Monday, March 31, 2008

Glimpses from 'Hell'

Paris Roubaix is coming. For one day this April 13th, northern France hosts this unusually, insane race. The weather holds the cards in this game in hell. Riders will try to beat back the unrelenting cobblestones and if it rains, the course turns into grooves of muddy ruts. And, if the wind doesn't get them it's the falls, crashes, cramps, aches, choking dust, cold, rain, flats, damaged frames, clogged gears/derailleurs/brakes ... the occasional dog.

Jacques Goddet called it, "a hardship approaching the threshold of cruelty."

"What I saw was frightening. Water, mud - terrain at the extreme limit of practicability. I would never have imagined that Paris-Roubaix would be as bad as this," shuddered Giuseppe Saronni, looking over the 1978 course.

I can't wait!

















1984. Alain Bondue(he will finish in 3rd) chases after Kelly and Rogiers despite having cracked forks.

(Top): 1978. De Vlaeminck, Maertens, and Raas on the skating rink of mud. From, 'The fabulous world of cycling.'
(Middle, left): 1967. Jacques Cadiou, done!
(Middle, right): 1986. Francesco Moser - pure intensity!
The rest from, 'Paris-Roubaix A Journey Through Hell.'

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Tour of Good Health … 'Poupoular' for Mr. Unlucky.

Forty years ago, Raymond Poulidor entered the 1968 Tour de France as pre-race favorite. Poupou was selected due to his strong support in helping Roger Pingeon win the 1967 Tour. With the help from Pingeon, Poupou could finally go for the overall victory…
The 1968 Tour was promoted as, ‘The Tour of Good Health.’ Official’s feared a repeat of the previous year’s tragedy of Britain’s Tom Simpson. Even Mount Ventoux along with the difficult mountains would be dropped. The battle against doping was embraced by Tour organizers. But, it didn't help with Jacques Anquetil’s brash comment that there exists the common practice of drugs amongst the riders. “You cannot compete in the Tour de France on mineral water alone,” he said. Organizer's attempted to steer the anti doping ship in the right direction, stage one was symbolically started in the mineral town of Vittel.

Poulidor started well in the opening prologue, finishing in 3rd place. But, as he entered the mountains, on stage 15 to Albi, misfortune reared it’s usual ugly head. A press motorbike smashed into him! He was on the ground for at least 30 seconds, his face covered in a bloody mess. Word got through to the peloton that Poupou was down, and now his rivals attacked. Riding with a broken nose, the amazing Frenchman clawed his way back to finish the stage only to lose a minute. During the next stage he would get off his bike and reluctantly retire from the race.

Poulidor’s greatest race was his beloved Tour and his misfortune was … his fortune. He made quite a tidy sum at post criteriums. More so, than his great rival Anquetil.

“When I left the Tour in 1968, I received 2,800 letters a day for two weeks. In criteriums, I was alongside Jan Janssen, who’d win the race, but I was presented as the moral winner, Anquetil was irritated by my popularity. In some criteriums, organizers used to do me under-the-table deals so that Jacques wouldn’t know I’d been paid more than him. My big luck was to have lots of bad luck,” he said.

And this was his legacy. The French instantly loved Poupou and understood that his setbacks was a metaphor for life. The more his misfortunes the closer to the heroic figure he became.

(Above): Bruised and battered. Poupou chasing valiantly on the road to Albi, stage 15. From: 'Le Tour.'
(Top): Licking his wounds. Like the heroic prize fighter he was, added to his fame. From: 'Maillot Jaune.'


Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Gavia Epic; hot tea, cognac and the Cima Coppi.

