mid-1970s Maertens’ form had completely disappeared. Speculation abounded as baffled journalists searched for an explanation.

Did he have financial problems? Was he an alcoholic? Had doping ravaged his body? Had he been pushed too hard early in his career?

In May 1979 he flew to the United States for three weeks of tests at a Philadelphia hospital. Nothing was found to be physically wrong so Maertens returned home and continued riding but little changed in his results.

At the end of 1979 Flandria bowed out of team sponsorship, company bankruptcy just two years away. Maertens too had significant financial problems. He was being pursued hard by the tax authorities, which he later gave as the explanation for his years of poor form.

A broken and broke rider, he moved to the Italian outfit San Giacomo for 1980. The season started promisingly enough – he was 12th at Milan-San Remo followed by sixth at the Tour of Flanders – but after that came nothing.

By the start of 1981 Maertens had moved to the Boule d’Or-Sunair team alongside his former sports director Lomme Driessens, with whom he had enjoyed so much success at Flandria. But still the results didn’t come.

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A stage win at the Vuelta a Andalucía after Noel de Jonckheere was disqualified and a seventh place in Milan-San Remo were his sole finishes of note.

In May he lasted only a single stage of the Midi-Libre, and by this point Maertens had a reputation as a rider who started races but didn’t finish them, let alone feature in the final reckoning.

To secure his spot on the Tour team he’d had to call Driessens’ wife and ask her to argue his case with her husband. Little wonder many questioned what Maertens was doing in Nice, and they poked fun at Driessens for selecting his former star rider.

‘Psychologically, I was at a low ebb,’ Maertens would tell the author Richard Moore for his book Etape.

So when Maertens crashed into a Niçoise pedestrian while warming up for the Tour-opening prologue, it was the last thing he needed. The collision forced him into a last-minute wheel change before his race had even started. After arriving late at the start ramp he could only finish 66th.

‘The press had a good laugh about that,’ Maertens wrote in his 1988 autobiography Niet Van Horen Zeggen. Less than 24 hours later it would be Maertens who was laughing.

Resurrection

The second act of the Nice Grand Départ was a split-stage day. First on the agenda was a 97km stage into the hills around the city before a high-octane finish along the seafront. In the wet conditions an early break formed that included the race leader and eventual overall winner, Bernard Hinault.

For a while it looked like this could be the winning move but a series of falls on the slippery roads prompted the riders to proceed with caution, and with 10km to go the escapees were back in the main bunch.

So the stage came down to an almighty 70-rider-strong sprint finale on the Promenade des Anglais, and there at the head of the bunch and leading the gallop was Maertens.

Veering to his left as he unleashed his final sprint, the Belgian turned back the clock and powered to the line ahead of Sean Kelly, much to the shock of those watching.

‘Nobody had thought for a second that he would ever [again] win anything important in his life,’ reported the Dutch daily Leidsch Dagblad. Even his fellow riders couldn’t quite believe it.

‘Maertens the winner? You mean Freddy? How is that possible?’ Johan van de Velde said after the stage. ‘When I saw him this morning with that heavy body I thought, “He will never win again.”’

‘I may now start to forget my rotten year a bit,’ Maertens reflected. ‘I fell in the Ruta del Sol, where I broke my hand, then hit the deck in Paris-Roubaix, so I couldn’t ride for a month. And yesterday I ran into a spectator just before starting the prologue… I was disappointed and wanted revenge today.’

As it turned out his Nice win was just the start of a fabulous three weeks for Maertens. He won a further four stages, including the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées, and claimed the green jersey for what was then a record-equalling third time.

The return to form for the Belgian was nothing short of remarkable, a resurrection of a past great. L’Equipe reportedly even ran a cartoon of Driessens holding open a tomb from which Maertens emerged. ‘The old Maertens’ was back.

A second rainbow jersey arrived later in the season when Maertens came off the wheel of Italy’s Giuseppe Saronni in the final metres of the Road Race World Championships in Prague, snatching the jersey out of Saronni’s hands on the finish line. Maertens’ long and difficult climb back to the pinnacle of the sport was complete.

That world title would prove to be the Belgian’s final major win. He retired in 1987, going on to work in the Flanders Centre. His Tour de France record stands at a remarkable three green jerseys and 15 stage wins in just three appearances.

Giles Belbin is the author of Tour de France Champions: an A to Z (thehistorypress.co.uk)