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By John Wilcockson
One of the greatest all-around athletes in cycling history, Hendrik (“Rik”) Van Steenbergen, died in an Antwerp, Belgium, clinic on May 15 after a long illness. He was 78.
At 6-foot-3 and 183 pounds, Van Steenbergen was big for a professional cyclist, but his renowned resilience made him a formidable rider on both road and track throughout his exceptionally long career. In 24 seasons as a professional (1943-1966), Van Steenbergen won 270 times on the road, including three world road championships, eight classics, and 25 stages of the grand tours; and 715 times on the track, including 40 six-day races.
Van Steenbergen, who was born on September 9, 1924, at Arendonck, near Antwerp, was only 18 when he turned pro in a war-ravaged Belgium in 1943. Yet in that rookie season (after 52 wins in the amateur ranks), he won the Championship of Flanders and the first of three national road titles (the others were in 1945 and 1954).
The following year, he won the first of his classics, the Tour of Flanders, by outsprinting another Belgian great, Briek Schotte. Van Steenbergen would win Flanders again in 1946, followed by Paris-Roubaix in 1948 and 1952, the Flèche-Wallonne in 1949 and 1958, Paris-Brussels in 1950, and Milan-San Remo in 1954.
All of Van Steenbergen’s three world titles were taken in sprints: in 1949, ahead of Tour de France champions Ferdi Kubler and Fausto Coppi at Copenhagen, Denmark; in 1956, over national rival Rik Van Looy and Dutch great Gerrit Schulte, also in Denmark, at Ballerup; and in 1957, over French legends Louison Bobet and André Darrigade, at Waregem, Belgium.
Despite his weight, Van Steenbergen was not just a sprinter. At the 1951 Giro d’Italia, when he was 26, the Belgian finished second overall to Italy’s Fiorenzo Magni. He was leading the race until three days from the finish, when he lost the pink jersey to Magni, who finally beat Van Steenbergen by 1:46, with Kubler in third and Coppi fourth. Van Steenbergen won 15 stages in five Giro appearances; he took four Tour stages in three appearances; and six stages of the Vuelta a España, where he won the overall points title in 1956.
In addition to racing all spring and summer, Van Steenbergen raced through the winter on the indoor velodromes of Europe. In 134 starts at six-day races, he took 40 victories, the first at Brussels, with Marcel Kint, in 1948, the last at Madrid, Spain, with Roman De Loof in 1965. Nineteen of his six-day victories came with Belgian sprinter Emile Severyns. Van Steenbergen also took two wins in North America, at the Canadian six-day races in Toronto and Québec City, both with Severyns, in 1965.
Perhaps Van Steenbergen’s greatest victory came at Paris-Roubaix in 1952. With less than 40km to go, the Belgian was in a group 50 seconds behind a three-man break: Coppi, Kubler and Jacques Dupont. To everyone’s surprise, Van Steenbergen, the sprinter, attacked solo out of his group, and on the 5km-long section of cobblestones at Lesquin closed in on the leaders. Dupont flatted, Kubler was dropped when Coppi made one of his several attacks, but Van Steenbergen managed to hang in. The two champions, at the height of their careers, entered the Roubaix velodrome together, and Van Steenbergen, despite his fatigue, easily won the sprint.
Rik Van Steenbergen was a giant in the golden era of road cycling and six-day racing. We’ll never again see a rider as versatile or as popular.