Johan Van der Velde was one of those great non-Italian riders to excel in the Giro d’Italia. In fact, the Dutchman was three times winner of the Maglia Ciclamino(points jersey from 1985, ‘87, and ‘88). He was a gifted sprinter but also a consummate climber. One of the handful of great Dutch grimpeurs to smile whenever the elevation rose.
Twenty years ago at the 1988 Giro d’Italia, stage 14 to the top of the Gavia, would leave quite an impression on the riders, forever! The Gavia tops out at 8,599 feet, a monster of a climb before the long descent into Bormio. It was last climbed way back in 1960 when the great Charly Gaul won the stage and the race.
The weather started with rain and then turned to hail and snow. A sign to come? “I had been near the front for most of the stage and my legs felt good as we began the Gavia. It was the only climb left, and from there it was a descent to the finish in Bormio. It had rained for most of the stage and I was cold, but we were all cold,” Van der Velde says.
Van der Velde(GIS-Ecoflam-Jolly) was the first over the top of the Gavia. One of the bravest feats of riding ever seen as he staggered towards the summit well in front of Andy Hampsten(7 Eleven-Hoonved) and Erik Breukink(Panasonic-Isostar). A truly heroic ride. “Once I got over the top, I have never known cold like it. I went down about two or three kilometers and was shaking so much I could not control my bike. I stopped by my team car and drank some hot tea and some cognac,” explained Van der Velde.
Now, the storm erupted into freezing rain hitting the riders and the bikes were reduced to frozen machines. Ice formed on brakes and gears that stopped many riders as they were forced to dismount. Van der Velde lost 48 minutes to Bruekink during the 16 miles left to the downhill finish in Bormio. Hampsten and Bruekink rode together and then passed the Dutchman. With one last effort, Bruekink sprinted pass Hampsten for the win in Bormio. Meanwhile, about 60 riders came down the mountain in cars, vans and buses got out 3 kilometers from the finish and rode over the line. On this exceptional day, the organizers felt it was unfair to disqualify all of them. During the next day’s stage all were allowed to start.
One of the Giro’s highly respected prize, the Cima Coppi (named after the great man), is awarded to the first rider to reach the summit of the famous 9,000 ft. Stelvio . Snow was falling on the summit and organizers decided to move the stage and the riders over the mountain and starting the stage further down the valley. And without the Stelvio, the thirty-two year old Van der Velde deservedly won the Cima Coppi, since he already reached the Gavia, the highest point of the race.
A remarkable day, without a doubt, not to be repeated again. With the 20th anniversary approaching, still referred by the Tifosi as ... the day that grown men cried!

(top) The Ascent; The intense Van de Velde riding solo, winner of the points jersey powering to the top of the Gavia. Little does he know what's waiting for him on the descent!
(above): The Descent; A frozen Van de Velde is the first to crest the Gavia, well clear of Hampsten & Bruekink. But, the icy cold stops him. He's wondering, "Where the hell is the hot tea and cognac?"
Both photo's from: 'Tour 88.'

Coming soon: The Gavia Epic; Coppino loses his pink.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The birth of the Cannibal, percolating with chicory in his veins.

Eddy Merckx is one of those indispensable heroes of Paris-Roubaix. Here's another story as a lead up to the big race this April.
In 1968, Merckx's move to the Italian team - coffee maker, "Faema," was a huge leap up for the twenty two year old. Under the Italian team, he learned care, preparation and feeding, all and all very new for the young Belgian star. Fitter and thinner than ever before, he won his first major stage race in the Giro d'Italia, convincingly. "I had remained a rough diamond who was now being polished by Italian hands," explained Merckx.

He first entered Paris-Roubaix in 1966, finishing 15th. A year later he came closer, placing 7th. But in 1968, wearing the rainbow jersey, he desperately wanted to win. Maybe it also had to do with the addition of extra cobblestones. The organizers wanted more of a rugged course and threw more in, along with a new section. The Arenberg section of pavé was included for the first time. The harsher the terrain the easier for the young star to eat it up and spit it out at his opponents.

Without losing a stride he plowed through the mud along with fellow Belgian, Herman Van Springel. For the last 52 kilometers, the two remained alone. And just before the velodrome, Merckx unceremoniously dumped Van Springel and crossed the line victorious. "I don't cycle anymore - I fly," he boasted. During this fantastic season, his former Peugeot teammate, Christian Raymond, first called him, 'the Cannibal.'

