Tour de France 2020

VN Archives: After five second places, Zoetemelk finally wins the Tour de France

The Dutchman went on to finish the Tour de France 16 times, a record at the time he retired. His battle for the Tour title was also a study in perseverance.

Member Exclusive

Become a member to unlock this story and receive other great perks.

Start Free Trial

Already a member?

Sign In

Editor’s note: This piece from a 1980 issue of VeloNews chronicles the last half of the Tour de France, which that year featured a prologue and 22 stages, including two splits stages.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try, try again.

Five times the runner-up, Joop Zoetemelk finally reached the peak with victory in cycling’s greatest event, the Tour de France in 1980.

After so many times as the bridesmaid, how did the Raleigh rider do it? Certainly the abandonment of defending champion Bernard Hinault after the 12th stage was crucial, but there was also a difference in the way Zoetemelk rode the Alps this year. In ’79, you may remember, the Dutchman cracked on the crucial climb to Les Meniures. There, just a week after his brilliant victory at Roubaix, he lost both the yellow and green jerseys when he failed to go with Hinault and Van Impe on an attack.

According to the French magazine, Miroir de Cyclisme, it was Zoetemelk’s patience, the assistance of his TI-Raleigh teammates and his courage that allowed him to maintain le maillot jaune through the Alps this year. He “fought like a lion,” said Miroir in its Tour wrap-up, from which the following accounts of the final 13 stages, were gathered. The opening stages were reported in the July 25 VeloNews.

Stage 10 | Rochefort-sur-mer to Bordeaux | 163km

In the rain that had plagued the early Tour and had fallen since the beginning of this stage, nine riders broke away in the suburbs of Bordeaux. With 20km to go, the break held a 28-second advantage, but was caught just before the village. Taking advantage of this action, Raleigh’s Cees Priem and Gitane’s Le Guilloux broke together to a six-second advantage on the first of two laps around town.

At the finish, it was Priem winning ahead of Jacques Osmont, Yvon Bertin, Jan Raas, and the peloton. It was Raleigh’s eighth victory in 10 stages.

Rudi Pevenage of the Ijsboerke team continued to wear the yellow jersey of overall leader, which he had donned after the fourth stage. His advantage was now 2:44 over La Redoute’s Bazzo and 4:20 over Hinault.

Stage 11 | Damazan to Laplume | 51.77km TT

Bernard Hinault regained the yellow jersey at the end of this stage, although he lost the time trial — one of his favorite events — to Zoetemelk. In winning the race in 1:04:24, the Dutchman moved from fifth to second in the general classification, only 21 seconds back.

Hinault, visibly in pain, could manage only fifth place this day. In fourth was Raleigh’s Bert Oosterbosch, the world pursuit champion. Portugal’s Joaquim Agostinho, riding for Puch, needed 1:09 more than Zoetemelk and took third. Hennie Kuiper finished second at 46 seconds to move from sixth to fourth place overall. Pevenage was forced to give up the yellow jersey and was now third behind the rising Zoetemelk.

Stage 12 | Agen to Pau | 194.1km

When Gerrie Knetemann won this stage, Raleigh’s domination of the flatlands was completed. With 10 victories in 12 stages, and four riders in the top 10 of the general classification, the primarily Dutch team couldn’t have asked for more in the first half of the Tour.

Mercier’s Patrick Friou initiated the first break of the day, but it didn’t last. In contrast was Knetemann’s move with Ludo Peeters, which opened more than a minute gap on the peloton. The Dutchman took the sprint and became the fifth Raleigh rider to win a stage.

But the biggest news this day was Hinault’s withdrawal from the race due to tendinitis in his right knee. The two-time Tour winner made the announcement in the evening after the stage, even though he still held the yellow jersey by 21 seconds over Zoetemelk. But the next day the Tour would enter the Pyrenees, and Hinault’s knee was in no condition for climbing.

Stage 13 | Pau to Bagneres de Luchon | 200km

With Zoetemelk now in the overall lead, the Tour crossed the four hills of D’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, and Peyresourde. Raymond Martin, a 31-year-old Frenchman, broke away and rode the last three climbs by himself. Winning by 3:13 over his teammates, Nilsson and Seznec, the Miko-Mercier rider catapulted to third in the general classification. With “the badger” (as some of the spectators were calling Hinault) out of it, Zoetemelk donned the yellow jersey that evening with his 1:10 advantage over Peugeot’s Kuiper. The GC list was thrown into confusion by the withdrawal of 11 riders.

Stage 14 | Lezignan to Courbieres to Montpelier | 189.5km

Ijsboerke’s Ludo Peeters broke away from a group of 10 riders on this hilly stage. Riding alone for the last 38km, he won it over Raleigh’s Van Vliet and the peloton by 1:34. There was a momentary break from the persistent rain during this stage, but there were no changes at the top of the general classification:

1. Zoetemelk
2. Kuiper
3. R. Martin
4. De Muynck
5. Bazzo.

Stage 15 | Montpelier to Martigues | 160km

It didn’t figure among the decisive stages, but this race offered lots of action — especially in the four sprints for points that were taken successively by Jacobs, Gauthier, Pevenage, and Vallet.

