Fall From Grace, by Freddy Maertens

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Thirty-three-and-a-third years ago (which, I think, is some kind of record) Belgium's Freddy Maertens won the Vuelta a España. Although ‘winning' hardly describes his achievement. As well as taking home the leader's jersey and the points' jersey, Maertens bagged thirteen of the race's twenty-one stages - setting the record for the number of stage wins in a single Grand Tour.

Title: Fall From Grace (originally Niet Van Horen Zeggen (Not From Hearsay))
Author: Freddy Maertens (with Manu Adrieens, trans by Steve Hawkins)
Publisher: Ronde Publications
Year: 1988 (trans 1993)
Pages: 212
Order: try Abe
What it is: The autobiography of Belgian sprinter Freddy Maertens.
Strengths: Maertens offers great insight into the race fixing and doping that went on during his time in the pro peloton. It's also an invaluable insight into how fragile our champions often are.
Weaknesses: Could have done with a lot more hot bike-on-bike action and fewer stories about Martens being stabbed in the back by all and sundry.
Rating: *** (3 out of five)

Born in 1952, Freddy Maertens' pro career spanned from ‘72 to ‘87. Across his first three full seasons as a pro he racked up eighty victories. Between '76 and '77 he added another one hundred and seven victories to his palmarès, including the Tour de France's Green Jersey and the World Champion's Rainbow Jersey. From feast though he went to famine. He bagged only eighteen wins in '78 - a third of his successes of the previous year, though he did add a second Green Jersey in the Tour - and through '79 and '80 he notched up only three more victories in all.

Then, Lazarus like, he made a come-back in '81. He only won eleven races across the length of the season, but when they include a third Tour Green Jersey (with the help of five stage wins) and a second Rainbow Jersey you do tend to look at quality over quantity. The come-back though was fleeting and, sadly, he hung around the pro peloton too long, living off his legacy and practically free-wheeling his way to retirement. Over the next five years, he added just three victories to his palmarès.

Those numbers sound good, don't they, even accounting for the fallow years? Look at a few of the victories though and they look even more impressive. In '77 he took success in Paris Nice (where he'd won six stages and the winner's white jersey) into the Vuelta a España, which he won ... well comfortably hardly describes it. As well as the winner's jersey (what  colour was it back then? They've changed it so often I've lost track) he took home the points' one too and left only eight stages for other riders to fight over, clocking up thirteen stage wins en route to victory - which is still the record for the number of stages won in a single Grand Tour.

In the Tour he still jointly holds the record for the number of stage wins - eight, which he bagged in 1976. After his Vuelta successes in '77 Maertens was surely on his way to challenging Alfredo Binda's haul of twelve stages in one Giro d'Italia when he had to pull out with a broken wrist, having already crossed the finish line first seven times and the race barely one third done.

His successes in '76 and '77 saw him winning the season-long Super Prestige Pernod competition twice. In the Classics, Ghent-Wevelgem fell to him in '75 and '76 but, and this probably seems strange for such a dominant rider, the Monuments - Milan-San Remo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia - all eluded him. But there was an awful lot of strange things in Maertens' career.

And that's what Fall From Grace is really about. Strange things. Dirty dealings and racing rivalries. And the rivalries can all pretty much be summed up as being the world against Freddy Maertens. Rather than being called either Not From Hearsay or Fall From Grace, the book could just as rightly have been called Stabbed In The Back, given the amount of times Maertens accuses others of having planted a metaphorical dagger between his shoulder-blades.

Take, for instance, the 1973 World Championships, which Maertens describes thus: "although I wouldn't say it was the greatest disappointment of my career I would definitely say it deserves the title of the most sordid machination ever practiced on me." The race, he says, was less about the struggle between rival riders and more about the "the commercial power struggle between two rival cycle component manufacturers. On the one side was the established Italian make, Campagnolo, and on the other side was the Japanese firm, Shimano, which was trying to win a slice of the European market." According to Maertens, the day before the race he overheard the head of Campag telling his compatriot and Flandria team-mate Walter Godefroot "At all costs Shimano must not win on Sunday." Guess which groupset Flandria rode? Yup, you guessed right: Shimano.

Three laps out from the finish, it was Merckx and Maertens in their Belgium jerseys riding a breakaway with Spain's Luis Ocaňa (fresh from success in the Tour) and Italy's Felice Gimondi. Like Merckx, Gimondi was riding Campag gears. Ocaňa rode Zeus. Maertens decided that helping Merckx win would be the wisest move - he recalled what happened to fellow Belgian Benoni Beheydt after he beat Rik Van Looy in 1963. "I was too young for anything like that. Imagine how the Belgian people would have reacted to it. If I had wanted to see serious doubts cast on the healthy progress of my future cycling career, all it would have needed was for me to do such a thing."

So Maertens led Merckx out in the sprint. Merckx instructed him to go early. Only Merckx - Maertens says - had blown up and didn't have a sprint in his legs. Gimondi had no difficulty coming around them both and taking the title: "Only then did I realise that I had been knifed in the back by Merckx and that because his own chance had gone he would have rather seen the Italian win on a Campagnolo-equipped bike than me."