Merckx was ecstatic, finally winning Paris-Roubaix, all during his first season in Italy riding for Faema and wearing the rainbow jersey. He would go on to win Paris-Roubaix again, in 1970 (an astounding 5 minutes, 21 seconds over the last 35 kilometers beating most of the Mars-Flandrian team of the De Vlaeminck brothers, Leman, and Dierickx). And lastly, in 1973, after crashing and a changed of bikes, beating Godefroot and Rossiers some 2 minutes, 20 seconds behind.
Ironically, with his new Italian team, the Cannibal hardly drank coffee only chicory. And unlike his many gratifying victories ... caffeine always gave him indigestion!

(photo): The Cannibal, under the Italian influence. Steamin' towards his second victory in Hell!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The maple leaf in France? Pourquoi pas?

American base, Team Slipstream has made it to this July’s Tour de France. A major accomplishment for the Continental Professional team.
Invited by organizer ASO, for two reasons: embracing the anti-doping stance and to lure the American public back to Le Tour. With key riders; David Millar, Christian Van de Velde and Dave Zabriskie reported to get the top position's on the team. Jonathan Vaughters has the daunting challenge of determining who will comprise the rest of the Tour squad. Twenty teams of nine riders will start on July, 5th in the Britanny city of Brest.

I’m thinking talented Ryder Hesjedal belongs on the Tour squad. If not for his strong showing in this early season of racing, then for his flashy Canadian National Champion kit!


(photo): A daring duo ... argyle and red would go well in France. The 'maple leaf' time-trialing at Tirreno. Hesjedal would finish a strong 8th overall.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dai, dai, dai, Milano-San Remo!

With the start of Spring, a cyclists fancy turns to … Milan-San Remo. La Classica di Primavera(99th edition) is held this Saturday and promises plenty of excitement.
With a distance of 298 km, is the longest one day race of the season. Tailored towards sprinters, a rouleur, in the right situation, can also win. If the winner is Italian, all the better, as the rider will be King of Italy for one day.

Interestingly, Filippo Pozzato(Liquigas) said that he will go on the attack to make sure that the race does not end in a sprint finish. There’s an extra climb and a new finish along the coastline that may actually help him. “The extra climb is 100km from the finish but it’s 4.7km long and so will hurt the sprinters’ legs a little,” said the 2006 winner. He has a valid point and experts have pegged ‘Pippo’ as a favorite. You may remember during his 2006 win, he broke away in the last km's for the win.

Erik Zabel, the aging wonder of Team Milram, has a chance. And credited with 4 wins would love to end his career with a 5th. But, in a mass sprint, he knows that the other big sprinter’s will be slugging it out with him for the line. Namely, his teammate ‘Ale Jet,’ Alessandro Petacchi, Juan Antonio Flecha(Radobank), and Oscar Friere(Radobank) are other potential danger men. I'll pick the ‘god of thunder,’ Thor Hushovd(Credit Agricole) to be victorious.

Ahh! Springtime in Italy!

(photo); Hard to beat his record. The Cannibal grinding it out towards his record 7th win in 1976.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cancellara's birthday gift. Cipo 'exits' stage left not laughing.

Swiss time trialing monster, Fabian Cancellara wears the overall maglia azurra to claim victory in the 43rd Tirreno-Adriatico. Not a surprise, as the mighty Team CSC took control to give Cancellara his 27th birthday gift! He finished just 16 secs from second place, Italian Enrico Gasparotto(Barloworld). Canadian Champion, Ryder Hesjedal(Slipstream Chipotle) finished a highly respectable 8th, 1min 53secs behind. Italian Francesco Chicchi outsprinted a mass of riders to win the rain drenched final stage of T-A.
After this big win, folks say that Cancellara is in line for a crack at Milan-San Remo victory. “We’ve got a strong team and Frank Schleck could also win so we’ve got several cards we could play.” he hinted. There’s a touch of modesty in his words and with such a strong team, any of these two could crack the top five!

