One Champion, Twenty Heroes
On the 20th of April, 1980, one man was matchless on the snow-covered slopes of the Ardennes. His name was Bernard Hinault. And yet the twenty other riders who finished all 244 brutal kilometres of Liege-Bastogne-Liege that year were heroes as well. These are the memories of the brave.
“Look. They’re turning back, the wimps. They’re heading towards Liege,” Johan van der Velde sneered, with a sideways glance at the rider beside him. The man who had ridden shoulder-to-shoulder with him out of Liege was nowhere to be seen. “What is this?” Van der Velde mumbled to himself, as he looked up, past the peak of his rain-drenched racing cap, at a sky of solid, smoky clouds. If this rain was all it took for so many riders to flee for house and hearth, what would happen when the raindrops froze and snowflakes began to dance to the ground?
The thought never crossed Van der Velde’s mind until the blizzard started. Screeching brakes, swearing, and even more quitters. A minute or ten ago they were stopping in groups of three or four, now crowds of them were abandoning. Even the great Giuseppe Saronni, the leader of the Gis squad, who had won Flèche Wallone just four days ago, threw in the towel. In the mid-week race, Hinault had arrived at the top ofthe Mur de Huy in third place, nearly two minutes down on Saronni. But today, Saronni didn’t possess the Breton’s barbarism. After only ten kilometres, the Italian was consumed with contempt. He hated the prospect of returning back to Liege drowned and frozen. After whining a while, he gave up, taking the whole Gis squad with him. The peloton was thinning out, by the riders’ own volition.
“You just don’t do that, quit so easily,” Johan murmured to no one in particular. No matter what, the man from Rijsbergen was not going to step away from a fight so easily. Quitting was not in his handbook for how to be a rider. Nor was it in that of the quiet Norwegian, Jostein Wilmann. The Viking from Trondheim seemed fresh and cheerful. He paid no heed to the riders around him, save for one: the pretty-boy Didi Thurau. The German wunderkind was the unquestioned leader of Puch-Campagnolo-Sem, even here, and Wilmann had had it well drilled in to his ears that he must never lose sight of his leader. “Of course, everyone from the team knew he had no chance,” Wilmann confided. “Didi was hopeless in bad weather.”
And yet, from the start, Thurau ordered his teammates to make the race difficult. The first hours were torturous for the debutant, Wilmann. But quit? Never. He had finally signed a contract with the professionals at age 26 and had agreed with his old man that he would pursue his sporting dream for three years before taking over the family fishery. “Thus, it was important to finish the race, with the future in mind. I wanted to learn and get to know the course. Become harder, stronger. Snow and cold didn’t bother me. In Norway, we are used to it. Actually, I was only bothered by Thurau. He was beating the hell out of me early on, which was going to make the finale difficult.”
Van der Velde’s situation was much better. Without a real leader, Raleigh had adopted a wait-and-see approach to the race, leaving him free to ride for himself. The cold never really affected Van der Velde’s legs much, anyhow, and he was always able to turn off his mind and ride when he had to. Still, there were 180 kilometres to go before they would arrive back in Liege. First to Bastogne, deep in the Ardennes. Although he didn’t yet realize it yet, Johan van der Velde was headed for glory.
The wintry conditions were part of the game. It was what it was and you made the best of it. Ride until your legs fall off and never complain —how many were still singing that tune after 65 kilometres of racing? 174 started and yet, after a quarter of the total distance, 110 names were already banished from the roll call of performers. Thanks for joining. Till your next bit part.
Those who kept on earned their honour. Rudy Pevenage, a beady-eyed, ruddy-faced rascal, who, as a sprinter, had no place on such a hilly field of battle, was riding, hell-bent for glory, on a solo suicide mission. In Houffalize, he escaped. The group shrugged their collective shoulders, at least in so far as their frozen joints would let them. Henk Lubberding, the battle-hardened captain of team Raleigh: “Pevenage was a guy you could give minutes to because you knew he would crack, beit early on or in the finale. Let him flounder…”
Pevenage held out over the Côtede Wanne, which seemed like an Alpine pass in the snow, with an advantage of 2 minutes and 15 seconds. At the summit of the Stokeu, the brave rider from Geraardsbergen was still alone, despite an untimely puncture. A second flat cost him the last of his energy, as he struggled to regain his tempo. He had no idea that the fireworks had already started to fly in the race behind him. Van der Velde: “It didn’t take away the cold or the exhaustion. Twenty, maybe 30, times that day you felt as if you were dead, especially when the strongest guys gave it stick on the climbs. Oh man, those accelerations took it right out of your legs. What I thought about? What do you think? Nothing. You can’t think anymore —you don’t want to think anymore. All you think is: what in heaven’s name have I gotten myself into?”
Bernard Hinault answered out of nowhere, 80,000 metres from the nearly-buried finish line. 80 kilometres from the finish —what a maniac. The Haute Levée was the launchpad for his attack. He turned the cranks over as if he were driving a chainsaw, there, out in the wilderness. Lubberding cursed when he saw it happen. “Nobody reacted to his attack, while everyone knew: when Hinault goes, you have togowith him. I didn’t understand it at all.”
“Now, I dare to say it: I didn’t counter because I was afraid, though I easily could have followed him, ”Ronny Claes contends, 32 years too late. The Fleming from Belgian Limburg was scared of the unknown. But, though he was only onto his 11th or 12th race with the professionals, he was already bold enough to demand a place in the Ijsboerke team for L-B-L. The Ardennes were his territory, even as a youth. And yet, in Liege, he came up short. “My lack of experience was my undoing. I was too far back on the Haute Levée to go with Hinault. At the start, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When he rode away —and you can’t really call it an attack because no one’s legs had it in them to jump anymore —Zoetemelk, Kuiper, De Wolf, and Lubberding were all around me. All the big names were beside me, Ronny Claes. And they all saw Hinault ride away.”
