25 jaar geleden werd de oorspronkelijke versie van dit stuk gepubliceerd in het Brusselse Engelstalige tijdschrift The Bulletin. Gregory Ball had het speciaal daarvoor nog eens nagelezen, waarvoor nogmaals mijn dank. Ondertussen heb ik wel een aantal wijzigingen aangebracht, dus als er fouten tegen het Engels in staan, is dit volledig mijn eigen verantwoordelijkheid en niet die van Greg. (Ik werd voor dit artikel overigens door Ackroyd Publications 8.346 fr. betaald, mijn best betaalde opdracht ever.)
The Stars and Stripes waving in harmony with the Hammer and Sickle. The platform of honour of the 1989 world road championship for professionals may have been a dream come true for those in favour of glasnost, perestroika and peaceful coexistence, it was also a nightmare for the Belgian cycling supporters. The “mondialization” as former FICP-president Hein Verbrugghe used to put it (by the way, shouldn’t it be “LeMondialization”?) is since then a certain fact, but it inevitably entailed the decline of the Belgian Empire built by people like Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy and, of course, the greatest of all time, Eddy Merckx. Eddy Merckx, however, was not a “Flandrien“, the special type of cyclist which made this sport so popular for the masses.
In the early cycling years, when the acquisition of a bicycle was still a privilege for the upper classes, Belgian riders were chiefly French-speaking, thus perfectly mirroring Belgian society as a whole. Soon enough however, young Flemish farmers and factory workers found out that they could improve their social position by this means. Having bought a primitive engine to shorten the journey to work (they often had to trudge up to five miles, every morning and every evening), they could in fact beat professional riders they met on the way. This tradition continued up to the time of the last great climber, Lucien Van Impe, who could withstand the Columbian and Spanish lightweights. He too discovered his climbing talents when during his paper round he left training amateur riders far behind him.
Just before the First World War the Flandriens became immensely popular in Flanders… and feared in France, where they beat the best riders in the “Tour de France”. At first “sponsored” by a local count or baron (French-speaking of course but eager to attract the people’s votes in the political field), who procured them a better bike, the “Flandriens” were soon “bought” by French bicycle-constructors often as “domestiques” for lesser French riders! If you can’t beat them…
Later on, when cycling had become so popular that everyone could afford a racing-bike, the Flandriens formed their own teams and were almost unbeatable. One of these teams by the way was led by the man who was credited to have invented the word “Flandrien”: Karel Van Wijnendaele. It is said that his articles on cycling have contributed more to the growth of Flemish literacy than anything else.
Of course, the popularity of cycling wasn’t restricted to Belgium, France and Italy. Since the Second World War the three leading nations were joined by Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands. In that way it took almost thirty years after Sylveer Maes had won the Tour de France before another Belgian rider emerged in the yellow jersey in Paris. His name? Eddy Merckx of course.
Still there was no real crisis in the Belgian household, as the classic one-day races were still dominated by Briek Schotte, Rik Van Steenbergen, Fred De Bruyne, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck or the inevitable Eddy Merckx. And although the young Tom Boonen has won twice the classic Tour of Flanders (installed by Karel Van Wijnendaele) in a fashion reminiscent of a super Merckx, there are some people who consider that with the abdication of Eddy Planckaert, the last of the Flandriens has left the scene.
Coming from a large family with two elder brothers, Willy and Walter, who were also competitive riders in their time, Eddy Planckaert has the clan spirit which has to be mentioned whenever one speaks of the Flandriens. He can be tough, but he is also playful. Tears of joy are as common for him as laughter to hide his pain and deception. And furthermore he has the dark, exotic look which also gave birth to the surname of Roger De Vlaeminck, the “gypsy”: Flanders was occupied by Spanish soldiers in the 16th century and it seems they had more on their mind than just looting and pillaging.