News Flash! The Lion King exits as fast as he started on the US-based Rock Racing team. As the hype continued, clouds formed and you just thought it was too good to be true. It did looked good for Cipo, way back in February, coming out of retirement to ride in the Tour of California.
More rumors as Cipo wanted to get off the ‘Rock’ and jump ship to Tinkoff Credit Systems for a chance to celebrate his 41st birthday and ride this Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Super Mario said that he only wanted to be involved with a team in its management and development.
Bike love! A dilemma if he does ride for Tinkoff ... There might be another issue in that the Tinkoff's ride Colnago's and Super Mario wants to ride his own. And, just to make it interesting, with La Classica di Primavera fast approaching, don't blink if you see the old lion king at the start line.

All said and done, (and I won’t rest until it’s really over) it’s best to finally put your paw down and exit, right Lion King?


Photo(above): Cipo, is this your final exit?
(top): Cancellara, riding in the right direction to victory.

Monday, March 17, 2008

4 times lucky

Today is St. Patrick’s Day and the 4 leaf clover goes to 36 year old Davide Rebellin(Gerolsteiner), the winner of the 2008 Paris-Nice. I like how the old man of the classics toughed it out to win. Yesterday, he made a go at the 3 cat. 1 climbs and batted away attacks to finish the final stage into Nice in 16th place. He won the Race to the Sun by 3 seconds over Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r), the smallest margin in the history of the race.

The Italian Rebellin is a true classic specialist with a fine list of palmarès. He maintained his cool and with the steady support from his team wore the yellow jersey into Nice. Kudos to Dutchman, Robert Gesink (4th overall/winner of the white youth jersey, Radobank) who from lack of experience lost the yellow jersey to Rebellin with two stages left. Double kudos to young French hopeful Clément Lhôtellerie (11th overall, Skil-Shimano) winner of the polka-dot climber’s jersey. These two young guys have a good future ahead of them. The green sprinter’s jersey goes to Norwegian tough guy, Thor Hushovd(Crédit Agricole). Rebellin finished on the Paris-Nice podium three times; second twice (2004 and 2007) and third once (2003). He has the luck of the Irish with him and deservedly earns the 4 leaf clover. His fourth time at the podium gave him the win.

There’s no reason for him not to make another stab for victory in this year’s Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège!

Photo: Rebellin shows off his 4 leaf clover!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"Un vino con quel signor?"

For me, Italy stands out as an important epicurean country. One can go to any part of that beautiful country and be showered with endless varieties of fine regional cuisine: great cheeses, pastas and delectable wines.
The art of cycling and eating was probably started by the Italians or atleast perfected. One rider in mind was ... Fausto Coppi. Not to mention his extraordinary palmarès, his racing achievements was born from his fastidious approach to his training regimen. A balance diet of meat, whole grain breads, pasta, vegetables, plenty of mineral water and importantly rest was a percursor to the modern training methods for todays rider's. He understood that diet = performance. Coppi knew very well for a rider to successfully perform, one must have the basics. Regular change of clean clothing: socks, fingerless gloves, jersey's, and short's(to counteract the pesky boils), and the presence of a doctor was pioneered by him. He upgraded his 'gregari' (domestiques) from slaves to teammates to perfect race strategy and tactics. Coppi consulted bike manufacturers to improve everything from toe straps, derailleurs to clothing.

'Il Campionissimo' was pure poetry on the bike and ... revolutionary in his training methods.

Molto grazie Coppi!
Photos, (top): Vittorio Adoni(l) teaches the Cannibal the fine Italian art of eating. From: 'Eddy Merckx.' (middle): The great Coppi may've perfected the art of shaving, too! (above): Spaghetti dinner on the go? Gianni Motta style. Both from: 'Cycling's Golden Age.'

