Roger De Vlaeminck breaking up the pack at the 1977 edition of Paris Roubaix. Photo Credit: Offside / L'Equipe.
Join travel writer and round-the-world cyclist, Pedr Charlesworth, as he looks into the story behind the Brooklyn Gum team's success in the Monuments - spearheaded by Roger De Vlaeminck.
It takes a special type of person, aged just 19, to turn down a personal offering of a first pro contract from Eddy Merckx at the height of his powers. Yet, even at the 1968 Belgian amateur championships, everyone knew Roger de Vlaeminck was exactly that. ‘I don’t want to ride with you. I want to ride against you’, came the blunt response as young rider prepared to win his first championship. These were words of warning that even Merckx knew to take seriously, for De Vlaeminck was certainly equipped to be more than just a Faema domestique, he was set to be a Brooklyn star.
Before reaching that point, however, the Flandrien had shown laudable adaptability, nonchalantly moving from a goal-hungry centre-forward for FC Eeklo, to Amateur World Cyclocross Champion between days of the week. To onlookers, it was only a matter of time before his trajectory eclipsed that of his brother Erik, and the two of them took on the road peloton together. Given their cyclocross background, it came as no surprise that they thrived in tackling the toughest of races in the worst possible conditions.
Quickly, Roger was revered as the most adept bike handler of a generation. His uncanny ability to ease himself over the cobbles became a staple of a riding style that focussed his time purely on the classics. This was much to the delight of his die-hard Flandrien fan base, who cheered him onto victory in every monument - an accolade still only achieved by Merckx and Rik Van Looy.
After achieving major success riding for Flandria and then Dreher, He joined the new Brooklyn team where team director Franco Cribiori shaped the squad around the man who would eventually bear the title, ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’, although he still prefers his other nickname 'The Gypsy' something that even now graces his top tube.
Set up in 1973 and funded by Brooklyn Chewing Gum, the team netted an impressive haul of one-day and stage race victories. Most notably (and unsurprisingly) 3 Paris-Roubaix titles (1974, 1975 and 1977), Giro di Lombardia (1974, 1976), Milan–San Remo (1973) and the Tour of Flanders (1977). All of these were won by De Vlaeminck, who was supported by a loyal cohort of riders in the form of Ronald de Witte, Ercole Gualazzanie, Marcello Osler and Patrick Sercu, with the latter picking up the 1974 Tour de France green jersey classification for the team.
We were visiting the chewing gum factory of our boss Giorgio Perfetti before Milan San Remo. I stood with a wide-open mouth staring at his metallic blue Ferrari. 'If you win tomorrow, it's yours,' Perfetti said. Less than 24 hours later, I drove home in his car.
Roger De Vlaeminck, Rouleur Magazine issue 19.2
Sporting what has to be one of cycling’s all-time most fashionable jerseys (the team’s Brooklyn jersey can even be seen in Nike commercials and award-winning American comedy shows) the team fought out epic battles with Flandria’s Freddy Maertens and Merckx’s Molteni-Arcore squad during their time in the peloton.
These star riders formed a halcyon era for cycling, whose exploits on the saddle still capture the modern public’s imagination. The trio of Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Maertens fighting for victory in the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix can be seen in Jørgen Leth’s A Sunday in Hell documentary, which screened for Best Bicycle Film of the Year.
After watching De Vlaeminck’s bike handling skills over the rough surface for yourself, it’s easy to context Merckx’s rare compliment to his great rival’s handling; not to mention the Brooklyn team director’s amusement at having to throw everyone’s but De Vlaeminck’s wheels away after the race.
Good for more than just looking after wheels however, the team depended on their man to ensure the iconic striped Brooklyn jersey was seen on the top rung of the podium. Plenty of bonuses were thrown in as incentives, and none were more lavish than the 1973 edition of Milan-San Remo. At a time where the home crowd were desperate to see an Italian winner, the longest of all the monuments must have been especially daunting to a foreign rider. As the race entered its latter stages, a large bunch approached final climb of the Poggio. Here an Italian rider – Wilmo Francioni – went all out for glory on his home turf, blowing the group apart with a last-ditch effort. De Vlaeminck, with his promise of a brand-new sports car if victorious, just managed to hold his wheel before himself pulling away from Italian to claim a fine solo victory. Crossing the line, he gleefully quipped, ‘I hope he’s got the keys in the ignition,’ as he sailed through to claim what would be his first of three San Remo titles.
Behind the flashy cars and bolshie statements however, was a man who truly put his heart into bike racing. A man, who after being so hurt losing out to Merckx in the 1970 Paris-Roubaix, resolutely rode 400km’s that Wednesday to ensure the next victory was his. Just 5 days later, he was to emerge victorious over his long-time adversary in the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Hence, as the monstrous Wednesday training rides (he claims to have completed the 260km Gent-Wevelgem course before adding an extra 120km’s after the finish for good measure) continued on, so did his victories in the classics. No man could be said to ride further or to work harder than De Vlaeminck.
In a time when cycling’s sky shone bright with star riders, it’s a testament to the man that the Brooklyn stripes so frequently cast long shadows over the lower tiers of the podium in cycling’s most prestigious races.