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VN Archives: Eddy Merckx’s hard road to Milan-San Remo in 1972

Eddy Merckx was famous for his dominance, but in 1972 Roger de Vlaeminck, Frans Verbeek and Raymond Poulidor were often on the top of the podium.

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This year’s Milan-San Remo begins March 19th. In anticipation of the race, we’re looking back at some exciting moments we’ve seen throughout the years. In this article from May 1, 1972 (when VeloNews was originally known as Northeast Bicycle News), Edmund Brelsford highlights the many spring races on the European circuit.

The early season criteriums along the Riviera spelled out one name clearly and often this spring: Frans Verbeek. This 31-year-old Belgian racer picked off the Grand Prix de Nice, the Grand Prix de Monaco, the Grand Prix de Saint-Tropez and Nice-Seillans in the space of the eight days between February 20–28. Having demonstrated his precocious form for so early in the season in the warm sun of the Cote d’Azur, he then proceeded to confirm it again in the rainy north of Belgium where he triumphed in the difficult Het Volk ahead of Eddy Merckx.

Het Volk (Belgium)

March 5

1

Frans Verbeek (Bel.) 198km in 4 hr 51 min

2

Andre Dierickx (Bel.)

3

Eddy Merckx (Bel.)

Another name was beginning to emerge in the early season also; that of 24-year-old Roger de Vlaeminck, another attacking type Belgian and sworn enemy of fellow countryman Merckx. After taking the Grand Prix de Beausoleil and a stage of the Tour of Sardinia, he won Milano-Torino and the Race of the Two Seas, which runs from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic in six stages.

Milano-Torino (Italy)

March 8

1

Roger de Vlaeminck (Bel.) 209 km in 5 hr 7 min 54 sec

2

Franco Bitossi (Ital.)

3

Gianni Motta (Ital.)

Two Seas (Italy)

March 11-16

1

Roger de Vlaeminck (Bel.) 23 hr 46 min 52 sec

2

Josef Fuchs (Switz.)

3

Thomas Petterson (Swe.)

The Tour of Levant was dominated by Kas teammates Perurena and Lazcano on their home-ground though Holland’s Tabak and Denmark’s Mortensen managed a third and a fourth.

Tour of Levant (Spain)

March 1-5

1

Domingo Perurena (Spa.) 19 hr 48 min

2

Santiago Lazcano (Spa.) same time

3

Tino Tabak (Hol.) 19 hr 48 min 8 sec

4

Leif Mortensen (Den.) same time

5

Galarias (Spa.) same time

After winning the first stage of the Tour of Sardinia, Vlaeminck dropped back and along came 26-year-old Marino Basso to take the second stage and retain the lead for the next four and a win.

Tour of Sardinia (Italy)

February 27-March 8

1

Marino Basso (Ital.) 22 hr 15 min 48 sec

2

Antoine Houbrechts (Bel.) 38 sec

3

Patrick Sercu (Bel.) 46 sec

With the season’s curtain-raisers settled, the stage was set for the first major stage race of the season: Paris-Nice. Merckx did not hide his intentions; he was ready for a win. Ocana wasn’t hiding his ambitions either. Merckx attacked and to no one’s surprise took the first stage, but the unexpected was finding 36-year-old Raymond Poulidor sitting in second place in the general classification.

Seven stages later found Merckx at 27 hr 44 min 39 sec, Poulidor at 27 hr 44 min 55 sec and Ocana at 27 hr 45 min 3 sec with nothing left to race but one stage followed by a nine-and-a-half kilometer steeply climbing time trial from Nice up to La Turbie. Veteran Poulidor, l’eternele seconde under the shadow of Jacques Anquetil for a dozen years, and now in the autumn of his career, took 22 seconds out of Merckx in the time trial for a six-second margin of victory, and a big one at that.

Paris-Nice (France)

March 9-16

1

Raymond Poulidor (Fr.) 31 hr 43 min 57 sec

2

Eddy Merckx (Bel.) 31 hr 44 min 3 sec

3

Luis Ocana (Spa.)  31 hr 44 min 49 sec

Two days later was a different story. With his right hand raised high and the five fingers widely spread, Eddy Merckx streamed across the finish line on the via Roma in San Remo to mark his fifth victory in the Primavera. The time from his appearance in the courtyard of honor of the Castello Sforzesco in Milano to the last descent into San Remo, when he disappeared from the view of his chasers, was all the “king” required to reassert his authority.

Milano-Sanremo (Italy)

March 18

1

Eddy Merckx (Bel.)  288 km in 6 hr 33 min 32 sec

2

Gianni Motta (Ital.) 9 sec

3

Marino Basso (Ital.) same time

4

Frans Verbeek (Bel.) same time

5

Rolf Wolfshohl (Ger.) same time

While Merckx had headed for Italy, Poulidor went to Spain and everything seemed to proceed in order as he led the Tour of Catalonia stage after stage. Unfortunately, two punctures in the last sixty kilometers of the final stage spelled the difference for “Poupou” and Miguel Lasa put it together for the home team.

Tour of Catalonia (Spain)

March 20-26

1

Maria-Miguel Lasa (Spa.) 25 hr 59 min 24 sec

2

Raymond Poulidor (Fr.) 43 sec

3

Jesus Manzaneque (Spa.) 1 min 1 sec

Apparently undaunted, Poulidor next picked off the Criterium Nationale at Belves while on the same date, March 26th, Eddy Merckx and Molteni teammates Herman van Springel and Roger Swerts did a 1-2-3 in the Fleche Brabanconne. The Tour of Calabria turned out to be a local show with Italians Bitossi, Bergamo, Zilioli, and Dancelli fighting it out among themselves while the lone Swiss Fuchs finished a distant fifth.

