Goodbye Erik De Vlaeminck
If you’re of this generation then Sven Nys will probably be your King of ‘crosses – but if you grew up in the 70’s then you’ll know that the true Monarch of the Mud was that stocky man of Flanders; Erik De Vlaeminck, big brother to ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix’ Roger De Vlaeminck. Ed Hood pays his respects to the all-time King of Cross.
Sadly, the elder De Vlaeminck brother died on Friday in the town where he was born, Eeklo in the heart of East Flanders. Erik turned professional for Wiels, where he would remain for three seasons, in 1964 after an amateur career which saw him build the foundations of a prolific off-road palmarès.
During his first two years the wins came fast and furious and by 1966 he was World champion. For 1967 he was with Goldor, taking the national title but losing his rainbow jersey to his predecessor as ‘cross king, Italy’s Renato Longo.
However, the likelihood is that the Belgian would have won had he not suffered mechanical problems. In ’68 still with Goldor on the jersey he claimed the World title – as he would do for the next six years. And to remind us that he wasn’t just a ‘cross talent he took a Tour de France stage and the GP Dortmund.
It was 1969 when he entered the best known phase of his career with brother, Roger in the Flandria team. He won the national and world title and on the road took the Tour of Belgium and the highly sought after Championship of Flanders in Koolskamp. In 1970 with the rainbow jersey safely in the wardrobe he won the GC in Paris-Luxembourg. The following year, 1971 saw another national/worlds double – a feat he would repeat in 1972.
His seventh and last Worlds fell to him in 1973 in the colours of Brooklyn. ‘Robot’ was the team for ’74 and whilst there was another long list of ‘cross successes but no titles.
It was back to Brooklyn for ’75 and a silver in the Belgian Champs behind brother, Roger. He rode for Gios in ’76 with another string of wins coming his way in ’77 along with bronze in the Nationals and Worlds. For his last three seasons he rode with Marc-Zeepcentrale then Hertekamp adding to an already impressive roll of honour.
In his post-racing career roll as Belgian National Cyclo-Cross coach he’s widely credited with the revival of the nation’s ‘cross fortunes which is only now being challenged by the like of Dutchmen Lars Van Der Haar and Mathieu Van Der Poel. But his transition from star rider to successful coach was far from seamless; having to confront psychiatric problems and endure the death of his son, Geert from a heart attack in a cyclo-cross race at which he himself was present.
And his latter years were blighted by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Let’s leave the last words to men who didn’t just watch or read about the man, they competed against him at the peak of his powers.
Former multiple British ‘cross champion, John Atkins said this: “Erik De Vlaeminck was the Eddy Merckx of cyclo-cross. When the Worlds were in London there was a bank which none of us could ride up, no matter what we tried – he just soared up it on the bike.”
Whilst flamboyant British ‘crosser and big winner in the 70’s, Barry Davies had this to say: “The first time I was aware of the De Vlaeminck brothers was on a TV program here in the UK. It was called ‘International It’s a Knock-out’ where towns from the UK battled against towns from Europe in silly games and the town with most points then proceeded towards the final. One program featured a Belgian village – I don’t know if it was the De Vlaeminck’s home town of Eekloo – but it involved a bicycle obstacle race on a track – Roger and Eric rode and won by a mile. Roger and Eric were like chalk and cheese; Roger knew he was a super-star and behaved like one. We would be lined up for a race behind the race officials and Roger would ride up and line up in front of the officials who would then move around him and we would re-form alongside him.”
“Eric was just one of the lads, a real character; there are many stories about Eric – some true – some from the history of cyclo-cross folk lore. My best is when we were riding a race near Ostend – with lots of sand as always. We set off down a tarmac rode and had to turn off and across the sand dunes. There was a stone wall running alongside the sand dunes on the left. I arrived in the top six onto the dunes and off the bike and running in the sand towards the top of the dune. Suddenly the large crowd erupted and started cheering – I looked to the left and there was Eric riding along the top of the three foot high wall laughing at us all struggling, having jumped his bike onto the top of the wall at the bottom of the sand dune. There are so many stories of him bunny hopping steeplechase hurdles, riding down a sheet ice decent with his broken handlebar in his hand waving to the crowd – a real star.”
Erik De Vlaeminck, cyclo-cross legend born Eeklo March 23rd 1945, died Eeklo December 4th 2015, rest in peace.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.