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The Machiavellian World of Cycling

All's fair in love and cycling

The ‘flicks’ of cycling: After his recent interview with Roberto Visentini and the ‘doings’ of the 1987 Giro d’Italia with Stephen Roche, Ed Hood has turned his eye to some other cases of ‘skulduggery’ in the peloton, or was it just professional etiquette?

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As far as we know, Niccolò Machiavelli didn’t ride a bike back in the 14 century

It was Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote the famous book, ‘The Prince’ and introduced the word, ‘Machiavellian’ to the world. The book is, ‘An instruction guide for new princes and royals. The general theme of The Prince is of accepting that the aims of princes – such as glory and survival – can justify the use of immoral means to achieve those ends.’ ‘Cunning’‘Devious’‘Unscrupulous’ are just some of the words which the dictionary applies to the word, ‘Machiavellian.’ Our noble sport is not immune to the word and we thought we’d have a wander through just some of the intrigues we remember. Because what was it the Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi said? ‘Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.’

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‘Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.’

Let’s start on the track.
Have you ever wondered why the UCI scrapped the World Motor Paced Championship? It wasn’t because of a lack of popularity, the discipline was huge all over Europe, it still is in Germany – and to a lesser extent in Switzerland. The reason was that unlike all other realms of cycling it’s hugely reliant not just on the rider’s athleticism but also the man in leathers on the motor bike, twisting the throttle. You’d have done the training, enlisted the best mechanic to make sure the bike was perfect and paid your pacer handsomely for his services. You were there to win. So how come when your pacer accelerates, he does so too savagely and rips your legs off. And why is he positioning you on the track so that you’re catching the ‘wash’ off another moto and it’s killing your legs? The answer is that one – or more – of your rivals has paid your pacer even more handsomely than you did, so that you DON’T win. As we say in Scotland, ‘the UCI may be daft but they’re not stupid.’

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Worlds’94 – GB’s Paul Curran should have gone through to the final, but some ‘tactics’ led to a fight between his pacer, Joop Zijlaard and the Austrian pacer at high speed on the track

Sticking with the velodrome, if you remember your cycling history then you‘ll remember a certain tall, cool Swiss gentleman who won the World Professional Points Race Championship no less than eight times in the 80’s. The Swiss have always been canny with money and this gentleman had done his sums and worked out that what it cost him to ‘buy off’ six, seven – or even nine of the points race field was more than compensated for by what the rainbow jersey was worth to him from six day promoters start money.

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Freuler knew what side his bread was buttered on

Single day races have their history too, remember Vino being accused of buying the 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege from Kolobnev for 150,000 Euros?

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Two old mates talking money

Perhaps the 1973 Worlds in Barcelona is the best known? Four were away and would contest the victory sprint, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocaña and Freddy Maertens. Freddy played the good team mate and agreed to lead Merckx out in the sprint. However Merckx was on a rare, ‘jour sans’ but didn’t tell Maertens who wasted his sprint leading out a toothless, ‘Cannibal.’ Gimondi took the win from Maertens, Ocaña and a disconsolate Merckx. The story goes that Merckx couldn’t let his young Belgian team mate win because Fast Freddy was riding a Shimano group set. For Maertens to win would have been a huge coup for the Japanese company – Campag HAD to win. Merckx played his part and Gimondi delivered for Vicenza’s finest.


The 1973 Worlds affair – deception or money?

The following year, Merckx was back in rainbow bands after the 1974 Montreal Worlds but Maertens had again come in as a strong favourite. Legendary Belgian soigneur, Gus Naesens handed Maertens’ bidons up that day and later confessed that he’d ‘spiked’ them to insure against a Maertens win. . .

Hoogvliet - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - archief - archive - stock - Eddy Merckx - foto /Cor Vos ©2008
No problems for ‘Big Ted’ in 1974

And before we leave Baron Edouard Louis in peace, you didn’t hear it from us but 1974 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, Georges Pintens maintains that an ‘arrangement’ was made in the 1971 edition of La Doyenne where he finished second to Eddy. Pintens dines out on the story that it was the events of that day which paid for his house. . .

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Georges Pintens did okay!

The Belgian kermis scene is one of wheeling and dealing; you’re the local boy, your family are all there, so are your sponsors – you NEED the win. So once you’re in the winning break it’s time to negotiate. . . Or perhaps, even more importantly, you’re on the cusp of a pro contract but need just a few more results. . .

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Shay Elliott – Flicked by his best mate?

But stage racing with so many more variables is perhaps the worst of all. The late, great Shay Elliott of Ireland was such a close friend of team mate, Jean Stablinski that he asked the Frenchman to be his son’s godfather. And in the 1962 world professional road race championships, Elliott despite being in a different national team, played his part in his friend Stablinski’s victory, refusing to chase from the winning break – more of which in a moment. The 1965 Tour of Luxembourg saw Elliott in the leader’s jersey, when team mate Stablinski went in the break there was no cause for alarm, he’d police it and if he went through it would be without commitment. But instead of policing the break, Stablinski drove it, urging his companions on. The story is that the French team had not been picked for the Worlds and ‘Stab’ needed results to join ‘les bleus.’ As it was, the Frenchman won the stage and Elliott retained the lead – but when he repeated the performance later in the race and won the GC there was little doubt that ‘Stab’ had live up to his name. But it wasn’t the first time that Stablinski fooled Elliott, going back to the ’62 Worlds where Elliott took silver and ex-miner ‘Stab’ gold the pair were in a break of four – from which the winner was going to come – the Irishman and Frenchman as trade team mates made a pact that they would not chase each other in the event of one going on the attack. Eventual bronze medallist Jos Hoevanaers (Belgium) and German cyclo-cross ace, Rolf Wolfshohl were the other two riders. Interestingly, when Elliott attacked, the pair worked like Trojans to bring him back but when ‘Stab’ went they remained strangely passive.

