International Cycle Sport | May 1973 | Issue No 60 | Page 29
Two Gentlemen of Gent-Wevelgem
By David Saunders
REVENGE is sweet but spare a thought for the man who took second place, Frans Verbeeck. He tried and he failed and surely gained small satisfaction from knowing that he is only the second best rider in the world at the moment. Everyone knows who holds the premier position and if Eddy Merckx was gloomy on Sunday the cold, hail, rain and snow on the following Tuesday had no effect on his beaming smile at Wevelgem where the Belgian ably demonstrated his overall ability.
What a race this was ! The weather and the course combined to produce a truly savage affair and no one in Britain, unless they have been out and witnessed the Belgian cobbles and experienced the elements at their worst and know what the Kemmelberg is like, could possibly visualize the 1973 Gent-Wevelgem.
Tl Raleigh suffered badly but they were not alone. Names like World Champion Marino Basso and his team mate and Italian champion Felice Gimondi had climbed aboard the sag wagon along with Bull, Barnett, Harrison, Bilsland, Holmes, Marrows and Jolly. Indeed. there were only 57 finishers from the near 200 who started out from the Vrijdagmarkt in Gent.
The weather had relented a little from the storms and gales the previous day but while there was sunshine at the start, rain and even worse threatened and, in fact, was to come, before the race had ended. Much the same as the Tour of Flanders the field bunched tightly in the head wind and the sudden hail showers which pelted them occasionally with lumps of ice almost the size of marbles. They bounced over the cobbles at Eeklo, heading for the coast and knowing that the gale, coming in off the North Sea, would eventually make life and survival difficult.
So it proved as they battled out of Knokke where Jolly was brought down and fought to rejoin. Only 40 Miles had gone when the bunch split in heavy rain and sleet at Blankenberge. They regrouped, fighting now against the windblown sand from the dunes on the exposed coastline with little shelter from the battering gale even in the towns and villages. It split again at De Haan where Bayton flogged his way up to the front group of some 30 men with Mortensen, the big Dane doing little to assist.
Much to Bayton’s dismay there was another regrouping but a large number were, by now, well down and never to see the front again. They were in three distinct bunches as they approached Ostend, much of the blame for this being due to the bridge at Zeebrugge opening for shipping, and the peleton had to wind its way round the back over very narrow roads.
Just over 65 miles had gone when Verbeeck attacked at Middelkerke and 18 men got clear. At Nieuwport, four miles later, they were 50 seconds up and soon to be turning inland when the full force of the wind would be right behind them. This was the moment for the others to pull them back but it never worked out and the leaders sped leftwards after De Panne with a minute advantage.
Now they reaped the benefit of the gale and the group, pedalling madly, were averaging over 37 mph as they passed the halfway mark of the race. Behind, the bunch were also crazily speeding along with the Rokado team punching away desperately at the front as they only had big Eddy Peelman with the leading group. He was useless for the big climbs ahead and so Albert Van Vlierberghe set off alone to attempt the impossible.
The composition of the leaders was much the same as in the Tour of Flanders. They were the Belgians Merckx, Maertens, Verbeeck De Witte, Abelshausen, Opdebeek, Roger De Vlaeminck Rosiers, Godefroot, Mintjens, Dierickx, Leman, Peelman, Planckaert, Van Sweevelt and Huysmans; two Frenchmen were hanging on grimly with them, Delepine and Sybille.
With nearly a hundred miles gone they were a minute up on Van Vlierberghe and the bunch, containing Bayton, Lloyd and Watson of Tl Raleigh, were two minutes down. The Belgian chaser soon gave up and retired to the shelter of the bunch where Rokado Team Manager Driessens gave them a verbal working over.
At Elverdinge Godefroot punctured and the strength of the Flandria team in the breakaway was soon noticeable as De Witte and Maertens dropped back to help with Dierickx at the back of the group ready to help if necessary. He was not required and the ‘Bulldog of Flanders’ was quickly back.
Sybille had gone by this time and as the group raced into leper with 50 miles still to go Merckx attacked on a corner and disappeared through the town at high speed. The rest naturally responded but all their efforts were in vain for Merckx had 15 seconds and was gaining still as leper was left behind.
The climbs were to come and such aggression had to be applauded and, one would have thought, been deserving of better luck than was to befall Merckx who promptly punctured and was caught. He rejoined quickly, his face showing none of the disappointment he must have felt and the group took things a little easier with their now four minute advantage.
Suddenly Merckx punctured again, a rear wheel this time, but he was back without too much effort and they all went up the Monteberg where Peelman lost contact along with Huysmans and Van Sweevelt. Maertens punctured but got back and then it was the turn of De Vlaeminck to change wheels.
