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1970 Belgium
1970 Belgium2

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1970 Tour of Belgium - Part 2
Credit: JB Wadley, International Cycle Sport No 34 March 1971

A thick mist was hanging over the Meuse when the 7 o'clock pre-race formalities were taking place next morning, but away from the river the rising sun seemed to be breaking through. By the time the riders were called to the line, however, a few snowflakes lazily floated down on to the Station Square. I had been allocated a seat in a car with the staff photographer of the promoting newspaper La Derniere Heure, which was very satisfactory.
Some press cars necessarily have to keep well ahead of the race, or well behind it, but a photographer will always be in the thick of the fight. Perfect, but for one thing. The car wasn't there! It was on some official pre-race mission and (we learned later) had been blocked by traffic. Not until the last names were being called by the Race Director did our car appear, only for us to find that while I could just squeeze into the back, there was no room for my valise.
At that point the elegant red Peugeot of I'Equipe drew up, whose personnel quickly summed up the situation, and I was transferred from a Belgian team to a French, my new colleagues being Robert Silva and Rene de Latour.
Now, this 'car' business normally would not have been mentioned in this story, such incidents being commonplace in road-race following. Today, however, it is worth a paragraph for reasons which will be apparent as we move along this 118 miles stage north west from the Meuse to Heyst-sur-Mer on the North Sea.
Ninety-four riders set out in the 7-30 a.m. gloom from Jambes, many of them in jambieres (leg-warmers), but the threat still seemed to be fog rather than snow. Seven miles out of Namur those riders who had started caped- up were beginning to drop back to their team cars to hand the waterproofs to their directeurs sportifs. Sure enough, that was the signal for the snow to begin again in earnest, but there was no friendly stop to cape-up again. Activity in the front had been rewarded with 11 men getting away on the 25 miles straight to Nivelles where they had 40 seconds lead over a further group of five who, within five miles, had made the junction. And so we had 16 in the lead. The original 11: Wuytack, Decloedt, David Gualazzini, Raes, Moonen, Eric De Vlaeminck, Leman, Vandervyvre, Van Loo and Kerremans. Plus the 5: Monty, Schleck, Ballirii, Vallee and Vande Neste.
Among this mixed bag of big and small names, two were notable as being the last winners of the Tour of Belgium: Eric De Vlaeminck (1969) and Wilfred David (1968). The former was now seven minutes behind on g.c. but since the leader was his brother Roger, there was obviously a useful team and family role to be fulfilled. As for David, he was 3-minutes behind overall, the same as Ballini of Italy and Monty (Merckx's team-mate) the best–placed of the others.
 

The snow had eased a bit, but that already fallen was being whipped up with mud into a sticky chocolate-coloured sauce. Along a narrow twisitng by-road with this kind of temporary surface, three others went away and reinforced the leaders: big names too; Walter Godefroot, Franze Verbeeck and Willy Van Neste.
When I say that it was Merckx who was responsible for the eventual downfall of the 19-strong leading group, you will naturally suppose that Eddy was hard at work at the front of peloton. In fact it was behind that he made his effort following a puncture. He got back easily enough with the help of only one team-mate, Huysmans, but his stop produced an immediate reaction from the bunch which, while failing to drop Merckx, soon pulled in the breakaway party.
After playing at interval-training since the start, the snowman then decided it was time for his really big effort and for an hour conditions were so bad that the race director was at one time on the point of abandoning the stage as had been done in Spain yesterday. He had long since sent one of his staff ahead in search of a second (and much bigger) vehicle to supplement the original sag-wagon already crowded with customers. It was all great stuff for the cameramen but ironically the one photographer who didn't get a single snow picture was my friend of the "Derniere Heure" in whose car, remember, I had been due to travel. It was he who was ordered to drive on ahead to find the second sag-wagon, a search which finally ended at Oudenaarde where all tickets for the coach were soon "sold" to bring the day's total of retirements to 52.
The race was now heading for East Flanders, and it certainly would also have been heading for disaster had the route taken in typical stretches of the cobbled lane so often found in Flemish events. Fortunately this stage was on a through-journey to the coast on well surfaced and busy roads where motorists had squeezed a rideable passage through the snow and slush. Personally I would not have wanted to ride on that surface with two-inch tyres, but those marvellous professionals took it in their stride.
Conditions were the most difficult I had seen in a road race, and when he telephoned his story to /'Equips in the evening Robert Silva rated the day among the most severe in his experience. Even Rene de Latour, who has been following the pelotons for 45 years, could only think of two or three occassions which were worse.
The blizzard was at its worst on the approach to Renaix, the town where understudy Beheyt once snatched a world championship from the advertised star Van Looy. Icy fingers fumbled with food and drink musettes in the main square of the town, some riders warming their hands on the hot bidon before slipping it into the cage. Ahead lay the Kruisberg which despite its moderate gradient usually finds its place in Flemish race reports.

