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Classic Contenders: Eric Leman
 
By Staff
Date: 3/19/2003
Classic Contenders: Eric Leman
 

Third Time Still A Charm

By Tony Szurly

Thirty years ago this month, Eric Leman entered an exclusive fraternity. In 1973, the Belgian professional joined compatriot Achiel Buysse (1940, 1941, 1943) and Italian Fiorenzi Magni (1949, 1950, 1951) as the only three-time winners of the Tour of Flanders, one of the revered monuments of professional cycle racing. However, at just 27 years old, Leman had become the youngest 3-time champion. It would take 25 years before anyone else was able to pony up the price of admission to their little club, when Belgium’s modern-day hero, Johan Museeuw, at 32 years of age, equaled their hat-trick feat (1993, 1995, 1998).

In the spring of 1968, neo-pro Eric Leman, riding for Flandria-De Clerck, had recently won the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne race and was now making his first appearance in the Tour of Flanders. Although he finished outside the top results in 40th place, the experience gained would prove valuable in upcoming years. The 21-year-old rookie would win a Tour de France stage later in the season and it looked like he could leave his life working in a butcher shop behind him.

In his next attempt at the Ronde in 1969, Leman found himself in a chase group with the great Rik Van Looy. They worked together for more than 25 miles to try and reel in the leaders. Although they were not successful, for Leman, in 22nd place, there was deep satisfaction to be gained from Van Looy’s comments afterwards, in which he called the young pro "a real cyclist". It was understated but heady praise from a true legend of the road, a man who had already won every one of the Classics in his stellar career.

A year later, the riders were in the mood for payback. The previous year, the great Eddy Merckx had stunned everyone with a dominant win after more than 40 miles on his own off the front, crushing Italian rival Felice Gimondi on his way to winning his first Tour of Flanders.

Typical Flemish weather greeted the riders in 1970 and the combination of wind, weather and cobbles gradually whittled down a leading group of thirty cyclists to a hardy group of just fourteen. Walter Godefroot (Salvarani) decided to make his move five miles from the finish. Only Merckx (Faemino) and Leman (Flandria-Mars) could follow. The three stayed together, but the experienced Godefroot and Merckx (with seven classic wins between them by then) quickly cooked up a deal and attacked Leman in turns. He countered everything. Merckx launched the sprint at 300 meters and then sat up, putting Leman into the lead position. But to their surprise, the youngster was strong enough to hold off Godefroot from the front. Merckx followed, resigned to third. Merckx later wrote in his memoirs that he had suffered a flat tire. Godefroot was quite furious, with himself in particular. First of all, earlier in the race, when the peloton was divided in echelons, Leman had been caught off the back but was saved when everybody was forced to stop for a level crossing. Secondly, during the last ten miles Leman was complaining all the time that he was exhausted, that he couldn't go on anymore, etc. Leman admitted it freely: "It was just a trick". Nevertheless, it was a fantastic victory against top-notch competition and the first all-Belgian sweep of the podium in eight years.

Personal misfortune marred the 1971 season for Leman. His wife was killed in an automobile accident that occurred just a week before the running of the Tour of Flanders. Understandably, he was not focused on the race, finishing 24th, and the proper chemistry simply was not there in the Flandria-Mars team. Leman would recover later in the year, winning the 1st, 6th and 7th stages at the 1971 Tour de France. Despite his success, lack of support from the Flandria team management at the Tour led him to talks with De Muer who recruited him to ride for the Bic team.

Better days were still ahead for Leman, though. The 1972 edition of the Tour of Flanders saw Roger Rosiers (Bic) and faithful Merckx lieutenant Roger Swerts (Molteni) break away while Leman (now riding for Bic) was falling back. André Dierickx (Flandria) and Frans Verbeeck (Watneys) had made their way up to the two at the front. Eddy Merckx (Molteni) gradually reeled them all in, while Leman covered the move for his teammate Rosiers and stayed in Merckx’s wheel.