Saturday, March 15, 2008

'Killer' of a hill

The riders that endured the brutal 20% grade up the final climb into Montelupone looked like twisted rag dolls. The pictures proved this. And, who said that Tirreno-Adriatico (Race of the two Seas) is a relatively flat race? Say that to any of the riders and they would probably give you a 'claque dans face' (punch in the face).
The climb looked gruesomely familiar from another famous race; the staggering climb up the Muy de Huy in the Flèche Wallonne classic. The anguish faces on the riders showed the severity of the grade with many walking the last 200 meters. Controversial 2007 Giro winner Danilo 'the Killer' Di Luca, clawed his way up to finish a superb 2nd. He's surrounded in a cloud of controversy as he maybe banned for two years from the Italian Olympic Committee for his doping test he took after the 17th stage in last year's Giro. I think this was furthest on his mind as his new LPR team helped him to his excellent stage finish.

Nice stage win for Spanish Champion, Joaquim Rodriquez as he rockets to 3rd overall. Veteran, Niklas Axelsson finished just behind the Killer and now wears the leader's maglia azzura. One rider that looks menacing is Fabian Cancellara who finished in a well placed 10th. He looks a hot favorite to win the upcoming time trail. The Cobra, Riccardo Riccò looked the worst as he limped in bloodied after a fall. He's back in 82nd overall. Young Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal is riding a good race, too. He came in 16th and was top Slipstreamer. He definitely took advantage of his mountain biking skills to attack that 20% grade. Now he's sitting in 13th overall just a minute behind.

The race is not over until Tuesday and one can't help but think that there's more suffering to come!
Photos: (top) The 'Cobra', Riccò ... bloodied but unbowed. (middle) At the finish, the damaged is done. (above) The suffering continues.
www.cyclingnews.com

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Badger bites dog!

The Badger scampers à la cyclocross, just before the encounter with the poodle.
Photo: The Fabulous World of Cycling.



With only a month away from the queen of the classics; Paris-Roubaix, I'll be offering some stories as a lead up to the great race.

First run in 1896, next month will be the 106th edition of this glorious race. One cannot help but be in awe over the endless winners and losers that survive and not survive the Hell of the North. It's the most challenging event in cycling. Many cyclists pen their entire season on this torturous race ... to win. Although, for many it maybe futile, but all of the riders know to win means legendary status. The cobblestones together with the crazy weather provide the chaotic stage where the riders are the main actors. To be successful in Paris-Roubaix, a rider must suffer. And suffering is the key in entering into martyrdom. The fans know this, too.

Bernard Hinault knew he had to win it in 1981. The Badger was wearing the rainbow jersey of world champion, already had 2 Tours, a Giro and a multitude of other victories going into the race. Hinault confessed that he hated it, said so without blinking. "This is like pigs at play," he shouted. But, although the pressure came from his critics to win the race with the coveted rainbow jersey on ... the Badger relished in the challenge. He started to sharpen his claws.

Hinault encountered muddy roads, flats and falls, nothing out of the ordinary. But, just before Valenciennes he dismounted to avoid a crash of riders. And, like the cyclocross rider he was, the Badger placed his bike on his shoulder and ... ran around a group of surprised fans! More drama awaited, with 12 km's left he boots a black poodle that crossed his path. That poor dog should never have tangle with an angry badger!

Soon, the Badger found that his efforts in this hellish race working well for him as he was one of six riders on the Velodrome track. Nothing could stop him, as he powered his way to win in the final sprint. His victims: a very close: De Vlaeminck(2nd) and Moser(3rd), followed by Van Claster(4th), Demeyer(5th), and Kuiper(6th). Hinault was a living legend.