This time the Kruisberg (65 miles) was not the scene of the big show itself, but of a rehearsal involving the same distinguished players. First on the stage was Walter Godefroot, a striking figure in black leg warmers and long sleeved jersey against the white background of the snow-covered road. With him came Spruyt, a Merckxman who happened to be the same time down on g.c. as Godefroot. Now was the turn of race leader Roger De Vlaeminck to appear, the obvious are for Merckx also to make his entrance. But the stage was soon filled with the rest of the cast, Merckx stopping to make a wheel-change as they came on.
It was on the outskirts of Oudenaarde (75 miles) that the race ended for so many on seeing the autocar-sag wagon by the roadside, and really began for a small party of others. Godefroot, trailed by Spruyt again, followed by De Vlaeminck-Merckx "tandem"—except that it was Eric this time instead of Roger—and Chemelfo who soon was forced to stop with a snowed-up free-wheel. There was a minute interval between the two teams of two, Godefroot constantly leading in front with policeman Spruyt tucked in, De Vlaeminck doing a similar pace-following act behind Merckx.
When the pursuit ended after five miles with Merckx catching Godefroot, the two were able to sit up for a spell in the shelter of Spruyt who was now free to make the pace. Eric De Vlaeminck refused any such co-operation, judging that his brother's race lead was still a going concern. At the tail of the quartet, the cyclocross expert frequently looked round for a friendly counter-attack, but all he saw were the team-cars of Godefroot and Merckx coming up together. This meant that Directeurs Sportifs Pambianco and Driessens believed the break would hold out until the finish, and when Brik Schotte later joined them in the Flandria car he had plainly abandoned all hope of Roger De Vlaeminck winning the Tour of Belgium and had switched his "protection" to Eric who had a chance of winning the stage.
At Deinze where the snow turned into fine rain, Spruyt lost contact with the three who now had 12 minutes lead over the beaten peloton. Then the rain stopped, the roads were dry and spectators pointed in astonishment to the snow on the roofs of the following cars.
Our theory that the "decision" had been made was confirmed by a series of time-checks we were able to make by shuttling to and from the leading three and the main group: 88 miles, 1 m 40s; 94 miles, 4m 25s; 100 miles, 6m 50s.
Once again race followers were astonished at Merckx's energy in the first part of a long day which would end with an individual time trial. It was not an original thought, but we could not help compare the Merckx method with that of Anquetil who in similar circumstances would have "blocked" the race with his team-mates in order to conserve energy for the ride against the watch. Yet here was Merckx pounding away at the front for miles at a time before allowing the willing Godefroot to come through to do a spell. We reckoned that of the 60 kms the three were away, Merckx must have led for at least 50.
Why did he do it, with the time trial in the afternoon ?

Our driver pulled up alongside the Faemino team car so that Robert Silva could put the question to Driessens.
"Why?" echoed the Directeur Sportif "Simply because he likes it. This morning when Eddy was 30 seconds down on classement general, he was nervous and irritable. Now he has got rid of Roger De Vlaeminck and Van Springel, he feels good and strong. He reckons this spot of rousing will be good training for the afternoon time trial."
The Equipe car then slid back so that Silva and De Latour could have a word with Brik Schotte in the Flandria car. Why, they asked, didn't Eric De Vlaeminck do a bit of work? Merckx would let him lead now and then. Old world champion Brik could only shrug off the question. Useless to say that Eric was still riding for Roger who by now must be 10 minutes back on the road.
The trio passed through a handsome gate into the eastern side of Brugges, but by-passed the ancient city over a fine wide road alongside the Brugge - Zeebrugge canal. Only 17 kms to go now. Time to think about the sprint.
All things being equal the result would be: 1, Godefroot; 2, Merckx; 3, De Vlaeminck. Things, however, were far from equal. De Vlaeminck had been sitting in for over an hour counting on a stage victory. Now, big rivals though they are there has always been mutual respect between Merckx and Godefroot who each had reason for wanting to thwart De Vlaeminck: the brothers have always been antiMerckx, while Godefroot left the Flandria team because of a disagreement with them.
And so several times during the break we saw Merckx sit up to talk to Godefroot. Their plan was obvious and simple: Merckx woud do most of the work to take him further than ever away from the bunch and put the g.c position beyond
all possible doubt, and at the same time allow Godefroot to keep something in hand and beat the skiving De Vlaeminck in the sprint.
Merckx led practically the whole way from Brugges, and only went to the back on the run-in to Heyst where he watched the plan arrive at a successful conclusion with Godefroot comfortably winning the sprint. Merckx was third in a road race for the fourth time in five days, but was now race leader in the Tour of Belgium. Not until 12 minutes later did the main group come in, although Vanderkerkhove arrived on his own five minutes earlier. Three hours later 42 men contested the 9.5 kms time trial over a flat but many cornered circuit. The result speaks for itself, for this time Merckx was not third.

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