Join respected author & journalist Herbie Sykes who has exclusively written a series of articles for Prendas Ciclismo evoking cycling’s vanishing teams. The first blog features Ton Vissers and his Alsaver Cycling team, a mythical Dutch outfit from 1975 professional peloton.
In the early summer of 1974, De Telegraaf reported that the Dutch parliament passed new drink driving legislation. The “Scandinavian Model” would enter the statute on 1 November, and would establish a legal blood alcohol limit of 0.5mg/ml. The police would carry “pocket breathalysers” to enforce it, just as their British counterparts had since 1967. The British had started confiscating the licenses of those who transgressed, and the results had been unequivocal. At first it had seemed terribly draconian, but the “blowpipes” had worked in England just as they had in Sweden. They’d work in Holland too, because no responsible government could sit idly by while its constituents drove under the influence. Something had to change in Holland, and so change it very well would…
On 12 August, a small, seemingly innocuous ad’ appeared in the classifieds section of De Telegraaf. It read as follows:
Alsaver International Distribution is looking for exclusive distributors for the Netherlands, for the sale of its range (or part thereof) of fruit juices and fruit drinks, lemonades, syrups and energy sugars, nutritional aids etc., all products for a good condition of self-control.
Louisalaan 112. 1050 Brussels
Tel: 09-32.2.6492377 - 6492550 telex 26535.
Evidently it did the trick, because six weeks later one of Dutch cycling’s more colourful individuals piped up. Ton Vissers had been “running” (if that’s the right word) the Robot professional cycling team. The sponsor made garage doors down on the Belgian border, and had been involved in volleyball sponsorship. Ton, though, had convinced them that bike racing was a much better bet. Money had changed hands, but the riders hadn’t been paid and the team had fallen in on itself just as they always seemed to. That had been unfortunate, but now Ton reckoned he’d a new sponsor lined up. That was sponsor was Alsaver, and Ton was telling everyone that he was in charge of it.
Everyone in Holland thought was funny, because everyone in Holland knew Ton. He’d started out as a hockey player and official, and he also claimed to have been an “interior designer”. He’d started hanging around bike races in 1963, and had accompanied the Dutch national team at the Tour. Then, however, he’d had a falling out with Kees Pellenaars. He was the grand old man of Dutch cycling, but Ton had felt compelled to hit him over the head with a chair. He’d said he’d felt “threatened” by Kees, and the ‘papers had loved that. Truth be told Ton had quite liked it too. He’d liked the attention, and he’d understood that if he could get enough of it he could probably monetize it.
The 1970 line-up of the Willem II - Gazelle cycling team with Ton Vissers on the left in a sharp suit.
In 1966 he’d co-organized the first Amstel Gold Race, and the least said about that the better. It’s true that there had been “discrepancies”, but it didn’t alter the fact that cycling was extremely popular in Holland. Caballero, the cigar manufacturer, had been sponsoring a professional team for a few years. They’d done every well from it, and so their big rival had decided they wanted in as well. Ton had known the marketing bloke at Willem II, he’d assured him that he could sort everything out, and he’d subsequently done deals with Rik Van Looy and Peter Post. Notwithstanding the fact that Van Looy and Post had both been at the fag-end, Ton had relieved Willem II of a big chunk of their tax burden, and then Harm Ottenbros had somehow won the rainbow jersey at Zolder. Of course there were the usual fallings out with the cycling federation, and the riders were forever chuntering that they weren’t getting paid. That was all part of the game though, and Ton wasn’t unduly concerned. If they didn’t like it, they were free to look elsewhere, because bike riders were ten-a-penny in Holland.
Ton was forever getting his ugly mug in the ‘papers. That was manna from heaven for sponsors, and it partly explained why people (put-upon riders, deluded sponsors, out-of-pocket bike manufacturers…) kept giving him second chances. Wim Breukink, the father of Eric, ran the Gazelle bicycle company. He knew Ton was a shapeshifter and a wrong ‘un, but he was powerless to do anything about it. He needed for his bikes to be in the professional peloton, and like everyone else he’d fallen hopelessly under Ton’s spell.
