It’s a proud boast in the Netherlands that while God created the rest of the world, the Dutch created Holland. Centuries ago when this great trading nation was growing, it needed more farmland to feed it growing, so the Dutch some. They massive built dykes around the sea, drained the water trapped behind them with windmill power, creating vast areas of fertile farmland called polder from what had been the bed of the North Sea. But there’s more to that boast than praising some feats of civil engineering, prodigious though they were, it touches on Dutch character. A work ethic, that wonders can be achieved, even the sea made to retreat, by hard work, tenacity and collective effort. In that respect there is nobody more Dutch than Henk Lubberding.
For 15 years Lubberding worked in the engine room of manager Peter Post’s teams; first with TI-Raleigh, then with Panasonic after Raleigh stopped being the main sponsor. He was the perfect team man, a super-domestique and more. Post called Lubberding his “Third knife, because he would work his legs off for others, but also had the talent to step up and win if the situation demanded it.
Lubberding was of his age too. The Dutch embraced the 1970s, from their Prog Rock bands to liberal attitudes on sex and drugs. Henk Lubberding, all long hair, tie-die and flares was the epitome of ‘70s style.
Bill Nickson, the British winner of the 1976 Milk Race, was signed by TI-Raleigh at the same time as Lubberding, and remembers sharing a room with his fellow neo-pro; “He was a nice kid,” Nickson says. “I knew him from the year before when he rode the Girvan stage race, and with TI-Raleigh we’d get put in the same hotel room on race because we were both new. I remember I called him the ‘Ginseng Kid’ because he was always taking the stuff.
Ginseng is a natural product and a popular dietary supplement in the 1970s; diet
was something Lubberding had quite advanced ideas about for his time. “It was Gerri Knetemann and I who introduced the TI-Raleigh team to eating porridge and Muesli for breakfast instead of pasta,” he told me when I spoke to him for a British cycling magazine a few years ago. It was quite radical thinking in 1977 and against Peter Post’s very traditional approach, but he tolerated it.
Lubberding’s 1970s style transferred well to the bike. His long blond hair flowing behind him, crouched low, effort imprinted on his face; working, always working, turning his strong legs for a solo victory, or more often in the service of others. It didn’t seem to matter to Lubberding who he was working for, so long as we was working and working for the team; work was what he did, collective effort was in his blood.
Born into a farming family, Lubberding never really left the farm behind. He went back there after his racing career, working the land around Voorst in Gelderland to create a business, ‘Teambuilding met Lubberding’.
When I spoke to him for a magazine article a few years ago he started by telling me about the business he built with his wife Corina; “We run courses for business teams who want to take part in cycling events. We help with riding skills, and we do mountain biking in the woods around the farm. We do this for all kinds of groups, even for big businesses like Rabobank, Texaco and Xerox.”
He’s used the commitment he put into his racing career, working as husband and wife, the perfect team, to build the business since. Check out the website www.teambuildingmetlubberding.nl to find out the latest.
Paul Moran, who worked for Raleigh and played a big part in the creation and running of the team, remembers Lubberding joining; “He was tremendously popular, he would work all day, he was loyal and he could win. The perfect team-mate really. Sometimes the others used to kid him about his farming roots, but they respected his ties with home and his love of animals. So much so that to reward him for the work he did in his first season the riders bought him a cow as a present.” Loyal to his boots, Lubberding called it Raleigh.
Lubberding continued working hard for others all through 1978, but he also showed he could win at the highest level, taking a stage in his debut Tour de France. “Looking back, of the races I won that first stage pleased me most,” Lubberding says now.
He won the white jersey for best young rider in that Tour, and finished eighth overall, a brilliant debut. Then he successfully defended his Dutch road race title the following year, and won Ghent-Wevelgem in 1980.
