International Cycle Sport | May 1974 | Issue No 72 | Page 12
Gent - Wevelgem
by Peter Duker
IF anyone had walked into No. 22 Vijverstraat at 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday April 3rd 1974, they would have found nothing very unusual about a housewife getting her two young daughters off to school, and then settling down to read a newspaper over a cup of early morning tea.
But it was no ordinary morning for this particular household, for Papa was still in bed, a Papa who's picture shone from the front page of "Het Volk" larger than that of France's Premier who had died the previous evening.
For Papa was Barry Hoban, who had adopted Gent as his home town, which in turn had acclaimed him as one of its illustrious citizens, a man who at last had seen a dream come true, a dream that a boy from the coal mines of Yorkshire had dreamed of for the past ten years, that of winning a Continental Classic.
What finer than the great Gent-Wevelgem, two days after the Tour of Flanders, won by his friend and team-mate Kees Bal of Holland, making the Belgians eat dirt twice in succession after being so long top-dogs of European road-racing.
But I'd like to start the day from the top, and to follow it through to our British triumph.
It started in a sort of desultory fashion, that of drifting into town and collecting the documents, trying to find a chemist with a reasonable cold-cure, and watching an aggregation of some 300 solid amateur citizens take off on the lesser GentWevelgem. It was, perforce, a long wait, but it usually pays dividends to arrive early and avoid the hurly-burly of trying to get all your accredit- ation done whilst every man and his brother are trying to do the same thing at the same time.
In the 33 editions of this race run since 1936 (with four years interruption owing to the fact that A. Hitler had decided that it was time that he ruled the World during this period), the race had been won by 3 men 3 times, from the first, Van Eename (‘36, '37, & '45), to Van Looy (‘56, '57 & '62), and Merckx ('67, ‘70 & ‘73).
But, jumping the gun a little, take note that the race had only been won by a foreigner twice, Rolf Graf of Switzerland in 1954, and Jacques Anquetil in 1964.
If Merckx wins today he stands to become the out-and-out record-man for the event. In his own estimation, or the estimation that he wishes to be published, he still hasn't reached full fitness, and figures that it will not be until Paris-Roubaix, in five day's time, that he will be in full possession of his power.
Nevertheless, there's another side to this question, and that is that this year GAN-Mercier is the most powerful team on the road, displacing the Molteni hordes without the aid of which Eddy would never have been able to produce most of his spectacular successes. If you doubt this statement ask yourselves why Merckx declined to ride the Tour de France after winning both the Vuelta d'Espagna and the Giro d'Italia last year.
GAN-Mercier at the moment have the pot really on the boil, firstly Joop Zoetemelk becomes a 'grand' after winning Paris-Nice, then young Kees Bal follows up his '73 late-season success in L'Etoile des Espoirs by taking a runaway victory in the first stage of the Semaine Catalane, the leaders jersey of which he kept until the last searing stage into the mountains, but it still whisked onto the shoulders of his formidable team-mate Zoetemelk. Then Bal clears off to win the first Belgian Classic Tour des Flandres, and I nearly forgot the incredible courage of Georges Talbourdet in the frightful conditions of Nice-Seillans where he took an amazing second place to BIC's Gerben Karstens.
The idol of France, Raymond Poulidor, still capable of great deeds, will, if necessary become part and parcel of this team to ensure its success. Jean-Pierre Genet, one of the finest tacticians in the business, and immensely strong, possessing a great sense of humour, so important in times of distress (they should be so distressed right now!)
The rest, and even that is an unkind appellation, consists of famous names such as Mourioux, Hazard, Perin, Santy, Vianen, and Christian Raymond, all capable of winning major races, plus a new addition to the team, the young but talented Jean-Paul Richard. There is also the bizarre Gerrie Knetemann, who, during the Semaine Catalane, decided that the stages were too short, and did another forty kilometres after the stages were over!
They are led by one of the most able and amiable 'directeur-sportifs' in the business, Louis Caput, all this aggregation of talent being under the eagle eye of the ever-present public relations man Claude Sudres.
It was interesting to read in the interim period between signing on and the start of the race 'proper', an absolutely fantastic series of excuses from a selection of the major Belgian "routier-sprinters" on their failure to prevent young Bal taking one of their most precious prizes. Most of these excuses were prefaced with the word "if" . . . "if" there'd been rain, "if" there'd been wind etc., there'd have been an entirely different result. The main exceptions to the almost pathetic pleadings of Leman, Godefroot, Van Linden, Maertens, and De Vlaeminck, were the sage summings up of Verbeeck and Sercu. It was only these two who said that the race had really been hard and that it was won by a worthy man, Verbeeck adding that we should hear a great deal more of this youthful champion.