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Elliot stabbed in the back by ‘Stab’?

Then there was the national tour in the 80’s where the talented, up and coming home boy was leading but wanted to guarantee his win. He spoke with Adri Van Der Poel – Mathieu’s father – who was the ‘Capo’ of the peloton in those days, and a deal was done that the opposition wouldn’t try too hard to wrest the jersey off our man’s shoulders. But our man didn’t come up with the moolah – strangely, his career on the continent never flourished after that. If he was in the break then the rest wouldn’t commit and he was never warned of dangers ahead. It never pays to ‘flick’ the Capo.

At first glance you might think this was Matthew van der Poel at the finish of a cyclocross, but no, it's his father Adrie at the end of the 1989 Tour of Flanders. Pic:CorVos/PezCyclingNews.
Adrie vdP – Not a man to cross

If you’re Scottish, the one closest to home and which hurts most still is the 1985 Vuelta
Robert Millar looked to be heading comfortably for overall victory but on the penultimate stage he punctured; Pedro Delgado (Reynolds & Spain) – who was in sixth spot some six minutes down on GC – slipped away (unknowns to Millar until way too late in the day) with compatriot Jose Recio (Kelme &amp Spain) and took enough time out of the Scot to snatch the lead. Unsurprisingly Millar was devastated; ‘I’ll never return to Spain. Every Spanish team rode against me.’

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Robert Millar in Vuelta yellow

Delgado was honest in his assessment; ‘I didn’t win this Vuelta, the Peugeot team lost it.’

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Delgado following Marino Lajarreta

Sean Kelly finished ninth that year, winning three stages along the way, his comments are always pragmatic and whilst he felt Delgado was an unworthy winner he observed that Peugeot should have been on their guard for an ambush from what was an insular world of Spanish pro cycling. Kelly also noted that the race was getting more TV coverage than ever and that the camera motos gave unfair advantage to any break which contained Spaniards; ‘On the second last stage when Delgado and Recio had a lead of 1:40 on the group I was in, with 50 kilometres to go I felt sure we could recapture them. My teammates Caritoux and Garde were in the group with me and chasing very hard, all the time believing that a stage win was possible. But what happened? The two leaders almost doubled their advantage. That for us was impossible to understand.’

The story of that Vuelta in ‘The High Life’

That there were combines and some of Sen. Machiavelli’s alliances were in play that day but there’s no doubt that most of the blame must lay with Peugeot DS Roland Berland who had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Pink for Moser… with a little help

For our next tale we go to the land of Machiavelli’s birth, la Bella Italia and 1984 – ‘the Francesco Moser Giro.’ ‘The Sheriff’ was class and strong but the high mountains weren’t the forte of such a big boned man – and the race included the monstrous Stelvio Pass, but as Roberto Visentini explained to us recently; ‘There were the pushes Moser was receiving without penalty on the climbs, then there were the accusations of him being paced by the team car. The Stelvio stage – which didn’t favour Moser’s characteristics was cancelled, ‘because it was snow bound’ but pictures clearly showed that the road was passable. Finally there was the issue with the helicopter draft pushing him along in the final time trial.’ And many years ago a wise man told me that Lira had passed to one of Moser’s biggest rivals to guarantee the win.

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Giro d’Italia 1986 winner – Roberto Visentini

Remaining with 1986 Giro winner, Roberto we turn to the 1987 Giro with the man from Brescia in pink once more. However, his team mate, Stephen Roche – who had been leading the race until Visentini snatched back the lead with a brilliant time trial win – not once but twice went up the road in breakaways to betray his team leader and re-take pink. Roberto remembers; ‘The truth is that I was attacked in a cowardly fashion and betrayed by a teammate with the approval of both the sponsors – who had an interest in selling jeans in the Anglo-Saxon market – and the team manager Boifava who was interested in selling his bikes in those parts – he already planned to open a bike factory [Carrera, ed.] which opened two years later so he had to prepare the ground. [Roche won the Giro on a ‘Battaglin’ branded machine, ed.]. People on that team had the wrong job, they should not have directed a team – their job should have been in the Vatican as bishops or cardinals. They were incompetent, careerists, opportunists.’ Comments from offended Roche fans on a post card please.

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The Roche/Visentini 1987 Giro battle

Finally, do you remember Wiggo’s glorious win in the 2012 Tour de France? But do you also remember Chris Froome’s ill-judged ‘attack’ on his team leader and yellow jersey on Stage 11? Big old war horse DS, Sean Yates in the team car brought Froome to heel on the radio, the polite version is; ‘You’d better have Brad’s permission for that.’ But the real quote was, ‘Chris, what the f##k do you think you’re doing?’ But Wiggo had the last laugh, withholding Froome’s share of the team’s win bonus for 14 months.

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Ill-judged or exuberance?

And remember that if you’re away with a ‘Belgie’ and he won’t come through, telling you he’s ‘cooked’ and won’t sprint at the death; he’s not – and he will. Or, as the late Paul Sherwen used to say: “never trust a Dutchman (insert which ever nationality is apt for that moment)”.

 Jan Gisbers - Jacques Hanegraaf
What’s the plan?

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