Tour heroes

Learn more about some of the more remarkable characters in the Tour.


To date, in 2014, there are 97 winners in the Hall of Fame of the Tour of Flanders. The race was first organised in 1913. At the time, there were only 37 cyclists at the start, and only 16 of them made it across the finish line. The name to remember that year is that of Paul Deman. In 1914, the man from Rekkem also won Bordeaux-Paris, and came in first in Paris-Roubaix and Paris-Tours after the war.

World War I radically changed his life – like that of half of the rest of the world – causing a major upheaval in Belgium. Deman enlisted as a spy, a task that allowed him to continue to ride his bike. He reportedly smuggled secret messages to the Netherlands, in a gold tooth. He was caught during one of his missions and was sentenced to death by the Germans.

Deman owes the fact that he survived the war at all to the fortunate coincidence that the camp where he was held prisoner was liberated on the day of his scheduled execution. And that is how Paul Deman managed to escape certain death.


In 1914 Marcel Buysse stood on the highest step of the podium in Ghent, with the rumble of the Kaiser’s troops already apparent in the background. During the next four war years, understandably, the Tour was not organised. Part of Flanders was on the frontline, and became occupied territory. It was impossible to hold any bike races.

Henri “Ritte” Vanlerberghe, the “killer from Lichtervelde”, became the next winner of the Tour, four years later, after the armistice was signed. “Ritte” appeared at the start empty-handed in 1919, borrowed a spare bike from a colleague, mumbled some heartfelt sporting threats (“I’m going to ride you all in the ground!”) and crushed his competitors.

Nobody ever succeeded in winning the race this convincingly. It is said that he would have had an even greater lead if he had not stopped for a few beers in a pub upon his arrival in the city of Ghent before heading to the velodrome. We have no idea whether this is a myth or a true story but you have to admit that it is a good story. Remarkably though, the story even made it across the pond, to the United States, where Henri Van Lerberghe’s nickname - Ritte – became the name of a brand of exceptional racing bikes.


In the early days, the Tour was mainly a Flemish affair but as of 1920 the first international competitors appeared at the start. In 1923, the Swiss cyclist Heiri Suter was the first international racer to win the Tour of Flanders, followed by Paris-Roubaix. The only non-Belgian to pull off this "double" feat since then is Fabian Cancellara.

In 1931 and 1932, Romain Gijssels from Denderwindeke dominated the race. In 1932, he also succeeded in winning the renowned doubles. While Karel Van Wijnendaele recognises his victory, he compares him to a "shopgirl" instead of a "forced road labourer" in one of his articles. Van Wijnendaele was not convinced by Gijssels's climbing prowess. He did, however, think that he was all the more shrewd when it came to assessing what his opponents were capable of.


The first threefold winner of the Tour was Achiel Buysse. He won the race in 1940, 1941 and 1943, but it was the height of war and by then, the opposition had thinned out and the race was not as difficult as it used to be. Obviously Buysse cannot be held responsible for this, but some connoisseurs feel that this somewhat detracts from his heroic status, compared with say, Boonen or Cancellara, who followed in his footsteps in peace time.


As of 1942, the name of "Iron" Briek Schotte appears in the hall of fame. He also participated in the race during the war years but Briek was of an altogether different calibre. He went on to participate in the Tour twenty times, and won it in 1942 and 1948. He is the prototype of the "Flandrien", the typical Tour racer. Briek died in 2004 and his pallbearers were Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Frank Vandenbroucke, Roger De Vlaeminck, Freddy Maertens, Eric leman, Sean Kelly and Benoni Beheyt, which illustrates his status. A statue was erected in his honour in Kanegem. Below is a picture of a victorious Briek Schotte.


In 1949, 1950 and 1951, Fiorenzo Magni won the Tour. He is also the only racer to have won the Tour during three consecutive years. He achieved 109 victories during his career, most of which were in Italy. That Magni had true grit is proved by the anecdote that he once finished the Giro with a broken collarbone, coming in second.