With 15km to go, Teka’s Bernard Thevenet, who won the Tour twice in the mid-’70s, initiated a decisive break that included Delcroix, Toso, and the eventual stage winner, Bernard Vallet of La Redoute. On the final climb before the Martigues circuit, Vallet pulled ahead and beat Thevenet by four seconds, and Toso by six.

Only nine seconds back was the peloton with Zoetemelk and Kuiper aboard. Once again there was no change among the overall leaders.

Stage 16 | Trets to Pra-Loup | 208km

Belgian De Schoenmaeker and Spain’s Alberto Fernandez paced this stage as the Tour climbed into the Alps for the first time. While it was Fernandez who opened the gap on the peloton, it was De Schoenmaeker who took the finish sprint by two seconds.

The incident of the day was Zoetemelk’s crash with two kilometers remaining when he couldn’t avoid a swerve by his teammate, Johan Van de Velde. Despite the hard fall and a bloodied elbow, the yellow jersey regained the leaders with a courageous sprint. Joop’s remarkable recovery actually increased his overall margin on Kuiper, who remained second.

Stage 17 | Serre-Chevalier to Morzine | 242km

Of the 130 original starters, only 92 remained when the peloton departed from Serre-Chevalier. Johan De Muynck attacked and was the first man across the first two of the day’s four passes. Troubled by his elbow, Zoetemelk had suffered a restless night and this helped allow the Belgian (who began the day in fourth place overall) to break away.

Not content simply to have won the prime at the summit of Galibier Pass, De Muynck, with Bernaudeau and Seznec, carried on to build a two-minute lead on Zoetemelk. It looked like trouble for Joop — not far from his downfall just a year ago.

Mariano Martinez was the first rider to cross the third pass, Madeleine, and he led the stage through Joux-Plan, tailed by Levasseur. At 145km the two broke away in the mountains of Savoie, but the difficult descent sent them both to the ground. Levasseur fell heavily, but Martinez rebounded to take the stage by 2:16.

It was “a different Zoetemelk” seen this year in the Alps. After looking very weak in the early moments of the 17th stage, the Dutchman kept his composure and eventually recovered the two-minute gap built by his rivals, Martin and De Muynck. With some help from his teammates, but mostly on his own, Zoetemelk actually increased his general classification lead over Kuiper to 3:05.

Stage 18 | Morzine to Prapoutel les Sept Laux | 198km

After a day of rest, the Tour resumed with its ultimate alpine test — the crossing of five passes in one day. It was a great day for Ludo Loos of Belgium, who led through Colombiere, Aravis, Champlaurent, Barioz, and to the finish in Prapoutel with a 5:19 advantage over Alban.

But most of the attention this day focused on Zoetemelk, and on the work that Van de Velde did for his team’s leader by setting such a fiery pace that it was impossible for Martin or Kuiper to break away. Here also is where Kuiper cracked and lost more than two minutes and second place in the general classification to Martin. The stage ended with Zoetemelk taking fifth place and holding an overall lead of 5:22.

Stage 19 | Voreppe to Saint Etienne | 140km

Only 87 riders remained as the Tour came out of the Alps. In the Fayet Pass, Jo Mass of Holland initiated a break and was quickly joined by Ludo Delcroix of Belgium. Irishman Sean Kelly moved out and caught the pair, as did Ismael Lejarretta of Spain.

The two latecomers managed to withstand the pressure of the peloton, and when Kelly edged Lejarretta in the sprint they had 20 seconds on the field.

Stage 20 | Saint Etienne | 34.4km TT

With a grand mastery of his “subject,” Zoetemelk won the time trial with an average speed of more than 45kph. In second was Joop’s teammate, Knetemann, 48 seconds back with Agostinho third at 1:11. Just a second slower than the Portuguese was Kuiper, who moved again into second place in general classification ahead of the struggling Martin. Now down by 6:47, Kuiper had the impossible task of catching Zoetemelk with but two stages left.

Stage 21 | Auxerre to Fontenay-sous-Bois | 208km

The action quickened for the rushes, where Rudy Pevenage distinguished himself again. No longer among the leaders in the general classification, Pevenage played his cards in the points competition and continued to wear the green jersey.

One hundred meters from the finish, a tight pack loosed Kelly who blasted home for a clear victory over Ijsboerke’s Jacobs. It was the Irishman’s second stage victory and it moved him into third place in the points standings behind Pevenage and Peeters.

Stage 22 | Fontenay-sous-Bois to Paris | 183km

It rained again for the final stage of the Tour. But the large number of primes offered on the Champs-Élysées finishing circuit quickened the pace and the crowd was large in spite of the weather. A Belgian, Pol Verschuere, took the sprint by a few lengths as Kelly moved too late. Third was Jacobs.

Well behind the stage leaders but happier than any of them came Joop Zoetemelk, his hand held high in triumph by Knetemann. Some had said Zoetemelk didn’t have the courage or the self-confidence to win. But with an imposing 6:55 advantage over second-place Kuiper, Joop had finally won the Tour de France after 10 years of trying.