Top 10 Cult Riders Of The Pro Peloton!
Ed Hood spent last weekend in Belgium taking in Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. Before he headed off to the cold Flemish fields, Ed cast an eye back over the peloton of the past for cycling’s ‘Top Ten’ cult pros. All tough men of the cobbles, cross-winds, rain and mud of the roads of Northern Europe.
We were doing research into Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne t’other day, looking at all those pictures we took back a decade ago and it occurred to us; “where have all the ‘cult’ bike riders gone?” Some were mega stars, like Boonen but whilst all were winners, they also had those intangible qualities of being photogenic, cool, ‘cult.’
We take a stroll down memory lane, going back some 10 years with 10 of our faves. . .
Tommeke – Belgian hero
Tom Boonen, Belgium:
He’s only been retired since last spring but we miss him already. It wasn’t just Boonen’s vast palmarès which made him one of the coolest ever, it was his manner, his smile, his understanding that he was one of those same people who idolised him and he wasn’t above them.
His handsome face, robust physique and winning smile all contributed to the aura. Palmarès-wise there are only two races within his skill set which escaped him; Het Volk – where he was second twice and third once – and Milan-Sanremo where he was second and third. The Ronde fell to him three times, Paris-Roubaix four times, Kuurne three times, Dwars Door once, E3 five times, Gent-Wevelgem three times, the Scheldeprijs twice and the Brussels Classic twice.
He was Belgian Elite Road Champion and Champion of the World in the Elite Road Race and Team Time Trial. Stage wins would take longer to list; let’s just say from Argentina to Qatar with every stage race worth the name in between – except the Giro, which came too soon after his cobbled classics exertions for him to be at his best.
One of the greatest riders in the history of the sport – and definitely ‘cult.’
Boonen on the attack in the Omloop van Het Nieuwsblad’10
Nico Eeckhout in Kuurne’07
Nico Eeckhout, Belgium:
AKA ‘Rambo,’ the man with the brick built outhouse physique, harder than hard, 20 years a pro, still racing in the kermises at 47 years-of-age and with a palmarès which includes just about every ‘hard man’s’ Belgian and Northern French race. The worse the weather was the better he went; perhaps his finest hour came in 2006 when he beat Boonen and the up and coming Phil Gilbert to the Belgian Elite Championship on a foul, cold and wet, not to mention skating rink, parcours around Antwerp.
But the Championship of Flanders, GP Dhaenens, Memorial Van Steenbergen, Dwars Door, GP Isbergues, Omloop van het Waasland, Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen and GP Jef Scherens – most more than once – all fell to the robust man from Izegem. ‘Cult’ with a capital ‘C.’
On the attack in Kuurne
Denis Flahout in Landbouw Kredit green
Denis Flahaut, France:
Solid, tough and photogenic in the Rambo mould but not just quite as fast, Flahaut was still racing with the amateurs last season. He rode for all those teams you hear the tales about, Flanders, Landbouw – we once saw their mechanic arrive and work out of a joiner’s van complete with stacks of timber and saws – ISD, Roubaix-Lille Metropole and Colba Superano.
He did have one shot at the big time with Saunier Duval but Messrs. Ricco and Piepoli soon saw to that. His first wins came in Africa in the Tour du Faso but he was no ‘soft wins’ rider and stood up to be counted in tough Northern races – the GP Lucien Van Impe, Ronde van Midden-Zeeland, Mei Prijs, Putte Kapellen, GP Denain and GP Liliers are all on his roll of honour. Not to mention a Ruta del Sol stage and the GP Tallinn-Tartu up there on the Baltic coast. And like all good pros at his level he wasn’t averse to a spot of cyclo-cross; that start money comes in handy.
Flahout winning the Ronde van Midden-Zeeland’07
Jeremy Hunt – Kuurne’07
Jeremy Hunt, Great Britain:
Another man where the ‘C’ in ‘cult’ is with a capital. Born in Canada but raised in Devon – that southern ‘burr’ is still there; he started with ‘Big Mig’ at Banesto in 1996 and finished with Wiggo at Sky in 2012 – two of the biggest and best teams of their respective eras. In between times it wasn’t quite so glam; low budget French team Big Mat; then another (even lower budget) French team – MBK Oktos (who did have cool, orange bikes, it must be said); Mr. Bookmaker/Unibet, victims of another UCi debacle; Credit Agricole and the short lived Cervelo Test Team. Originally a pure sprinter – he won 11 races for Banesto in 1997, he morphed into a hard man/road captain figure.
Along the way he won the GP de la Ouverture, two British Elite Road Race Championships and the UCi 1.1 GP Plouay – beating Aussie flyers Stuart O’Grady and Baden Cooke in the process. There were rides in all the Grand Tours and there were plenty of podium finishes in races like Kuurne and Paris Brussels. A man of few – buy succinct words – I asked him once about ‘technique on the cobbles,’ his reply was to the point; ‘if you’re going good you’ll get over them, if you’re going shit then you won’t!’
Het Nieuwsblad’11 – Hunt with Sky
Hutarovitch and Napolitano
Yauheni Hutarovich, Belarus:
Despite having the build of a brick layer’s labourer, four times Belarus National Road Race Champion, ‘Huta’ could just about get over the hills; even winning the prestigious Coppa Bernocchi in Italy – and there’s no such thing a flat race in Italy. He won a Vuelta stage, the hard fought GP de la Somme twice – French riders have no qualms about ‘flicking’ team mates for French Cup points – Putte Kapellen and was always ‘there’ in races like Kuurne, Paris-Bourges and the Scheldeprijs. And let’s not forget Tour Lanterne Rouge in 2009. He spent his entire career on French teams, beginning with Lille Metropole and ending with Fortuneo Vital Concept. Big, chunky and photogenic, the Nikon will not miss him.