But now it has come to an end. Almost twenty-five years ago Eddy Planckaert had to give up cycling on doctor’s orders. His successful career (winner of the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the green jersey in the Tour de France) had strained his back so much that his health would be endangered if he continued to compete. And what’s perhaps worse: he isn’t allowed to be the farmer he was hoping to become, neither.
Some time ago Ivan Heylen, a former so-called protestsinger, published a book about Planckaert and his family. To return the favour, Eddy has been the drummer in Ivan’s band… The concept of the book gives the impression that Planckaert is talking freely about himself, his family, especially his cycling brothers and about other competitors. On the other hand he says twice: “Cyclists are secretive. Anyone who can’t keep his mouth shut has to choose another profession.”
When I met Planckaert in his home near Ghent, I asked him how one could reconcile this with writing a book “which tells it all”?
“Listen, when you read the book, you have to use your common sense,” Eddy says. “As in other professions there is a ‘clan’ in professional cycling and one mustn’t betray the clan in any respect, otherwise you are rejected. A promising but never quite successful Belgian rider, William Tackaert, did so a few years ago and hardly raced for a year afterwards. I wouldn’t say that his revealing interview about the use of stimulants or the making of arrangements was the only cause of the premature end of his career, but still one has to admit that he had not a friend left in the business. It is clear that these things happen, not as frequently as one might think, but when they do it is unwise to reveal them to the outside world. It is already bad enough as it is.”
THE LAUGHING CAVALIER
There is also another little sentence that should put one on guard. It reads: “My greatest talent is lying…”
“But I have an even greater talent,” Planckaert replies when confronted with this statement. “And that talent is laughing. I mean, you don’t have to take this all so seriously. That sentence comes near the end, right? Well, in that way I wanted to protect myself if anyone should feel offended. I don’t think that it will be necessary, but one never knows.”
It is in fact surprising that there has been no reaction whatsoever from people mentioned in the book, because Planckaert clearly has an individual view of the world in general and the cycling world in particular: it is a world of “good guys” and “bad guys”. Sometimes one can switch from one category to another, but it is always told in a straightforward no-nonsense way. This might seem a bit surprising for a man who likes to pose as a “laughing cavalier”, but talking to him, one feels that underneath this lighthearted mask, there exists another, more serious Planckaert. In a television talkshow he indulges in telling anecdotes about the time he was at school, but in the book we learn that in fact he was extremely unhappy there, to the degree that he would rather not talk about it at all.
This duality was also apparent in his sporting career. One easily remembers how he and his brother Walter were scorned by Tour-boss Felix Levitan years ago when they stated in the press where and when they would leave the Tour de France even before the race had started. It is much less known that in 1989, when forced to give up, Eddy Planckaert burst into tears because he could no longer be of any help to his team mate Greg LeMond. He had even abandoned all hope of winning the point classification as he had done the year before, in order to dedicate himself entirely to the team.
FEAR OF FLYING
The irony of Planckaert’s forced retreat is that only this year he had overcome his fear of flying, which had hindered him in competing in some important overseas races, like the world championship in Japan, won by his friend and ‘neighbour’ Rudy Dhaenens. This fear of flying was as legendary among his fellow riders, as was his claustrophobia. Practical jokers as they usually are, it often happened that they blocked the lift just to give him a good fright. For Planckaert, however, it is no laughing matter. As a kid he was in a car crash that killed his father and he has had hallucinations ever since. He is well recovered now but in moments like that it all comes back. “A terrible feeling,” he sighs.
How does he look back on racing, now that it’s all over? “I had this talent for racing and I am extremely grateful for it,” he says. “It enabled me to earn more money than I ever could have done in any other way and, without overestimating my capacities, I can say that I had to work less hard for it.”
Two years before this he told me: “In a few years time it will be all over. And it’s only now I’m realizing how beautiful racing is. That’s why I would like to have the benefit of it, while there is still time.”
I bet he didn’t know how fast his time was running out…
Ronny De Schepper