Eventually, Lubberding set off in pursuit. “You have to try something. Of course, I knew how hard the boy could ride. Immediately, images from a year earlier flashed through my mind. In the Daupiné Libéré, I had also gone after him. Just as in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, we had terrible weather. I don’t remember much more. It was stage six, from Grenoble to Chambéry. Just under 200 kilometres. Up and down the whole day. And Hinault was stomping. I sat on his wheel. He never asked me to take over. In truth, I couldn’t have done. As a matter of etiquette, I rolled through a time or two. Hinault didn’t say a word. With his head down, he drove for the finish like a machine. On the last straight, he accelerated. He rode me right off his wheel.”
In the trenches of the Ardennes, the situation was worse. Lubberding mounted a valiant chase, but the Breton battered forward, undaunted. Alas, their struggle was concealed amidst a host of snowy pines, which lined the course in a long salute to the racers’ bravado.
Behind, the surviving slaves to the road were losing all sense of their mission. The cold bit into their bodies. “All I could think of was a warm bed, good food, and hot tea. In the meantime, you sought shelter from the snow behind the back of another rider, who wanted the same from you. I could race well in the cold, but this wasn’t racing anymore,” Van de Velde said. Claes: “We were all nuts to be out there. Healthy? No, you can’t say it was healthy.”
Hinault was 150 metres ahead on the Haute Levée when he triggered Lubberding’s sense of duty. A curse and a sigh and the Dutchman would normally have the gap closed, but the 66th La Doyenne was imposing her own set of rules. The metres cost more than ever. A red-hatted snowman in the shirt of Renault-Gitane danced away into the distance. “I did what I could to ride up to Hinault, with Ludo Peeters on my wheel —the wily bastard. I wanted him to take a pull, but he said he couldn’t. After five minutes of chasing, we’d gotten nowhere. We were still 150 metres behind. Half an hour later, I could still see Hinault slogging it out in front —though I was slogging worse than he was. Half an hour bent over the bars for nothing —how frustrating was that? Not only could I not gain a metre on Hinault, I also forgot to keep eating. I was so focused on the job. I saw Hinault wolf down whatever he could. I only payed attention to the distance between us. Do you know how lethal that is: not eating in that sort of weather? The stove burns hot and, when no fuel comes in, it might blow out any minute.”
It was a beginner’s mistake, no more than that, of the sort you would expect from a neo-pro such as Claes or Wilmann. “I was still with the group, feeling fresh. We were coming through Vielsalm when —and I will never forget this —Theo de Rooy popped up beside me. He was a first-year pro, just like me, with Ijsboerke. “You are still here?” he asked, surprised. I have to admit, up until that point, I’d had taken it pretty easy. The tempo wasn’t so hard. But our limbs were frozen and everyone was having difficulty braking and shifting. Naturally, the race’s speed went down. We were flying on the way out of Liege, mostly due to Thurau’s efforts. He gave it full gas, then abandoned. That was his plan all along. He realized that he had little to gain in such weather. “But, as the race came over the top of La Redoute, a definitive selection had been made. First came Hinault, then, for a long while, no one. Lubberding and Peeters were brought back by the shattered remnants of the group they had attacked earlier. Hennie Kuiper, Fons De Wolf, Pierre Bazzo, Eddy Schepers, Frits Pirard, Van der Velde, and Jostein Wilmann were all who’d managed to hang on. Perhaps a few more diehards were there; no one knew for sure. Lubberding: “I can’t remember how it went exactly, but I rode alone forever, and my reserves were empty. In the cold, a bonk hits you twice as hard. You get it? The other boys brought me back and dropped me. I started swerving all over the road, and felt as if I were going nowhere. I couldn’t make out a car or a house or a person near me. All that I wanted was to leave the race and find a hot bath in the hotel. I lost all sense of direction and had no idea how far it was to the finish. Trying to find a shortcut to Liege was pointless: the race’s route traced a straight line back to the city. Otherwise, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I had nothing left to win in the race. My teammate Stefan Mutter saved me. Out of nowhere, he rode up beside. Where he came from, I have no idea. “You can’t give up now, Henk,” he kept repeating. “Together, we will ride to Liege.”As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t necessary.”
Claes got better by the minute. When Hennie Kuiper and Fons De Wolf attacked in the finale, he was right there with them. “I did a lot of the work in front, to the fury of De Wolf, who got even angrier when Kuiper and I dropped him on the Côtedes Forges. He was a great man in Belgium. Me: a 22-year-old kid who still had everything to prove. That was good. Back in Liege, I had to sprint against Kuiper for second place. I believe I could have beaten him, but I let off in the end. Second or third: what difference does it make? To finish on the podium was a great performance, eh.”
Just finishing on the Boulevard de la Sauvenièrein Liege was a victory, regardless of one’s place in the results. For every frozen soldier that arrived over the line behind the indomitable Hinault, a statue should be erected, somewhere along the warpath they managed to survive. The display would be glorious: the sprinting Kuiper and Claes cast in bronze forever; Van der Velde cut in to stone, standing on the pedals in his characteristic style; Lubberding, his head down, being pushed over the line by his young teammate Stefan Mutter. Without the help of the Swiss kid, the tireless farmer would have died, or so he said later on. In any case, he would not have arrived at the finish.
Remember the names. Forget the times and the results.
Claes. Third, at 9:24.
Van der Velde. Ninth, at 12:35.
Lubberding. 13th, at 16:03.
Pirard. 19th, at 18:35.
And Wilmann, the last of the bunch. 21st, 27 minutes behind the winner.
They have their stories, be they fragmentary. For that, we forgive them. Some things are best left to the imagination.