He came roaring back, aided by a photographer’s motor-cycle, who was supposedly clearing a way for him on the narrow descent, just wide enough for a car and a bike. No sooner was the winner of Milan-San Remo in contact than a crash sent him spinning 30 yards into a field. Abelshausen was down with Dierickx the latter rolling in pain at the roadside with a terrible gash down his left leg. Abelshausen was the only one to continue and with Merckx and Verbeeck flailing along some ten seconds clear the incident may have played an important factor in their eventually staying away.
Such was the pace as they tried to pull back the two escapers that the group split and as they mounted the Kemmelberg for the first time. the first time mark you, only six men were chasing, Godefroot, Rosiers, Planckaert, Maertens, Mintjens and Leman. It was to no avail as the duo pounded up the cobbles of this notorious climb with Merckx stamping his authority on Verbeeck by taking the prime at the summit.
No sooner over than Verbeeck punctured and, needless to say, Merckx did not wait but luck came to Verbeeck just for once for the Maestro himself got a flat tyre for the third time and the pair were together once more, even after Verbeeck had changed bikes.
Up the Rodeberg for the second time they were almost a minute up and again Merckx was astride the top of the Kemmel ahead of Verbeeck. The route had switched back completely and the field were now grovelling on the same climb but in the opposite direction.
Back with the bunch Lloyd had punctured just before the climb and the effort to get back told on him. Bayton was there, too, but Lloyd, crying with the pain of it all, got over with his team mate. Somewhere along the course they picked up Watson who must have missed out a lap which worried the Australian not at all but the bunch was in ribbons and with no possible hope of gaining ground.
At the front Merckx and Verbeeck shared the load while Godefroot proved the worker of the chasing group. Mintjens was sitting in for Merckx, Planckaert doing likewise for Verbeeck. Leman, almost cooked, was hanging on while Rosters, riding for Bic, preferred the lantern rouge position. This eventually got on Godefroot’s nerves and he left the pace-making to Maertens for a moment while he came back to Rosiers.
What he said I do not know but his face would have been enough to frighten me. His piercing blue eyes looked at Rosiers from a face masked in mud and his broken nose from former years did not enhance the situation. He brandished a large fist under Rosiers unbroken countenance but for all the effect it had on the Bic rider it could have been a daffodil !
The ‘Bulldog’ was magnificent and he pretty near towed that group all the way to the finish, getting to within 40 seconds of the two leaders at one time. It was never on for them and Merckx produced one of his special sprints at the line to polish off poor Verbeeck. There was the jockeying and crafty slow down but Merckx always seemed to have it in his pocket and with a sharp dig in Verbeeck’s ribs from his right elbow, Merckx thrust ahead some 40 yards from the line.
The overjoyed crowd had to wait nearly a minute before the chasers came in, the rain still coming down, and Planckaert’s name went into Godefroot’s black book for nailing him at the line for third place. One could say that Godefroot was justifiably annoyed at the other Walter taking the sprint after he had done no work at all.
Just as in the Tour of Flanders they limped in behind only 19 of the 57 finishers claiming other than Belgian nationality. Bayton packed at Meenan, only three miles out after being talked into it by a man who spoke English who drove alongside him in his car. He told Bayton there was ten miles to go and the exhausted Raleigh man climbed in. He was given a few tots of whisky which resulted in his arriving in the showers in a slightly drunken state!
1 EDDY MERCKX Molteni 6:18:00
2 Frans Verbeeck
3 Walter Planckaert at 0:57
4 Walter Godefroot
5 Freddy Maertens
9 Abelshausen at 6:44
11 Delepine (F)
12 De Witte
17 Hoban at 7:40
50 Lloyd at 15:10
51 Watson at 15:20
Finishers - 57
Barry Hoban, who had abandoned the Tour of Flanders because of riding a new machine, his original mount which earned him tenth overall place in the Semaine Catalan having bottom bracket trouble, did a good ride and arrived at Wevelgem just over seven minutes down.
He was placed 17th, being third in a sprint from the biggest group to finish. just behind Cyrille Guimard and Rik Van Linden. There were thirteen men in the group including new professional Regis Ovion and also Poulidor who, with Guimard and Hoban, made up a good representative trio for the French Gan-Mercier team .
The fact that the road was open to normal traffic was another factor in his retiring but Lloyd got across the line with a typical pugnacious performance in 50th place, just over 15 minutes down. Bayton was only some 40 seconds behind him, had it not been for the preferred seat in the car, would surely have finished.
I did Lloyd an injustice previously by saying that no one from Raleigh finished the course. I had waited over 12 minutes and as the road was open I assumed no one else was to come. How wrong can you be! Watson, incidentally, got credited with 51st place. Maybe he didn’t deserve it, missing out at least three climbs, but he’s on the sheet and good luck to him for staying there anyway!