Just before the Vuelta a España, I took a look at Freddy Maertens' autobiography, Fall From Grace. Given Maertens' record-breaking haul of thirteen stages in the 1977 Vuelta, it seemed like a good choice at the time, even if Maertens himself dismissed those Vuelta victories in barely a handful of words.
First published in Belgium in 1988 and translated into English five years later, my ‘research' somehow overlooked the fact that the book appears to be out of print and that second-hand copies are being offered only at shockingly ridiculous prices. Given that - once you get past its concentration on Maertens' personal problems - the book does contain some great race-related anecdotes, many of which ended up on the cutting room floor when I tried to boil its story down to a couple of thousand words, it seems to be a book worth revisiting.
One of the notable things about Maertens' career is his record in the World Championship Road Race. He won it twice, twice had to settle for second (once as an amateur and once as a professional, on both occasions he claimed to have been stabbed in the back), claimed his drinking bottle had been spiked in one race in order to stop him from winning (stabbed in the back again) and once pulled out in a huff when still challenging for third place (yet again, the knife had been planted between his shoulder-blades). Let's take Maertens' account of just one of those races.
The evening before the race, the Belgian team met as usual and it was agreed that, if one of them won, he'd pay BF100,000 to each of his nine team-mates. As the race neared its conclusion, it was Italy's Francesco Moser and Holland's Joop Zoetemelk who were away and looking like taking the victory. Maertens promised his compatriot Lucian Van Impe "something on top of the BF100,000" if he'd pull him up to the break. This Van Impe - more noted for his climbing abilities than his sprint - did and quickly Maertens and Moser were able to drop Zoetemelk and charge toward the finish line together
"Moser and I bore down on the finishing line together. He attacked twice, on both occasions taking shelter behind a Citroën with the television camera. When he did it a third time, I had had enough." Maertens decided to have it out with Moser, telling him he wasn't going to share any more of the work. Mutually assured destruction was the implication of the threat. Moser pointed out that the chasers were closing in on them. Maertens' response? "Let them come. I'm not afraid of them." To which Moser replied with an offer of "about ten million francs in Belgian money if I would let him win in front of his own people."
Now Maertens, it's worth recalling, was a man who preferred to go home with something rather than nothing. If he couldn't win a race by his own effort, and couldn't buy the efforts of others to help him win, he was perfectly happy to sell his services to the highest bidder. For him, deal making was part and parcel of being a professional. In 1977, he and Roger De Vlaeminck - then riding for Brooklyn - signed a written contract in which De Vlaeminck agreed to ride Paris-Roubaix in the services of Maertens, in return for Maertens riding for him in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Belgian national championships. Deals were just inter-professional agreements.
But one reason that that deal between Maertens and De Vlaeminck was in writing was that Maertens knew - from personal experience - that verbal agreements were worthless. Take his experience as an amateur in the 1971 World Championships. In that race, Ludo Van Der Linden offered to lead Maertens out: "Through my incredible naïveté, I was well and truly stitched up." A klick out from the finish, a Russian rider attacked. "Instead of leading me out, Van Der Linden blocked me off on the left side so that I was forced to try the other." Maertens ended up having to settle for second. "It was to be the first in a series of world titles of which I was robbed. Explaining his actions afterwards, Van Der Linden said that he hadn't seen exactly where I was. As if he didn't know which way the wind blew."
So there he is, the World Championships, him and Moser up the road, the finish line approaching, the chasers closing in, Maertens refusing to work and Moser offering a small fortune for Maertens' services. What's a guy to do? What would you do?
Maertens refused the offer. With the ball back in his court, Moser decided it was better to try and fail and lead the sprint out. This against the guy who went into the race as the winner of that year's Green Jersey in the Tour de France - won partly on the back of a record-equalling haul of eight stage wins (which could have been a record-breaking nine, if Maertens hadn't sold one stage, or even ten if Gerben Karstens hadn't boxed him in on the Champs Elysées: "Karstens always pulled a dirty trick from up his sleeve, though. When you were bearing down on the finishing line in his company, you were never sure what he'd get up to next"). Maertens had been flying since the early part of the season, when he won six stages in Paris-Nice, the Ghent-Wevelgem Classic and the Amstel Gold race. Coming around Moser was easy-peasy. Maertens won his first Rainbow Jersey. Champion of the World, 1976.
