In truth, even if their careers had overlapped, it’s unlikely that Joop Zoetemelk would ever have been nicknamed ‘Jay-Z’ by hip-hop loving cycling hipsters.
There’s nothing remotely bling-tastic about Hendrik Gerardus Joseph Zoetemelk, winner of the 1980 Tour de France, 1985 World road race champion and, at 39, winner of the 1987 Amstel Gold Race.
For a man whose palmares includes victories in the 1979 Vuelta, Paris-Nice – three times – as well as Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie, he is a remarkably modest, low-key character.
His 1980 Tour de France victory is the clear highlight in a race he finished all 16 times he started, including six second places, the ‘curse’ of a career that straddled the Merckx-Hinault epochs. His 1980 success was made easier when race leader Hinault, suffering from knee problems, quit before the first mountain stage entering the Pyrenees.
Next day Zoetemelk took over the race lead in Bagnères de Luchon, holding it to Paris, winning the stage 20 time trial in a Tour that saw his Ti-Raleigh team scoop up a barely credible 12 stages, as well as the best young rider jersey with Johan Van der Velde. “I had finished second behind Bernard twice before, but we had an incredible team that year, with Oosterbosch, Raas and Lubberding,” recalls Zoetemelk. “Peter Post was the manager but it was Jan Raas and Gerrie Knetemann who ran the team on the road, Post wasn’t so good in the car – he was a better organiser, sorting transport and hotels,” smiles Zoetemelk.
Given Hinault was in the ascendant and Zoetemelk was 33 at the time, his 1980 Tour win was a little surprising, but not as big a shock as his triumph at the 1985 World road championship at Giavera del Montello at the near veteran age of 38. Overnight, Zoetemelk became the poster-geezer for old blokes everywhere.
“Our team team leaders were Adri Van der Poel and Van de Velde, I had a ‘free’ role, but it was a tough circuit and in the finale there were three Dutch riders – Gerard Veldscholten, Johan van der Velde and me – in a group of 14. The Italians were riding for Moreno Argentin, and (Stephen) Roche, Lemond and Kim Andersen attacked on the final climb, but it came back together.
“On the descent I took the wide line through a corner and they let me go. Claudio Corti chased and got to 10 meters of me, but that was it, the Italians had controlled the whole race, until the final three kilometres,” recalls the 71-year-old. “I started sprinting from the kilometre to go sign and when I got to the 200m board I thought, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it, I’m going to do it!’ That was my 18th world road championships and I had been fourth and fifth, but never been on the podium before, I wasn’t really a one-day rider,” chuckles Zoetemelk with characteristic understatement.
Zoetemelk hadn’t been planning to ride the following summer’s Tour de France, but his team manager Jan Raas persuaded him, insisting that the rainbow jersey would be good publicity. “I had finished third overall – no big deal – in the Dauphine just before and I was going OK, but the 1986 Tour was too hard. By that point I wasn’t competitive in the general classification and I didn’t even manage to win a stage.”
Having endured an anonymous Tour, Zoetemelk decided on a ‘lap of honour’ without the unpleasantness of racing in July, so, at the age of 39, he raced his final year – and won his only Classic, the 1987 Amstel Gold. “I had finished second in 1986, beaten by a centimetre by Steven Rooks. Next year I was in the finale and Rooks was there too. He was riding for PDM and I was with SuperConfex. Teun Van Vliet was in the break, riding for Panasonic, and I said to Van Vliet, ‘Hey, what will you do if I attack?’ and he told me he would sit on Rooks.
“So Van Vliet attacked and I sat on Rooks, who chased Van Vliet down. Then I attacked, actually, I just accelerated on the other side of the road and, sure enough, van Vliet sat on Rooks – there must have been some back story between them there,” smiles Zoetemelk without elaborating on the fratricidal rivalry that existed between the big Dutch teams of that era, “so he didn’t chase and I stayed clear to win.”
Zoetemelk finally retired in 1987, albeit that he could still have ‘got round’ the Tour, “the only race that really counted for me, but I didn’t want to finish in the autobus every day. I had had a good career, it was time to stop.” At 39, who could grudge him, surely even the wily Dutchman couldn’t add another Classic?
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