Rik van Looy accepting flowers from a fan in 1965. Photo credits: Offside / L'Equipe.
The striking GS Solo jersey has been in our retro peloton since 2015, so why not find out about the team where Eddy Merckx started out as a professional rider by joining Pedr Charlesworth who looks at the Kings of the Classics.
Rough, tough and often cobbled – these are the cycling’s iconic Classic races.
Every year these Monuments set the stage for raw gladiatorial battles between both riders and the elements, with each person engaging the fine line between victory and vanquish associated with a ‘who dares wins’ mentality. For he who wins can expect a slot amongst the cycling greats, having proven themselves on one of the toughest tests in sport to droves of die-hard fans. For everyone else however, there’s a lot of suffering to be had.
Steeped in over a century of folklore, these unpredictable thrillers have become engrained in the culture of the cycling heartlands; a place where heroes are born and the mighty humbled. Out of all these enthralling races, five classics have been elevated to the prestigious status of Monuments: Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Tour of Lombardy.
These five super-classics represent the pinnacle of the one-day racing calendar, providing many of cycling’s greatest tales over the past century: from the arctic 1980 edition of Liège that left Bernard Hinault with permanent damage to his fingers, to Roubaix’s long battle with resurfacing road gangs. Victory at one of these brutal races is tough if have the pedigree to emerge victorious at more than one you are revered if you manage to win them all… Well, then you’re Rik Van Looy.
Hailing from Flanders, a land where cycling is more identity than sport, the so-called King of Classics became the first person to win all five monuments in 1961; going on to claim victory at every single classics race - a feat no one else has ever achieved.
Despite being depicted as a villainous character on the bike, Van Looy soon became a house-hold Flandrian hero. The champion of a sport that inspired his people to assert their culture and language, with his dominating performances soon speaking to far more than just the disparate Belgian classes.
A man of many names, from the ironic Gentleman Rik, to The Emperor of Herentals (Herentals being his hometown), Van Looy later became known for instigating what’s believed to be cycling first sprint train. Coined the Red Guard after their striking red & white Faema team jerseys, this group of fiercely loyal teammates would protect and lead out their man to devasting effect during his time there. When he eventually moved to Solo-Superia in 1964, members of his loyal guard were also snapped up - yet again leading the pack in their striking red GS Solo Superia jerseys.
Rik Van Looy donning the iconic Solo-Superia red jersey. Photo credits: Offside / L'Equipe.
Forever the villain, Barry Hoban recalls Van Looy firing up Red Guard inside neutral zone at the Tour de Flanders, causing chaos in the peloton much to the amusement of The Emperor. Unsurprisingly with antics like that, Van Looy was not popular in the peloton. Solo teammate Brit Vin Denson describes having to "chase long miles to bring the great man a bottle of Stellar" during most races. Riding for Solo-Superia was "solo by name and solo by nature. You rode for Van Looy and did whatever he wanted, including the fetching of beers…"
But chase they did and loyal they were.
No more so was this the case than in the 1965 edition of Paris-Roubaix, where the implacable Belgian found himself in paced into contention by future Tour of Flanders winner (1966), Edward Sels. From the wake of his teammate, a sheltered Van Looy launched a potent attack with 10km to go. Only Noël Foré managed to mark the move, but soon fell foul of a puncture, leaving Van Looy to savour a second solo victory in the historic Roubaix velodrome. In a post-race interview, the Belgian denied shedding a tear, whilst describing the victory as the most beautiful of his career. Perhaps, however, the emotion was due to the slight dulling of his crown, for there was a new contender for the throne, not just in the peloton, but in the team. His name was Eddy Merckx.
The 1964 world amateur champion, Merckx turned pro for Solo-Superia halfway through 1965, bagging victory in his first professional race in Solo red. The rider with "dark good looks, sideburns and his hair Brylcreemed back, Merckx had the features of a leading man" writes author Peter Cossins. Under Van Looy's hold, however, there would be no room for another leader at Solo.
The world began to sense a changing of the guard when in his first professional season, Merckx outrode a venomous Van Looy at Paris-Luxembourg - claiming third in one stage and second in another. With the Red guard notable in its absence from the top tier, this performance did little to cool the flames at Solo. After eight months, the friction between the two hugely talented Belgians was enough to ensure Merckx moved to the Peugeot cycling team the following season, commencing an upward trajectory that would eventually eclipse all others.
Although the Solo-Superia team only lasted five seasons (1961-1966), it can lay claim to a pivotal piece of cycling history. In simultaneously hosting two behemoths of the sport on hallowed Flandrian ground, cycling witnessed a changing of the guard between the boys in red during the ’65 season.
Whether you were team Van Looy or team Merckx, you could count on cheering for Solo-Superia; as the two Kings of the Classics ceaselessly went to battle in search of which Solo member was indeed superior.
In 1961 Tom Simpson won the Tour of Flanders, something so far no other British male rider has ever done. That may change this weekend, of course, but this is how Simpson did it.