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Cobbled Rivalries: Merckx and De Vlaeminck, Clash of the Charismatic Champions

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It wasn’t exactly Capulets vs Montagues, but this 1970s duel exuded greatness wherever it went

Merckx and De Vlaeminck battle in - where else? - northern France
AFP

The last decade of cobbled classics have been marked by the competition between two historic figures, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Boonen holds at least a share of every record for the Cobbled races, save for the lesser lights Dwars and De Panne, and Cancellara shares a piece of the Ronde van Vlaanderen record too. They didn’t always go head-to-head, but their legacies did, and sometimes they managed to lock horns as well. So while it was fun to study Boonen Week last year, it’s fair to say that the combination of stars is as important as the individuals we get to watch.

This year one of the mini-features I want to do is a look at the great rivalries of the Cobbled Classics. Before turning to one of the most dynamic examples in history, let’s take a moment to go over what goes into it.

A rivalry in full flight
Elizabeth Freer

Anatomy of a Cobbles Rivalry

Here’s what I think are the key factors in evaluating any rivalry worth discussing. Not sure every example of a rivalry we come up with will exhibit every element of a good rivalry, but this seems like a workable list.

Years: Is there a right number? The greatest rivalries play out over as long as a decade or more. Something less than that is OK too, but I’d distinguish the longer periods from say three or four years of the same guys butting heads, a phenomenon that is exciting enough to think of as a rivalry but not anything historic. Every year is part of a mini-cycle of top guys. A real rivalry is something that goes through a few iterations.

Team Factor: Every race consists of 20 or so teams trying to demolish each other, but some teams are a bit more connected to each other than to the remaining teams. That isn’t a necessary ingredient for a good rivalry, but it can add flavor.

Interlopers: It’s not realistic to define any rivalry as strictly one-on-one, not in the classics. In week three of the Tour, different story, but in Flanders there are plenty of other guys around who give shape to the race even if there are a couple historic figures locking horns. I wouldn’t call this an ingredient that makes a rivalry, just something interesting to note. Three is a crowd if you’re one of them, but if you’re a fan, you make extra popcorn.

On the Bike: The meat of the discussion. How did they do overall, and head to head? If it’s one-sided that dilutes the power of the rivalry, but in the classics things don’t go one rider’s way for very long. Another consideration is whether there are iconic, unforgettable moments that defined the rivalry. Great head-to-head clashes are the key.

Off the Bike? This one is a bit optional but worth extra credit where it exists. A lot of old rivalries are more heavily defined by the media as such, back when the media had the singular ability to define things. For example, Gino and Fausto sang duets in their spare time, but every article about them in their prime described them as diametrically opposed agents of heaven and hell. But we will take what we can get here.

Roger De Vlaeminck
De Vlaeminck Arenberg
L'equipe

Rivalry #1: Eddy Merckx vs. Roger De Vlaeminck

A few introductory thoughts... Merckx of course is the G.O.A.T., but a lot of that has to do with the grand tours. Still, he was a star of the Cobbled Classics too, as you might expect of a G.O.A.T. who was Belgian. But in his time he shared a lot of the spotlight with De Vlaeminck.

Merckx was born shortly after WWII ended in Brabant Province, the oldest of three kids, to a family that lived mostly in Brussels. He was said to have grown up a big fan of Stan Ockers, who became World Champion in 1955, when young Eddy was 10. By 20 Merckx was a professional cyclist, and 23 a Tour de France champion. Not sure when he became the Cannibal but it’s a fantastic name for him.

Merckx wins Gent-Wevelgem
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De Vlaeminck was born two years later in Eecklo, north of Gent. Apparently he was a pretty good footballer, but the success of his brother Erik as a cyclist influenced Roger to try his hand. (Eric would become an all-time cyclocross great with seven world titles and four Belgian ones, but just a few results on the road.) The Gypsy turned pro in 1968 and promptly won the Omloop Het Volk.

Really, in both cases there’s nothing more to say that isn’t already the subject of several books. But as rivals, there is plenty to discuss.

Years: 1969-76. De Vlaeminck’s hallmark ended up being his longevity, while Merckx was somewhat tragically limited by back trouble. But the eight years they butted heads were all good ones.

Team Factor: Not much to work with here. Merckx rode these rivalry years on Italian teams Faema and Molteni. De Vlaeminck started off at the iconic Flemish Flandria team, but changes in sponsorship saw him riding for Italian teams Dreher and Brooklyn. If they butted heads in the Giro then their teams might have livened things up, but in Flanders I don’t detect any reason why they would have gone after each other beyond the normal competitive behavior.

