COMPLETING THE DOUBLE
IN between the races, having a couple of idle days, I was able to get Barry Hoban's story of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and to become acquainted with several members of the Peugeot team, as we were staying in the same hotel. Barry was scrupulously honest:
"It was a strange day, and a strange race. Something wasn't quite right. I couldn't get my little gear turning properly, so I'd be terrible on one hill, yet on the next I'd be flying. I got dropped twice, once after a puncture and both times I got back to the leaders, but it just wasn't there today. Still. twelfth isn't too bad, and there were plenty of good riders below me. Sunday should be better. There are far more hills, but they aren't as bad. and today's ride can't have done me any harm."
A rider who had a more disappointing day was local Peugeot star Ferdinand Bracke, who had finished 24th at Verviers, 10 minutes behind Merckx. Bracke was still suffering from an inflamed vein in his leg, but expected to go better in the Flèche Wallonne, his favourite Classic. Ferdi was keen to know about our Tour of the North which he will be riding unless he returns to pursuiting, which, in turn, depends on his being able to duck the Tour. "What are the distances? What are the hills like ? How much traffic will there be on the roads ?" These were many of the questions put to me. and re-put later by Gaston Plaud. who confirmed his intention of sending a team, and a good team, with Bilsland definitely included.
Typical of his generosity, Bracke expressed the hope that Hugh Porter would have a good track season - "my best opponent ever; I hope we both ride this year, because we bring the best out of each other," but added he still dreamed of winning the Tour, and his best memory was of winning the 1971 Vuelta, the proof that he could win a long stage race. "I didn't lose the 1968 Tour in the time tiral as everybody said. I lost in the Alps when Van den Berghe fell, and I had to do it all on my own. With somebody to support me I'd have won that Tour by five minutes, but I couldn't be expected to take two minutes out of Janssen and Van Springel. I don't really want to ride this year's Tour, but I can't help dreaming of winning it. Anyhow, we'll have to see how Sunday goes first."
Formerly the two races were held on successive days, with both finishing at Liège. Now the Flèche Wallonne travels in the opposite direction, to finish in Marcinelle, a suburb of Charleroi. The Côte des Forges, where Ockers twice broke away to finish at Rocourt, is the second of 19 climbs, with the vicious Mur de Thuin as no 19. Did this indicate another race like the first 7 Certainly Merckx was again hot favourite, with Poulidor and Dierickx, quoted as the likely danger men.
One rider who was less likely to be among the leaders this time was Ferdi Bracke, who had just received the tragic news of the death of his elder brother. Although steps had been taken to allow his replacement in the Peugeot team, Bracke insisted upon riding. Other riders present who had not ridden on Thursday were Luis Ocana and Eric Leman, the former allegedly short of training miles.
The control point in Verviers market-place was less chaotic than that in Liège, and the organisation, led by Monsieur Crahay, somewhat smoother. At any rate, the convoy was ready early, and we set off from Verviers for the first climb after only three miles, to let the race come past and slip behind.
Robert Lelangue, Molteni's Belgian manager had predicted a Molteni attack on the first hill and, sure enough, Bruyere lost no time in jumping away. He was followed by the inevitable Kunde and, a few seconds later, by an aggressive looking Agostinho. Just over the top the three were together, and one wondered whether a monumental break had started: two years ago Ocana had gone at the same point, but had blown up. Was this to be another Iberian campaign?
Certainly it seemed so for quite a while, as the lead passed one minute at the foot of the Côte des Forges, and grew to 1'30" at the top, opposite the monument to Stan Ockers. Even as early as this second-counting hill with only 12 miles covered, riders were going off in all directions. One of the first to go was Willi de Geest, quite a surprise, and there were quickly a dozen or so in trouble. Fortunately for several, the third climb was approached by a sharp bend where a considerable hold-up formed, and some managed to get back amiong the race cars.
