White Roads and Blue Jerseys in the Tour of Belgium
by J.B. Wadley
I took the train on the Wednesday (8 April) to Namur where I was to make contact with the four-day Tour of Belgium which had officially started the previous day. On the train I read of the opening phase of this 54th pocket Tour, which began with an unusual kind of prologue on the Monday night at Spa to find who should wear the Leader's jersey next morning.
With 14 teams of eight riders making up the field, the prologue comprised eight 14-up heats over a 690 metres circuit to be covered 10 times. The heats contained a member of each team, the winner of the fastest race being declared Race Leader. A curious formula which, the reports said was not treated seriously by Eddy Merckx, Walter Godefroot and Jan Janssen who refused to take risks round the tricky rain-swept circuit. One of the stars who attacked the project fearlessly was Eric Leman, winner of the overnight Tour of Flanders, whose winning time for the 4 1/3 miles was 10m 33s.
Leman wore his blue and white jersey of leadership for only a day (I learned from another paper) finishing equal 33rd five minutes behind a group of three who were slightly detached from their nearest pursuers. The finishing order. was 1, Frans Verbeeck; 2 Roger De Vlaeminck; 3, Eddy Merckx. It had been snowing heavily through this hilly Ardennes stage where the crash victims included Merckx's young team-mate Bruyere who had only just recovered from the pile-up at the end of Milan-San Remo featured by John Wilcockson in last month's issue.
All the reports agreed that Merckx lost this opening stage finishing at Virton only because his derailleur became stuck in the 13-tooth sprocket in the uphill finish. Later editions of the papers reported a Merckx revenge in the kilometre climb up the same hill during the evening, which he won in 1m 47.40s from Verbeeck 1-49.07, Mortensen 1-50.15; Van Springel 1-51.73. But this sprint time-trial had absolutely no bearing on the Tour of Belgium, being simply a sporting supplement to the town's 700th anniversary celebrations of its enfranchisement.
I arrived at Namur reasonably well informed about the race. I left my bags at the hotel, then walked across the bridge to the southern bank of the Meuse to the town of Jambes which is dominated from the west by the stately medieval Citadel towering above the river. With more than an hour before the stage was due to finish, barriers and ticket kiosks were still being erected as I walked along a road which I recognised as part of the team time-trial course of the 1967 Tour de France (Admission to the circuit today was 70 francs, or 11/-). An old lady was already doing business from a wicker basket; I paid my 20 francs (3/-) and got: a rosette with a little metal head of Eddy Merckx as the centre piece, a badge which seemed to have nothing at all to do with cycling, and an out of date post-card photo of Eddy in a Peugeot jersey.
We did not have long to wait for news of the race. About four o'clock the first of the advance press cars arrived, among those present being Rene de Latour. - “Six men away 10 kms from Jambes. Then they've got three laps of a 9-kms circuit to do." he rattled off. "The men are: Merckx, Van Springel, Van Ryckegem, Van Schil, De Schoenmaeker, Roger De Vlaeminck. Thirty seconds lead."
By now the public had arrived in force, too, and the loudspeakers were busy giving the latest information liberally interspersed with commercials. In my notebook I wrote down the g.c. positions as it stood overnight - Verbeeck, R. de Vlaeminck at 15 secs, Merckx at 30 and Van Springel at 49.
The first three men, with the same time at Virton, had been separated on g.c. by 30 and 15 seconds bonuses. Here at Jambes bonuses would again play a vital part, with Merckx likely to take the stage and the Jersey (if De Vlaeminck finished second to him in a sprint the pair would be level on time, after bonus deductions, and also on points but Merckx would get the benefit for having won the stage).
While we were leisurely making such calculations in our note books you may be sure the leading riders were doing the same.
Of course there was still a chance that Verbeeck would save the day, but when the six appeared at the start of the circuit their lead had grown to two minutes over a snaking line of 50 riders among whom was the beaten race leader.
In 12 minutes the leaders were back again, Merckx pounding away at the front, De Vlaeminck on his wheel, Van Springel in last position. A perfect set piece for Van Springel this. Not only had he his two Mann team-mates De Schoenmaeker and Van Ryckengem with him, but it was certain that Merckx and De Vlaeminck would be watching each other closely.
Van Springel did not let the occasion slip. Instead of six men together with a lap to go, it was the Mann leader pedalling with the power that had won him Paris-Tours and the Grand Prix des Nations at the end of the previous season. Sure enough Merckx and De Vlaeminck did mark each other severely, so much so that news flashes coming in from the far side of the circuit suggested that Van Springel might even finish with enough in hand to get the Jersey as well as the stage. That's what seemed to be the position after he had crossed the line, for the Merckx-De Vlaeminck sprint was long delayed. But not quite long enough for Herman's complete satisfaction. I didn't envy the radio and Tele-commentators during their calculations.
1 Van Springel 4-42-35 (with bonus) 4-42-05
2 De Vlaeminck 4-43-23 (with bonus) 4-43-8
4 Van Ryckegem4-43-52
5 Van Schil
6 De Schoenmaker4-43-55
8 Godefroot and bunch
And the General Classification:
1 R. De Vlaeminck 9h 00m 43s
2 Van Springel at 3s
3 Merckx at 30s
4 Verbeeck at 2min2s
5 Godefroot at 3min13s
6 Sercu ditto
7 Vekemans ditto
and 20 others all the same time.
Merckx, I noted, had been third in Sunday's Tour of Flanders, third in the first stage, third in the second and was now lying third on overall time. According to my calculations he should have been second in the points classification but the official bulletin put him first. On turning to the back of the race programme I noticed that Van Springel had finished third in the Tour of Belgium last year; 3rd in 1968, second in 1967, and he would again be in the running for victory in 1970.
I walked back to Namur with a colleague who confirmed the newspaper reports that the riders had faced cold and hazardous conditions on yesterday's stage. Some of the Belgians, he said, were kicking themselves because they had not been allowed to take part in the Catalonian Week in sunny Spain.
Later that night they changed their minds. On the radio and television were dramatic tales of equally bad weather down there, with riders collapsing from cold in a stage which was eventually abandoned when piled-up snow made the Col de Tosas impassable.