There were 10 minutes to go until the race began. Riders were beginning to roll to the start line in the square in Sint Niklaas, which was crowded and buzzing with anticipation. It is a characteristic of the Tour of Flanders that it’s not just the riders who are preparing for a day-long race across the countryside: many of the spectators were poised to dash for their cars so they could catch the action at multiple points through the day. All of them were better prepared than Jacky Durand.
The 25-year-old Frenchman, who rode for the Castorama team, needed help. The previous evening, he had changed the cleats on the bottom of his shoes but when he got on his bike and tried to clip into the pedals, he found he couldn’t.
The screws he had used were too long and the cleats wouldn’t snap into place. Durand’s own mechanic didn’t have any so Durand had spent 10 minutes running from team car to team car, with no luck. Finally, he reached the car of the Swiss Helvetia team. The mechanic searched around in a tool box and came up with some screws that were the right length.
With the clock ticking down and the voice of the commentator on the public address system reaching fever pitch, Durand, who was all fingers and thumbs by this point, re-attached his cleats. By the time he got to the start line, he’d already burned plenty of adrenaline but he wove his way through the riders who had already massed for the start so he could be near enough to the front to see what was going on.
Thomas Wegmüller, a 31-year-old Swiss rider with the Festina Watches team, was also up at the front of the field. A fortnight earlier, he had helped his team-mate Sean Kelly lay the groundwork for that incredible pursuit and capture of Moreno Argentin on the Poggio at the end of Milan-San Remo.
It meant the Irishman was wearing the World Cup leader’s jersey. But the day was more significant than that. This was probably 35-year-old Kelly’s last chance to win the Tour of Flanders, one of the few races to have slipped through his net.
“My work was to go in the breakaway,” says Wegmüller. “They told me in the morning, before we left to go to the start. When Sean says ‘go in a breakaway’ you don’t argue about it. You have to be in it. The tactic was very simple. If I am in the lead, it means Sean can say to the others ‘Look, I have Tommy in the lead, so I can’t chase’.
It takes all the pressure off him and the rest of the team. The thing with the Tour of Flanders is that you know you are going to lose guys. The first hill you maybe lose two guys, because they are too far back and they can’t get up to the front again. The next hill, maybe you lose another guy. So, having me in front means that when the bunch catches the break, Sean already has at least one guy to help him, whether it’s for a couple of hills or 40 kilometres, it all helps.”
Durand, with his cleats sorted now, wasn’t thinking in terms of winning the race. He was a third-year professional, ranked 217th in the world. The Tour of Flanders wasn’t even his team’s biggest priority that day. Cyrille Guimard, the Castorama boss, wasn’t in Belgium. He’d gone with his A-listers to the Grand Prix Rennes in Brittany.
It may sound astonishing that any team would favour such a small race over De Ronde, but the GP Rennes was winnable. It meant something to the team’s sponsors, a chain of DIY stores, and would mean a decent show in L’Equipe. Besides, Flanders was not a happy hunting ground for the French. Only two Frenchmen had ever won the race, Louison Bobet in 1955 and Jean Forestier the following year.
“In Flanders we didn’t have much hope of winning,” says Durand. “There were only five or six of us who started. Only two or three of us — François Simon and Dominique Arnould — were even motivated for the race. The others were sent there for punishment. The management used to send them to the Tour of Flanders to learn about racing.”
“I can’t remember who attacked first but me and Wegmüller followed it and we were away”
The previous year, Durand had ridden the race and made it as far as the second feed. This time his goal was to finish. A place in the top 20 was the height of his ambitions. He knew that to be involved in the second half of the race, he had to get ahead. He wasn’t as familiar with the roads as the Belgians.
He didn’t know every hump and hollow on the cobbles. He couldn’t tell you the order of the 14 climbs. But if he was safely up the road, it would take a good deal longer to sink to the bottom than if he hit the climbs at the back.
Everyman for himself
“It was a hell of a battle to get away,” says Wegmüller. “The first hour of racing, we covered 50 kilometres. Phew. You start to feel pressure when you know it is your job to be in the break. You have the big Dutch teams, Buckler, Panasonic and TVM, watching everything because they don’t want the wrong guy to get away. It was attack after attack and I had to mark each one of them.”
Durand’s team talk had been minimalist. With Guimard elsewhere, Bernard Quilfen was in charge. “Thierry Marie was going to be our leader but he crashed on the last day of the Three Days of De Panne and broke a rib, so Quilfen said we had no leader and that we had carte blanche. Do your best.
“There were lots of attacks and I got in two of them but we got brought back. The third one, I can’t remember who attacked first but me and Wegmüller followed it and we were away.”
There were four of them, the others being two Belgians — Patrick Roelandt of the tiny Assur team and Hervé Meyvisch of Carrera. They got their gap after 43 kilometres but it wasn’t easy. “We had to ride incredibly hard,” says Durand.