At the head of the bunch much of the time was Van Malderghem, who had punctured on Thursday at the worst possible moment, and had made a brilliant return to the leading group. Now he was stringing out the bunch, but making no impression on Bruyere, Kunde and Agostinho. Aher 25 miles, in Neuvelle-en-Condroz, the lead was 1'45" and already six minutes had been gained on a 37 k.p.h. schedule. For several miles we were driving alongside the Sonolor team car. with Jean Stablinski leaning desperately out of the window to pick up our radio transmission as his own radio had ceased to function. If you can imagine the scene, with team cars in strict convoy order, and press cars jumping all over the narrow roads, while every now and then a service car, called up on the radio, would come straight through the middle of the two lines on a road barely wide enough for two vehicles, you will know why race vehicles have a very short life on the Continent. Already we had been hit twice from behind, and there were few cars without scrapes and scratches down the side. the result of overtaking on roads which just did not allow it.
After the Wall of Amay the bunch began to try in earnest, the junction being made in another five miles, but Bruyere had clearly no intention of yielding so easily. He immediately went again, first with Marc Sohet (Watneys), and then on his own, as Sohet slipped back to the bunch on hill no. 7. It was here that Merckx scored his first climbing points of the day with none other than Wim Schepers, his runner-up two days before, on his wheel.
The next climb was Merckx all the way, Bruyere safely back in the fold, but it was obvious that Bruyere was the Molteni candidate for the mountains title, as he had scored 31 points already from a possible 40. So far most of the action had been at the back, but the first major split came after Schepers had led over the Côte d'Ossogne. Sadly Barry Hoban was among the latest casualties, nursing a sprained wrist, and performing miracles of acrobatics as the Molteni car chopped him viciously into the ditch. Even a hard ride back to the tail end of the bunch did lime good. for all the favourites were a minute up the road: Merckx Poulidor, Dierickx, Bracke, Van Impe, Van Neste, Van Roosbroeck, Pintens, Swerts, Catieau. Alain Santy, Rosiers, Van Springel and Delisle.
Not among the leaders was Luis Ocana, heading the bunch after a puncture in Evelette, but looking far from his best after only 60 miles. The weather had started dry but overcast: now it was glorious, with a following wind into the bargain. The route was far less exciting than that of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, being mainly over country lanes connecting small villages on the fringes of a heavily industrial area. The only town of any importance was Namur, with the first feed at Jambes, in the outskirts of the town. Just about at the feed, the second and third groups merged. By the time that we were climbing the hairpins leading to the famous Citadel, the junction had been made, but too late to stop De Schoenmacher and Opdebeek (Watneys) topping the climb with a lead of 20 seconds, and reaching Floreffe, 90 miles, with a lead of 1' 10", and at a speed of exactly 39 k.p.h. putting Vannitsen's 1961 record in some danger.
Once again the 70 riders still in the race were in three bunches, with sizeable gaps separating them. For 10 miles the see-saw continued, to the Côte de Tremouroux, easily the most severe of the day, where Schepers and Pintens began the move which was to bring back the leading pair inside two miles. One more sharp climb, another five miles, and everyone was back to square one. By now we were well inside Merckx territory. Apart from the ubiquitous message, "Vas-y, Eddy," there were the more original slogans painted across the road, such as an appeal: "Ne les ecrase pas, Eddy." (Don't humiliate them, Eddy) and "Tu es une locomotive." And a child of about four or five was waving a most beautifully embroidered pillowcase encouraging her hero,
It was Maurice Eyers (Flandria) who attacked next, riding easily up the Côte du Wainage to be absorbed over the top, just as Bruyere, for no visible reason, somersaulted across the road to land head-first, inches in front of the leading team car. Fortunately, as with Janssen and Stevens three days earlier, there was no damage other than bruising and concussion, but it meant that Molteni no longer had the mountains prize, for the winner had to finish in order to qualify for his top placing.
Within two miles Molteni's Spruyt had been sent off the front to do something about this reversal of fortune, picked up immediately by Van Neste (Flandria) and Van Roosbroeck (Watneys). For almost 30 miles the trio would hold a steady lead, rarely above one minute, but with riders from three teams represented there was every possibility that the break might succeed.