As well as being stabbed in the back more times than Julius Caesar, Maertens' career is inextricably associated with doping. In a 2007 piece in the Sunday Times - written at the height of the Telekom confessions when, for a brief moment, cycling's code of omertà finally seemed in danger of being swept aside - Paul Kimmage took a rare dig at Sean Kelly's silence on the subject. Kelly, he noted, had started his career with the Flandria squad: "Freddy Maertens, Michel Pollentier and Marc Demeyer were the masters to be served. The code of silence was to be respected like a Bible. In the jungle, they played by different rules. Maertens would test positive during Kelly's first season; Pollentier would be stripped of the yellow jersey (for trying to cheat the doping control) during Kelly's first Tour de France; Demeyer would die at thirty-two with a syringe in his arm. Kelly kept his head down and never told the tales. It wasn't his style to go spitting in the soup. He would always adhere to the first rule of the peloton."
Maertens, on the other hand, did cracher dans la soupe. The peloton hadn't respected him, so why should he respect it? Take a story he tells about the lead up to those 1971 World Championships, when he was just an amateur. As part of the training for that race, the Belgian squad held a training camp in De Haan, north of Oostende. The stars of that camp were the four men who made up the Belgian one hundred kilometre team time trial squad. Maertens - recalling events just seventeen years later - notes that "two of the four, Louis Verreydt and Ludo Van Der Linden, have died since then, and that cannot be put down to coincidence. It is a fact that the foursome were prepared in a special way before that illustrious race [which Belgium won]. I saw one or two things with my own eyes. The premature deaths of Verreydt and Van Der Linden have their roots in that time at the De Haan training camp, of that I'm sure."
The full details of what he saw and how he's sure it contributed to the deaths of Verreydt and Van Der Linden Maertens doesn't offer. But he does offer an anecdote about other events at the team hotel. The hotel manager had a monkey, which he kept in a cage: "One day, we threw him a pep pill. The monkey sniffed it and threw it away." So they tried a different tack. "We tried stuffing the pep pill into a piece of chocolate. It seemed to us as though the monkey wasn't born yesterday, because it got the pill out of the chocolate and tossed it to the ground again." So they tried a different tack again. "We ground the pill into powder and mixed it into the foam of a chocolate drink. Suspecting nothing, the monkey swallowed everything. The result was that while receiving encouraging shouts from our side of the bar he became super-active inside his cage. It would seem it did not suit him one hundred percent, and neither did it suit the fishes we gave it too, as they all died of it."
Sometimes, Maertens charged up on things a lot more innocent than amphetamines: "whatever the race, if I was feeling good in the closing stages, I would always have half a drinking bottle of champagne with a quantity of fructose and an ampoule of caffeine mixed in thirty kilometres before the finish. It had a stimulating effect on my body although this was clearly not the case for everybody. Pollentier tried it out in the Baracchi Trophy in 1976 [which Maertens won] but got the hunger knock." The scariest part of this story is that Maertens' directeur sportif, Guillaume (Lomme) Driessens, would finish off the other half of the bottle of champagne while driving the team car.
And then there were the vegetable extracts he tried for a while in ‘81: "Paul Nijs was a great believer in the vegetable extracts that he prepared himself and which gave me the same stimulating effect as amphetamines. [...] With all due respect to the research and energy which Nijs had put into them, his vegetable drinks were anything but tasty. Maybe some people would be able to take them without any trouble but they always made me want to be sick. I suppose I was used to being a used as a guinea pig in a way. Whenever I was given anything by him before the closing stages of a race I had to tell him what the result was afterwards. In fact the outcome was always the same - I threw up."
But champagne and vegetable extracts can only get you so far, and once amphetamines could reliably be tested for, it was time to move on to something else. After Nijs, Maertens moved on to Dr Derluyn: "He made sure that the natural elements in my body that were used up the most and the quickest were replenished on time with preparations." Which, in cyclist talk, means hormone replenishment therapy. And we all know where the logic of that lead the sport.