Hutarovitch on the Paterberg in the E3 Harelbeke’16
Ivanov climbing the Kwaremont
Sergei Ivanov, Russia:
Did someone say, ‘hard?’ Not known for his warm smile, Sergei was six times road race champion of Russia – no mean feat. As versatile as he was tough, he finished second in the mountainous Tour de L’Avenir but could prevail on just about any parcours. He won Tour de France stages, the Amstel Gold, the Tour of Poland and the GP E3 in a career which saw him ride for some of the most controversial teams of their respective eras; TVM, Fassa Bortolo, T-Mobile, Astana and Katusha.
His career ended in true ‘Politburo’ fashion; “I did not retire, it is Andrei Tchmil who caused this departure,” Ivanov told Belgian agency Sporza. “He retired as the general manager of Katusha and told his successor, without asking me, that I would stop.” Like Boney M said; ‘Oh, those Russians!’
Sergei Ivanov crashing on the road to Roubaix
McEwen leading in Het Volk
Robbie McEwen, Australia:
Described by Freddy Maertens as a ‘cat’ sprinter, relying on an electrifying jump and lots of cunning, ‘Little Robbie’ was no ‘Boulevard Blast’ merchant. No ‘train’ for McEwen who would pick his way from wheel to wheel in the melee of the finale then unleash his famous last gasp ‘kick’ to grab the flowers. Known for his ‘spikey’ manner, we always found him chatty and polite with a typical Aussie sense of humour – perhaps we were lucky?
Three times a Tour green jersey winner and with a dozen Tour stage wins to his name, including a victory on the Champs Elysees. He won Paris-Brussels five times, the Scheldeprijs, the Vattenfal Classic, Dwars Door, was National Champion twice and won stages in just about every stage race in Europe, except the Vuelta – not forgetting 10 stages, ‘Down Under.’ Despite his small build he was your typical aggressive sprinter and was declassed in a Scheldeprijs for an altercation with Tom Boonen – who was around double the size of the Aussie.
McEwen with Katusha
Napolitano liked Belgium
Danilo Napolitano, Italy:
Originally a team sprinter – which his robust build perhaps gave away – the ever-smiling, far from skinny Italian with the occasional dodgy facial hair was a prolific winner; not all at the highest levels but there were stage wins in a diverse range of races. Among them, Four Days of Dunkirk, Coppi-Bartali, Brixia Tour, Poitou Charentes, Tour of the Med, Tour of Austria, Murcia, Slovenia, Tour of Poland, Tour of Austria and the Giro d’Italia. He won the Coppa Bernocchi three times but unusually spent the last four years of his career with a Belgian team – hard riding, Wanty-Groupe Goubert. His last win came in 2015 in the Boucles de la Mayenne – we’ll miss the man.
Danilo Napolitano with Wanty-Groupe Gobert in 2016
Geert Omloop at the start of Kuurne’08
Geert Omloop, Belgium:
Few men looked cooler on a road bike than Geert Omloop. Best known as 2003 Belgian Elite Road Race Champion – he was second to super-quick finisher Tom Steels the following year – he won many of those savage North European races which rarely make the headlines. His pro career started with the splendidly named, ‘Rotan Spiessens-Hot Dog Louis’ team in 1995 and lasted 15 years.
The GP Frans Melckenbeeck, Omloop het van Waasland, GP Dhaenens, Mei Prijs, Memorial Fred de Bruyne, Putte Kapellen, Omloop van het Houtland, Wanzele, Handzame, GP Marcel Kint, Ronde van het Groene Hart and GP Raf Jonckheere al fell to the man from Rik van Looy’s home town of Herentals. Immaculate and always with a smile for the camera, he was one of the coolest.
Omloop – The Belgian champion in Wevelgem’04
Bert Roesems warming up before the 2007 De Panne TT
Bert Roesems, Belgium:
I once had the honour to be taken round the Ronde van Vlaanderen parcours on race day with ‘Big Bert’ Roesems, who was out of action with an injury, people would nudge their friends, nod towards him and say in hushed, reverential tones; ‘Roesems!’ The man was respected. We once watched in awe as he single handed, blasted the field in the Three Days of De Panne to pieces, attacking over the top of every berg to form the elite group which would decide the eventual GC. Italy’s Alessandro Ballan won in the end with Bert third.
The epitome of the big strong ‘chrono man’ he won the GP de France in 1994, was Belgian pursuit champion in 2001, Belgian Elite Time Trial Champion in 2004, with wins against the watch in Tour de la Region Wallonie, Tour of Belgium, Tour of Sweden and Franco Belge as well as the Chrono des Nations. But he could also produce the goods in massed starts with wins in the tough Nokere Koerse, GP Denain, GP Lucien Van Impe and Halle Ingooigem. Now a senior figure with Shimano, Europe we catch up with him every year at the Grand Tours.
Hard-man on a hard road in Het Volk’07
Peter Sagan has it
Current ‘cult riders?’
Peter Sagan, for sure – Pippo Pozatto, absolutely – Davide Rebellin, yes. . .
Christopher Froome? eh, no, no. . .
Froome… Maybe not
# More from Ed soon, once he recovers from his Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne weekend in Belgium. #
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 1,600 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.