In the flurry which followed this action, there
were further splits and a magnificent jump by
Van Springel to move across from the second
bunch to the first. Ocana was left trailing in the
third bunch, before becoming the most important
retirement of the day, and provoking derisive
comments from the crowds lining the route. The
Molteni plan succeeded perfectly in one respect,
for Spruyt took the remaining five climbs to
replace the injured Bruyere as King of the
As ever, punctures assumed a major importance in the closing stages, the two most notable victims being Dierickx and Van Neste. Dierickx had retired on puncturing the second time in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Now he had the misfortune to puncture while Brik Schotte was following Van Neste up front. Dierickx was quickly serviced by team-mate Ronny van Marcke, but had ridden no more than two miles on his borrowed wheel when he decided to retire once more, leaving Van Marcke high and dry: a fine return for his sacrifice.
Van Neste managed to rejoin Spruyt and Van Roosbroeck, but it was apparent that Guillaume Driessens had offered advice as well as a spare wheel. Spruyt had done no work at all in the break, protecting Merckx's chances while making sure of the climbing title. Now Van Neste refused to take a turn at the front, and it was left to Van Roosbroeck to do all the work, a fact which probably cost him the race, as he was almost certainly the fastest of the three. With the Molteni team as firmly in charge as ever, several of the work horses were allowed to ease themselves out of the race: one by one we went past In't Ven, Huysmans and Mintjens and, with the three bunches splitting further, it was easy to move right up to the first bunch, to pick out: Merckx, Poulidor, Pintens, Swens, Alain Santy, Rosiers, Van Springel and Delisle - all members of the day's first big break - plus Coquery, Monensen, Zoetemelk, Cael, Schepers and Bellone.
The last major climb was the Mur de Thuin, a narrow cobbled climb, reminiscent of Haworth High Street in Yorkshire's Bronte country, where the trio just held off the fast approaching bunch, to be swallowed up a mile up the road. Now there were 7 in front, and Marcineile was only 10 miles away. Were we to see a bunch sprint, there being no more hills to SOn out the strong from the weak? It seemed not as Van Neste, surely riding the race of his life, was off again, with first Monensen and Van Springel, then Rosiers and Swerts, joining him. Five leaders: two Molteni. What should Merckx do? The question was quickly answered, as the world champion went straight to the front of the chasing bunch and put the brakes on, gambling on the ability of Van Springel and Swens to out- manoeuvre the other three on the long pull to the finish. For three miles Merckx remained unmoved, as the lead fluctuated around 30 seconds, never more than 35. Then, wham! A change of mind, and he was tearing away in pursuit. Most of those with him were quick enough to respond and the last junction was made with only two miles to the finish.
Past the town sign, down a long straight, round a sharp left-hander, and there were 800 yards to the finish, up a straight hill. The gradient was somewhere between 1-in-15 and 1-in-20, not steep, but enough to relegate the pure sprinters like Bellone and Rosiers several lengths down as Santy was the first to nose in front, with 500 yards to go. At this point Merckx was lunging desperately at the pedals, and it transpired later that he had wound up to his 54 x 14 gear, only to feel the chain slip on to the 13 sprocket, with no time to do anything about it. At 200 yards he hit the front for the first time; at 100 yards he was clear with several lengths between himself and Santy. At the line he was still clear of the astonishing Poulidor. Never known for his sprint, Pou-Pou was belatedly, too belatedly, catching Merckx with every stroke of the pedals, finishing perhaps a couple of lengths away, beaming with delight at his newly won second place, and oblivious of the fact that he was so close to winning.
Third place went, deservedly, to Van Neste, with consolation for the French in a further collection of 'places d'honneur' to complete an excellent week, a return to French form that was to find its culmination in Bellone's fine win at Frankfurt eight days later.
36th Flèche Wallonne (156 miles)
1 E. Merckx (B) Molteni 6-25-00
2 R. Poulidor (F) Gan - Mercier
3 W. van Naste (B) Flondria
4 G. Bellone (F) Rokado
5 G. Pintena (B) Magniflex
6 A. Santy (F) Bic
7 G. van Roosbroeck (B) Watneys
8 W. Schopora (H) Rokado
9 L. Mortensen (D) Bic
10 R. Swerts (B) Molteni
11 J. Zoetemelk (H) Flandria
12 R. Rosiers (B) Bic
Race speed: 38.880 k.p.h. (Record - 39.569 (1961))
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