“Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, man!” the legendary Miles Davis used to tell his musicians with his trademark raspy voice. And while it is uncertain whether Belgian cycling legend Freddy Maertens is much of a jazzbo, it doesn’t really matter. He wouldn’t have listened to Miles anyway, because, well, Maertens has never been one to hide his emotions.
Maertens, who won 176 races in his career, is one of the sport’s most charismatic riders and one of its greatest champions. And he didn’t just win, he dominated. The fact that he was cooler than cool—be it in the classic Flandria kit that he donned much of his career, or the cool Colnago he rode later in his career—didn’t hurt much either.
And yet despite the undeniable success — he is one of the top-ten winningest cyclists in the history of the sport — Maertens also suffered humiliating defeat both on and off the bike. There were the 1973 world championships, where Italy’s Felice Gimondi, rode him into the barriers as the two approached the line. There was the crash in the closing kilometers of Paris-Roubaix in 1976. And of course, there was the infamous 1977 Tour of Flanders, where Maertens was apparently disqualified mid-race, yet allowed to continue to ride for second.
And then there were the long string of financial woes, often cited in the Belgian press, that have continued long after his career.
Yet through it all, Maertens’ gregarious laugh and easy smile, remain very much intact. Today, the 69-year-old Maertens lives modestly with his wife Carine in a small house on the edge of his native town of Roeselare where he could not be happier. His voracious laugh is never far, and he speaks easily of his long career, of his stunning victories and maddening defeats. “The only thing that I can say is that I did my best,” he told VeloNews during a quiet afternoon visit this past winter. “I am proud of that.”
Freddy Maertens is many things, but he is most certainly the greatest classics rider never to win one of the sport’s five monuments. A rapid-fire sprinter, who was also a feared time-trialer, Maertens was not unlike Wout Van Aert is today. His versatility twice earned him the world champion’s rainbow jersey, not to mention the green jersey in the Tour de France as well as victory in the Vuelta a España. But for a rider who undoubtedly possessed all of the ingredients to win any one of cycling’s five Monuments, victory in Ghent-Wevelgem was as close as he came.
Ghent-Wevelgem has been elevated to near-monument status, but back in Maertens’ day, it was a modest mid-week race, a sort of preparation for Paris-Roubaix. The true monuments, however, remained elusive for Maertens.
At times, victory seemed virtually assured, only to be swept away. There was the strange crash with the television motorcycle final of the 1976 Paris-Roubaix so brilliantly documented in Jorgen Leth’s legendary documentary film, A Sunday in Hell. “I was in the breakaway with my teammate Marc Demeyer. He was set to lead me out. But then suddenly this TV motorcycle came out of nowhere and took me down. Marc went on to win, but my chances were lost. It was like what happened with Julian Alaphilippe in the Tour of Flanders [in 2020].”
Italy’s Francesco Moser, who finished second that year and would go on to win Roubaix on three occasions, remembers, “We were all in the front group when he crashed,” Moser told VeloNews. “I didn’t actually see the crash. All I know is that if Freddy came into the velodrome with us, Freddy would have won. There was no question. He was the fastest.”
And finally of course there was the mysterious Tour of Flanders in 1977.
On that day, a race official reportedly told him mid-way through the race that he would be disqualified for an illegal bike change on the Koppenberg. Confused, he followed the orders of his team director Guillaume Dreissens, known for his mercenary approach to the sport, and stuck a deal with rival Roger De Vlaeminck. The deal, quickly arranged on the road, was for Maertens to keep pulling in the breakaway to assure that De Vlaeminck would win. According to Maertens, a financial agreement was struck for 300,000 Belgian francs. But it was not honored by De Vlaeminck. “He still owes me 150,000 Belgian francs!” Maertens says unabashedly.
“At the foot of the Koppenberg I changed bikes, like several riders, but apparently I did it 20 meters before it was allowed,” Maertens recalls of that strange day. “At least that is what the official said. But it was only 35-40 kilometers later in the race that the official came and said I was disqualified. Normally if you are disqualified you are expelled immediately. At that point, I had already had an impact on the race. At that point, I was already off the front with de Vlaeminck. I went back to my team director and asked what I should do. He told me to strike a deal with De Vlaeminck, so I did.”