Tom’s specialities were meaningless contracts and unpaid wages. There was nothing unusual in that – this, after all, was cycling – but he’d an unerring ability to keep getting away with it. What with the wobbly toupee, the fat cigar and the hilarious one-liners, it was nigh-on impossible not to like the guy. It’s fair to say that he liked a drink, and an understatement to say that he was the life and soul. Everyone was guaranteed a good time when he was around, and no wallet was immune to his charms.
The 1973 Canada Dry - Gazelle cycling team line up.
The previous year had been tumultuous even by Ton’s standards. He’d persuaded Canada Dry, the soft drinks company, to fund a team. He’d informed them that he was working on deals with (amongst others) Jan Janssen, Herman Van Springel and Gerben Karstens. That had done the trick, because they were all big, famous champions. A big, fat cheque had been issued but, as Ton had subsequently explained, you can never be 100 per cent sure with capricious sportsmen. They said they felt somewhat short-changed, because what he’d actually delivered had been a bit of a rabble. It amounted to rabble of unpaid neo-pros, a few no-hopers and a bloke with a dicky ticker. Rini Wagtmans had been good, but then he’d started passing out during the races. By March he’d been a former professional cyclist with a heart complaint, and three of the team had simply upped and left during the Tour of Luxemburg.
Anyway the Tour had started in The Hague, and Ton had persuaded Félix Lévitan to invite them. Lévitan was hardly synonymous with largesse, and apparently he’d wanted cash up front. Evidently that had left Ton a bit short and so, on the eve the depart, the riders had issued him an ultimatum. They’d informed Ton that if the cheques didn’t cleat they wouldn’t ride, and – lo and behold – clear they had. Once the cycling started, however, the whole thing had been a front-to-back shambles. Seven of them had climbed off, the “results” were pitiable, and the two Portuguese he’d co-opted at the last minute couldn’t speak the lingo. Nor could their dodgy soigneur (the Dutch riders had been warned off having anything to do with him), and they hadn’t won a franc. Then, to cut a familiar story short, Ton had run out of his sponsor’s money.
Drat and double Dutch drat.
Alsaver Jeunet 1975 Cycling team members: Yvan Benaets (Belgium), Michel Laurent (France), and Antoine Gutierrez (France).
Whatever. That was all behind him now, and the “misunderstandings” with Robot were behind him. Alsaver was the future and Ton Vissers, the company’s newly appointed Dutch importer, had reached agreement with wily old Lomme Driessens. He’d been Merckx’ DS at Faema and Molteni, but the team he’d been operating had folded for want of a sponsor. So had Florent Vanvaerenbergh’s outfit, because with Merckx winning all the races it was hard to get anyone to invest. Now the three of them were in dialogue with Jeunet. They were a small French bike manufacturer, and they’d been told they were putting a truly cosmopolitan team together.
The first problem was that between the three of them they’d 25 riders under contract. Most were Dutchmen and Belgians, but there were four also Frenchmen and a Spaniard. They’d need a find a way to trim that down, because the rule was that for every foreign rider they employed, they’d need retain two natives. They decided to register with the Belgian Federation, and so either they lost the foreigners or found another 20 or so Belgians. That was never going to happen, but Ton wasn’t too worried. Over the years he’d become quite adept at dispensing with bike riders, and so had Lomme. They decided to register the team first, and sort the contractual bits and pieces out later. Onwards and upwards…
Only wait. On 11 October 1974, page three of De Telegraaf had this:
The Ministry of Health has ordered an official investigation into the "Alsaver" anti-alcohol pill. In the Hague, an official spokesman for the ministry said, "Let the Belgian manufacturer prove what he says. […] There simply are no drugs which safely neutralize the effects of alcohol in the body, or break it down more quickly. However we know that many products advertised as such are now being introduced to the Dutch market.” […]
As we approach of the “blowpipe era” (on November 1) a number of unscrupulous people are trying to make a killing in the Dutch market. This agent is citing countless untraceable "doctors" and "professors" who are said to have achieved spectacular test results. They boast of a sure-fire antidote, and of crystal-clear breathalyser results an hour after having consumed four whiskies. The drug has been available for years via mail order advertisements. It’s marketed as an “extract of natural products”, which may be ingested harmlessly in any quantity, but which actively neutralizes the blood-alcohol percentage".
