Freddy Maertens was never coy about making payments in races: “If I couldn’t win, I’d rather come home with a bit of money instead of nothing,” he said. In the Tour of Flanders in 1977, as reigning world champion, he heard during the race that he was going to be disqualified for an illegal bike change, but he pushed on, with Roger De Vlaeminck in his wheel, straight up to Merckx and past him. Not once did De Vlaeminck take a turn in the wind. One of the best sprinters of all time, Maertens made no effort to keep his countryman from winning the final sprint in Meerbeke. That work earned him 300,000 Belgian Francs (almost 7,000 euros), half of which was for his teammates. Today, Maertens speaks openly about the deal. Roger De Vlaeminck denies he ever bought Freddy Maertens’ services.
Anyone who asks those in the peloton questions about buying races or taking money to work for riders on other teams runs into a wall of omertà, just as the doping inspectors did a decade ago. Racers who are willing to speak about their experiences, anonymously, would rather consider the whole business “maximizing their chances of winning,” rather than buying or selling. Johan Museeuw called it “professional understandings between potential winners.” If, once in a while, a rider, almost always the seller, does break the silence, there is always the denial of the other party, just as with Steven Rooks and Joop Zootemelk, the two frontrunners in the 1986 edition of the Amstel Gold Race. Rooks contends that Zoetemelk offered him 25,000 guilders (43,000 euros in today’s money) for the win, but Rooks wanted to win himself, which he did. Zoetemelk denied that he ever bought or tried to buy a race, but admitted that he had paid others to work with him. “If you are in front with one other guy, sometimes you agree that the winner will pay the loser. That is honest, eh? You worked for it together.”
In his book Tour of Vices, Festina’s old manager, Roussel, gave away the game Richard Virenque played in the 1997 Tour. Virenque bought the
victory in the mountain stage to Courchevel for 100,000 French francs (14,500 euros) from Jan Ullrich. Virenque won the stage, Ullrich the tour. Earlier, Rousell tells us, when Virenque still had a shot at winning the overall, he offered Abraham Olano and Marco Pantani 10,000 French francs to ride against the German. The two laughed in his face. Both Ullrich and Virenque deny Roussel’s story.
An old racer who wishes to remain anonymous admitted he once sold a race, when he was an amateur, to an opponent who wanted to win in his hometown. “But I regretted it so much that I swore off the whole business when I was with the pros,” he says. He did offer a breakaway companion a serious amount of cash for the win in a big race, but it came to nothing. The two were brought back by the peloton.
Michael Boogerd is one former rider who is prepared to explain how agreements are made and how the payments work. He mentions, for example, the 1998 Tour of Lombardy in which he was away in front with the newly-crowned world champion, Camenzind. Early in their 80-kilometre escape, they had a conversation. “Wie gewohnt? Vierzig?” They nodded, there was nothing more to discuss. Vierzig was 40,000 Swiss francs (roughly 33,000 euros). That was the typical compensation for second place, the loser, at the time. The two pushed on to the finish, but the winner, Camenzind, felt he could have dropped Boogerd easily. On the podium he went back on his word. They had agreed on 8,000, no? Boogerd told his team, then brought it up with Camenzind at a race the next spring, but never got his money. Then, a couple of years later, when the Swiss man, who had in the meantime transferred from Mapei to Lampre, was set to ride the Amstel Gold Race, he received a message from Boogerd telling him that he could expect some company at the hotel in Limburg. Camenzind never showed his face in the Netherlands, and kept the money for himself.
Boogerd might not have received his cash, but the account between Rabobank and Mapei was settled in 1999. Rabobank’s Marc Wauters and Mapei’s Gianni Faresin were in front in Paris-Tours and made a deal, agreeing on a payment of 40,000 Swiss Francs for the loser. Wauters won. For the Dutch team, there was no question; they were not going to pay up.
A current director, who preferred not to be named, says that the illogical orders that came from the team car when he was a rider drove him crazy. “We were told to keep everything together, or to bring back a group, when no one in our team had a chance of winning. Maybe we would get something back later. Maybe the directors would pocket the money.”
Camenzind writes off Boogerd’s whole story as nonsense, of course. Right before Bergamo, the Dutchman offered him money for the win, but Camenzind wanted the victory for himself. Besides, the offer was so low that Camenzind never took Boogerd seriously. “Why would I give a weaker rider money, anyways?” Camenzind asks, “Boogerd should just behappy that I didn’t drop him earlier.”
It’s a part of the sport, this wheeling and dealing and keeping it secret, but there are two things we do know for certain.
One: the days of buying and selling races like Theofiel Middelkamp are done. The old Dutchman admitted he sold hundreds. Today, the average rider has a much better salary and World Tour points have become too important. Back then it was different. Middelkamp is happy to tell us about the business he ran. In the Tour of the Netherlands, he was away with Woutje Wagtmans, and the finish was in the region where Wagtmans lived. Middelkamp was fine with letting Wagtmans win, but he wanted the first-prize money. Wagtmans refused. “Perfect,” Middelkamp said, “then you’ll finish second.” Middelkamp won.
Two: if payments are made, no trace must be left of them. A pile of bills, an envelope, is fine, but never a bank transfer, and you must never exchange emails about the transaction, as Kolobnev and Vinokourov did the day after Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2010, where they finished first and second. “I didn’t really do it for the money,” Kolobnev wrote, “but for the situation you were in [Vinokourov had just come back from a suspension.] I fit were anyone else, I would have raced for the win, for the glory and the bonuses. But this way I am happy. Note down the information for the transaction and delete this email.” The current Astana boss transferred 150,000 euros over in two instalments, the records of which are now sitting in a courthouse in Belgium.
As for Freddy Maertens? He received half of his ‘salary’ from De Vlaeminck after a training ride the two did together. He sent the 150,000 Belgian francs straight on to his directors, to sort out for his teammates. The second instalment never arrived.
They are not to be trusted, those cyclists.