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An Audience with the Emperor.
A cycling legend if ever there was one, Rik Van Looy rarely gives interviews, but when he does he’s as open and forthright as he was dominant when he raced.
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Offside and Cycling Legends
Rik Van Looy is still the only man to have won every single-day classic on the calendar. Jacques Anquetil was the Grand Tour master of the late 1950s and first half of the ‘60s, and Rik Van Looy was the classics king. He was a fierce competitor, high-handed in his dominance, with 492 victories in a professional career lasting nearly 20 years. They called him the Emperor of Herentals, after the east Belgian town where he lives, and where I was granted an audience.
He’s still recognisable as the man you see in the photographs ripping the legs off everyone, hammering across cobbled roads, flattening brutal climbs and laying waste to the peloton. Age might have lined his face and thinned is hair, but he’s still fit, lean, and extremely sharp.
Rik is short for Henrik, he’s from the Kempen region of Belgium; Tom Boonen is a Kempenaar, as is another Belgian cycling legend Rik Van Steenbergen. Van Looy has one brother, and although his childhood was tough by today’s standards he doesn’t think it was exceptional for the time. His mother died when he was quite young, which meant he had a fairly free rein. “I often skipped school,” he says. But it wasn’t to hang around street corners or be a nuisance, it was to earn money, and as Van Looy reveals later, money is important to him; not so much for what it buys, but for the respect it confers.
“I had a paper round,” he continues telling his story; “500 to 600 newspapers delivered daily, and I did it on a bike weighing 25 kilograms. It took me from six in the morning until midday, so seeing as I’d already missed the morning at school, sometimes I decided to miss the afternoon as well.”
Those afternoons introduced Van Looy to bike racing. “I had a neighbour who raced, and I would go to races with him. When we got there I’d take his spare bike and ride around the circuit in the opposite direction while he raced. I tried to do as many laps as I could before he finished. Doing that and my newspaper round built me up,” he says, putting his hands around his thigh to emphasise the point.
With his eventual record you might think that Rik Van Looy was an instant success when he started racing, but he wasn’t. “I started at 15 in the 15 to 16 year-old age group, but in my first race I was lapped five times in 20 laps. I only kept going because my father said that I had to finish.”
It didn’t take long to break through. Van Looy had 16 consecutive victories the following year, and cycling wasn’t his only sport. “I loved football, and I combined playing football with cycling until after the start of my pro career. In fact the last time I played was for the Belgian military team, and that was just after I turned pro in the autumn of 1953. I was seventh in Paris-Tours then I went straight into the Belgian army to do my national service. I played my last game of football in the army,” he says
Van Looy was 19 when he turned pro, having won 150 races and two Belgian national titles as an amateur, but he also had disappointments. The worst was puncturing twice in the 1952 Olympic road race in Helsinki. “We had no team cars, so I had to ride on a flat tyre until I got round to the pits,” he recalls.
Belgians dominated single-day racing, taking 15 out of 25 monuments between 1955 and 1959, including five straight wins in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Fred De Bruyne, Stan Ockers, Germain Derijcke, Leon Van Daele and Rik Van Looy were all winners. Rik Van Steenbergen’s road race peak was just before that, which is why Van Looy says; “Rik Van Steenbergen was my idol when I was young. He lived only 20 kilometres from me, and it was a thrill for me when they started calling us Rik I and Rik II.”
Van Looy was the youngest Belgian to dominate the late 1950s, and he didn’t lack confidence. A story goes that well before he won his first world pro road race title, Van Looy bought a stock of rainbow jerseys ready for when he did. Is that true story or a myth? I asked him.
“Yes I did, or rather my sponsor did,” he smiles sheepishly, then adds, “It was 1957 when the worlds were in Waregem in West Flanders. I finished second the previous year, and my sponsor Faema was so confident I’d win because the circuit suited me, they bought some jerseys ready to wear straight after the worlds. But of course Van Steenbergen won that one.”
Van Looy didn’t have to wait long to wear the rainbow jersey by right. He took consecutive titles in 1960 and 1961, as well as silver medals in 1956 and 1963. “Both times beaten by a Belgian,” he says. The first was Rik Van Steenbergen in a straight fight for the finish in Copenhagen. The second, in 1963, was anything but straight. In fact the notoriety of the 1963 finish in Ronse holds the same place in cycling Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ does in football.
The race was on a short circuit with a climb based on Ronse, right on the edge of the Flemish Ardennes, and despite it being an attacking race the title was decided in a big group sprint. The winner, Benoni Beheyt crossed the line with his hand on Van Looy’s back. There was uproar, Van Looy claimed his Belgian team-mate had pulled him back, Beheyt said he fended Van Looy off because he was bundling him into the barriers.
Beheyt (left) and Van Looy after the 1963 worlds
There has been lots of talk since, although not much from Beheyt, who refuses to speak about it. I asked Van Looy, was it a push or a pull. “It was a pull,” he says, then adds; “There’s another thing about that finish, if I’d known Beheyt was going to sprint I would have done my sprint differently. In the finale Beheyt told me he had cramp and he wouldn’t be able to do anything. He was my team mate. We’d discussed the race, and it was agreed that the Belgian team would ride for me. If he was able to he should have led me out, but when I asked him to do it he said he couldn’t because of the cramp.”
