Herman van Springel and the legend of Bordeaux-Paris

November 30, 2017

Herman van Springel and the legend of Bordeaux-Paris

We asked the award-winning author Herbie Sykes for his take on the enigma that is Herman van Springel and how he flourished in the now defunct, gruelingly long Bordeaux-Paris race.

Noël Vantyghem had it right. He understood that professional cycling is essentially a circus, and set about inventing himself a suitable persona. He famously informed us that, “Between us, Merckx and I have won all the big races” and he was right. Vantyghem got lucky at the 1972 Paris-Tours, and Eddy clubbed his way to the rest. All 525 of them.

How best to survive then, if you were merely brilliant, in the age of Merckxism? Dino Zandegù fell on his feet when he sang “O Sole Mio” having just won the 1967 Tour of Flanders for Salvarani. They couldn’t get enough of it back home and so he’s been singing it, in mindless auto-pilot, ever since. Dino has become a waxy old caricature of himself, and these days nobody remembers his Flanders, his Tirreno or his Giro stages. He probably doesn’t even remember them himself, but over the years he’s composed over 500 different cycling ditties. He reckons he can gurgle each and every one of them to order, and they’ve helped him to put food on his family’s table for fifty years. Dino’s still standing (more or less), and he still croons away quite happily as he shuffles around his elegant Milanese apartment. Can’t say fairer than that…

Eric Leman (who rode for Flandria - Mars, Peugeot/BP as well as M.I.C.) was a veracious sucker of wheels, but there was no commercial mileage in that. As such he recast himself as “The Mailman”, on account of him always delivering at the Tour of Flanders. Felice Gimondi was a despotic leader, and an incorrigible moaner. That, however, didn’t stop the Italian press promoting him as their country’s indomitable sporting David, and their sycophancy suited his bank balance down to the ground. The Dutch made a virtue of Joop Zoetemelk’s absolute refusal to win the Tour, while his polar opposite, mad, bad Fredy Maertens was portrayed as, well… mad, bad Freddy Maertens. Franco Bitossi’s “Crazy Heart” appellation is the stuff of legend not so much because it’s rooted in fact, but because, quite simply, the cap fit. Elsewhere Dorino “The Philosopher” Vanzo never won a thing, but it didn’t stop him convincing the great unwashed that he’d tapped into his inner Aristotle.

Much of what we think we know about cycling is nonsense, but there was nothing fanciful about Marino Basso’s status as a thoroughgoing wrong ‘un. George Pintens probably was the nicest guy in the peloton, and José Manuel Fuente’s “flawed genius” was no media construct. Others, strong, silent types like Roger Swerts and Jos Bruyére, just accepted it for what it was and signed on the dotted line. They settled into the below stairs of Chez Merckx in the first instance, and later found gainful employment working at his bike factory. If you can’t beat ‘em…

All of which leads us, in a roundabout sort of a way, to this beautiful 1974 M.I.C. jersey and to the great (and I use the term advisedly) Herman Van Springel. He finished runner-up behind Eddy countless times, and once contrived to lose the maillot jaune on the final day time trial into Paris.

Herman, however, wasn’t about to be drawn into the old “eternal second” pastiche. Instead he made it his business to keep on keeping on, and to dominate the one race he knew Merckx couldn’t. Eddy Merckx avoided the muck and nettles of Bordeaux-Paris, not unreasonably given that it comprised 400 moonlit kilometres and a further 193 behind a filthy, hacking, wheezing moped. The big stars invariably made for the Giro’s sunlit uplands instead, but not so Herman. He eschewed Italian style in favour of 15 hours of mind-bending, narcoleptic, amphetamine-fuelled substance, and won the thing no less than seven times.

If ever a race characterized a rider – and his career – it was the 1974 edition of the Derby. Herman won it by fifteen minutes, as was his wont. Then however, it went pear-shaped in the best Bordeaux-Paris tradition. It transpired he’d gone off course, and as a consequence ridden seven extra kilometres. He’d ridden 600 instead of the allotted 593, and a certain Jacques Cadiou had gotten wind of it. He was simultaneously a world class pedant and sports director of second-placed Régis Délepine, and as he saw it Van Springel had committed a clear infraction of the rules.

Cadiou and his team, Merlin Plage-Shimano-Flandria, were about as much good as an ashtray on a derny. As such they hadn’t won a thing all season, and he wasn’t much interested in fair play. He opted instead for good old fashioned sophistry, and lodged a complaint. Thus Herman Van Springel was disqualified for having ridden too far, but Délepine, of all people, intervened on his behalf…

He informed the jury that he’d no interest in a pyrrhic victory, and told Cadiou to desist from being such a mealy-mouthed, pedantic cry-baby. In effect he was appealing against himself (a first even for a sport as daft as cycling) and when the dust settled Herman was invited to share the win with him. Our hero duly accepted, and that explains the legend of the 1974 Bordeaux-Paris. It also explains, at least in part, why Herman remains such an iconic figure in Flemish cycling, and why the one-season wonder which was the M.I.C. jersey still resonates all these decades on…


Herbie Sykes is an award-winning cycling writer and historian. He lives in Italy, and has a lot of cycling jerseys... As well as some fabulous retro articles in Procycling magazine that we thoroughly enjoy, he has written Giro 100, Coppi, Maglia Rosa, The Race Against the Stasi and the Eagle of the Canavese.

Giro 100 Book by Herbie Sykes




Subscribe to our news!