The Fifties were also the years of such heroes as Wim Vannest (NL), or “Iron Willem”, who won the Tour in 1953. He made history with his stage victory (and yellow jersey) in the Tour de France and his dive into a 70-metre deep ravine the next day. He survived the fall, owing his life to Roger Decock, who won the Tour of Flanders in 1951. He happened to spot Vannest during his unfortunate manoeuvre and immediately went in search of help. Vannest escaped with his life and a few bruises.

Stan Ockers was less lucky. In 1956, he came in second in the Tour of Flanders, after Jean Forestier. In September of that year, he suffered a serious fall in the Antwerp velodrome, dying a few days later as a result of his injuries.


Other noteworthy names in the Tour Hall of Fame after 1956 are Fred Debruyne, Rik Van Looy and Tom Simpson. The former because he won the Tour of Flanders in 1957 and then went on to become the voice of the race, reporting for the news from a motorbike among the pack. The second because he won no fewer than 493 races, including the Tour twice, in 1959 and 1962. The third because he would go on to become the poster child of the drug scandals which would put cycling in an unfavourable light for decades to come. Simpson died of heart failure during a mountain stage in the Tour de France in 1967. He won the Tour of Flanders in 1961 and came in third place in 1963.


In 1964, Benoni Beheyt came in second in the Tour of Flanders after Rudi Altig (DEU). Beheyt mainly became famous because of his legendary victory against Rik Van Looy during the world championship in Ronse in 1963. Van Looy was not used to losing, but Beheyt simply proved too strong for him during the sprint, although he had been promised the unconditional support of all the Belgian riders at the start of the race. Van Looy never forgave him for this and made Beheyt's life so difficult in subsequent years that he quit a few years later, tired of all the hassle.

1969 - THE CANNIBAL DEVOURS HIS on the podium of the Tour, although he did not initially win the race. Eddy Merckx – the cannibal – (only) came in third in 1967, during a period in which he left an indelible mark on cycling with his eagerness

Merckx became the world champion in 1967 and won Milan-San Remo in 1966 and 1967. But it took some time before he won the Tour of Flanders. In 1969, he finally succeeded in taking home the top prize in Flanders' most beautiful race, much to the relief of the race commentators at the time. And how! With another 70 kilometres to go in the race, Merckx broke free from the pack and managed to accumulate a 5-minute lead over Felice Gimondi. Merckx won the Tour a second time in 1975, but those are the only times he achieved this feat. By contrast, he won Milan-San Remo a whopping seven times. He was victorious in the Tour de France five times.


The man who prevented Merckx from winning the Tour on several occasions, was called Eric Leman. In 1970, 1972 and 1973 he was the fastest racer in the Tour. And those in the know say that he earned every one of those victories fair and square. The man Leman feared the most, however, was Freddy Maertens. He was the coming man, finishing in second place in 1973, after Leman and before Eddy Merckx. But Maertens never won the race.

And yet he had all the potential to do it and everyone hoped that he would. He won dozens of races every year, including the World Championship twice, as well as several stages in the Tour de France, the Vuelta, Paris-Brussels, Omloop Het Volk, Gent-Wevelgem and so on. And in 1977, he was well on the way to winning the Tour. On Koppenberg, however, he was handed a new bike and thus received a helping hand (according to the jury) for this tough climb.

Ultimately Roger De Vlaeminck won the Tour of Flanders in 1977. Maertens did not even bother to go for victory in the sprint with two at the end because he realised he was going to be disqualified anyway. He did, however, continue to race as fast as he could, thus guiding De Vlaeminck to his victory, without too much of an effort. Not many people appreciated this.

All that Freddy Maertens took away from that race was a very unenviable “moral” stage victory. Many people agree that he had every right to the trophy.


In the Eighties, we mainly remember that one Tour, when the weather was simply hellish. 1985 was the year of Eric Vanderaerden. The pack dragged itself through incessant rain and lashing wind, over muddy cobblestones, basically risking their lives. But Vanderaerden's feat that day simply defied imagination. He rode a downright brilliant race, ended up with a flat just before Koppenberg, changed his tube, managed to catch up with the pack and dealt such a terrible blow to the competition that every cycling fan felt the hair in their necks stand up. Vanderaerden may only have won the Tour once, but that one victory counts for two.