Freddy Maertens
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Interlopers: Several, though the biggest names came either at the beginning or the end of the Merckx/De Vlaeminck head-to-head years. Freddy Maertens and De Vlaeminck apparently despised each other, but Maertens didn’t show up until Eddy’s last couple years. Eric Leman tied a record for Flanders wins on Eddy’s watch, and De Vlaeminck as on hand in those years.

On the Bike: So interesting. De Vlaeminck didn’t become known as “Mr. Paris-Roubaix” for nothing; his four victories are matched only by Boonen, but his lone Flanders win happened after Merckx had retired. In the very strictest framing of this post, he was a one-trick pony, but that one trick was enough for him to be considered Pantheon material. [In reality, he won all five Monuments, placing him in incredibly elite company as a generally great classics rider, but on the Cobbles he was a dominant figure in just the one race.]

As to Merckx, I know you don’t need any adjectives so I’ll stick to the numbers. The Cannibal won three Cobbled trophies (plus two seconds) and two Rondes (along with four third-place finishes). His three Gent-Wevelgem wins give him a share of the record there, but curiously never won E3 Prijs. Compared to his unbelievable success in Milano-Sanremo (7 wins) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (5 wins), plus his grand tour hallmarks, it’s safe to say that his work on the cobbles was among his lesser strengths. But he was great on them anyway.

From the record you might surmise that the greatest battles between these two legends were in the Hell of the North, and you’d be right. Let’s start with 1970. Think it’s fun to complain about Quick Step playing all their cards into a loss? Well, that year, under a heavy rain, the Flandria squad helped whittle the front of the race down to seven riders, four of whom in Flandria colors, but one of them was Eddy Merckx, and none of them was Mr. Paris-Roubaix — De Vlaeminck was in the group but still two years away from his first victory in the event. Anyway, Merckx overcame a few punctures and put enough pressure on the group to pare it down to himself, De Vlaeminck and Leman. The former flatted and got dropped while the elastic broke on the latter, and Merckx finished alone in first, 5.21 on the Gypsy.

It would be three years before we would see the first one-on-one champions-only battle between the two, and Merckx would win going away, but for a while it was more than competitive. The Trench took out most of the peloton, and by the Bouvignies sector (a bit west of Tilloy on the current parcours), it was just De Vlaeminck and Merckx, and it was looking like a legendary duel in the making. But De Vlaeminck was nursing an injured arm, a problem when you are trying to maximize your power, and with 44km to go Merckx left him for dead. Mr. Paris-Roubaix melted away, out of the top five, but that was his last bad day on the pavé for a while.

De Vlaeminck with his wrist bandaged
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In 1975, Merckx and De Vlaeminck made up the front group of another mud-spattered edition, along with Andre Dierickx and Marc Demeyer, an all-Belgian quartet headed for a showdown. De Vlaeminck and Merckx had captured four of the previous five editions, with De Vlaeminck catching Francesco Moser while Walter Godefroot punctured out of the lead and winning the sprint, while Merckx missed out on a podium spot, 1.24 back. So the all-Belgian quartet strode for Roubaix to wage internecine warfare. Demeyer had been the aggressor, but Merckx had won an awful lot of sprints in hard races, so when the Cannibal flatted with 8km to go, it seemed like the opening the others were waiting for. Merckx did claw his way back to the leaders, but the effort left him in poor shape for the sprint, where he settled for second to De Vlaeminck.

Got 90 minutes? Here’s A Sunday In Hell, featuring... you guessed it... Merckx and De Vlaeminck.

Off the Bike: Nothing much to speak of. People who compete at this level will always have some friction, but the only stuff I could find online spoke of their ongoing “rivalry” in joking terms. All of Merckx’s rivals undoubtedly suffered from being one of Merckx’s rivals, bearing his ruthlessness on the bike, but nothing seems overly personal about this conflict. At least, not compared to De Vlaeminck’s hatred of Freddy Maertens, which might be the subject of another entry.

Anyway, it’s a bit funny, considering how much news De Vlaeminck has made over the years trolling modern-day riders like a drunken uncle: Niels Albert, Pippo Pozzato, everyone who lost to Tom Boonen, and so forth. But then, Merckx wasn’t a guy you trolled in the press, if you knew what was good for you. I’m not a Merckxologist, but I get the sense Eddy let his bike do the talking. And it was good.

Final Analysis: This was a rivalry from the top shelf of Cobbled Cold Wars. De Vlaeminck was an all-around classics superstar, respected by just about everyone, whereas Merckx was Merckx, always striving to dominate everything, greatness beyond questioning. Had they come along at precisely the same point in time, it might have gotten a bit more heated between these two great competitors, but De Vlaeminck missed Merckx’ best years, before the tragic crash on the Blois velodrome, and the ensuing back problems. So it was more like the later, slightly diminished version of Merckx versus the up-and-coming De Vlaeminck.

Mr. Paris-Roubaix, 1980
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