Vas-y Barry! Hoban wins Ghent-Wevelgem for Gan Mercier Hutchinson

May 15, 2024 8 min read

Vas-y Barry! Hoban wins Ghent-Wevelgem for Gan Mercier Hutchinson

In an extract from his autobiography, Vas-y Barry, the only British winner of Ghent-Wevelgem, Barry Hoban tells how he won the cobbled classic in 1974, beating Eddy Merckx and the cream of Belgian cycling.

Words: Barry Hoban

My team in 1974, Gan-Mercier was really good. As well as proven winners we had some talented young riders in it; the Dutch riders Cees Bal and Gerrie Knetemann were very good, and Knetemann later became a great rider. It was very sad when Gerrie died in 2004, when he was still only 53 years old. We had their compatriot, the very experienced Joop Zoetemelk as well. Then we had Alain Santy, who was riding extremely well, and of course we had Raymond Poulidor, the ever-present Raymond Poulidor.

To kick the year off we rode Paris-Nice, and we had an excellent race with Joop Zoetemelk winning it overall. One of the things we had in Gan-Mercier was riders who could dominate an uphill time trial. Eddy Merckx, even though he could dominate most things, wasn’t the purest of climbers. No-one stood a chance against Eddy in a flat time trial, but anything around ten kilometres uphill was different. Paris-Nice ended with a nine kilometre time trial up the Col d’Eze, around the back of Nice. Joop Zoetemelk won it and took the race overall, Alain Santy was second and Raymond Poulidor was fifth, so that was a great start.

Barry with Poulidor on their previous team, Mercier-BP

I didn’t ride Milan-San Remo, so my next race was Semaine Catalane. We had sunshine, it’s often sunny around Barcelona, and the race had some serious climbing up into Andorra. Cees Bal took the lead on the first day; so wow, we were starting to get off to a flyer of a year. I finished third on a stage, so I was starting to tick. In the end the race came down to a stage that finished above Andorra, and it came down to a battle between Eddy Merckx and Joop Zoetemelk.

The finish was at the end of a long climb up to nearly 2000 metres, so just below the snow line. I didn’t see what happened of course, I was miles behind, but I remember Joop telling me the story afterwards. He was going up side by side with Merckx, and they were both on the 19 sprocket, but then Merckx shifted up into the 21. Joop replied by dropping it down to the 17, and attacked. Bang, he dropped Merckx and rode away, he just annihilated him. Zoetemelk won the stage and the race overall.

That was the real Joop Zoetemelk. Okay, he won the Tour de France after that in 1980, and lots of other races, but we never saw the real Joop Zoetemelk after 1974, the Joop Zoetemelk there could have been. Joop never achieved his full potential because later in 1974 he had a terrible accident during the Midi Libre. He was badly hurt, but complications set in that affected the rest of his career. One of the worst complications was the infection he got after the crash that affected his red blood cell production. It was almost four years before his red cell count got back to normal again. Those four years would have been the best of his career because he was 27 in 1974, and just coming to his physical peak.

Joop Zoetemelk

But anyway, we were on a roll at the start of 1974, and next up were the northern classics, the first of which was the Tour of Flanders. We were all good, we were all feeling great. I had a problem in the race and I missed the split, but we had riders in what was the big break of the day with a lot of good riders in it.

It was the first year that the Tour of Flanders finished in Meerbeke, next to Ninove. So there was the Muur van Geraardsbergen then the Bosberg, then coming off the Bosberg you had 10 kilometres, most of which was slightly downhill. Then you went right, then right again, then you went up a drag to the finish. And it was attack, after attack, after attack coming off the Bosberg.

Getting close to the finish there was a lull, and that’s when Cees Bal went. Cees was a typical Dutch rider; he went off up the road, found the gutter, put his head down and rode and rode, he rode as hard as he could. Nobody in the break reacted for a second or two, and that was all he needed, that hesitation, Cees won superbly. So, hey, we were still on a roll in Gan-Mercier.

Cees Bal winning at Flanders

Next up was Ghent-Wevelgem, it was on the Wednesday in between Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Back in the 1970s, with Ghent-Wevelgem you zig-zagged your way to the coast, then you went down the coast and you turned inland near De Panne, then you came to the hills, the ‘hellingen’ as they call them in Flanders. They were the Zwarterberg, the Rodeberg, the Molenberg and the Kemmelberg. And you did three laps of them, so three times up each one.

The big thing with the Kemmelberg in those days, too, was you went up it three different ways. I loved that climb, it’s short, steep and nasty. The guys always used to put a 21 on for their biggest sprocket, but I fitted a 22, just to take a bit of strain away. But one of the problems you had with the gears back then is we didn’t have index gearing. We didn’t even have what became the norm, the Simplex retro-friction leavers; we had Campagnolo friction gear levers, and they were notorious for moving when you put extra pressure on the pedals. And of course, if the lever moved the chain jumped onto a smaller sprocket, usually about two down from what you were in; so bang, your legs would suddenly hit this much higher gear. I had that exact problem the final time we went up the Kemmelberg.

