International Cycle Sport | May 1973 | Issue No 60 | Page 19
Tour of Flanders 1973 : April Fool - Eddy
By David Saunders
In some respects Gent-Wevelgem was harder than the Tour of Flanders although it is only reckoned as a semi-classic. Certainly the hills were sorted out for it and the weather combined to make it really hard. Another point was that only a day of rest remained between the two events.
That wasn’t particularly good for training, either as the weather, which began to unleash its fury just after the end of the Tour of Flanders, the gale force winds overturning trucks on the Autoroute and the rain lashing down across the flat lands, became quite terrible.
Strangely enough it abated during the night and bright sunshine greeted the field for the Gent start on the Tuesday. Even so it was still very windy and there was obvious promise of showers to come from the dark clouds trundling across the sky.
Thus the combination of distance, weather and hills was to effect both events but while everything became just that much harder the same men were there when the crunch came.
The TI Raleigh squad, due to one of those unfortunate mix-ups, did not compete in the Tour of Flanders. The team were listed among the starters but as replies had not been received by Raleigh from the Organisation it was assumed that entries had been refused. So it was a disappointment for them and Bayton in particular as the young professional, now based in Gent, had trained over the race route every day and knew pretty near every cobblestone and climb.
Some might say it was a blessing in disguise for, despite their riding Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo, some of their men could hardly be regarded as fit for the ordeal of this opening Belgian classic. But, on the other hand, it would have proved invaluable as training and so an opportunity was missed.
True they rode Gent-Wevelgem but with the majority of their ten men already in the broom wagon before the hundred kilometre mark was reached, one could hardly say they had gained any benefit from the race.
Of course they were not the only ones to suffer or to say goodbye to the race before Ostend. Well over a hundred packed that day as they did two days earlier in the Tour of Flanders.
The events were in Belgium and it proved to be the men from the home country who provided all the action. Everyone else was more or less thrown to these Belgian lions and hardly anyone got a look in. The French just never seemed capable of doing anything although Cyrille Guimard got with the break in the Tour of Flanders. The Spanish Kas team suffered badly in the strong winds and cobbled roads and they finished one man in each event
At lease then, if Raleigh were not up to the mark it was nice to find another team suffering in the same way. It is the Spaniards first trip to race in all the classics and one wonders just how much they missed the warm breezes, flat roads and little cots in sunny Spain!
Dominating the two events naturally enough, was Eddy Merckx but he had to share the limelight with several others, the most notable being Frans Verbeeek, Eric Leman, Walter Godefroot and Joop Zoetemelk also played their parts in one form or another but the man of both events was a new professional, Freddy Maertens.
Second in the Tour of Flanders and fifth in Gent-Wevelgem he showed tremendous ability in his first year as a professional and when one looks at him and realises that he was with Bayton in the break in the Olympic road race only six months ago one wonders how he could have come good so quickly The simple answer is preparation and his is a name we shall be hearing quite a lot in the future.
It was cold and a strong wind blew into the faces of the 174 riders as they set off from Ghent to cover 162 miles. Over seven hours in the saddle, threatening rain, and six climbs including the infamous ‘Mur de Grammont’ was the daunting prospect.
The big bunch huddled together as the field wound its way out over the flat countryside and bumped over the cobbles at Eeklo still intact. At Wingene after 30 miles they were nearly ten minutes behind schedule as the wind still tore into their faces. It was sheer suicide to attempt a break at that point and no one bothered.
At Torhout, with the field having changed direction, things began to warm up as attacks were launched and everyone was fighting for a place in the echelons now shaped by the cross wind. The break came suddenly and only 50 miles had gone. Most folk had expected the first escape on the climbs which were still 30 miles further up the road and the surprise move ended the hopes of many.
As a group of 29 men sped away a crash at the rear when several men came down, hampered the chase and none of these left behind were to see the leaders again. Apart from the Spaniard Jiminez, two Germans, Muddeman and Tischler Frenchman Guimard and Dutchman Duyndam the bunch were Belgian and most of the top names were there - Merckx, Verbeeck. Godefroot, Leman, De Geest, Roger De Vlaeminck, Sercu, Steven and Maertens.
Such dramas have been fought out there before and it was to be the same again. As Godefroot dismounted through fumbling for the right gear as the opening reared up, Verbeeck lunged at the hill. Like a knight of old in a jousting tournament he plunged into battle the sides of the climb packed with a roaring crowd. Merckx could not match him! Breathlessly the huge audience watched the former Flemish milkman take ten, maybe fifteen lengths out of Merckx as they leapt, gasping for the top of the climb.
