Classics winner, Tour de France podium finisher, world road race champion and world record holder, the great Belgian built his success on marathon training sessions behind a little motorbike
If you were watching Liège-Bastogne-Liège recently you might have seen his memorial.
It’s in Les Forges on the Sprimont hill, built to remember a man who won this Classic and Flèche Wallonne in 1955. They were run on consecutive days back then, and called Le Weekend Ardennais.
Ockers was killed during a Derny-paced race on October 1, 1956 at the Antwerp Sportpaleis, his home track. It was tragic and ironic.
Ockers was at the height of his powers; as well as his Classics double, he won the world road race title in 1955. And he crowned his second place in that year’s Tour de France with the green jersey, a title he won again in 1956.
The accident was ironic as Ockers was an expert at riding behind a Derny. In January 1956, he set a one-hour Derny-paced world record of 61.875km (38.4 miles), which stood for years, and he was second in the 1956 Bordeaux-Paris and in the 1952 and 1953 Criterium des As, both Derny-paced classics.
Ockers also trained behind a Derny, very often paced by his great friend Jos Van Landeghem, a cycling journalist with the Gazet Van Antwerpen. Their favourite session, and one that Ockers did before any major event, consisted of riding 130 miles from Antwerp to Namur and back, all of it behind the Derny, and all of it at race speed.
The route has a flat start, a rolling mid-section and a flat finish. Ockers had the Derny accelerate on the climbs and would sometimes ride alongside it or even accelerate past, to simulate attacks. Then they upped the pace towards the end, just like the finale of a race, and Ockers would sprint past the Derny for an imaginary finish.
Ockers was one of the first to use paced training on the roads, but his results and star status in Belgium ensured that others quickly followed suit. And sprinters like Mark Cavendish still do sessions like this today.
So, as well as his memorial and his outstanding palmarès, Ockers left a legacy of paced training to cycling, and he left something else. He gave cycling its greatest ever racer. Eddy Merckx says that Ockers was his inspiration to race.
Merckx grew up in a middle-class Brussels family, and had no contact with cycling until he began following the 1955 Tour de France on the family radio and heard about the gallant efforts of his compatriot.