I was in the front group by then, with Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx and other big-hitters. We were all side by side more or less, and I was riding on the brake lever hoods but sat down. You don’t get out of the saddle on the Kemmelberg, if you did your bike would bounce around all over the place. Then my gears started tick, tick, tick, ticking. The lever had moved and the chain was going to jump out of the 22. I took my hand off the hoods and I pushed the gear back in. But then it happened again, and again, and every time I pushed the lever back I lost a bit of ground.

In the end I went over the top of the Kemmelberg about 15 to 20 metres behind the De Vlaeminck, Godefroot and Merckx group, and they weren’t hanging about. They dropped down the other side, flew through Kemmel village, and they were on their way to Menen, the next big town and about half-way to Wevelgem. They were going flat out, and the wind was blowing side on. I pulled everything out going down the Kemmelberg, made a big effort and quickly got back up to them. We would be in the in the crosswinds at the bottom, and it would have been the death to any hope of winning if I’d not made it back to the front before then.

The thing is, when I got to the back of the break I’d been in it still wasn’t comfortable. They had fanned out in a small echelon, and the only space at the back of it was right in the gutter. Gutter grovelling, because I still wasn’t out of the wind. I was hanging there, crying out for a right or left turn so the wind wasn’t side on. If that happened they’d bunch up front of me, and I could get in.

Still, I wasn’t as bad as the riders behind me. I kept looking behind me to check they were still there, but then someone let go and the line broke. Suddenly there was no one else behind, I was last man in the line and riding like I saw Guido Reybrouck sometimes doing, riding with my bike in a straight line but with me leaning over to get a bit of shelter from the guy in front. I was almost riding side saddle, with the bike in the wind but some of my upper body getting shelter.

Barry crossing the line at Ghent-Wevelgem

It was horrible, and you can’t ride like that up forever, but at long last we changed direction, the riders bunched up and I was in. Phew! I looked around, there was 17 of us in the group, and no one I could see behind so I started tapping through with everybody else, doing my turn.

The big thing with this break, though, was I had some team mates with me, and that hadn’t happened very often with my teams in cobbled classics, or at least not this close to the end. I had Alain Santy and I had Raymond Poulidor with me in the group, but we were up against the crème de la crème of Belgian cycling.

There was Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Walter Planckaert, Eric Leman, Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeek, Herman Van Springel and Freddy Maertens, they  were all in that break. It was a who’s who of cobbled classic winners, really. But I thought, get my head down and if I can stay with this lot until a sprint there wasn’t anyone faster.

So we shot through Menen, then through Wervik, and from there you had five kilometres dead straight before the finish line in Wevelgem. It always finished in the same place, they re-drew the finish line each year. In fact you can go down there now and see where they had the finish line for this year’s edition.

I was confident. I knew I had overdrive that day, I knew I could win. On occasions I felt it, Eddy Merckx probably had it most of the time, but now and again I had it, and the thing is you knew you had it, you knew you would win. I was riding on the 14 sprocket and it was easy.

A beaming Barry post victory

I still played it cool; just sussing the wheels, riding the train, and then the attacks started. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume attacked, then Van Springel attacked, then others attacked. Gaps were opening right left and centre, but I didn’t panic. Poulidor was there with me, so I was shouting; “Raymond, close the gap, close the gap,” and he closed the gaps. He did it once, twice, maybe three times. Then Tino Tabak, I think it was Tabak, was the last to attack.

There was about 300 metres to go by then, so it was the start of the sprint really. Merckx went for a long one. and led Leman and De Vlaeminck straight up to Tabak. Then others caught up and they fanned out all across the road in front of me. I was just behind, but riding easily and praying for a gap to open. Please let a gap open in front of me so I can sprint through it.

Then 200 metres from the line a gap opened; I dropped it into the 13 sprocket and wham, I went straight through the middle of them. And boy, that was my best ever win, it was magnificent. I’d beaten the greatest of the Belgians, and you look at the photos, it wasn’t by inches, I was a full length clear. And Eddy Merckx did not like it, he did not like it one bit.

There was a great photograph taken when Fred Debruyne was doing the post-race interviews, and there’s me there full of the joys of spring, and Eddy stood right next to me with a sour puss face on. The headline in the newspaper read; ‘Who won and who lost?’

I am so proud of winning that race. Ghent-Wevelgem was 244 kilometres long in 1974, and the average speed was 44.363kph. Now, I’m not saying it was me who made the pace that high, it was the collective class of the classics riders from that era, but I had to be there to sprint at the end. And when you think about what we did  that pace on, well over 25 miles per hour, steel bikes with 12 gears, no index gears, no lycra, no computers, and no radio…..No, we had to think for ourselves.

Vas-y Barry, My cycling story by Barry Hoban is published by Cycling Legends.

You can buy a copy today direct from the publisher, click here to purchase.

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