Indirectly, doping almost helped Maertens to victory in the 1976 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Joseph Bruyère was up the road with Maertens' Flandria team-mate Herman Van Springel. "Van Springel called Driessens to him, though, and told him that he didn't want to win as he wanted to avoid the dope control. Lomme came back to us, the chasing group, where we had been checking attacks the whole time, to let us know what was going on straightaway. It was only then that we went after Bruyère, while Van Springel had let us overtake him in the meantime. At the finishing line we had failed by half a minute to catch the Walloon and I won the sprint for second place."
Today, it seems odd that of all the races Maertens won, he never bagged a Monument. But back in Maertens' day, the Monuments - Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the Giro di Lombardia - were just Classics. Ghent-Wevelgem fell to him twice, in '75 and '76, and Paris-Tours, the sprinters' Classic, also fell to him in '75. As did Paris-Brussels, which used to be a Classic. So he does at least have a couple or three Classics on his palmarès. He also won Het Volk twice ('77 and '78) though I can never remember if that was a Classic or just a semi-Classic. Shay Elliott won it, the first non-Belgian to do so, so at least here in Ireland we like to think it was definitely a Classic. And the Belgians would probably big it up too, I suspect. Maybe that was the problem with the Classic designation. It was always a bit loose around the edges.
In 1977 Maertens crossed the finish line of another Classic, the Flèche Wallonne, first: "It was without doubt one of the most satisfying wins in my whole career. I finished in Verviers on my own with a lead of more than four minutes. Yet even this victory was taken away from me." Why? Because Maertens returned a positive for the amphetamine Stimul (which, if memory serves me, is what Fausto Coppi was popping on his way to the hour record in 1942): "It appears that the substance Stimul could now be identified in dope controls. Once again the BWB [Belgische Wielerbond, the Belgian cycling federation] demonstrated the same hypocrisy as in the 1974 season and left the riders alone for several weeks before unexpectedly lashing out with a long list of positive cases. In actual fact Stimul was a fairly harmless substance which affected the central nervous system. Everyone in the peloton took it and even Merckx was one of those who was caught. In Italy, however, they were aware of the fact that Stimul was on the list of banned substances and that explains why Moser, who finished second behind me in the Flèche Wallonne, was eventually declared the winner."
Four days earlier, Martens had lost a Monument, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, in what can only be described as unusual circumstances. In 1977, the Koppenberg made its first appearance in the Ronde. "Many riders were due to change bikes as they had attached gears on their back wheels especially for the notorious climb and they wouldn't need them afterwards. These new bikes were only allowed to come from the team car. I was first onto my second bike which was handed to me by somebody along the side of the road and I attacked immediately."
It was then that things began to turn decidedly strange: "Jos Fabri, who was then the chairman of the national committee of the BWB, drove up alongside me and accused me of not changing bikes according to the race rules. He didn't throw me out of the race there and then though, for the simple reason that he wanted to keep it a spectacle for the television cameras. Yes indeed, the whole situation was a spectacle. I towed Roger [De Vlaeminck] through the entire closing stages as he himself wouldn't do any lead work. With one and a half kilometres to go, the BWB came up to me to tell me that I would be allowed to take part in the sprint. However it could hardly be termed a sprint and De Vlaeminck won while I had to settle for second place. Not for long, however. The race officials decided that I was to be disqualified and my name wiped from the result. After all these years, if anyone can make any sense of the logic the BWB applied in that year's Tour of Flanders, they are welcome to come and explain it to me."
After the race, De Vlaeminck acknowledged that he'd been towed around the last part of the race by Maertens and said that, in normal circumstance, he wouldn't have challenged for the victory. But he was aware that Martens was going to be disqualified for his illegal bike change and so wanted to win the race in his own right, rather than take victory by default through Maertens' disqualification.
Maertens' disappointments in the '77 Classics campaign were more than made up for by his Grand Tour performances. As noted already, Maertens set a record for stage wins in the Vuelta. From Spain he immediately went into the Giro d'Italia - there was less than a week between the end of one race and the start of the other - and looked set to challenge Alfredo Binda's record for stage wins there, until he broke his wrist in a crash and had to withdraw. Having sent squads to Spain (where Maertens had taken the overall victory, as well as his hamper full of stage wins) and Italy (where Pollentier won in Maertens' absence) Flandria elected to sit out the '77 Tour. But they didn't pass up the chance to make a splash in the sports' pages come Tour-time.
