Cycle Heroes December 13, 2010

International Cycling Heroes - Freddy Maertens

If you take a look at the 'Famous Belgians' website (I cannot claim I am a regular visitor), there is one very famous cyclist at the top of the list. Eddy Merckx. Freddy Maertens does not make the cut. Not as able as his fellow countryman and nemesis, Merckx, Maertens nevertheless amassed a substantial tally of stage ride wins on the professional tour circuit in the 70s and early 80s. During his 15 year career his victories included 16 stages of Le Tour, 13 stages of the Vuelta (plus overall classification winner in 1977) and 7 stages in the Giro. He also won the World Professional Road Race championship in 1976 and 1981 as well as the 'Maillot Vert' (Green Jersey) in The Tour in 1976, 1978 and 1981. However, unlike countrymen Roger De Vlaeminck, Rik Van Looy and Eddy Merckx who won all 5 of the 'Monuments', Maertens never managed one. And for all his sprinting telent, perhaps Maertens never fulfilled his full potential.

Freddy Maertens was born on 13 February 1952 in Nieuwpoort, Belgium. He began his professional career at the age of 20 with the legendary Flandria team where he rode not only in their heyday but also with some of the finest riders cycling has ever seen. He was only an average climber though and this was a major factor why he was not more successful in the Grand Tour events. Joining Flandria in 1972, Maertens gave Flandria-Shimano a second place in the 1973 World Championships in Spain. However, he was still a few years off his peak. In 1976 he managed to chalk up 54 professional victories in one season, equalling the Merckx's total in 1971. This included 8 stages of the Tour de France. More was to come in 1977, when the Maertens-Flandria combination blew the opposition away. Maertens was the star, winning the prologue and led from start to finish, winning an astonishing 13 stages, the overall classification and the points jersey. He won in front of Spain's Migual Maria Lasa and the German, Peter Thaler. Incidentally, Maertens' record of 13 stage victories in a Grand Tour event is a record that stands today. (Cav, you have some way to go.....)

Maertens won the World Championship Road race twice. In 1976 he won the 1976 he in front of Italians Francesco Moser and Tino Conti. In 1981 he finished ahead of Giuseppe Saronni of Italy and Bernard Hinault of France. One of the most controversial races came early in his career at the 1973 World Championship Road Race.  At the time Merckx was the big celebrity cyclist - a household name. Maertens was a 'domestique' - a young pretender who had only recently turned pro. On the final lap with Merckx having made a break for home, Maertens chased him down. In pursuit was the Italian Felice 'The Phoenix' Gimondi. In the final sprint, the work having been shared between the two Belgians, Gimondi was perfectly placed to take advantage and ride clear for the finish line. Merckx was livid, ostensibly because one Belgian had cost another of victory. In later years though, Maertens offers a different explanation to Merckxs' outrage;

"He (Merckx) must have decided that Gimondi would make a better winner. And that's simply because Felice Gimondi, like Merckx, rode with Campagnolo. Shimano, for whom I was riding, was the up and coming rival of Campagnolo. Tullio Campagnolo called Walter Godefroot and passed on the message that under no circumstances was the world championship to be won by a Shimano rider".

Perhaps this was more about the battle for component pre-eminence than a struggle between two fellow countrymen and their egos. All told, it was probably a mixture of both. Although the event caused a rift between the two cyclists, the two men have recently reconciled their differences. 

Believed to be one of the finest sprinters cycling has ever seen, the mercurial Maertens is credited with nurturing another hugely talented cyclist, Irishman Sean Kelly through his early career. The two rode for Flandria in 1977 with Kelly eventually going to to win a host of titles, most notably the Vuelta in 1988 as well as 9 'Monument' and 10 other 'Classic' victories. 

In terms of riding style, it is claimed that Maertens' preference for pushing through the high gears was the cause of him burning out in races and ultimately retiring at a relatively young age. In 1987 he left professional cycling eventually working for BRT (Belgian Radio and Television) reporting on major cycling events. However his post cycling career has been turbulent. He was pursued by the Belgian tax authorities and was angered when Belgian TV used his face when discussing doping allegations. Although he said that he, along with 'everyone else', had used amphetamines in small-scale races, Maertens insisted he had not taken performance enhancing drugs during the major competitions because he knew he would be tested. Once the curator of the Belgian national cycling Museum in Roeselare, he now works the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders Museum) in Oudenaarde. Incidentally, his brother, Mario owns Maerten's Sport in Evergem, a bike shop in the East Flanders province of Ghent. Overshadowed by Merckx, Maertens remains a fine competition cyclist with a enviable list of wins to his name.


Professional Teams

Flandria 1972-79

San Giacomo 1980

Boule d'Or 1981-82

Masta Concorde 1983

AVP Viditel 1984

Splendor 1984

Nikon Van Schilt 1985

EuroSoap Crack 1985

Robland La Claire-Fontaine Biomass Salvi Galli 1986

Robland Isoglass 1987


Other major victories :

World professional road race 1976, 1981

Vuelta a Espana 1977

Tour of Flanders 1982

Ghent-Wevelgem 1975, 1976

Amstel Gold Race 1976

Bordeaux-Paris 1985

Zurich 1976

Paris-Nice 1977

Grand Prix de Nations 1976

Points Jersey - Tour de France 1976, 1978, 1981 and Vuelta a Espana 1977



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