“We spent about 20 kilometres with just 10 or 15 seconds’ lead. The peloton was chasing hard. And then they stopped and we had no idea why. We were away. We spent the next few kilometres riding at 35 kilometres an hour, just so we could recuperate. I was nearly dead and there were still 200 kilometres to ride.” Actually it was 217, but no one was looking as far as Meerbeke just yet.
Wegmüller’s presence was the reason the peloton refused to let the rope go slack. Neither Buckler nor Panasonic wanted someone that strong to get away but, after a ferocious initial effort, the two teams cancelled each other out. One would not sacrifice riders to the chase if the other was not willing to commit. The TVM team held the balance of power but they didn’t want to do the bulk of the work either. No one was willing to compromise their chances in the long run. So the peloton eased up and let the gap grow.
“Wegmüller was a concern,” says Edwig Van Hooydonck, twice a winner of the Tour of Flanders, who was the leader of the Buckler team. “But no one was worried about the other three. The two Belgians would not make it to the end, we were pretty sure. No one seemed to know much about Durand. He was not well known at all then.
Maybe we should have asked around. Normally you can let a group get 15 minutes, maybe even a bit more if there’s a headwind, but it got out of hand. But there was never a point when I thought we wouldn’t catch them.”
Four at the fore
There was a feed zone at the 102-kilometre point, with 36 kilometres still to cover before the first hill, the Tiegemberg. The four leaders were working well together, without damaging themselves, and the gap had grown to 22 minutes. They rode on mostly in silence, but when the motorcycle pulled alongside them with the latest time gap Wegmüller did a little calculation and said to the others: “This is turning in our direction now. If we can keep a big lead before the hills, we might have a chance.
“I don’t think anyone believed me but I knew that once we got into the hills, it would be difficult for the peloton to be organised. You can’t chase efficiently because you have the pavé and climbs that disrupt the rhythm.”
That was precisely Van Hooydonck’s concern. There had been a concerted effort to chip away at the quartet’s advantage before they reached the hills. By the time the leaders reached the second climb, the Oude Kwaremont, the gap was down to 15 minutes. “I was trying to work out how much time they would lose,” he says. “I was still sure we would get them. It is very tiring being in front all day.
“Meyvisch was very courageous. We lost him with about 40km to go”
There’s no chance to get any rest, and soon they would be down to three, then down to two and then maybe there would be one survivor, and that would make our job easier. The one thing no one wanted to do was panic because if you panic and make a silly effort you could harm your chances.”
Over the Paterberg, Hotonde, Kruisberg and Taaienberg they went. The gap was shrinking but they were doing a good job of plugging the dam. On the Eikenberg, the seventh climb, with seven remaining, they were still 11 minutes ahead.
They lost Roelandt on the Varentberg, the ninth climb. “He hadn’t been helping very much anyway, so we didn’t wait for him,” says Durand. “Meyvisch was very courageous. We lost him with about 40 kilometres to go. He was dead. He said to go on, but he pulled his share right until the very end.”
Wegmüller was conscious of his tendency to do too much of the work and, as the best rider of the three, he shouldered that responsibility without overdoing it. “We tried not to damage each other, especially on the hills. There was no point,” he says. “If you make someone suffer they won’t work when they can. I just wanted to keep it together and ride as efficiently as possible. We could worry about the finish later on but for now we needed each other.”
“A lead can melt very quickly in a race like that,” says Durand. “My aim was still only to finish the race. I had felt very good at the start of the race and again when we were on the first pavé climbs. But at 60 kilometres to go, I had 20 very bad kilometres. I couldn’t ride. I said to Wegmüller ‘Sorry, I just can’t,’ and he could tell I wasn’t lying. He continued on the front — some riders refuse to work if you aren’t, but he was fine with it.”
Boss of the Bosberg
Thirty kilometres to go. Just the Muur and the Bosberg left. This is the endgame, no matter what has gone before. Now the peloton knew they were in peril. The big names were having to grit their teeth and do the chasing themselves. Van Hooydonck, Argentin, Maurizio Fondriest, Frans Maassen and Rolf Golz swapped turns at the front. Durand and Wegmüller were still four minutes up the road.
The gap had come down enough for the race organisers to pull most of the team cars and the VIP vehicles out of the gap between the leaders and the chasers. The narrow roads meant they could easily become an obstruction and common sense said that the advantage was going to tumble rapidly. That meant neither Wegmüller nor Durand had access to their team cars for what felt like a long time.
“I planned to drop a bomb on the Bosberg. I was sure Durand wouldn’t come”
“We had no drinks or food for a long time,” says Wegmüller. “They pulled all the cars out because they thought we were soon going to be caught. The Castorama car managed to get through but mine didn’t. Durand’s sports director gave me a bottle of water. Before that we had shared what water and food we had because we didn’t know how long it was going to take for the cars to get through to us.
“On the Muur, I felt like I was the strongest,” says Wegmüller “I looked at him and then went to the front and I pushed hard but not so hard that I would kill him. There was still some way to go and it was dangerous to go on my own. Besides, I was confident I could beat him in a sprint. I didn’t know him but I knew that in a head-to-head sprint I could beat most people. I was not the very quickest but if I went from a long way out I could keep going and going until they had nothing left. Besides, there was the Bosberg to come and that was where I planned to attack.”
