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When in Belgium: Lunch With Freddy Maertens

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There is something pure about the Belgian people. The front or ego that seems to enter into conversations in other countries, really doesn’t exist in Belgium. On the racecourse they are known as hard men, ready to put heads down in the rain and cold and push on. It’s a quietness that stops once you sit down for a meal. The backdrop is the café at the Tour of Flanders Museum, a few minutes before we are about to get a tour.

It’s not every day a two-time world champion, Vuelta champion, winner of 16 stages of the Tour de France joins you for lunch. But nothing in Belgium is normal. Enter Freddy Maertens, now 62 years old and the curator of the Tour of Flanders museum in Oudenaarde that welcomes more than 75,000 visitors a year.

Let’s start with your Vuelta win in 1977? I won 13 stages and overall. The mountains are not like they are now, but there were still mountains! I was also not so bad in time trials. After the Vuelta we went directly to the Giro and I won the prologue and eight stages but then I had a bad crash and had to stop. It was a Giro made for Moser, but I think I could have won it.

Freddy_On_YellowWere you superstitious as a racer? Yes. I ate white cheese with an egg and honey. That was my pre-race meal. I think it’s better you try it another time if you haven’t tried it yet.

Do you still spend time with the guys you raced with? I do. The first of May we have the Super Classic. We all start here and ride a piece of the Tour of Flanders, then we go to France and ride the last part of Paris-Roubaix.

You rode with Tom Boonen’s father, André? I raced with him for two years and we are still good friends. He was a different rider than Tom. André was a domestique for me and, of course, Tom is the chief of his team.

Is racing much different now? It is. I raced 210 days a year on the road. Then we would do criteriums and also race on the track. When we were signing our contracts back then, they would give us a piece of paper with all the races on it, which we had to sign first. Once we did that, then they would give us another piece of paper with the price on it for racing. Now first it’s the price and then the races. I don’t have anything against it. I think it’s better now.

Do you think riders of your generation were tougher, stronger? I shouldn’t say no. It’s changed. The bike has changed. The clothing has changed. When I stopped racing I worked for 20 years with Assos. I knew the whole evolution of the clothing. I will say that when riders say now that they are cold after a race, I don’t agree with that. With all the clothing they have to put on and take off, it’s not the same kind of cold. We were cold. Now, you only have to ask a teammate to get it from the car or the car brings it to you. When you are too lazy to do those two things, then I think you are getting paid too much money.

Are there any riders today that race like you? Peter Sagan. I think he has to pay attention that his team doesn’t make him ride too much. He’s young, but I worry he may be overdoing it.

Which job do you like better, racing or running a museum? Being a professional rider, but I have my age now so I can’t race! I love to race. But, when you can make money from your hobby, your profession, it’s good. How many people in the world can do that?

Hardest climb in Flanders? When you are in the front they are all good. When you are in the back they are all problems. When I was in the organization of the Tour of Flanders, I never put the Koppenberg in it. When you have a good team you can get too tricky there and block other teams. I didn’t like that. There are other hills here that are similar that I think are better.

There seems to be a transition from racing to normal life with riders? I think you can prepare for that. You don’t have to wait until you stop, then you have problems. When you’re in the races, there are a lot of people around you so you can make friends and connections to help you when you stop. The physical transition is different. You can, of course, continue to race bikes on your own but they won’t pay you anymore!

Do you wish you had the technology of today when you were racing? Yes. When I see Cancellara’s bikes here at the museum, I would really like to have tried those bikes in my racing time.

We heard you and Eddy Merckx have put to rest the conflicts you had while racing? Yes. Maybe 15 years ago we both got invited to a winery in France for some riding, eating, et cetera. One evening, Eddy came to me and said he wanted to talk and that it would be silly to die with this conflict still existing. So, I agreed and we stayed up until 5 a.m. talking and in the morning we shook hands and we are fine now. He was one of the best.

Images: Jeff Clark