The Tour of Belgium was a hard-fought struggle which saw the race lead pass from Dierickx to Verbeek to de Geest to final time trial winner Swerts.

Tour of Belgium

April 14

1

Roger Swerts (Bel.) 25 hr 52 min 16 sec

2

Willy de Geest (Bel.) 29 sec

3

Joop Zoetemelk (Hol.) 1 min 33 sec

There seemed to be little chance that the Tour des Flandres would escape a Belgian winner, and so it proved. Eric Leman, undoubtedly the fastest roadman sprinter today, swept in just ahead of the front of the field with just enough to take it. This race also saw the heretofore unseen: Eddy Merckx afoot on the mur de Grammont with bicycle in hand pushing his way up over the summit. One should in all justice add that only three men made it without getting off because of the slippery mud covering the cobblestones.

Tours de Flandres (Belgium)

April 9

1

Eric Leman (Bel.)  252 km in 6 hr 4 min 30 sec

2

Andre Dierickx (Bel.) same time

3

Frans Verbeek (Bel.) same time

4

Willy de Geest (Bel.) same time

5

Roger Rosiers (Bel.) same time

6

Roger Swerts (Bel.) same time

7

Eddy Merckx (Bel.) same time

It was Verbeek again who crossed the finish line first in the Gand-Wevelgem on April 12th followed by Roger Swerts, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx and Tony Houbrechts, but Verbeek had apparently interfered with Gimondi, who in turn didn’t hesitate in making his dissatisfaction known. Verbeek was disqualified and Roger Swerts added the Gand-Wevelgem to the Tour of Belgium for a nice double, even though his second success was acquired on the green carpet.

Paris-Roubaix, the greatest “classic” of them all, found an Eddy Merckx who was really ready for a win and rendezvous was given to his adversaries on the cobblestones between Paris and Roubaix where he expected to find a favorable terrain to put things back in order, and particularly to scotch the rumors about his hegemony, which was beginning to seem somewhat in doubt. The circumstances of the race and an unfortunate crash in the forest of Wallers-Arenberg didn’t permit him to realize his vengeful desires. The worst was that he had to concede the victory to his implacable enemy, Roger de Vlaeminck.

At the finish, de Vlaeminck, who was nearly two minutes ahead of Dierickx (another foe of Merckx), declared: “I had the advantage of not being among the favorites at the start, but I had specially prepared for Paris-Roubaix by staying out after Paris-Vimoutiers where I had caught cold and managed to have myself sort of forgotten. When the moment came I grabbed it, and luckily I didn’t run into any trouble like so many others did in the enfer. When I took off after Van Malderghem, my adversaries weren’t able to respond, and so I profited.”

This Van Malderghem had managed to lurch along over the cobbles, which jut out of the road between Solesmes and Roubaix, for 56 kilometers in front of a peloton which contained, among others, de Vlaeminck, Merckx, Peelman, Rosiers, Dierickx, Swerts, and Van Springel. At the beginning of his break, near Marchiennes at 210 km, he had been accompanied by Alan Santy, who refused to do any work. Had Santy (who finally gave up when 45 km from the finish) been able to collaborate, the break most likely would have succeeded all the way to Roubaix and Van Malderghem would have received the rewards for his efforts — for as it turned out he was still able to finish fourth behind de Vlaeminck, Dierickx and Hoban. Van Malderghem wasn’t caught by de Vlaeminck until Cysoing, 16 km from the finish.

While still following Van Malderghem by about a minute, de Vlaeminck had managed to get away in spite of the presence of Merckx, which probably demonstrates that Merckx either wasn’t having a good day or he was still feeling the effects of his spill in the Arenberg. After de Vlaeminck, Dierickx gave it a try and then … Poulidor. While Dierickx succeeded, Poupou was contained by a Merckx who could still find the resources to muzzle this Frenchman who had begun to unpleasantly scratch his back since a certain Paris-Nice.

Poulidor, who was celebrating his 36th spring by riding in his 13th Paris-Roubaix, punctured but still managed a tenth place. Rosiers punctured twice, but Frans Verbeek was the unluckiest of all as the victim of a fall early in the race which resulted in a broken collarbone. Despite the puncture, Poulidor was well placed for the sprint but Karstens, apparently well known for this specialty, grabbed on to his jersey and held him back on the track at Roubaix. Karstens was subsequently penalized by being moved from sixth back to 13th place, but it seems that the sprints are becoming more and more a real jungle of infractions.

Everyone is thinking about the Weekend Ardennais now. Roger de Vlaeminck, fresh from his victory, will leave the road open to his adversaries by returning to Italy to meet his trade team engagements; while Merckx, wounded in his shoulder by his fall and in his amour-propre by de Vlaeminck, will be thinking of revenge. The rumors are beginning to run and Eddy has only one way to stop them, but for the moment it looks like the anti-Merckx brigade has the upper hand. However, it would be foolish to write off the diabolical Eddy, veritable Lazarus of cycling, who always comes back to life.

Paris-Roubaix (France)

April 16

1

Roger de Vlaeminck (Bel.) 272 km in 7 hr 24 min 5 sec

2

Andre Dierickx (Bel.) 7 hr 26 min 2 sec

3

Barry Hoban (Eng.) 7 hr 26 min 18 sec

4

Willy Van Malderghem (Bel.) 7 hr 26 min 39 sec

5

Willy Teirlinck (Bel.) 7 hr 26 min 41 sec

6

Gustave Van Roosebroek (Bel.) 7 hr 26 min 44 sec

7

Eddy Merckx (Bel.) same time

8

Eddy Peelman (Bel.) same time

9

Ole Ritter (Dan.) same time

10

Raymond Poulidor (Fr.) same time