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1962 Amateur World Championships - An American Odyssey
 
By Guest Contributor
Date: 5/1/2008
1962 Amateur World Championships - An American Odyssey
 

1962 Amateur World Championships - An American Odyssey
Two young Americans, Bob Kaplan and Francoise Mertens, left New York on an adventure with mate Pierre Charez to train in Belgium in preparation to race the worlds on the shores of Largo De Garde in Italy. 

By Bob Kaplan

In 1962 JFK was President; there was no USCF; and two American cyclists - Francoise Mertens and I - represented the United States of America at the 1962 Amateur World Cycling Championships in Brescia, Italy. How we got there, and what US Cycling was like back then, is what my story is all about.

Up front, I must express a few caveats. During my trip I kept no diary or training log. Other than an old competitors pass; I have no memorabilia or photographs. Sadly, many people who could confirm or add to my recollections are no longer with us - especially my Mom and Dad, as well as Pierre Charez who was the third member of our merry band. Pierre - who later went on to be a very successful cyclist in the USA, raced with us in Belgium; but, as a French Citizen, was ineligible to ride for the USA at worlds.

Let me begin by describing the cast of characters:
Me- In 1962 I was a 19 year old Sophomore at Queens College of UCCNY majoring in Mathematics. Queens College was a commuter school - one of the 5 borough City University Colleges; offering a free, high quality education to all citizens.

Queens College had the added benefit of being just around the corner from the recently completed Kissena Bike track. I lived at home in Queens Village, about 10 miles ( a guess, since I didn't have a speedometer on my bike) due east from the College and the track. I frequently commuted to school by bike; sometimes on my track bike (no brakes of course), if I was going to race at Kissena later in the day.

In my neighborhood (a predominantly Jewish middle class working families) I was the only cyclist. I mean THE ONLY CYCLIST! If you recall the movie "Breaking Away" -- that was me. All my friends, relatives and neighbors , thought I was nuts.

So how did a Jewish kid from Queens get involved in bike racing in 1962? The short answer is speed skating. Not that speed skating was all that popular either - I was also the only speed skater at Queens College. But there were several good ice skating rinks run by the NY City Park Dept., and each rink offered regular weekly speed skating sessions. As a young teenager I became interested in speed skating, and eventually, met some skaters who introduced me to cycling as a way to get in shape for skating.

I was never a very good skater; but I soon realized that I was far better adapted to long distance cycling - primarily an endurance sport - than I was to short track speed skating - a sprinters domain. Eventually, I skated in the winter, to stay in shape for cycling in the Spring and Summer. I retired from cycling in 1964, only to return to the sport many years later in 1991 as 48 year old Masters racer. At the age of 65, I'm still riding and racing, winning several races a year - mostly time trials- in the geezer division.

Francoise Mertens - in 1962, Francoise was 29 years old, married and already a father. Although he drove a cab for a living, he already owned his own home in Great Neck Queens, and showed a keen business sense for real estate.

Francoise was born in Belgium before the war, and had suffered through the German occupation with the rest of his country men. In Belgium after the war, he showed great promise as a Junior racer, but his family emigrated to the US before he could advance in the European Peleton. In the US, he made a big splash by winning the Tour of Somerville as a teenager; going on to dominate the eastern US cycling scene in the mid 50's. None the less, he still harbored the dream of making it as a European pro. At 29, this trip to Europe was going to be his last shot to make the pro's.

Later on Francoise did turn pro, racing in a reincarnated 6 day race in Madison Square Garden. After his short live career of professional racing, Francoise became a pioneer of Masters Bike Racing in the US, winning many National Age Group Road Championships; and eventually being inducted into the US Cycling Hall of Fame for his lifetime achievements and contributions. At the age of 75 Francoise is still racing - and winning championships.

Pierre Charez - I'm a little hazy about Pierre. Pierre's father was French and lived in Limoges, where he managed a pottery factory. Pierre was a French citizen, but he lived with his mother in Washington Heights , NY. Pierre was a bit older than me - about 21, and frankly, not that strong a rider at that time. After our return from Europe, Pierre continued to improve, and he went on to become a fairly successful racer in the mid 1960's. He was also very active in promoting US Cycling, and when I met him again, many years later, he was promoting a major masters bike race every fall in Westchester NY. Pierre had movie star good looks; and was the object of intense interest amongst the Belgium ladies we met. Francoise and I, were only interested in bicycles; and the ladies had to content themselves with Pierre. Sadly, Pierre died about 10 years ago; a victim of pancreatic cancer.


