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Dec 11, 2015 – (Eric De Vlaeminck, who won a record seven world cyclocross titles, died at age 70 on December 4. Roger De Vlaeminck said his brother had had Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases for several years and was living in a nursing home at Middelkerke, on Belgium’s North Sea coast, about an hour’s drive from Eeklo, where the brothers grew up. Here, John Wilcockson remembers a week of ’cross racing in Switzerland over the 1971-72 holiday season when Eric De Vlaeminck was at his peak.)

Words and Photos by John Wilcockson

In the world of modern cycling, a number of incomparable performances will always remain in my personal memory bank: Federico Bahamontes climbing the Galibier in solitary splendor in 1963; Jacques Anquetil winning his fifth Tour de France after a memorable battle with Raymond Poulidor in 1964; Eddy Merckx doing almost anything in the 1970s; Koichi Nakano racing to his 10th consecutive world sprint title at Colorado Springs in 1986; Greg LeMond coming back to beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds at the 1989 Tour; Chris Boardman winning the Olympic pursuit gold medal at Barcelona in 1992…all the way up to Peter Sagan grabbing the rainbow jersey in Richmond a couple of months ago. To that list, I can safely add the name of Eric De Vlaeminck, the most successful cyclocross champion in history, who transcended his discipline through the 1960s and ’70s. All of his many skills were on display at the five ’cross races I saw him ride in Switzerland 44 years ago….

In fact, De Vlaeminck, then 26 years old, won all five of those races over the Christmas/New Year holiday of 1971-72, toying with top-line international opposition with a professional ease that any sportsman would admire. Those five events took De Vlaeminck’s total of season victories to 21 out of 23 starts—and in the other two he was runner-up to his brother, Roger!

Conditions could not have been more difficult for this “stage race of the fields” in western Switzerland, with temperatures never rising above minus-5ºC (23ºF), and often being as low as minus-15ºC (5ºF). And, except for the first event, thick snow on the courses helped to make the riders’ lot a most unpleasant one. Even the home Swiss competitors were unhappy with the unusually cold weather. Besides De Vlaeminck, the roster included riders from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Great Britain—headed by British national champion John Atkins.

The five-race series, sponsored by Martini, was organized by Swiss enthusiast Edi Hans of the Muntelier club, who put on his club’s first international race three years earlier. For this series, the Muntelier event was the penultimate race (on January 2), between those at Pieterlen (on New Years Day) and Erlach, both of which were being organized for the second year. The other two races, both being run for the first time, were on the previous weekend at Aigle and Delemont.

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The biggest challenger to De Vlaeminck was expected to be the other five-time world champion, Renato Longo, but the ageing Italian hero could only manage a best placing of fourth, otherwise finishing out of the top ten. Even so he was still a big favorite with the crowds as there are many Italian workers in Switzerland, which helped bolster the crowds. After the first, snow-less race, in which Atkins was the only real challenger, the Swiss champ Herman Gretener and his younger compatriot Peter Frischknecht monopolized second and third places in the other four ’crosses.

Through the whole chilly week, De Vlaeminck was in control, never rushing to make bike changes (even when he broke his handlebars in one event!); he was just content to contain the opposition. As Atkins summed it up: “De Vlaeminck has no opposition in these races; it needs one of the other Belgians, Albert Van Damme or Robert Vermeire, to push him, and then he would really have to try.”

Off the bike, De Vlaeminck acted the part of a celebrity and world champion, turning up at one race in a white fur-lined ankle-length coat and floppy-brimmed black fedora. That outfit certainly set the tongues wagging when he appeared at a race in Belgium a few weeks’ earlier! And as with most of the ’cross riders, he grows his curly brown hair fairly long. In fact, Atkins admitted, “I was the only British pro at the start of last year’s road season with long hair, and I had to have it cut!”

De Vlaeminck also has his cut shorter for the road season (he won a Tour de France stage in 1968, the Tour of Belgium in 1969 and Paris-Luxembourg in 1970), but long hair is not only useful for keeping your head warm in the winter, it also emphasizes the individuality, special identity and sociability that cyclocross engenders wherever it’s practiced. But on the bike everyone is a true competitor, fighting to get the best place possible.

There could not have been a more magnificent venue for the Aigle event, set among the vineyards above the Rhone Valley to the south of Lake Geneva. Mountains rose steeply to every horizon, a superb medieval castle dominated the view down to the town, and a narrow­gauge railway snaked its way between the vines, skirting the edge of a pine forest on the way up a steep valley. The course itself (10 laps of 2.4 kilometers) was traced across the hillside and proved to be one of the hardest of the week.

After starting up a kilometer-long, 16-percent road climb, the riders passed under the Martini finish banner to start the course proper with a short, grassy loop. They then tackled a steep run-up back onto the road before riding up a 20-foot-high bank, weaving a leafy path through the woods and plunging down a stony trail to turn left over a rail crossing. Then came a 200-meter stretch of tarmac around the hillside before they took a steep downhill path through trees to stop dead, turn right and ride through a 2-foot-wide gateway and down a step. This led into a farmyard, swinging around a stable of donkeys (De Vlaeminck, riding this with his right leg outstretched, overshot the turn on one lap and had to circle an apple tree to regain the course!) and continuing along the edge of a plowed field.