Reviewing footage of that epic race, there is no announcement on television regarding disqualification, but it is obvious that Maertens is not riding to win. Driving the pace incessantly, he dropped Eddy Merckx and gave De Vlaeminck little occasion to even pull.
“I pulled for nearly 80 kilometers, knowing that I couldn’t win. At one point I actually thought about attacking Roger on the Muur van Geerardsbergen, but I held up my end of the bargain. And at the end of the day, Roger sprinted to victory. The worst was that just before the final kilometer of the race, the same official came to me and said, “Freddy, since you rode so well today, you can sprint for victory.” I was like “What? Are you crazy? I just pulled for 80 kilometers!”
At the finish De Vlaeminck rejoices at the line. In contrast, Maertens, head down, just keeps riding. There is no sign of protest, no sign of defeat, but simply resignation.
But while Maertens admits that he was frustrated never to win a Monument, other victories made up for such a void, especially his two world championship titles. And he is quick to qualify, “I certainly would not trade one of my world’s titles for a monument!”
If anything, Maertens is equally frustrated that he did manage to win the worlds already in 1973, a defeat he claims was a result of the budding rivalry between component manufacturers Shimano and Campagnolo. “That was the first year that Flandria rode Shimano, and before the start of the race, Campagnolo made it clear that they did not want Shimano rider winning. I’ll never forget. We were all out training on Thursday and the boss of Campagnolo came over to us and made it very clear, “Shimano may not win!”
According to Maertens, a series of events ensued during the race that only cemented such a scenario. “First Merckx attacked early, maybe 80 kilometers from the finish, and I was the only rider to bridge up to him. But as soon as he saw me there, he stopped riding. I didn’t understand because before the race I made it very clear that I would ride for Eddy. I told him. ‘I will be happy when you win and I finish second.’”
Complications continued in the final when Maertens found himself with Italian Felice Gimondi, Spaniard Luis Ocaña, and Merckx, all of who were racing on Campagnolo-equipped bikes. “First Merckx asked me to lead out the sprint, but Eddy couldn’t come around me. Then Gimondi rode me into the barriers. He clearly cut me off. But when I went to my team to complain and ask them to protest, they simply said, ‘No we cannot do that to our Italian friends.’ That’s not an answer! And it was incredibly frustrating at the time. But hey, I did win two times after that nevertheless!”
In fact, it was his second win in 1981 that Maertens insists is the most satisfying of his career. That year in Prague, many considered Maertens on the decline. And few considered him a real favorite. But he rode the race of his life to turn the tables on a mighty Italian team, not to mention his own Belgian squad.
“Nobody thought I could win,” Maertens recalls. “I’ll never forget in the team meeting the night before they asked which riders thought they could win and I raised my hand. But when they asked who would ride for me, there was no one. But what can I say? For my entire career, Belgians were always riding against me.”
Maertens however, turned his attention to the Italian team and played off of them. “I had nine Italians on my side,” he says with a laugh. “We were a group of 21 riders in the front, with all of the Italians. I asked one of them what was their plan and he said that the team was riding for Giuseppe Saronni and Francesco Moser. They would defend Moser’s chances if he could get away, but in the final three laps it was all in for Saronni. So in the final three laps I just sat on Saronni’s wheel. At one point there were five Italians leading him out. And I was right behind him.”
While the 1981 world championship would be his most satisfying victory, it would also be his last significant one, and while he continued to race until 1987, he was only a shadow of his former self.
His career is long behind him, he continues to follow the sport. “I watch all of the races,” he says. “I love Van Aert, van der Poel and Pogačar also. And I love Peter Sagan. They all race with such panache, so aggressively. But sometimes I am not a big fan of Remco Evenepoel. I think he is getting way too cocky, saying where and when he will win. He even said in the Belgian press this winter that there would always be a place on his team for Wout van Aert, riding in support for him. That’s a bit much really. He said that this past winter in the Belgian press and it was really a bit over the top.” And then with a moment’s thought, he added. “You can’t be too confident in this sport.”