Afterwards, the delighted Badger proved that he could beat the best ... while happily waving the finger at his critics.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Thor's thunder, Steegman's bounty

This week's Paris-Nice is turning into quite a race. I'd like to see the weather NOT improve and for the tough riders in the forefront. Hardmen like yellow jersey leader, Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and double stage winner, Gert Steegmans (Quick Step) seem immune to the harsh wet conditions. Seems that Hushovd's team was not picked to ride in tomorrow's Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. And, although he seems a little despondent in not riding in Italy, the Norwegian has accepted the yellow jersey in stride. If he does hold on to win Paris-Nice it would be a very good step up to the big one awaiting him. He's set his sights to this month's Milan-San Remo. Even stakes his entire classic season on it.
Belgian, Steegmans turned into leader for the Boonen-less Quick Step team. While, 'Torpedo Tom' will line up for Tirreno-Adriatico. For the tough Steegmans, he's at home in the wet cold conditions of France, a fish in water.
Because of the extreme wet conditions, many of the main GC men have crashed, not worst for wear, but suffered the bruises of such hardcore racing. One thing's for sure, Hushovd's great conditioning has placed him well in yellow and if he plays his cards right in Milan-San Remo, he has a greater chance in adding to his palmares!
The weather waits for no one: Steegman bracing for the cold. Hushvovd thunders in yellow ... thinking of Italy.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rydering Heroic, eh!

Slipstream's Canuck, Ryder Hesjedal braved the 'sterrati' (gravel roads) to finish strong at the Monte Paschi Eroica race in Siena, Italy on March 8th. Eroica is Italian for heroic and that's what I call his ride! It should be called the gravel race where throughout the 180 km course, hills and gravel roads peppered the riders. For a ryder I mean a rider like Hesjedal this course was made to measure. Hailing from Victoria, British Columbia and with an accomplished list of victories as a former mountain biker, Hesjedal seemed at home on the 'sterrati.'
He got in an early break and with 25 km to go took a flyer and broke away ... alone! Hesjedal looked very good for the win. But, soon Fabian Cancellara and Alessandro Ballan caught up to the soloing Canadian. The Swiss Cancellara was too strong as he overpowered Ballan for the victory. As for the heroic Hesjedal, he helped guide teammate, Martijn Maaskant(Holland) for the sprint finish. And a great one it was; for Maaskant(4th) and Hesjedal(10th).
"Though I was completely envisioning winning solo and I was going for it, was almost there. Today is about as good as it gets," exclaimed the elated Hesjedal.

With a 'Ryder' like this, he looks destined for more greatness. I'm looking forward to seeing him ride well in this month's Tirreno-Adriatico!

(photo): Ryder Hesjedal going solo and daring to win.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Race to the Sun ... without the politics, please!

Tomorrow starts the first stage race of the season ... the 66th edition of Paris-Nice. It's a 7 stage race, including sprint stages and challenging climbs ending in the frenzy run onto the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.
I don't want to mention the crazy politics going into the race ... so I won't! But, what I want to comment is that for the first time in twenty years, the géant du Provence - Mount Ventoux will be included. And, the 4.6 km prologue will not start in the suburbs of beautiful Paris but, in Amilly - in the Loire Valley. The 3rd stage from Fleurie to Saint-Etienne will be brutish consisting of 5 climbs. And the 176 km stage 4, Mortélimar to Mont Ventoux will be very interesting. You may remember that 7 time Paris-Nice victor(1982-88), Sean Kelly rode up the fabled extinct volcano back in 1987 and won the summit finish.