In July Martens took part in a Bike Vs Horse race: "On July 13th 1977, I fought out a challenge in Amiens with the racehorse Fakir du Vivier, belonging to the French film star Alain Delon. Lomme had organised this head to head confrontation. I received BF120,000 to start, plus another BF50,000 from the bookmakers if I lost! This I did by three-tenths of a second, or to put it in horse racing terminology, by a nose." The race was run over a thousand metres and Maertens had to ease off coming up to the finish line to make sure the bookies got the result they wanted.
But back to that Vuelta. Maertens doesn't talk about it. But I recently came across a copy of Viva La Vuelta!, a history of the Spanish race, in a Dublin bookshop and that fills in the some of the blanks.
1977 saw the smallest field starting the Vuelta since it firmly became established in the racing calendar in 1955 (between 1935, the year the Vuelta was first organised, and 1955, there had only been nine editions of the race). Generally speaking, ninety or a hundred riders took the start, but in 1977 only seventy lined up. Part of the reason for the low turnout was undoubtedly the post-Franco turmoil the country was going through (the dictator had died eighteen months earlier). But even the Tour was struggling for entrants in the mid-seventies, itself down to a hundred riders in '77, thirty or fourty below normal.
The Vuelta organisers had at least secured the presence of Maertens' Flandria squad, the team of the moment, through offering a parcours which played to Flandria's sprinting and time-trialling strengths (as well as a sprinter, Maertens was a good time-trialist: "you have to view time-trialling as a key discipline in cycling. It can be compared to the place poetry has within literature. Time-trialling: the most individual expression of the most individual performance") and limited their possible losses in the mountains (Maertens restricted his losses to only a handful of seconds in the etapa reina, which finished in the Formigal ski station in the Pyrenees).
From the get-go Flandria took the Vuelta by the scruff of the neck, with Maertens winning the prologue and donning the leader's jersey - orange, that year - and wearing it all the way to the finish in Miranda del Ebro, 2,785km later (joining Julián Berrendoro and Jacques Anquetil in leading from start to finish). After the second stage, El País ran a headline declaring: "This Maertens thing is boring already."
El País may have had a point. Thirteen out of twenty-one stages fell to Maertens. "The only variation," the authors of Viva La Vuelta! note, "was that sometimes Flandria would set Maertens up in a bunch sprint, and at other times he'd fight it out on his own in a reduced group." In fact, the only on-the-road tension seemed to be whether Maertens would surpass the record for stage wins - twelve - established by Delio Rodríguez in 1941 (Rodríguez didn't even make the podium that year - unlike Maertens, he was crucified in the mountains).
Political demonstrations which marred the last week of the race (the scheduled final stage, a time trial in San Sebastián, had to be changed at the last minute), seem to have been of more interest than much of the racing. The Basques were out in force waving their recently legalised flag and the penultimate stage to the summit finish on the Urkiola saw the peloton dodging barricades and scattered nails, with the police firing shots to clear protesters.
Thirteen stage wins ought be enough for any man, but it's always the one that got away that grabs your attention. In the Vuelta, this was an eight kilometre time-trial in Benidorm, in which it was Pollentier, Maertens' loyal lieutenant, who took the glory. Had Maertens gifted him the stage? Hardly. Maertens needed every second he could gain on the road. His overall winning margin - two minutes and nine seconds - was mostly made up of bonifications and time gained in the race's three time trials. So what happened in Benidorm? Maertens got taken out by a spectator, who stepped too close to him while trying to take a photograph. A Belgian spectator to boot.
A comment from Maertens at the end of the race may explain why he devoted so little time to his three weeks in Spain when it came to writing his autobiography - and more or less sums up the perennial problem faced by the Vuelta organisers in those days: "The Vuelta has been perfect training for me and I'm going to the Giro in better shape than any of my rivals." Thirteen stages wins, the sprinters' jersey and overall victory. And he saw it all as just training for the Giro.