Lubberding won other races, including two more Tour de France stages and eight Tour team time trial victories, but while the flowers of victory fade, his work was constant. Working for the team surpassed any desire for personal glory. He was key in most of TI-Raleigh’s big victories, including the team’s long term objective, the Tour de France. That happened in 1980 with Joop Zoetemelk, and not only did Lubberding work tirelessly for Zoetemelk, he finished tenth overall too.
Lubberding was perfect for Peter Post’s concept of the perfect pro cycling team, a group of talented riders who were committed to each other but could adapt and change, with riders switching between support and leadership roles. The opposition simply know who to watch. “In our method there was always structure, but always room for improvisation. The team was like a chameleon and could change colour as a race went on,” is how Post described it.
There’s no doubt Henk Lubberding was good enough to be a team leader elsewhere, but he seemed to get more satisfaction from working for others. For many riders that role is a way of avoiding pressure too, and it can help them perform better, even go beyond what they think they are capable of. It’s something the 1980s and ‘90s Australian pro racer Alan Peiper, who later became a highly respected sports director, experienced himself.
“I found I was capable of going beyond what I thought were my limits if I was working for a team leader I believed in. I experienced it several times in my career, in particular when I was with Post’s Panasonic team, which took over from TI-Raleigh.
“I’d ride as part of the lead-out for our sprinter, Eric Vanderaerden and I could go so deep, go longer and harder than I could on my own, because I knew Eric would deliver in the sprint, or die trying. I think the reason why I could do that is because the ultimate responsibility for winning was the team leader’s not mine,” he says.
In a way TI-Raleigh became a family, one that didn’t tolerate weakness or any kind of double-dealing, but a family nonetheless. Peter Post was its figurehead and Henk Lubberding became one of his favourite sons.
But why was Post so fond of him? Because in a world of outsized egos, Post found in Lubberding somebody who wasn’t made like the rest, he’d found a rider with the physical ability of a winner who wanted to work for a team. Riders like that are worth their weight in gold.
It was a two-way thing as well, Lubberding got immense satisfaction for being part of a highly organised group, particularly one with the team ethic of TI-Raleigh. He brings the same team mentality to his work today, working with groups of people to enrich their experiences of cycling. It’s not hard to see why Lubberding called his business Team Building.
“I like to be in a team, working each year with the same people,” he says about his cycling career. When asked to pick a moment from his racing days that meant the most to him, he chose the 1979 World Championships in Valkenberg, a Dutch race with a Dutch winner, and Lubberding was part of the Dutch team.
Jan Raas was the winner, killing everybody at the end with his strength and speed, but he was set up to do that by Lubberding, who made the winning break with Raas. Dietrich Thurau was in it, Giovanni Battaglin of Italy, and the Frenchmen Jean-René Bernardeau and André Chalmel.
They were some of the best riders in the world at that time, and all capable of searing attacks that they had the strength to make stick. Raas could do that too, but his best chance would be in a sprint, because he was way faster than the others. So to push the odds in Raas’s favour, the group had to stay together. It was Lubberdings to make sure that happened.
He rode and rode on the front, driving hard to keep the pace high, which made attacking harder. Inevitably, though, with the class of riders in the group, attacks came, but when they did Lubberding dug even deeper and found more strength to haul them back. He dominated that breakaway, effectively giving Raas another pair of legs. There were many reasons for Raas to win, personal and desire and national expectation were two of them, but winning to pay back Lubberding was a big factor too.
Raas did win. Lubberding countered everything and the group stayed together, and Raas was too fast for the rest. Lubberding crossed line in fifth, exhausted but he’d done his job, and Raas knew it. Once they’d slowed to a halt they fell into each other’s arms, sobbing with joy and relief. Raas, ice-cold and hard, knew what Lubberding had done for him.
Lubberding remembers the moment still, and how much it means to him. “No amount of money could compensate me for that feeling after Raas won,” he told me. It was his perfect work day; a job well done, a team victory, a rainbow jersey going forward, and the thanks of a team mate. The things that were important to him when he race, and they are still important to him in his work today.
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Cycling Legends
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