The hardest portion of the lap then followed: a scramble up a very steep bank with loose stones (most riders used the rope erected on the left to haul themselves up!), a loop between more trees on a steep drop before climbing a very steep, icy hill back on to a paved road. After a rare flat stretch the riders then climbed a short grassy bank to turn sharp right over a railway bridge and up a very narrow, steep road, some 250 meters long, before turning left onto a steep, stony downhill, before stopping dead and turning back up the climb toward the finish. The final loop consisted of a short run-up and a double swoop around a cinder parking lot that was interrupted by a low hurdle.

It started like a road race, with a large group to the fore, but after the first run-up De Vlaeminck remounted quickly, shot past six riders in 10 meters and, under the finish banner, was already in the lead. That’s where he stayed, riding very quickly in the opening laps, and after four laps he was 1:25 ahead Atkins, who’d established himself in second place.

When he’d extended his lead to two minutes, De Vlaeminck began to cruise, coasting down the descents and only making real efforts on the paved climbs. It was an insolent demonstration of professional accomplishment. Even on the steepest run-up he distained to use the rope, merely striding up as if the difficulty did not exist, while men like the out-of-condition Longo were stumbling up, almost in tears, And on the last lap the world champion just toured around, losing almost a minute of his lead, but still coming home as a very clear and popular winner.

A drive up through the gorges of the Jura mountains took us up to Delemont, where the course was again on the side of a hill, this time completely covered in snow. It was far less acrobatic; the most difficult part was just riding over long stretches of hard, rutted ground that had a slight covering of snow.

The course was based on a steep road climb to the north of town, with the start and finish at the top. The hardest part was a near vertical “walk-up” that many accomplished on all-fours. For once, De Vlaeminck did not have a flying start and was well down when he punctured and casually changed his wheel after the steepest downhill. On the second of the eight laps, De Vlaeminck made a quick acceleration, moved into second place on lap 3 behind Gretener and took the lead on lap 5. De Vlaeminck was content to stay with Gretener, giving rise to a close finish that set the crowd cheering when the two men slithered onto the finishing hill together and gave the fans a spectacular sprint that the Belgian easily won.

After more snow during the week the weather had turned much colder by New Year’s Day, particularly as the Pieterlen race did not start until 3 p.m. and the sun soon disappeared behind a hill. All the riders were kitted out in tights or tracksuit pants. A few even changed to running shoes, hoping to find better grip in the snow, which was abundant on this almost square course.

It was one of the least imaginative of circuits, with a road through the start/finish forming one side of the square; the next side was an uphill path between fields, the third a dirt trail through a wood, and the last side was downhill across snowy fields. It was all too easy for De Vlaeminck, who went into an immediate lead, riding farther up the longest hill than all the others, and almost strolling up the run-up in his characteristic jog-trot, with no apparent haste. Toward the latter stages he was even riding along the road no­hands and easing his back. For him, the snow and the cold did not seem to exist—although he was very quick to pull on his tracksuit at the finish before runner-up Gretener had even finished.

Muntelier, the original event of the series, started and finished on the road outside the hotel where the British and Czech teams were spending the 10 days, and it proved to be a most ingenious circuit that provided a fast, open race. There was a good balance of riding and running, with nobody likely to get cold feet with seven compulsory “on foot” sections—although De Vlaeminck made this only six on some laps!

This is where De Vlaeminck performed his amazing broken-handlebars balancing act, which was really something to witness. The ’bars snapped clean in the centre, leaving him only his left hand to steer with. I saw him come sweeping down a slippery alleyway between two buildings—that was hard to negotiate anyway. At the bottom was a right-angled bend onto a snow-covered road. The agile Belgian turned the corner as if everything were normal, even though he was holding one half of the ’bars free in his right hand! On top of that, he braked with his left hand while looking around for a spare bike. There was one standing by the fence, so he calmly stood his own, useless, machine by its side and set off after leader Gretener on the spare.

This was with four laps to go, but he caught Gretener only one lap later, which included a change back to his own spare machine. It looked all too easy, and he further rubbed in his supremacy by riding clear on the last lap to gain yet another victory. The biggest crowd of the series watched this race, which (as with the others) was well advertised by posters, newspaper advertisements and free books of matches.

“It’s just like a road race,” was the general comment on first inspection of the circuit for the final event, at Erlach. In fact only two­thirds of the circuit was on paved roads, although there was a 200-foot-high “col” to climb each lap, partly unsurfaced with a jump up a bank in the middle of this climb. There was also a long jog-up (that De Vlaeminck rode!). The rest was flat or down paths and across fields. The race itself also resembled a road event at times, particularly when the bunch climbed the main climb on the first lap.

For once, De Vlaeminck bided his time in the second group until the fifth of eight laps, when he spurted forward on the unsurfaced part of the climb, just catching the leaders (Frischknecht and Swiss road pro Albert Zweifel) 200 meters from the top. He immediately attacked on a dry section of the icy road, sprinting out of the saddle right to the summit, before consolidating his gains on the top pathway. It was all that was required of him, and De Vlaeminck made no more undue efforts to cap as fine a week of cyclocross riding as one could wish to see.

Eric De Vlaeminck was one of the greatest bike-handlers there’s ever been.

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You can follow John on twitter at @johnwilcockson