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Eddy Merckx is a name that rolls off the tongue of any cycling enthusiast. And rightly so. But he's not the only legend who can lay claim to conquering all five Monuments. Two other brave men can boast the same feat. Rik Van Looy and 'Monsieur Paris-Roubaix' himself Roger De Vlaeminck. Despite Tom Boonen equaling De Vlaeminck's record of four race Roubaix victories in 2012, he remains the original gatekeeper of the ‘Hell of the North’. A man so deft on the pavé, it wasn’t until his eleventh edition that he suffered the merest puncture.

“The most talented and the only real classics rider of his generation.” - Rik Van Looy (Three-time Paris Roubaix winner)

De Vlaeminck’s final victory at the Classic dates back to 1977, some 28 years before his compatriot Boonen’s first. Belgian riders have always been a little tetchy about the cobbled crown. De Vlaeminck and his more celebrated contemporary Merckx (born two years earlier but winning one Paris-Roubaix fewer) enjoyed the odd verbal spat. Recently when putting together his Paris-Roubaix dream team Merckx omitted De Vlaeminck, stoking the old fires again. When the man mountain Boonen equaled his own record, De Vlaeminck questioned the competition, alluding to his compatriot only facing challenges from “…not second but third rate riders.”

 

 

 

SUNDAY ROADS FOREVER.

 

Sunday Roads Forever is a special edition Euro Collection, celebrating the Spring Classics and paying tribute to the Monuments. Coming soon.

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To be attributed the nickname of a great sporting event, you have to both dominate it and encapsulate its values. Danish pilot Tom Kristensen came to represent this at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance classic, Roger Federer has at Wimbledon. It is not just winning. But it helps. A great champion, though, has to incarnate the spirit of the event, and encapsulate the emotion of the competition. De Vlaeminck barely suffered a puncture at the Roubaix, not because he was lucky (although there’s a degree of this) but because his bike handling was exceptional (a background in cyclocross helped. He was World Champion in 1975 and brother Erik multiple world champion), ability to spot the best lines second nature and his raw physical power allowed him to invariably lead from the front.

“In my head, I was always thinking about who would be second after me,“

While Merckx was undoubtedly one of the greatest Grand Tour riders of all time, De Vlaeminck, despite amassing 22 stage wins in the Giro d’Italia, is more celebrated for his prowess in the ‘winner takes all’ one-day Classics. In these ‘Monument’ races he had few equals, racking up wins at the Liège–Bastogne–Liège (1970), Milan-San Remo (1973, 78, 79), the Giro di Lombardia (1974, 76) and finally the Tour of Flanders (1977). That Tour of Flanders victory was the last De Vlaeminck needed to complete the set and is one shrouded in controversy.

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Cycling writer Herbie Sykes explored the race in an article for Pro Cycling magazine a few years ago. The story centres around The Koppenberg climb which was introduced to the race for only a second time. To tackle this rising cobbled wall, riders were keen to change bikes at the foot of the climb to guarantee a better gear ratio. Organisers on the other hand vetoed it, citing bottlenecks as a potential problem.

 

There is always one rider who will seek to chance his arm and this time it was Freddy Maertens (defending road race world champion) who tried to make a bike change on the sly. An eagle-eyed UCI commissioner spotted the infringement and later in the race Maertens was informed he would be disqualified, but only after crossing the finish line As the Classic unfolded, Maertens and De Vlaeminck found themselves at the front. One man desperate for an elusive Flanders win, the other with nothing left to win.

 

Video highlights of Maertens in his world champion jersey and the muscular De Vlaeminck kitted in an Atletico Madrid-esque Brooklyn cycling kit evoke some of what happened next.

Martens allegedly asked De Vlaeminck for a fee of 300,000 Belgian francs to chaperon him over the line. De Vlaeminck denies ever agreeing to the deal but in the final 80km of the race the truth is he barely made one turn ahead of his newly-found ‘pacemaker’, that until the decisive final straight. Victory was his, admiration wasn’t. The crowd were less than impressed, instead of a hero’s welcome, De Vlaeminck arrived to hostile jeers. To complete a miserable race, Maertens was later disqualified for a banned substance. Not even some of the rulebreakers of recent years have managed to fall foul of the rules twice in the same race!

 

De Vlaeminck’s brilliant cycling career has ensured his legend has risen above this tale, a Black Sheep moment which adds an intriguing layer to the rich fabric of Belgian cycling tapestry.

FOLLOW BLACK SHEEP'S STORIES AS WE MAKE OUR WAY THROUGH THIS YEAR'S SPRING CLASSICS PAYING TRIBUTE TO THE MAGNIFICENT 'MONUMENTS' THAT HAVE DEFINED OUR SPORT.

EURO COLLECTION | MONUMENTS. COMING SOON.

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