Seeing as you get straight answers from Rik Van Looy I touched another bone of contention, his relationship with Eddy Merckx. Merckx has made peace with many people he had big differences with when he raced, you don’t get to be the best ever without treading on a few toes, but he’s not made peace with Van Looy. What’s Van Looy’s take on that?
“We are best friends,” he says in mocking innocence, then smiles; “No, we’re not. Merckx says that I followed him in every race. Of course I did, he was the best. Aren’t those good tactics? Follow the best then outsprint them. Even now, if I see him at a dinner, I tell him that I followed him. It still makes him very angry.” And making Merckx angry is something that obviously pleases Van Looy.
Merckx (centre in white) and Van Looy (right)
But as he expands on the subject of Eddy Merckx there’s more than an inference that Van Looy thinks his compatriot’s sense of humour is lacking. It’s confirmed when ask about an accusation from Merckx that Van Looy and his mates did nothing but deride him in 1965, when Merckx was a brand new pro in Van Looy’s team, Solo-Superia.
“That’s because we gave him a nickname, we all had them in the team. Everybody does here in the Kempen, it’s a tradition. We called Merckx ‘Jack Pallance’ after the film star, but he just thought we were laughing at him. Maybe it’s because he comes from a different region and didn’t understand our customs,” Van Looy adds.
After 1965 Merckx joined one of Van Looy’s rival’s team, Peugeot-BP, which was led by Britain’s Tom Simpson. Simpson and Van Looy had a good few battles in the classics. For example, Simpson won the Tour of Flanders in 1961, a race Van Looy wanted to win because he was wearing the rainbow jersey at the time, and winning Flanders in the rainbow jersey means a lot to a Flemish rider.
They had another scrap in the same race in 1962, when Van Looy still had the jersey, with the Belgian coming out on top and Simpson finishing fifth. So in the opinion of one of the best, how good was Tom Simpson? “He was very good, and he would be good today, which isn’t always the case with every champion from the past,” Van Looy says.
The Red Guard
Likening Van Looy to an Emperor captures the imperious way he raced, his nature and the way he carried himself; he was special and he knew it. But the analogy goes further when you examine his team, the famous Red Guard. The name was given first to the Faema-Flandria team because of its red and white jersey, and it persisted when Van Looy raced for Solo-Superia, which also had red jersey, and followed for the rest of his career no matter what his team colours were. All Van Looy’s team were hand-picked by him and totally dedicated to him. “I learned that from Coppi, and I built the best team that I could around me,” he points out.
Hoban (centre) narrowly out-sprinted by Van Looy for victory in Paris-Tours 1967
The Red Guard was not just brute force, the team innovated. Britain’s Barry Hoban, a great admirer of Van Looy anyway, saw them in action. “Van Looy’s team would take hold of a race in two ways, and both stacked the odds in his favour. The first was to use crosswinds to create an echelon at the front, but they only only let their team mates into it. They’d be there at the front ready for the wind, ready to pounce. Then as soon as we hit the crosswind the front guy rode just far enough out in the road for his team-mates to get shelter. And they always put a big guy as last man in the line, it was his job to give anybody the elbow if they were trying to get in the echelon.
“The other way Van Looy’s teams helped him win was by leading him out in a sprint. He was a formidable sprinter anyway, but he worked out that if his team mates set the pace for him he could exert control on the peloton instead of it being a free-for-all. Van Looy and his teams were the first to do that, they invented the lead-out trains that dominate sprints today.”
But despite inventing some of the tactics used today Van Looy isn’t too keen on the way the sport has developed, although he stresses there are a lot of riders he admires. “I think racing lacks spontaneity now, but all sport does. There are all these rules in the peloton; you can’t attack through a feed or when anyone stops for a pee. We attacked wherever and whenever we wanted,” he points out.
But what about bike development, surely Van Looy would have liked to race on a modern bike? “I like some things. Clipless pedals are good. The shoes and saddles are better than we had, too. A leather saddle would sag by two centimetres in a wet race. The clothing is very good now. If I was two kilos overweight and went out training in the wet in the woollen stuff we wore, when I came home I was 10 kilos heavier. The wool held so much water.”
It’s always good to hear the views of old champions. They can sometimes be a bit rose tinted, but they often have very compelling arguments for what they say. Rik Van Looy certainly has. He loved the age he raced in, a common enough emotion from anyone of any age, but he’s no romantic, as his answer to my final question reveals.
I like to ask old champions what their favourite victory was, the one they are proudest of. Van Looy’s answer nailed professional cycling right smack in the head. “My best victory was my bank account,” he says. “Paris-Roubaix and being world champion, yes, they’re nice, they sound great, but I’m proudest of the money I made. It means today I am somebody and I started out as nobody. People like lawyers and bank managers, who wouldn’t have looked at me as a kid, now hold the door open for me and say thank you Mr Van Looy. That’s my favourite victory.”