That ’70s Show
Roger De Vlaeminck
F1 legend Jackie Stewart
Roger De Vlaeminck and Jackie Stewart, bedecked in 1970s sartorial splendor. And those bastards are just tough as nails.
I’ve been thinking about Roger De Vlaeminck ever since a recent issue of Procycling planted the seed. Just as Edmond Hood’s favorite curmudgeon opined, when I think 1970s Euro cycling I think of De Vlaeminck. The man oozed style out of each and every pore on his body–the Team Brooklyn kit, the sideburns, the mullet-ette (fellow ’70s style maven David Bowie rocked the same lid in April 1973, perhaps the same April day De Vlaeminck roared over northern France cobbles…if only De Vlaeminck dared to sport only a Team Brooklyn colored jock, that would have been a sight to behold), those glorious blue Gios rigs, the cheek of rolling through Flanders in a Ferrari. Stage victories in all three Grand Tours (including 22 Giro stage wins–the Italians who signed his paychecks valued the Giro over the Tour). 400km winter training rides (in Flanders, of course) in preparation for the Spring Classics. Victory in the 6 Days of Gent (partnered with Patrick Sercu). Six straight Tirreno-Adriatico titles. A ‘cross world championship thrown in.
And then there’s the matter of winning all five Monuments of Cycling. Only three men have accomplished that feat, all Belgian hardmen: Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, and Roger De Vlaeminck. De Vlaeminck won his first monument (Liege-Bastogne-Liege) in 1970 and rounded out all five with a Ronde victory in 1977. And that 1977 Ronde was weird…De Vlaeminck sucked Freddy Maertens’ wheel for the final 100km and unceremoniously roared past him with about 200 meters to go. Never mind that a Flandrien had won…De Vlaeminck was peppered with boos mounting the podium. The Ronde saw no official 2nd and 3rd place finishers that year. Second place Maertens and 3rd place Walter Plankaert were both DQ’d–Maertens for the combo of doping and an illegal bike change, Planckaert for doping, too.
No one has duplicated the Five Monuments feat since De Vlaeminck and if Sean Kelly couldn’t do it, than likely nobody will in the foreseeable future. Kelly came oh so close to joining the club, but three 2nd place finishes in the Ronde were as tantalizingly close as he would come to bagging his fifth, elusive Monument. There are two sprints I’d wager Kelly would like to repeat: the 1989 world title loss to LeMond…and being nipped at the line by Adri van der Poel in the 1986 Ronde.
As I’ve noted before, ex-pro cyclist Paul Kimmage currently pays the bills as a sportswriter for the London Sunday Times where he primarily interviews an eclectic mix of sporting figures in what’s known as “The Big Interview”. A recent conversation with F1 legend Jackie Stewart is exemplary, in particular Stewart’s discussions about the horrific proliferation of driver deaths in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1963 to 1973, 57 F1 drivers lost their lives while racing. Stewart himself had a mind-blowingly harrowing accident at Spa, Belgium–an incident which very easily could have killed him and spurned his activism as an F1 safety advocate. As described in Kimmage’s interview:
On the opening lap he narrowly avoids a multiple collision and is lying third behind Jochen Rindt and John Surtees when he reaches the Masta straight. The visibility is appalling [due to heavy rain]. He is travelling at 170mph. He heads towards the Masta Kink–a right-left-right swerve–and the car begins to aquaplane. It flies off the tarmac and flattens a woodcutter’s hut, then careers over an eight-foot drop on to the patio of a farmhouse.
A few moments later Graham Hill spins off the track on the same plaque of water, but catches a luckier break with the slide. As Hill prepares to rejoin the race, he spots the wreckage of his teammate’s car and leaps bravely to his assistance. ‘Jackie? Are you down there? Jackie?’ Stewart groans, but is barely conscious. The American racer Bob Bondurant joins Hill at the scene. There is no rescue crew. There are no marshals with yellow flags.
Stewart is trapped. The fuel tanks have ruptured and flooded the cockpit; one spark from the electrics, and the drivers are toast.
After a frantic search for a spanner, they manage to unscrew the steering wheel and lift Stewart to safety. ‘Graham, get my clothes off,’ he pleads. His overalls are soaked in high-octane fuel. He doesn’t want to burn.
Stewart continues the saga in another interview:
I lay trapped in the car for twenty-five minutes, unable to be moved. Graham and Bob Bondurant got me out using the spanners from a spectator’s toolkit. There were no doctors and there was nowhere to put me. They in fact put me in the back of a van. Eventually an ambulance took me to a first aid spot near the control tower and I was left on a stretcher, on the floor, surrounded by cigarette ends. I was put into an ambulance with a police escort and the police escort lost the ambulance, and the ambulance didn’t know how to get to Liege. At the time they thought I had a spinal injury. As it turned out, I wasn’t seriously injured, but they didn’t know that.”
“I realized that if this was the best we had there was something sadly wrong: things wrong with the race track, the cars, the medical side, the fire-fighting, and the emergency crews. There were also grass banks that were launch pads, things you went straight into, trees that were unprotected and so on. Young people today just wouldn’t understand it. It was ridiculous.”
Stewart soon advocated for mandatory safety measures (measures likely taken for granted today–full-body harness seatbelts, full-face helmets, removable steering wheels, fire-proof clothing, fire and ambulance crews on-site, track safety barriers, etc.) initially making him a pariah among many drivers, promoters, track owners, F1 fans, and the press. He dared question “tradition”, despite the alarming mortality rate of his fellow drivers.
I’d speculate Stewart really didn’t know who was interviewing him, other than that Kimmage was a journalist for the Sunday Times. It would have been curious if Stewart turned the tables on Kimmage and spurned a conversation about safety issues in professional cycling—the proliferation of “road furniture”, dicey stage finishes in Grand Tours, or particularly the lightning rod issue of mandatory helmets. The hue and cry bubbling up from within many members of the pro peloton resulting from the UCI’s 2003 ruling requiring hardshell helmets (as well as the backlash stateside in 1986 when the USCF outlawed leather hairnets in favor of Snell/ANSI approved lids) echoed many of the sentiments from within the inner circle of F1 racing when Stewart pushed for change. Paul Kimmage had long since vacated the Euro peloton before hardshell helmets were mandated and I haven’t been able to divine his opinion on such matters. However, if Kimmage ran the UCI I’d wager there’d be rider discretion regarding helmets in keeping with the philosophy of his era, insurance companies be damned.