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,
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
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.
www.rvv.be, the Official Ronde
van Vlaanderen website
With thanks to Bart Van Hoorebeeck (Belgium) and Benjo Maso (the Netherlands).
Black and white photos from
Color photo from www.velo-club.net
Editor's Note: Visit Tony Szurly's Andrea Tafi's website
Io Tifo Tafi!