Freddy Maertens and the Vuelta by Wiscot
Image courtesy of Cycling Art Blog
One of the most startling facts about cycling is that Freddy Maertens never won one of the five Monuments. Given his stunning palmares it’s quite remarkable, even though he is generally considered the (moral) winner of the 1977 Tour of Flanders when he was disqualified for a (deemed illegal) bike change on the Koppenberg then helped pace Roger de Vlaeminck to the win – in return for a highly disputed (promised) 300,000 francs payment from de Vlaeminck. The latter denies making the deal, but such “arrangements” were not unusual back in the day. The dispute still festers 45 years on. Personally, I’m in Freddy’s camp. De Vlaeminck may have been a super stylish rider but I’ve never liked him.
Anyhoo, another remarkable fact about Freddy (and he is truly one of the more colorful, and dare I say it likeable, characters in the 70s cycling scene) was his domination of the 1977 Vuelta. When I say “dominate” I mean it in a way that even Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault or Indurain in their pomps could never dream of: Freddy won thirteen of the twenty stages. (1st Prologue, Stages 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11a (ITT), 11b, 13, 16 & 19) He led from start to finish and naturally took home the points jersey. He kindly let someone else (Pedro Torres) win the mountains prize. Some might say, uncharitably, that there were only seven teams of ten riders in the whole race and the competition wasn’t great, but as the old saying goes “you can only win against whomever shows up.”
We are in an era where two or three stage wins by a single rider in a grand tour is regarded as an incredible achievement (Cavendish won sixteen tour stages between 2009-2011, and Merckx won six stages in 1969 plus the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys), but no rider has ever won thirteen of twenty. But remember, Freddy was in his prime and was riding for Flandria – the Red Guard – whose team was stuffed with hard, seasoned professionals such as Michel Pollentier, Marc Demeyer, Mariano Martinez and Pol Verschuere. And the Spaniards would, if they could have, ganged up on Freddy. Just ask Robert Millar about that). And just to pre-empt the inevitable drugs question, yes, Freddy did fail drugs tests – amphetamines and cortisone – in an era where such stimulants were commonplace and hardly sophisticated. But he would have been tested every day of that Vuelta and back in the 70s the Spanish race was still seriously parochial (only eight of the top twenty-five on GC were non-Spaniards), the organizers would likely have loved to disqualify Freddy.
So as we watch the last Grand Tour of the season with most of the big GC guys taking a post-Tour break, let’s enjoy the “lesser” of the three grand tours and remember when a stocky wee Belgian took the race by the scruff of the neck and refused to let go. Vamos!