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Meetings. They can be tiresome but are usually necessary. And sometimes not attending an important meeting can have dire consequences for your career—like losing the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
This particular meeting was held on April 2, 1977, on the eve of the great race. One year earlier the organizers added a new climb to the route—the diabolically steep Koppenberg—and only five riders out of 167 managed to make it to the top without walking. Those five riders went on to contest the finish and afterward many riders and managers were vociferous in their opposition to the new berg. One of the critics was Eddy Merckx, who asked: “Why not just get us to climb ladders?” But controversy equates to publicity for the organizers, so the climb stayed in, and the following year the favorites knew they had to develop a strategy to cope with the climb. Conscious that some teams were arranging for bike changes on the climb, and keen to avoid bottlenecks, the organizers called a meeting of team managers to tell them that bike changes would not be allowed on the Koppenberg.
For Merckx, the way to deal with the Koppenberg was, naturally, to attack. He broke clear earlier in the race, on the Oude Kwaremont, and reached the Koppenberg alone in the lead. Freddy Maertens, the reigning world champion, had different ideas. He positioned a soigneur at the foot of the climb with a new lightweight bike. Having switched machines, Maertens got a hefty shove and took off in pursuit of Merckx with fellow Belgian favorite Roger De Vlaeminck. Unfortunately for Maertens, his Flandria-Velda team manager Guillaume “Lomme” Driessens had not thought the managers’ meeting worth his attendance, so he was unaware of the bike-change rule. A costly error!
Driessens had been a promising young rider in the early 1930s, turning professional in 1932. But his pro career ended before it began when he was called up for military service and returned to the peloton some 25 kilograms (55 pounds) heavier. After a disastrous comeback he switched into rider management, where he really made his name. His career encompassed five decades, starting as a soigneur to Fausto Coppi. By the late ’70s he was a powerful figure in professional cycling. His dominance over his riders extended to all areas of their life—Maertens once complained that Driessens would come to his house uninvited and stand over Maertens’ wife Carine telling her how to cook minestrone soup. And Driessens could bear a grudge for a very long time. After Merckx dropped him as a manager, Driessens exacerbated the bitter rivalry that already existed between Merckx and Maertens, always looking for opportunities to bring down the Cannibal.
That rivalry began at the 1973 world championships in Barcelona when Merckx and Maertens, the stars of the Belgian team, argued about how to work together. In the finale, Italian star Felice Gimondi took advantage of the intra-Belgian politics and took off to win the rainbow jersey. Maertens and Merckx disagreed publicly about what had happened and the media rubbed their hands with glee.
The following year, at an even tougher worlds in Montreal, the feud moved into farcical dimensions. Maertens was in a strong-looking break and feeling good. Then for no obvious reason he fell back. The break was caught and Merckx won the world title. Maertens didn’t finish the race, allegedly crippled by a bottle spiked with laxatives that had been handed to him by Merckx’s soigneur. For more than 30 years Maertens and Merckx didn’t speak, until in 2007 at a wine-tasting event in France they sat down to clear the air. As Maertens recently recounted in the Peloton magazine podcast, Aérogramme, the two men stayed up until 5 a.m., shook hands and parted as friends.
Returning to the most unusual 1977 Ronde, Maertens and De Vlaeminck caught Merckx, then dropped him on the Varentberg, 70 kilometers from the finish. With 15 victories already under his belt that season, and an incredible 54 the previous season, Maertens was the clear favorite to win over De Vlaeminck. His sprint was unstoppable. With Merckx dropped, Driessens must have been delighted. How quickly things can change in a bike race. But then a UCI commissaire came alongside Driessens’ team car to tell Maertens that he was disqualified, because he’d taken an illegal bike change on the Koppenberg.
Maertens replied that he would keep riding even though the commissaire told him it was a waste of time. But Driessens saw an opportunity. Although Merckx was gone, a strong chasing pack was still in the race and De Vlaeminck wouldn’t be able to hold them off alone. He needed Maertens, so Driessens instructed Maertens to make a deal. You pay me 300,000 Belgian francs, Maertens said, and I’ll tow you to the finish. De Vlaeminck agreed and proceeded to sit on Maertens wheel for the next 60 kilometers. On the finishing straight in Meerbeke, the Brooklyn team rider finally put his nose in the wind and took the victory, to a chorus of jeers and boos from the crowd.
For De Vlaeminck it must have been a bittersweet victory. In later years he admitted that a deal had been struck, saying, “I do not care what people might think. When everything is over and forgotten, it is my name and my name alone that will remain engraved on the record of the Tour of Flanders.” True, but how he must rue the age of the internet that keeps all these stories alive. It would be the only Ronde that De Vlaeminck won.
For Maertens, there was a further twist. In the week after the race, as the media declared him the moral winner, it was announced that he and third-placed Walter Planckaert had tested positive for Stimul, a banned amphetamine. Both were disqualified, so Maertens earned the dubious honor of being disqualified twice in the same race. In the eyes of the Belgian public however, his status as moral winner was unsullied. It is celebrated to this day at the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, the official Ronde museum in Oudenaarde. A line of decorated cobblestones can be seen in a window, one stone per edition. And for 1977 there is an additional cobblestone, sitting on top of the winner’s stone, marked “Freddy Maertens: moral winner.”
The controversies of Maertens’ career shouldn’t overshadow his achievements. In an era of many great riders, he was one of the best. The archetypal roadman-sprinter, he was feared by everyone, including Merckx, because they knew that taking Freddy to the line in a sprint would mean defeat. Only in the high mountains of the grand tours did the man from Nieuwpoort, on the North Sea coast, struggle. Maertens raced from February to October and in his best years he won all season long. On the bike he was tough and canny; off the bike he was kind and trusting—too trusting of the many agents and managers who made a lot of money from his success, then left him with huge debts in retirement.
The 1977 Ronde van Vlaanderen will go down as one of the strangest in the race’s long history. A reminder of how history can turn on the smallest decisions. And a reminder of just how “professional” bike racing can be.