1960 Tour of Summerville program... It includes a list of past winners- including Francoise Martens in 1951. Bob Kaplan was a 17 year old starter listed in the program, which included Joe Saling, fresh from the Navy.

NY Bike Racing in 1962
The NY City cycling scene in the late 50's and early 60's was dominated by several large cycling clubs: CRCA - still in existence and still one of the most active clubs in the country, and several ethnic clubs: the German Club, the Italian Club (U S I), and the French Sporting Club (FSC), which also sponsored a local soccer team.

Most of the racing was in Central Park; with each club conducting weekly club races every Sunday morning. For most of us, weekly racing in Central Park was bike racing. Period! Yes, we did annually venture out to Somerville and Flemington NJ, but bike racing was the 10K loop around Central Park. The FSC was the smallest of the clubs, and although there were a few actual French ex-patriots on the club, the heart and soul of the club were Francoise Mertens and Vito Valentini (a Belgium and a second generation Italian). Vito lived in Manhattan, and together with Francoise, ran the FSC.

Vito and Frank imported bikes from Belgium, and Vito was the team mechanic. The bikes they imported were hand made by a Belgium frame builder named Jos Vinc, in Antwerp, Belgium. Our club races were handicap affairs. The first race of the year was a 1 lap ITT (10K); and based on your time, your were assigned to a group: C, B, A and Scratch.

Depending on the length of the race; which increased each week, each group got a head start. If it was a 4 lap race (40K), then the C group might get a 10 min head start, the B a 5 min., the A group 3 min., while the scratch group started last. Each group was then had the incentive to work hard and together. If they cooperated, they could stay away and win the race. Sometimes, the slower groups were successful; but more often than not, the groups caught each other on the last lap and the race ended in a mass sprint. During the season, if you showed improvement, you might be moved up to a faster group. As a Junior, I only did club races, but by 1962, I had worked my way up to the rarified air of riding scratch with Francoise, Vito, and several other strong club riders.

The Plan
For Francoise, 1962 was to be his last shot at big time European racing. The plan was to race in Belgium for several months, and then drive to Italy, to participate in the Amateur World Championships at Largo De Garde, Brescia - not too far from Milan. In those days, the Amateur and Professional World Championships were run on the same course in early September.

Pierre and Francoise left for Europe in early May. Francoise was targeting the World's as his last hurrah; and Pierre who couldn't ride the worlds, was going along for fun and adventure. My goals were simple: I wanted to ride my bike as much as possible, and I hoped that competing in Europe would improve my skill and fitness. I expected to be able to at least hang on in the Peloton in most races. Francoise purchased a VW Beetle in Belgium. In those days, the dollar was very strong, and you could save quite a bit by purchasing a car in Europe, driving it there, and then shipping it back to the states as a used car.

I couldn't leave for several more weeks due to my college schedule, and the plan was for Francoise to pick me up at the Brussels airport in his new car. We were staying with Francois's Aunt Louise, who owned a house in downtown Antwerp. Other than some clothing, we purchased all of our cycling equipment - including new bikes - in Antwerp. As it turned out, for some reason, Francoise could not get his car in time to pick me up. The back up plan was for me to take a bus from the Brussels airport to the Antwerp train station. Miraculously, I got on the right bus, and when I stepped off at the Antwerp Central Station, there were Françoise and Pierre to greet me. I think that Francoise was more relieved than me, at my arrival. After a 13 hour turbo prop Atlantic crossing to Amsterdam, and a short flight on a DC-6 to Brussels, and a very short bus ride to Antwerp, we were finally together.

Belgium Bike Racing - 1962
Post war Belgium was the epi-center of European cycling. Cycling in Belgium was equivalent to professional football or major league baseball in the US. In 1962 the reigning world champion was Rik Van Looy, and Rik had a status similar to Mickey Mantle in the US. Every Belgium boy wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Belgium is a small densely populated country, sharply divided by language and ethnicity between the Flemish speaking north, and the French speaking south. Although the country is densely populated, the country is divided by many small towns and villages. Each town and village would sponsor several bike races a year. There were essentially 3 categories of racing - Beginlings (under 17), Liebhabers (amateurs over 17), and Professional. There was also a semi-pro category for professionals without a team contract. When you multiply all of the towns and villages, by the number of different races they would sponsor, on almost any day of the week, within an hours drive of Antwerp, you could find a bike race to ride.

Francoise would simply pick up the Newspaper in the morning, and on any day we wanted to race, he would find a race for us. We raced in the Liebhaber division. To understand what we were up against let me step back a bit and describe the Belgium system. Thousands of boys would start racing each year in their young teens. They didn't do much except race their bikes (single speeds with restricted gearing). If they showed promise, they would get support from their families and local clubs; if not, they went to work with their fathers. There was no upward mobility. If your father was a farmer, you became a farmer.