Maertens isn't opposed to deals per se. In fact, he's refreshingly practical about them: "The man in the street tends to associate kermesses with words such as payments and deals. In this, exaggeration knows no bounds, Anyone who thinks he can win a race will have a go, but if he's not sure about it, he pays out to make sure. That's the way it is. On our licences it says we are professional riders. If you think you're not going to win, you'd be a fool to say: ‘I don't need the money.' If you lose, how would you rather go home in the evening to your wife and child: with or without a bit of extra cash?"

Later, Maertens stresses the point further: "I don't have to account to the average cycling fan for the fact that I wanted to earn as much as I could. Later on, when I was in financial trouble [in the last years of Maertens career the taxman was chasing him for unpaid back-taxes] I never saw this average cycling fan standing ay my door with a bag of money."

Sometimes, Maertens would have been better off not selling his services. In the 1976 Tour, on instructions from his directeur sportif, Maertens ‘gave' another rider a stage win: "Once over the line, the journalist Louis Clicteur came after me holding his nose, as if hinting at the singeing smell coming from my brake blocks. He wasn't the only one who had noticed there was a funny smell in the sprint. I regretted it afterwards because if I had won it would have brought my total number of stage wins in the 1976 Tour to nine and I would have held the record on my own."

Buying and selling races were the least of the dirty tricks Maertens fell victim to. Several times, the way he tells it, the authorities stitched him up over doping infractions. In this, Maertens offers a curious insight into the mind of a racing cyclist where doping is concerned. Take this story:

"During that period [the mid-seventies] there was always a commotion when a product that until then had been allowed, suddenly turned up on the list of banned substances. Many riders, among who were several well known names, got into trouble. Walter Godefroot in the Flèche-Wallonne, Ronald De Witte in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Joseph Bruyère, Eric Leman and myself in the Tour of Belgium. I was given a one month's conditional suspension and my victory in the Tour of Belgium was taken away from me through the addition of a ten minute time penalty."

The idea of suddenly, mid-way through a season, adding substances that were previously legal to the banned list, without telling riders, certainly sounds wrong and all right thinking people would be opposed to it. But it's only when you read on that you realise this isn't exactly what was happening.

"Why were there, all of a sudden, so many positive doping cases in the spring of 1974? The following is an explanation for it. When a doctor discovered a new product in a urine sample in Italy, all the teams were informed about it. A rider who carried on using it knew he was making a mistake. In Belgium however, they did things rather differently. They would keep quiet about a new discovery, let the riders carry on racing, and then out of the blue they would issue a list of the names of the riders who had been found using it. To me, that is typical of the BWB [Belgische Wielerbond, the Belgian cycling federation] who have never failed to do things in a completely underhand way."

Doping, it would seem, isn't doping just because the product is on the banned list. It's only doping when you're able to conduct a test for the substance. And it's not fair to have a test for a banned substance that you don't tell the riders about. If only the 2008 CERA guys had thought to use that excuse, eh? (Funnily, before the 1999 Tour, riders were specifically warned that a new test was available that could screen for the use of cortisone and that anyone caught still using cortisone would be considered a total plonker.)

As with buying and selling services during races, Maertens is practical when it comes to doping: "If you are taking strange things every day, of course you'll never finish the Tour de France. But anyone who says they can do it naturally is a liar. You have to be medically treated so that you don't do anything stupid off your own back. It is also true that drugs are partly a psychological matter, and in this context every cyclist is rather like a small child."

Doping and dirty-dealing are just two parts of the story in Fall From Grance. Occasionally Maertens does talk about races, though being a sprinter there's not always a lot to talk about, I guess, it all happens so quickly. Most of the book though is taken up with a litany of complaints. At one point, he notes that, "one of my faults has always been that I have never complained enough." In that case, Fall From Grace is practically faultless, cause Maertens seems to have used it to more than make up for all the times in his career when he bit his tongue.

But if you move a bit beyond the persistent cries of ‘he stabbed me in the back' what you see is a rough-and-tough Belgian sprinter who was actually pretty fragile. Maertens needed looking after. Too often in the second half of his career he failed to receive the support he needed, either from his team or from the authorities. Stress, more than anything else, seems to have been the downfall of Freddy Maertens. Business ventures that went sour. The tax-man looking for his pound of flesh. Journalists who saw him as just another story. On another team, in another time, none of these would have been allowed weigh him down and wear him out. But that was the way it was back than.

* * * * *

PS About that '77 Vuelta. Having teased with it at the top of this, you probably want to know more. Here's pretty much all Maertens has to say about it: "for the second successive season I was the winner of [the Super Prestige] which rewarded consistency. This was in no small part due to my victory in the Tour of Spain in which I had won no fewer than thirteen stages." One sentence. And there's you probably thinking thirteen stages and two jerseys deserve at least a chapter unto themselves.

* * * * *

You'll find a second piece on Freddy Maertens' Fall From Grace on the Cafe Bookshelf.

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