Brought back into the action at the front end of the race, Leman did not waste the opportunity for his new team. He used his sprinter’s talents to close the door on his rivals and win the Tour of Flanders for the second time, raising his left arm in a victory salute. He speaks about the race: "I was getting behind on the cobbles of Landskouter when my teammate Rosiers attacked, with the slow Swerts. But then Dierickx and Verbeeck bridged. I kept holding Merckx's wheel, hoping he wouldn't let this happen. Merckx only managed this when entering the final stretch. I countered a late attack from Swerts and was leading too early again. I held on. Verbeeck complained about being cut off, but it was just the standard sprinter’s trick".

Fast-forward a year to 1973. Leman had remarried and now ran his own butcher shop in Lenderlede. He was riding for the Peugeot team and, though he would later regret signing on with the French team that held the Tour de France as their primary objective, on this day things were going well. At the bottom of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, Frans Verbeeck put in his attack. Leman, alert to the move, was able to go with him. Godefroot had an untimely puncture and would not see the front of the race again. Roger De Vlaeminck was not strong enough to make this ultimate selection on the gnarly cobbled berg’s 20% grade, and then Verbeeck himself flatted. A final quartet would play out the end of the race and headed for the line in Meerbeke, where the Tour of Flanders would finish for the first time. These four were sprinter Freddy Maertens (Flandria), relative unknown Willy De Geest (Rokado), Eddy Merckx (Molteni) and Leman. Merckx and Leman were the strong men on the front, as both Maertens and De Geest were told not to work by their team managers.

Their strategy would backfire as Leman won the sprint, with Maertens second and Merckx third. Here’s how Leman described the scene: "Merckx raged fully the whole three last hours of the race, intending to squeeze everybody. But it didn't succeed. On the Muur, Verbeeck attacked, leading a further selection, but soon after he flatted, as did Godefroot. De Vlaeminck was empty and just let go. Only Merckx, young Freddy Maertens, De Geest and I remained. On the cobbles of Denderwindeke, Merckx tortured us. I realized the two others were worse off than me. I was empty but countered a desperation attack from Maertens while smiling at him. In the sprint he was my toughest rival though."

Although he certainly enjoyed his most notable successes at the Tour of Flanders, Eric Leman won 72 races and achieved 17 top ten finishes in the Classics in his nine-year professional career. Two seasons in particular stand out. 1970- In addition to winning the Ronde, he was 3rd at Milan-San Remo, 3rd at Paris-Roubaix, and 4th at the Amstel Gold Race. That would probably be enough to win the World Cup overall these days. In 1974, Leman was 2nd in Milan, 5th at Flanders, 5th at Gent-Wevelgem, 5th in Roubaix, 4th at Fleche-Wallone and later 4th at Paris-Tours. He was an extremely strong sprinter and bagged an impressive 33 individual stage wins, including five in the Tour de France, ten in Paris-Nice and four in the Dauphiné-Liberé. He had victories at the Vuelta a Espana, Tour of Andalusia, Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, Tour of Aragon and the Tour of Belgium.

Today, Eric Leman runs a wholesale cleaning products business. He readily admits that he did not become rich from cycling. His business cards read: "Winner of the Tour of Flanders in 70, 72 and 73". According to the 56 year old Leman, "It’s still a good introduction!" And on his residence is written in big letters: RONDE VAN VLAANDEREN. The native of Ledegem is still consulted each year about his predictions and thoughts about the race by both the media and fans alike.

On Sunday, April 13th, we may be lucky enough to witness history if Johan Museeuw can claim yet another victory in his beloved Ronde to become the only four-time winner. We may have to wait much longer before a new rider will come along and win the race three times by his 27th birthday. That would-be rider has yet to win his first. Eric Leman’s feat is just one page from the storied history of the Tour of Flanders, but for now, it belongs to him alone.

Sources:

www.rvv.be, the Official Ronde van Vlaanderen website
With thanks to Bart Van Hoorebeeck (Belgium) and Benjo Maso (the Netherlands).

Photo credits:

Black and white photos from www.rvv.be
Color photo from www.velo-club.net

Editor's Note: Visit Tony Szurly's Andrea Tafi's website Io Tifo Tafi!


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