Needless to say, the competition was fierce, and only a minority made it up to the Liebhaber class where we were racing. The next cut, up to professional was even tougher; and every year only a small handful of riders made it up to the pro's. And even there, most riders just spent a hard few years carrying bottles for the few stars like Van Looy. This was a tough, cruel system, but it produced Eddy Mercks - who I believe was racing as a Beginling in 1962. Unlike cycling in the United States, Belgians raced for glory and money - not for health and fitness. Oh yes, there was no drug testing, and the abuse of drugs (mostly stimulants), was common and accepted.

A typical Belgium course for Liebhabers would be a 100 KM on a 10K circuit. You would start on a nicely paved main road in the town center, ride about 1 k on smooth road. Then you would turn off onto a narrow cobblestone farm road and ride a circuit of about 8 k on the cobbles, before finishing the circuit on the last smoother kilometer into town.


A close look at the cobbles of Arenberg used in Paris - Roubaix.

If you've seen the pave sections of the Paris Roubaix, then you have some idea of what these cobblestone farm roads are like. And the races were fast. There was no slow start. It was in the drops and go as fast as you can from the start. We were totally unprepared for both the intensity, and the cobbles. Needles to say, to even finish with the peloton, which I managed to do a very few times, was a major accomplishment.

Cycles OK and Equipment
One of the major differences between cycling now and then was our equipment. When we arrived in Belgium, our first trip was off to Jos Vinc's shop on Handlestrasse in Belgium. Jos took a few measurements, and in several days had built us 3 steel frames out of his stash of Reynolds tubing.

Jos used a lug-less design which he pioneered. He didn't use a standard frame jig while brazing. Jos claimed that the jig would cause stress to the frame tubing. His frames were the only ones which could stand up to the beating on the Belgium pave. I saw many pro bikes in Jos's shop with labels of other manufacturers. He built many of the bikes in the Belgium pro peleton; and simply painted on the sponsors label.

Jos's brand was Cycles OK - a brand and a technology which sadly died with him. I loved my light blue Cycles OK. It was my dream bike - custom built by the master. It survived our Belgium campaign, but had to be straightened out a few times; along with it's pilot who lost a tooth and had a very bad headache for a few days after an unkind meeting with a Belgium cobblestone.

In Belgium, we equipped our bikes with steel cranks, pedals and other equipment - including Brooks leather racing saddles. We wanted Campagnolo alloy equipment, but this was prohibitively expensive due to the high Belgium import duties. Later, when we arrived in Italy, we purchased complete Campagnolo kits for our bikes; but we never raced on them in Europe.

By today's standards, the bike was very heavy, but in Northern Belgium, where the hardest hill I rode was an overpass over a highway, this didn't make much difference. The only piece of Campagnolo gear on our Belgium set-ups were a set of bar-end shifters. These were almost required equipment for riding on the Belgium cobblestones. You were always on the drops, and you NEVER took your hands off the bars.

I don't remember too much about our wheels, but they were standard box section - probably 36 drill. We rode exclusively on tubular tires - I think they were Clement Criterium Seta's; but maybe they were something heavier and cheaper. Since we didn't have a floor pump, and had to pump our tires with frame pumps, we probably were riding with less than 100 PSI most of the time. Again, on the Belgium pave, you didn't want to have too much pressure in your tires. Surprisingly, I don't recall having many punctures; none that I can recall in a race.

Otherwise, our shoes were leather Detto Pietro's, our shorts and jerseys were wool; and our chamois were real chamois. Oh! helmets? In the U.S. we were required to wear leather "hairnet" helmets.* Of course, they were useless; but for some reason I think we also wore them in European races. We never wore them on training rides. (* Sometimes referred to as "Sausage helmets" as they looked like you had draped your head with sausages.)

Our Belgium Campaign
I'm not sure how many races we attempted,  probably two or three a week; but I'm sure that the number we actually finished was far less. We were totally unprepared for the "go from the gun" intensity, and the rough cobblestone roads. In a typical race, I would find myself at the back of the pack, as we turned off for the first cobblestone section, barely hanging on through the cobblestones; and perhaps surviving several circuits of the course, before eventually quitting in embarrassment.