Another moment that will be forever etched in the memories of Flemish cycling fans is the first victory of Edwig Van Hooydonck, in 1989. Not because of the nonetheless beautiful manner in which a young Van Hooydonck won the Tour but because he was unable to hold back his tears when standing on the podium and receiving his palm. Winning the Tour of Flanders is the highest honour for a Flemish cyclist. And there is no photo in the world that better illustrates this than that of a weeping Van Hooydonck. In 1991, Van Hooydonck did it again. He was tipped to win that year, and he had the eyes of the entire pack on him. That year, he also made his decisive break from the pack on Bosberg, like in 1989, speeding away, on the wings of victory to take the trophy in the most beautiful race of that year.


In 1993, the roar of “The Lion” was heard for the very first time. These were magical years for the Tour and for the classic races in general. Johan Museeuw was by far the best sprinter and the most well-rounded racer in the world. It all seemed as if he had the victory in the bag. And yet things did not go quite as expected in 1992. Museeuw lost the Tour with an incredible difference of 7 mm. The organisers resorted to cutting-edge technology to pinpoint the winner of the stage with certainty.

In 1993, the situation was quite different. Museeuw broke free in Tenbossestraat, with Frans Maassen tailing him. The latter was assisting Van Hooydonck so he did not want to cooperate. But The Lion refused to be tamed. He flexed his muscles on the Wall, succeeded in parrying an escape by Maassen later in the race and beat him in the sprint. A world-class effort.

In 1995 and 1998, Museeuw also won the Tour. That year he also took home the trophy in the “Hell of the North”. Museeuw won Paris-Roubaix three times. He also had an encounter with fate there, when he made such a bad fall that he almost lost a leg and died.

His victory in 2000 in Roubaix was definitely one to cherish. Many people will never forget how Museeuw entered the velodrome in Roubaix, all on his own, after a fierce battle and how he clicked his left shoe out of the pedal upon arrival, stretching his leg to show the world what a comeback he had made. Winning the Tour and Paris-Roubaix three times… Not many people have managed to pull off this feat. Cancellara did. And so did Tom Boonen. He actually did even better than that because he won Paris-Roubaix four times.


Other Tour heroes include Peter Van Petegem – the “black man from Brakel”, in reference to the black hair that covers his body – who won the Tour in 1999 and 2003 and Andrei Tchmil, a Pole, who loved Flanders and the Tour so much that he soon became “one of us”. He has the typical curved, angular style of the early “Flandriens”. For Tchmil racing is synonymous of suffering, slogging, toiling and never giving up. Tchmil won the Tour in the most magnificent manner in 2000.


2005 marks the start of the hegemony of Tom Boonen, “Benny Love”, “Tornado Tom”, the “Bomb from Balen”. A cyclist who has the mettle and talent to achieve great victories and who succeeded in this endeavour in no time at all. Boonen won the Tour in 2005, immediately followed this up with Paris-Roubaix one week later and also became the world champion that same year. Belgium went crazy and everyone was overjoyed. While things do not always go that smoothly for Toom Boonen, he nonetheless succeeded in winning an amazing number of classic races. Boonen won the Tour of Flanders three times, in 2005, 2006 and 2012 respectively. Each and every one of these victories was deserved.


And finally there is Fabian Cancellara, a racer who won the Tour on three occasions and who will probably win it again in the future. Herr “Spartacus”, “The Bear from Bern” may be Swiss but here in Belgium he is welcomed with open arms. Anyone who is a natural born racer like Cancellara is even allowed to defeat the Flemish racers. A club house in Oudenaarde has even been named after him. Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders in 2010, 2013 and 2014 and also won Paris-Roubaix on three occasions. He succeeded in pulling off this remarkable double feat twice, always as the favourite, which is never an ideal position to be in.