I realise full well that the British overdo the "fair-play" bit, but the Belgians really overdo the excuse system. How they hate being beaten on their own ground!
Contrary to my usual practice, I shall endeavour to follow the first part of this race from the "back", as I haven't done this for a while, and it really is much more interesting for an "aficionado" like myself to see a lot of the real action at the tail-end of the field as the bad-luck stories begin to pile up.
The course runs from Gent almost straight to Knokke on the coast, then follows the coastline to De Panne, by way of Ostend and the outskirts of Dunkirk, then comes inland to Ypres, and then attacks the Kemmelberg, over the Mont Rouge, back over the Kemmelberg in the opposite and most difficult direction, and thence to Wevelgem on the South Belgian border.
In the first section, that which leads to the Kemmelberg is far too flat for a great deal of action to take place, and on a windless day it must have been relatively easy for the fit men in the bunch. A couple of "rabbits" were let away, and by the approaches to Ostend had a lead of some three minutes. The Frisol man then punctured, and carrying no spare tub or pump, just had to stand and wait for his team car tucked well back behind the huge field.
Why the lesser-lights. who so often go out on suicide missions, don't take the precautions of carrying the requisites for replacements in the case of punctures is quite beyond me. The added weight is relatively little, and very often these young men, having thrown in the proverbial towel, have to ride back to the finish by themselves, what they do then if they puncture is anybody's guess,
The Italians of the Jollyceramica team were constantly in trouble even before the hills appeared as they had been in the preceeding Tour of Flanders. It needs a man of the standing courage of a Gimondi for an Italian to do anything in these races, and it was indeed a great disappointment that the reigning World Champion was not present.
In order to witness the climbs of the Kemmelberg in any sort of order or "comfort", I had to cut through from Nieuwport, and I took more than my fair share of pig-headed awkwardness from the police controllers in and around the village of Kemmel. For once, as I'd bought a compass(!!), I was headed in exactly the right direction for the immediate access to the climb, when I was completely misdirected by one of these mule-brained idiots and found myself back from whence I'd started in the village.
I stopped at a cross-roads where I knew the race had to pass, and Thank God a press car from Luxembourg passed by almost at the moment I'd stationed myself, so I got the motor going again_ and up we went through Kemmel, past the aforementioned law-enforcement officer, and then a quick right turn, and there was the enormous crowd packed against the ropes on both sides of the cobbled track. Up to the top, where I gratefully perceived a tiny place where I could park, locked up, and turned back along to the summit of this really vicious brute that brings more than a few riders to their feet, and a lot more to their knees.
The race was then about half-an-hour ahead of schedule so soon the crowd began to buzz with anticipation as the two controlling helicopters swept over the little old tower that dominates the Kemmelberg, and we could clearly hear the stridently monotonous voice of the Rodania lead-car as the field entered the village to start the real part of the race.
As the riders came into view, Roger De Vlaeminck, still on the cobbles, led over the top with Merckx and Verbeeck choosing to ride the dirt on my side of the track, the left, and the rest of the multi-coloured peloton forcing their way, by various means, up the wall. Their twisted faces bore witness to the effort that went into just keeping the pedals turning and the bike upright.
Amid swirling dust and blaring horns the team cars followed up the narrow path, following the decimated field in the vertiginous descent which became a prelude to the ascent of the Mont Rouge. This they had to take in and return from whence they came.
The second time up the Kemmel, from the reverse direction is even more vicious than its predecessor, for it is absolutely straight and has the same steep gradient all the way. In contrast, the "first" side has a slight "respite" in the middle (about 1 in 6) but this one has none whatsoever and is again on giant cobbles.
Frans Verbeeck had broken away by this time, but it was a very slender lead with Merckx making most of the running in the leading group. Most riders were in difficulty, not by any means least, Barry Hoban, who just came gasping past me, but fortunately was still able to keep in contact with this section of the field, the rest now being scattered to the four winds.
I didn't think that I would have an earthly chance of getting out of my parking space quickly enough, but fortunately for once I had some quick-thinking spectators in front of me who got me out onto the road again immediately behind the GAN-Mercier team-car, which had drawn the last number for position in the convoy.
On the descent it was just a matter of keeping the same distance from the car in front through the choking dust, until we reached greener pastures, when, almost immediately "the pressure" went on.
BARRY HOBAN, Gan-Mercier (GB) 244km in 5-30-0; 2, Merckx (B); 3, De Vlaeminck (B); 4, A. Santy (Fr); 5, Leman (B); 6, Maertens (B); 7, Planckaert (B); 8 Godefroot (B); 9 Verbeeck (B); 10 Swerts (B); 11 De Geest (B); 12 Esclassan (Fr); 13 Poulidor (Fr); 14 Rouxel (Fr); 15 Van Springel (B); 16 Tabak (Hol); 17 Danguillaume (Fr), all st; 18, Catieau (Fr.) at 3-25, 19, Perin (Fr); 20, Sercu (B), all st.