It was chaos behind! Sercu, at least a stone lighter than when he won the Skol Six with Gowland last September, seemed to be standing still halfway up the Wall. It was agony to watch him and grimacing riders wobbled and danced on the pedals but could do nothing about the two men in front who were having a personal battle which Verbeeck eventually won.
He went over the top first but Merckx had pulled him back and as they eased to recover Maertens, De Vlaeminck and Leman joined them. Suddenly up went Verbeeck’s hand, a mute signal of disaster. It must have been a reflex action for there was no team car behind to witness the urgent request. Teams cars are not sent up the Mur and so the puncture ended Verbeeck’s hopes. It was a bitter blow for he had undoubtedly shared the animation of the break with Merckx and had been solely responsible for the split on that last climb.
As Godefroot, reduced to cyclo-cross due to his losing momentum, and Guimard grovelled with the rest little De Geest bridged the gap to join the quartet up front. It wasn't over yet by any means as the shattered band behind gathered themselves together for another assault. Verbeeck, Godefroot, Guimard, Sercu, Lievens, and Int'Ven, were soon to be reached by Zoetemelk and Van Springel, the chasing pair having left a group of 21 men and gained a minute in a mere ten miles.
The lead now fluctuated between thirty and forty seconds for the five men in front where Merckx was now the sole workhorse. He was towing the others all the way and must have got a little satisfaction when De Vlaeminck suddenly blew up. There couldn't have been more than eight miles left when he went but he did it in style, getting off his machine and waiting for the Brooklyn team car at the roadside.
Down to a quartet again Merckx continued to maintain the pace, what else nould he do? Just 40 seconds behind was Verbeeck, Godefroot, Sercu, Zoetemelk and Van Springel with his two non-working team members, Lievens and Int’Ven. Sercu had nothing left to offer in the way of assistance to the chasers. He had sat on before, guarding De Vlaeminck while Godefroot was sitting in on behalf of Maertens.
Tour of Flanders 1973
1 Eric Leman Peugeot-BP 6:17:00
4 De Geest
5 Zoetemelk (NL) at 0:45
6 Godefroot at 0:51
8 Van Springel
9 In-T’Ven at 1:23
10 De Witte
13 Guimard (F) At 1:40
14 VanVlierberghe At 1:45
18 Antheunis at 1:50
19 Van Roosbroeck at 4:25
Finishers - 35
Zoetemelk was getting his second wind after that splendidly successful chase from the other group and Van Springel had his Rokado colleague De Geest up front, not that crafty Herman would have worked anyway! So, as Merckx toiled away constantly ahead of the contented trio, Verbeeck was doing much the same thing some 40 seconds in arrears.
Were we to see the Super-Merckx in action? His fitness was still in doubt after that throat infection and he hadn’t won a race since the Het Volk at the beginning of March, almost a month ago. He had been well and truly beaten in Paris-Nice and his morale was to suffer yet again in the Semaine Catalan where he was second to Ocana only two days before the Tour of Flanders.
The gap grew to a minute as he dragged the others up a slight cobbled rise on the seven and a half mile finishing circuit between Ninove and Meerbeke. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity as Merckx threw his machine to the opposite side of the road and sprinted away. No - It wasn’t Super-Merckx for within a hundred yards he was brought back and the quartet, despite Maertens trying the same tactics on one occasion, stayed that way to the line. Along the Chaussee de Halle in Meerbeke with its slight rise towards the finish the foursome slowed and jockeyed for position. The result was never in doubt although Maertens managed to dent Leman's pride a little by coming at him in the last 50 yards. There was less than half a wheel in it at the line with Leman taking his third Tour of Flanders in the space of four years.
Merckx, almost in tears, was third while little Willy De Geest, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, brought up the rear. Behind them, Zoetemelk had broken away from the chasers and he came in alone, 45 seconds down with Godefroot delivering the final blow to a gallant Verbeeck by outsprinting him for sixth place.
With the rain now lashing down the brave remnants straggled in. They came pitifully across the line in ones and twos with Olympic champion Hennie Kuiper coming in with two Belgians almost 50 minutes down, the 35th and last finisher of those 174 that started out. It was a race to remember, a classic fought out in the best tradition but Merckx will be happy to forget it.