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Drama on Col du Granier

Joop Holthausen Tekst Joop Holthausen Gepubliceerd 07 September 2020

Hennie Kuiper was never a showman. The soft-spoken Dutchman just worked as hard on the bike as his parents did on their family farm in Noord-Deurningen, Overijssel. That ethic earned him many of cycling’s most illustrious prizes: an Olympic gold medal, world champion’s jersey, victories at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Giro di Lombardia, Milano-Sanremo, and Paris Roubaix, plus three Tour de France stages… Now, to provide him with a little bit more of the glory he deserves, a Kickstarter has been set up to produce an English translation of his biography. ‘Hennie Kuiper Champion Willpower’ will feature stories and photographs from the great man’s career. This is an excerpt.

The stage is followed by a rest day at l’Alpe d’Huez. Prime Minister of the Netherlands Dries van Agt turns up at the Raleigh camp. Surrounded by the cream of Dutch cycling, the seasoned politician and cycling fanatic is in his element and has the time of his life. Meanwhile, the leading rider in Post’s team is busy gearing himself up for the day ahead: the queen stage, the most gruelling mountain challenge the Tour de France has to offer. From Grenoble the peloton will face a staggering eight cols, starting with the Col de Porte (1st category), then the Col du Cucheron (3), the Col du Granier (2), the Col de Plainpalais (2), the Col de Leschaux (3), Col de la Colombière (1), Col de Châtillon (4) and the Col de Joux Plane (1).
For the lesser climbers in the peloton, the seventeenth stage of the Tour promises to be one long day of torture. After the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, Hennie took time out to explore every last inch of the route, in the company of his right-hand man José De Cauwer and teammate Paul Wellens. He knows what’s in store for him and has made a point of studying the Joux Plane in close detail: the final climb of the day has never featured in the Tour before. It’s on that mountain that he plans to make history, and decide the Tour in his favour. Few in the caravan give Hennie much of a chance, but the man himself is convinced that this daunting seventeenth stage is where he will make his move.

José De Cauwer winces as he recalls the pain he endured on his reconnaissance trip with Kuiper and Wellens. Both men are gifted climbers. Not up there with the likes of Belgium’s Lucien Van Impe or the Spaniard José Manuel Fuente, but definitely riders who can hold their own in the mountains. Hennie can maintain his pace better and for longer than his teammate, but Wellens has never lost a wink of sleep worrying he might not make the time cut on a tough mountain stage. For De Cauwer, the recon expedition is unrelenting, a punishment he only puts himself through for the sake of team leader Hennie.

The morning of the queen stage dawns. Kuiper says, ‘Today’s the day.’ ‘Easy now,’ Gerrie Kneteman cautions, hoping fervently that the classification contenders only turn on the speed towards the end of the stage. Gerrie is already having visions of himself straggling along just ahead of the broom wagon, in a desperate battle for survival.

Gerrie is already having visions of himself straggling along just ahead of the broom wagon, in a desperate battle for survival.

Hennie rides a sharp, focused and attacking race. On Col de Porte, Frenchman André Romero is first to the top, ahead of Hinault and Kuiper. The pace is fast, blistering in fact. On Cucheron, the second col, barely 30 kilometres into the stage, it’s Kuiper leading the way, ahead of Hinault and Zoetemelk.

Hinault urges his fellow riders to show some restraint: ‘doucement, doucement!’ But restraint is the last thing on Hennie’s mind – he’s out to drive a wrecking ball through the entire peloton. Kuiper goes on to storm the third ascent – Granier – at full throttle. Again he crests the col in first, this time with the pride of France in hot pursuit – Mariano Martinez and Hinault. By this point, some riders are already thirty minutes adrift of the leaders. Hinault, young and full of promise, keeps an anxious eye on Kuiper. What the hell is he playing at today? Hennie is out to be the first Dutchman to win the mountain jersey. No doubt about it!
Without flinching, Hennie hurls himself into the treacherous descent. Heading a select group of climbers, he steers himself a razor-sharp course through the bends and along rock faces. Van Impe calls out a warning. Too risky! Hennie steers too close to a drainage channel running along a rock face, tries desperately to pull the bike back on the road but slams into solid rock.

Kuiper comes crashing down, his collarbone fractured in two places.

Photo: Cor Vos

Henk Lubberding, powering along in a chasing group, is first at the scene. He sees Kuiper slumped against the rock face, right hand clutching his left collarbone, face twisted in pain. Hennie knows exactly how bad this is. But despite his brutal fall, he shoulders his responsibility as team leader.

The yellow jersey is well and truly out of reach, but another honour is still there for the taking – the white jersey for best young rider. Hennie keeps it short and tells Lubberding, ‘Collarbone. It’s over. Take the white jersey to Paris.’ Those scant words from his team leader free Henk Lubberding to pursue his own goal: the white jersey. He takes it all the way to Paris, a consolation prize for the team that had hoped for so much more at the start in Leiden.

Hennie keeps it short and tells Lubberding, ‘Collarbone. It’s over. Take the white jersey to Paris.’

The fall has shattered Hennie’s dream. An ambulance arrives. By that time, Tour physician Gérard Porte has already established that Hennie’s left collarbone is indeed broken. Hennie is taken to hospital in Chambéry, but his case is already at the riders’ hotel. ‘What am I supposed to do with it?’ Post wonders. The Dutch Prime Minister, guest of honour that day in the car of Tour Director Lévitan car, doesn’t hesitate. ‘Let me take care of that.’
Hennie Kuiper receives a call that the PM is on his way. Before long, the whole hospital is in an uproar. The French are far more flustered by the arrival of a senior dignitary than the matter-of-fact Dutch.
When Van Agt strolls into Hennie’s room at the Centre Hospitalier de Chambéry, a dozen or so people flock to the injured rider’s bedside. ‘They were soon sent packing, because we wanted a moment to ourselves. Van Agt did his best to cheer me up and I needed it too. A fall like that hits you like the end of days.’

Photo: Cor Vos

It reminds Hennie of the tumble Annemiek van Vleuten took when she was heading for gold in the women’s road race at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: a single steering error on an unforgiving descent and the kerb did the rest. An agonising fall in more ways than one. ‘You’re a mess at a time like that. There’s no end to the disappointment you feel. For Van Vleuten, it was Olympic gold slipping from her grasp. For me it was the 1978 Tour, my chance at the ultimate victory that went up in smoke. Jacques Anquetil said to me later, “You could have won that Tour.” If there was one Tour when I could have defeated Hinault, it was ’78. It was his first Tour, he was still finding his feet and didn’t yet have the backing of a really strong team. I had done my homework and was in top form that last week.’

Photo: Martijn van Egmond

“Hennie Kuiper Champion Willpower” is the forthcoming English translation of the highly illustrated authorized biography of Hennie Kuiper, former pro-cyclist in the 70s and 80s.

In 2017 we released a Dutch version of the authorized biography called “Hennie Kuiper Kampioen Wilskracht”, which we sold out in under 4 months. Now we want to give you – the international cycling fan – the opportunity to own an English copy of the book as well.