For all that Alsaver purported to produce a “range of products”, nobody seemed quite to know who owned it. Seemingly there was an address in Brussels, and the story propagated by Ton had it that there was a parent company in Switzerland. That, however, didn’t appear on any company register, and nobody seemed to have heard of it. Regardless, the clue to the “nutritional aids” was in the name, but also in the way they promoted them. The adverts shouted,
“LANDLORD! SINCE YOU HAVE ALSAVER AND IT’S ESSENTIAL BEFORE GOING HOME, I’LL HAVE ANOTHER GLASS!”
Ostensibly at least, the wording was somewhat ambiguous. It didn’t make any direct scientific claims, but the implication was abundantly clear: By taking Alsaver, you could drink yourself stocious and still drive home. It was nonsense of course, and the “product” was pure snake oil. However there was no finer snake oil salesman than Ton Vissers, and if the history of cycling tells us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. As such, and with 30-something riders under contract, Vissers and Driessens announced their new venture by falling out with Leo Duyndam. He was a very famous, very important Six Day rider, and they knew that screwing him over would make news.
Alsaver Jeunet 1975 Cycling team members: Guy Maingon (France), Eric Leman (Belgium), and Frans Van Vlierberghe (Belgium).
With Duyndam out of the picture, they set about eliminating the rest of the dead wood. The young Dutchmen Slüper and Sterk were next to be dumped, and so it went. By the end of April, the riders’ morale was on the floor, and Eric Leman’s stage win at Paris-Nice was all they had to show for their troubles. The French contingent was shown the door but then, predictably enough, Driessens and Vissers started squabbling over primacy. It was pure pantomime, and on the eve of the Vuelta the Belgian Federation suspended them for failure to insure their riders. Vanvaerenbergh engineered them a stay of execution, but by the end of May the finances – and with them the team - had vanished into thin air. Once more Ton had become the story, and once more his riders had picked up the tab.
A new Alsaver, minus Driessens and Vanvaerenbergh, emerged from the wreckage later that summer. The riders weren’t salaried, but seemingly Ton paid them with boxes of his wonder-pill. They were expected to sell them themselves, and that was the oldest trick in the cycling book. For years, Belgian and Dutch bike riders had supplemented – or substituted - their wages by selling cigarettes and alcohol. This, however, was something else entirely, because the “product” had zero credibility. Hawking it around was just plain humiliating, so in a material sense they were riding for a bike, a jersey and a way out of Alsaver. They were a laughing stock, and when Ton scratched them from the Tour of Holland citing “personal reasons”, the game was up.
For now. Untouchable in Holland, he escaped across the border to Brussels. He resurfaced the following year and, notwithstanding the endless litigation, convinced an Italian white goods manufacturer to stump up. Zoppas wanted a foothold in the Belgian market, put the cycling team it bankrolled was neither use nor ornament. It folded after three years and zero meaningful victories, because by now no serious bike rider wanted anything to do with Ton.
Alsaver Jeunet 1975 Cycling team members: Gustaaf Van Roosbroek (Belgium), Tony Gakens (Belgium), and Hubert Mathis (France).
He cobbled another team together in 1982, but the game was up. In the past his swagger and guile had offset his predilection for chicanery, but now the Dutch cycling community had no need of grifters like him. Previously his personality – and the afterglow of his having set up Willem II – had seen him through. Now, though, guys like Post were running grown-up teams with professional management, and Ton had run out of allies. He’d become synonymous with bad old ways and the bad old days, and nothing encapsulated them like the Alsaver fiasco.
Cycling finally called time on Ton Vissers (so to speak) in the mid-eighties. He died in 2015 but his antics, his wisecracks and his toupee are timeless. So, amongst the Dutch cycling community, is the legend of Alsaver.
For more information about the life and times of Ton Vissers, we recommend Jan Desmet’s excellent book, “Achteraan Het Peloton Moet Ook Reclame Zijn”.
Additionally, if you have enjoyed reading Herbie Sykes' latest blog for us, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.