It was a great day, if by some miracle, or because of a smoother course, I actually finished a race. Then, the reward was the equivalent of about $10 in Belgium currency - the minimum reward set by the Belgium Cycling Federation. In 1962 Belgium however, that prize money was enough to buy food for about a week. It was a wonderful feeling to walk up to the official table with the other Belgium riders and collect my hard earned pay for the day. Washing up after a race was usually in a converted barn or garage. You were handed a basin of cold water , and a bar of soap, and perhaps a clean wash cloth; and you were happy to get it.


One more look at a pave` section in the Arenberg Forest.

Riding on cobblestones
Other than my lack of ability and conditioning for the intensity of the racing; I was totally unprepared for riding on the cobbles. In fact, as I quickly learned, you really don't ride on the cobbles much. Most of these roads had narrow dirt side paths. You could go about 2 mph faster on the dirt path, than you could on the stones. Consequently, the start of each race, was basically a sprint to get to the front of the pack, so that when you turned off onto the stones, you could get a good position on the dirt path. Once on the dirt, it was virtually impossible to pass - or be passed by another rider.

But there was one more trick you had to master. If you were riding on the dirt path on the right side of the road, and the road curved sharply to the left, then everyone would cut the curve and jump over to the dirt path on the left side of the road. The maneuver required a slight sideways bunny hop to get from the path to the stone road. The Belgiums, who had already been racing on these roads for years, could make this maneuver without even thinking about it. For me, this maneuver was always an adventure. Most of the time, I was able to make it. One time however, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't quite make it; and when I woke up several minutes later, I found that I had lost a tooth, sacrificed to the Belgium God of Cobblestones. But I was 19 years old, and after a quick visit to a Belgium dentist, I was back riding the next day. My good old steel Cycles OK had a slightly bent fork - but Jos Vinc straightened it out, and it was also good to go the next day.

Training in Belgium
Our original plan was to use racing as our training. You could, if you wanted to race every day in Belgium. After our first few races, it became very clear that we wouldn't be getting enough racing mileage if we couldn't finish the races. To make up for this, and somewhat grudgingly for Francoise, we started doing some regular training rides.

Where the Belgium racing scene was a disaster for us, the riding in the Belgium country side was delightful. Every road - except for the main highways, was designed to be bicycle friendly. Usually there was a main lane for auto's and trucks, a side lane for small motorcycle, and then a lane for bicycles and mopeds. All of these lanes were well paved and maintained. You could ride for miles, without worry about traffic or crazy drivers. Sometimes, we would see a small motor bike in the motorcycle lane, and the drivers would be happy to motor pace us.

Except for the lack of hills, I was ecstatic riding through the Belgium countryside. The low country weather however, was a different story. Cold, cloudy, grey would be the best description of the Belgium summer. We used to joke that if the sun came out, we better take a picture so that we wouldn't forget what it looked like. As the season progressed, we became more and more used to the Belgium racing scene, and while we were never really a threat in any race; we began to get some respect and appreciation from the local riders and race sponsors. My feeling is that if I could have stayed another year, I probably would have gotten good enough to at least finish most of the races.

On to Italy (via Paris and Limoges)
The last leg of our venture was to represent the USA at the Amateur World Road Championships being held in Brescia, Italy in Sept.

One point here: while it was true that Francoise and I were the official team USA, we had earned the right to compete, based on our friendliness with a few local NY cycling officials, who wrote letters to the UCI recommending us; and because we were willing and able to pay our own expenses. There were no qualifying events, and even in the US at the time, there were likely to be many other riders more qualified to wear the stars and stripes in Italy. None the less, we went there, and participated.

As far as I know, Francoise and I were the first official US competitors in the post war World Road Championships. Of course, we first had to get there. This involved 3 riders, 3 bikes and a Volkswagen Beetle driving from Antwerp to Paris. In Paris we picked up Francoise's wife Sissy, and then on to Limoges, where we spent a day with Pierre's father. Finally a drive over the Alps via the Col de Mount Cine; and down to Milan.

I vaguely remember scenes of the trip - a cheap hotel in Paris; cafe au lait in a large bowl with Pierre's father. Creeping up a long Alpine pass in an overloaded V.W.; stopping at a roadside cafe near Milan for lunch. But in truth, other than a random image - I can remember very little about this trip; other than the fact that I desperately wanted to ride my bike; and resented being off the bike for several days required for the trip.

I do remember that when we got into Milan, we got hopelessly lost in the Milan traffic, and finally parked the V.W. someplace safe, and simply took taxis to wherever we wanted to go. We did get to see the World Track Championship at the Vigorelli Velodrome. The event I remember was the pursuit behind motorized gurneys. I had never seen these before; and they were very loud and impressive. But not as loud as the crowd at the track.