There follows a verbatim report from Barry Hoban himself the following morning . . . . B.H. "More often than not I'm in the first three up the Kemmel, I'm going alright, that's all". P.D. "What, from both sides?". .
B.H. "Yea, I mean I'm going alright, I'm not flying at all, it's just a matter of I just hung on, and hung on, and hung on. My sprint seems to have improved these last couple of years. I think the more less condition you have, the more you conserve your energy, consequently you can produce a better sprint."
P.D. "You saw what Claude (Sudres) said about you yesterday, about the team. That it's got everything except a sprinter. Well I drove up to him during the day and said "You've forgotten somebody haven't you ?". "Oh, yea, yea Hoban eh ?" Then I just left it at that".
B.H. He knows that, but it's just a case of I'm a good sprinter when I've got condition. Otherwise, for example, in Paris-Nice or the Semaine Catalane you can't sprint and work eyeballs-out for the team. Besides, what do you want, do you want me to sprint or sit in a group all day like Karstens and Company?"
P.D. "The selection of the Kemmel and the Mont Rouge, it's a bit different, you can't really sit in the bunch there".
B.H. "In the Classics it's different ... all right, I'd like you to ride for me in the Classics (he's talking of his team-mates now). But back with stage races other races . . . in the Classics it's only personal to me.
P.D. "You remember when you were talking with Caput at Draguignan, and you said I hope they're not going to pull out of all the classics on account of the Flandria teams, do you remember that?" (Paris-Nice). Anyway, what happened after the drop off the Kemmel ? Merckx and that got away. I was up behind you lot".
B.H. "Ah, well . . . it was never grouped, completely together . . . it was always split and jumped, there were always some away. They weren't really away you know, about 200 metres, they're not really away there, 'cos to get away you've got to get that distance, you get second breath, you get another distance, but they never gave us time to get our second breath. By the time they'd try to get their second breath . . . "WHOOMPH" . . . they'd be back together again. And then someone else would go again, and it would be repeated, I was a bit perturbed when Van Springel went, and I shouted at Poulidor "Go on! Go!-Go!".
P.D. "Did you feel good, or knackered . . . was it a last gasp when you got to the line . .. or what?"'
B.H. "I was counting on the sprint, you see, and if I'd started bridging gaps I wouldn't have a second sprint. I was conserving all the time, trying to conserve as much energy as possible. And also, I can produce a better sprint, in a race like that, than a bloke like Leman or Godefroot can
B.H. "I mean if he'd have been sat in and sucked along right to the finish, well, Leman could have probably produced a better sprint than me. But when you've got to work, you have to work everywhere, whether you're at the back or the front you had to work to close the gaps all the time, so it was just right".
P.D. "It's surprising that they take everything so seriously, there's no sort of gamesmanship about it after events ... you can read it there (Les Sports 2.4.74) what they said about Bal's win in the Tour des Flandres, it's always excuses".
B.H. "For what?"
P.D. "For there wasn't any wind, and there wasn't any rain . . . "
B.H. "Oh, there's always someone dissatisfied. Leman said "Oh, yea, with all the foreigners with us we had to do more work ... but I mean if you leave the race for Leman to do the work it would be a 120-up sprint all the time ... he never does any work. He's won three Tours of Flanders, but he won two being carried along by Merckx. The first one he could work, wouldn't come through, his legs were tired till the sprint came along ... so ... those people they should keep their mouths shut.
"Well you know, Godefroot's very short to me, but one thing is (sure), that he talks very true to journalists. He said "No excuses, Bal went away "cos he was the strongest, no one strong enough to bring him back, we were all smashed".
So it was out with the good ole excuse-book once more, this time by none other than the idol of Belgium, Eddy Merckx, who, with a melancholy expression on his face, such as might be worn
by a reprimanded child, pleaded that he had never seen Hoban.
Barry's reply ... "A pair of spectacles for Mr. Merckx!"
Beaten fair and square by an old campaigner and renowned sprinter, he must start to admit that his crown is starting to slide . . . but if the mantle is to fall let it fall gracefully.
Barry Hoban had beaten the cream of all the Belgian sprinters in fair combat, on their own ground, and on their own terms.
Go back to where I pointed out the two previous foreign victories in Gent-Wevelgem. GRAF Switzerland 1954
ANQUETIL France 1964
And now HOBAN, ENGLAND 1974
Will we have to wait another 10 years?