Durand reached the top of the Muur and, for the first time, allowed himself to believe he was going to finish the race. “I assumed Wegmüller would ride away but I was able to stick with him. I even felt OK but I still wasn’t thinking of winning. I knew that a group of names, with Fondriest, was coming up, and we didn’t know how far ahead we were. We’d stopped getting information.”
Back in the chase group, the frustration was setting in. Everyone was getting tired. No one wanted to burn their last matches on the chase and leave nothing left to contest the win. But without completing the catch, they were riding for third place at best.
Approaching the Bosberg, the Festina car finally got through to see Wegmüller: “My sports director [Domingo Perurena] told me that Sean was not in the chase group so I had to give it full gas. We had one and a half minutes left so it was very close. I took a bottle from him and drank it straight down. Yuck! It was all glucose. So sweet. I was so thirsty that I just drank it all down without thinking. Big mistake. Immediately my stomach felt bad.”
That hampered Wegmüller’s plans. “I was planning to drop one of my bombs on the Bosberg, make an explosion and then continue over the top. I was certain Durand wouldn’t come. Maybe he’d match me on the climb but the top is very difficult. It is not flat, it keeps rising and it is very open. I went to the front and started to make a good tempo so he couldn’t attack. Then suddenly, he went faster. I asked my legs for more power but it didn’t come.
“I didn’t panic. I knew my qualities. A little while after the Bosberg it is downhill and flat all the way to Meerbeke. I was a good time triallist. I could ride at a fast speed and maintain it. I was sure I would catch him. But he found the turbo. The gap wasn’t closing. I could see him, or rather the cars and motorbikes behind him, but I couldn’t get any closer.”
Durand was now in front, with just over 10 kilometres to go. He put his head down and went for it. He barely looked up, just followed the line in the middle of the road. “I still didn’t think I was going to win,” he says. “I didn’t see where Fondriest’s group was. I looked round on one of the long straights and I could see riders but I wasn’t frightened. If I got caught, it looked like I was going to get my dream top-20 place. Somehow I found the strength to turn my 53×12. I don’t know how I was able to do that but I found the force from somewhere. I was riding so strongly that the Fondriest group only took 20 seconds out of me from the top of the Bosberg to the finish.”
Van Hooydonck and Fondriest went clear of the rest on the Bosberg. They were a couple of minutes down but they still believed. “I know how difficult it is to ride from the top of the Bosberg to the finish knowing that everyone is trying to catch you,” says Van Hooydonck, nicknamed Eddy Bosberg because that was where he laid the foundations for his two Flanders victories. “But the gap didn’t close. We were giving it everything but we weren’t going to catch them.”
Three kilometres from the finish, the race director’s car pulled alongside Durand. Eddy Merckx leaned out of the window and said: “Petit, tu as gagné le Tour de Flandres.”
“And I believed him. When Eddy Merckx says you have won, it’s definitive. The final three kilometres were pure happiness. As I went under the flamme rouge I asked myself ‘What is this?’ ‘What is happening?’ There was no pain in my legs. When you ride the biggest Classic in the world in the peloton, your legs hurt. When you’re about to win it, your legs stop hurting.”
In the finishing straight, it’s fair to say the Flandrian crowd was underwhelmed but they showed respect. “I remember the faces of the Flemish fans, watching me. They clapped but they looked surprised to see me. Who is Durand? Jacky who? They’d been expecting Wegmüller, or Fondriest. But a Castorama rider? A Frenchman?”
Durand had spent 217 kilometres at the head of the race. The Tour of Flanders was only his second victory as a professional. But he had form for this sort of thing and the peloton had paid the price for underestimating him. “The year before I won the Grand Prix Isbergues in a 200-kilometre break. I went from kilometre zero, with three others, and won by a long way.”
Wegmüller, too, rued allowing complacency to seep under the door. “I was too sure that I would be stronger than him. This made me do some efforts that I should have saved for the final stages,” he says. “I was not angry because he had worked. He was not sitting back thinking ‘Ah, Tommy will drive us to the finish’.
I was disappointed to come second but it was not a bad experience. I was still on the podium in one of the great races. Compare it to Paris-Roubaix, four years earlier. I was certain I was going to win. A two-man sprint, me and [Dirk] De Wolf. Normally I’d never lose that, but I lost it because of bad luck. A plastic bag blew into my derailleur and I couldn’t change gear so I was forced to sprint in the wrong gear. At least this time I lost fair and square. I had no complaints.”
For Van Hooydonck, third place was frustrating. “I said ‘congratulations’ to Durand. He won a great race, but I was very, very frustrated. Normally, I could have won it. Normally, we would have caught them. But they were too strong on the day. They were very, very strong, and no one realised.”
Over in the Breton town of Rennes, Guimard was celebrating victory too. Castorama’s Jean-Cyril Robin had beaten two Belgians — Frank Van den Abeele and Rik Coppens. But the following day, it was to be Durand who took pride of place on the front page of L’Equipe, not Robin.
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