The finals were between an Italian named Faggin, and a Belgium whose name I forget. The Belgium took the early lead; but Fagin (pronounced fahh- shinn with the accent on the first syllable) began to gain on him as the race progressed. The crowd went wild, and started to chant his name. The chant won Faaaaaa shiinnnnn, Faaaaa shinnnnn. On and on, louder and louder... you had to be there to understand the feeling and hysteria as Fagin went on to win the race. This was my first exposure to the Italian Tifossi; and it left an indelible impression. Later I experienced a similar Italian support during the road race, when the crowd would chant Kennedy -- Kennnn neeeee dyyyyyy - every time I passed by.

Editor's note: This must be the Italian track star Leandro Faggin from Padova, a 15 time Italian national track champion, 4 time World Champion, with 2 Olympic gold medals in pursuit and the kilometer. Leandro went on to compete in Six Day races in Milan, Perth, Toronto and Melbourne which he won before his retirement in 1968 after a 15 year professional career.

The Worlds
The World Road race course and conditions couldn't have been more different than the racing and training we had been doing in Belgium. Where Belgium had been flat, cool, and grey; Italy was hot sunny, and hilly.

The circuit course of about 10-15 km per lap, wound around the resort lake Largo De Garde, featured a short steep wall of about 500 yards; then a long gradual grade past the start finish line, where a large grandstand had been constructed, and then a fairly flat stretch, and finally a nasty descent with numerous switch backs down to the level of the lake.

We were staying in a small pension which was situated in a beautiful vineyard section. Our hosts, who spoke no English were kind, and delighted to have their American guests. Unfortunately, the Italian hotel food we were eating was less kind to us; and I had a bad case of stomach cramps and diarrhea the night before the race. None the less, I was still optimistic about the upcoming race.

We had ridden the course several times in the days leading up to the race; and I was confident that this course would be more suitable for me. I usually like hot weather and hilly courses (I still do!). Besides, there were NO COBBLESTONES! Aside from my belly ache, what I hadn't counted on, was the speed that a pack of over nearly 200 riders would descend the switchbacks.

Race day came and I was on the starting line near the front. We got off to a good start, and I thought, "hey - this is a heck of a lot easier than Belgium." Then came the first descent. Bikes whizzing by me on either side, squealing brakes, burning rubber from brake pads. Yikes! Before I knew it, I was at the back of the pack - and here comes the wall! I managed to get up the wall and back to the tag end of the pack. But by that time, the breakaway was gone, and I was riding with the group of also-rans.

I think I rode 2 more laps, with my ever dwindling straggler group. Finally my group was reduced to me, and four riders from Japan, of all places. The crowd was still chanting Kennedy; but by now, I realized that it was time to stop the charade. I don't know if the boys from Japan soldiered on much longer; but I hadn't seen Francoise, and I hoped that he was still in with the leaders. As it turned out, Francoise had already retired, and I was the lone American. Maybe if I'd known that, I would have continued until the officials kicked me off the course. but I quit, hoping that at least Francoise would do a better job. So the result of the first American team at the World Road Championships was two DNF's. Not exactly something to brag about; but at least we were there.

Epilogue
In later decades more Americans ventured across the pond to compete with the best Europeans. They were better athletes, better trained and prepared, came from well funded development programs. They did very well, winning several World Championships, and of course, the two greatest races: the Tours of Italy and France.

I'm also sure that most of them never heard of me, and were not aware that we had trod the ground before them. We did not leave a significant foot print. But one thing Francoise and I can say, in 1962, we were likely the first Americans to go over and give it a try. Except for a faded competitors pass, and a missing tooth, I don't have much to remind me of this adventure.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Historical note: The podium of the 1962 World Amateur Road Championships was: 1rst Renato Boncioni (Italy), 2nd Ole Ritter (Denmark) and 3rd Arie den Hartog of the Netherlands. The USA would never win an amateur worlds title by the time they were discontinued in 1995. For Renato Boncioni it would be his only major international win while Ole Ritter and Arie den Hartog both entered the professional ranks and had successful professional careers after.

We are pleased to bring this historic memoire to you and want to thank Bob Kaplan for sharing his memories of his adventure and giving us an insight into the sport during the 1960's in Belgium and America; and his and Francoise Mertens trip to represent the USA in Italy at the worlds. We hope you enjoyed it, as much as we did. Special thanks for William Lewis of Quattro Assi for his inspiration and help.

If you have a similar cycling adventure or race during this era (earlier/later) that you would like to contribute please contact us so we can preserve the record for the future.

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