In 1977, Kelly's first year as a pro saw him at Paris-Nice in a role of lead out man for the super sprinter, Freddy Maertens. That year, the Orge won ... with the help of Kelly. 'King Kong Kelly' further developed his famous
speed with the Jean De Gribaldy teams of the early eighties. They were: Sem-France Loire, Skil-Sem and KAS. Under the tutelage of De Gribaldy he hone his sprinting, time trialing, and climbing skills needed to win 'the race to the sun.' He did it an amazing seven times in a row. A record that will never be broken!
A reporter once said, "Paris-Nice suited Sean Kelly - the tough farmer's boy from Curraghduff like a callused hand in workman's glove."
Let's look at Kelly's time-trialing bike during his 7 victories... For the climb up the Col d'Eze, a 44 or 45 inner ring with a 13 straight up block was used, in titanium of course. De Gribaldy was weight conscious on the time trial bikes. Using titanium bolts to replace the steel ones; the seatpin & the stem bolts. Clement silk track tyres were used on 24 spoke wheels. "His attention to weight saving was as much for the riders as it was for the bikes. He realised that any weight you could save would make you go faster uphill," explained Kelly.
Barring any 'problems', Team CSC looks a good bet to lead an overall winner. After my fairly good prediction on Het Volk, I picked Thor Hushovd who eventually came in 3rd.

Politics aside, I'm going for CSC's Frank Schleck(brother Andy's not in) for the overall victory. But one cannot forget the astounding 7 victories of King Kelly!
(photo): The tough farmer's son from Curraghduff.
www.dewielersite.net

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I'll have a Watney's... with my mussels & frites?

What does beer have to do with cycling? Besides from tasting damn good after a long ride there's the business side to it.  Previously, I talked about, 'the Flying Milkman',  Frans Verbeeck and his great involvement in the classics. During 1970-75,  he rode for a  team  sponsored by the famous British brewery,  Watney's. 
In the early days(the fifties) of cycling sponsorship, alcohol companies were one of the first to jump into the untested business waters of cycling. It was simple, they brought the necessary money to front a competitive team and to have exposure.  Watney's had another idea. The brewery had a cycling team because they wanted to open English theme pubs in Belgium!
 What were they thinking? They even employed token British cyclist, Peter Head to speak at the openings. Head wasn't only a speaker, he was a very good support rider for Verbeeck and won his share of races.  However, in beer mad Belgium (over 450 varieties and counting), it didn't work!

It would be uncharacteristically to order a Watney's with your mussels  and frites... 

Just ask any Chimay or Duvel!

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Flying Milkman; a classic(s) rival

With the introduction of the cycling season, focus on one of Belgian’s early hardmen of cycling seems appropriate. Frans Verbeek was one of those famous Flandrian riders of the seventies that gave Eddy Merckx ‘s fits in the spring classics. His is an interesting story. He started his cycling career in 1963(at 22 years old) and after the 1966 season called it quits. Because, he rarely had wins thus he hardly made money. This was the typical mindset of the sixties: no win no pay. Verbeek turned to work in his family dairy business, driving a milk delivery truck. It was lucrative certainly more so than his brief cycling career. But, its hard for a tough Flandrian to leave cycling. A return to his former love was imminent…

During the winter months of 1968-69 he trained and trained hard. His winter training was legendary. He was one of the first to ride all winter. The more rain and sleet the better. His winter training ground was obvious, in and around his home town of Wilsele. Soon the results came and the real racer emerged. Verbeek won the 1970 Het Volk, the 1971 Amstel Gold Race, and again Het Volk in 1972. In a sport that loved nicknames, his was one of the best, his fans called him, ‘The Flying Milkman.’
During the spring classics of 1973, Verbeek was Merckx's biggest threat. That year's Liege Bastogne Liege was memorable. Amidst the snow and the bone chilling cold two great classic riders fought towards the finish line at the Rocourt track. Just three weeks before at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Amstel Gold, Merckx beat Verbeek into second place. And at the Rocourt track, Merckx did it again winning by just two centimetres from an ever frustrated Verbeek. He was the eternal second. Between 1970-1977 he stood on the classics podium 13 times winning only twice; 1971 Amstel Gold and 1974 Fleche Wallonne.

Perhaps this was the Flying Milkman's legacy. To be involved in cycling wasn't enough, he was typical of the tough Flandrian cyclist and even truer as the brave rival to the great Merckx in the Belgian classics.

photo: The Flying Milkman(left) vs the Cannibal: duelling on the pavé.
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