After Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck is the best Classics riders in history. Tsjeete, as they call him in Flanders, won four editions of Paris-Roubaix, three of Milan-San Remo, two Tours of Lombardy as well as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and De Ronde van Vlaanderen. Alongside Eddy Merckx and Rik Van Looy, he is one of only three riders to have won the five Monuments. How gigantic would Roger’s palmarès have been if Merckx hadn’t been of the same generation?
Roger mutters: “I don’t know about that. Without him, I would have had one major competitor less, but on the other hand, it was always easy racing with him in the bunch. You didn’t need any tactical insight, you just had to follow Merckx. His presence helped me to pull myself up, beating him was a challenge. Winning Paris-Roubaix ahead of Willy Teirlinck [in 1977] was a disappointment, I wanted Merckx to be second. That’s why the 1975 Tour de Suisse is the best win in my career. I beat Merckx three times in one day – in the morning stage, the time-trial and in the general classification.”
De Vlaeminck compared himself to Merckx all the time. When he heard that the Cannibal didn’t have sex for four months in the run-up to the Classics season, Roger added a month: “Merckx was my inspiration. I even sent a spy to his hotel to check what he was eating and drinking. Water, I discovered. A shame, I would have preferred that it was Coca-Cola!”
His respect for Merckx is massive. Roger even named his only son after him: Eddy was born to his second wife Katty, who is 25 years younger than the retired racer. “That reminds me, I have to call the little one,” says Roger. Ten seconds later, he has his offspring on the line. “Did you win? Score a goal? I’ve already told you, you need to practise those free kicks.” Roger looks at me sheepishly as he puts away his mobile. “I miss him already, you know. Even though he’s only a couple of hours away. Will he ever race? Don’t know about that. At the moment he prefers football. But it’s still possible – he is only 17.”
Actually, Roger De Vlaeminck would have preferred to be a footballer. He had a good left foot on him and at 16, was already in the first eleven at Eeklo, a third-division team. His older brother Erik and his father, who both raced, convinced him to have a go in a junior race. Riding his big brother’s bike, he got fourth place. He won his second race. In his first season as a junior, Roger won 17 races.
But the contemporary crop of riders is almost as delicate a subject. “What do you think of Peter Sagan?” Roger sighs heavily and shrugs his shoulders. “He is fast in the sprint, but that’s about it. Throw in 600 metres of climbing and he gets dropped. And he can’t do time trialling either. In my day, he wouldn’t have won a single race.”
On Twitter, the hashtag #InDeTijdVanRoger – In Roger’s Day – has been doing the rounds for the last five years. With jokes like “in Roger’s day, Milan and Sanremo were much further apart” and “in Roger’s day, the riders in Paris-Roubaix had to lay the cobbles themselves”, people make fun of his talk about his career.
This time, he can’t hold back either. The whole restaurant gets a free presentation about the deplorable state of contemporary cycling. “The best riders all used to do the Tour of Lombardy, but nowadays the organisers have to work like dogs to even fill the start sheet,” begins Roger. “Riders earn way too much money. In September they don’t want to race any more, they have enough pennies in their bank accounts, whereas we did cyclo-cross races and Six Days throughout the winter.
Even if he’s right, these kind of comments don’t boost his popularity. “At least I’m honest!” he says. “The others just don’t dare to say what they think. Don’t you think Merckx agrees the current generation of riders are a bunch of hacks? You should hear him when he’s had a couple of whiskies.” He puts both hands to his mouth and shouts into my ear: “U-s-e-less, Roger.”
Roger dismisses the claim that it’s impossible in modern cycling to perform in all races. “Look at Marianne Vos, she too won everything in one season: ‘cross, Classics, Giro, even mountain bike races. And cyclo-cross world champion Wout van Aert proves I’m right. He was in the running in the finale of all the spring Classics. It’s totally feasible, you know – performing throughout the year. But of course you have to be a good rider.”
Roger is a black or white figure – you love him or you loathe him. His controversial statements mean he is often quoted in the Flemish press, which doesn’t do him any favours.
“No one looked better on the bike than Roger,” fellow racer Eddy Planckaert once said. “You could iron a shirt on his back, Tsjeete was a stylist. His technique was unequalled. Roger didn’t ride over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, he hovered over them.”
“What a difference to the Giro. The finish would be around three in the afternoon and if you didn’t slam on the brakes, you missed the hotel. That’s why I was much keener on the Giro.” Still, Roger never managed to win it. In 1975 – his golden year – he came very close. From the gun, “Le Gitan” was riding everyone off the wheel. He won seven stages, one second place, two thirds and four fourths. The stats were surreal: in 23 stages, he was only outside the top eight twice. He won the points classification and the combined jersey, but not the pink. “I lost that Giro because of a mistake by a mechanic. On the third stage he’d put my saddle a couple of centimetres too high, which gave me cramps on Prati di Tivo. I lost four minutes and could forget about the general classification.”
Time for dessert. Roger is having tiramisu. Legend has it that when he was racing, Roger used to stuff himself with cakes. It was a deliberate move to radically increase his blood sugar levels: “That’s right, I’d eat about five a couple of days before the race. And during training, we didn’t shy away from bakery stops either. We’d make bets with each other. I remember once downing 19 éclairs.
“You know what I’m proudest of? That I never tested positive during my career. Conmen like Virenque make me sick. And that guy has the nerve to say that Armstrong nicked a Tour victory from him. I feel for Lucien Van Impe who lost his polka dot jersey record to him.”
If Roger had raced in the Virenque era, he may well have tested positive too. Not necessarily because he doped, but because he had naturally high haematocrit level. His haematocrit readings fluctuated between 48 and 52 per cent. So, he’d regularly go over the 50 per cent limit imposed in the ‘90s.
Roger was blessed by Mother Nature, but also boosted his talent with an unbelievable workload. He had his physio Georges Debbaut to thank for imposing an iron discipline. His training sessions in the Kluibos forest were infamous in the cycling world. “Those were Spartan killer workouts that only Roger could cope with,” former team-mate Ronan De Meyer once said. “Roger would toil for hours through mud and puddles, uphill and down dale, with Debbaut breathing down his neck.
“Eddy Planckaert came along once. We never saw him again.” Roger had developed special training techniques with his brother Erik, who was crowned cyclo-cross world champion seven times. If a field had just been ploughed by a farmer, they would ride into a furrow and try to stay in it as long as possible. “The current generation doesn’t train enough. You know I did an extra 140 kilometres after Gent-Wevelgem? When I got home I’d done 400 kilometres in one day. I needed that to be in form for Paris-Roubaix [back then, Gent-Wevelgem took place between the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix].
The French Monument was Roger’s favourite race. No other rider has matched his results there. His secret? Bike handling. “With my brother, we trained by riding as long as possible on train rails. That’s also why we were so good at ‘cross. In my first ten editions of Paris-Roubaix, I didn’t have a single flat tyre. And I punctured every time in the last four. When you’re good, you don’t puncture. But when you’re not quite on it…”
Out of the blue, Roger puts two fingers on his wrist. He takes a deep breath and starts the chronometer on his watch. “Forty-nine beats per minute,” he mutters after a while. “During my career I got down to 34. As long as I stay under 50, I’m happy.” Roger is in his seventies but still looks sharp. He is too vain to let his fitness deteriorate. “I was going bald and had some hair implants,” he says without embarrassment, while putting his hand through his black locks. “I can’t let myself slip. I don’t understand how Merckx can walk round with a beer belly. Even if you’re no longer a pro, an athlete keeps looking after himself after his career. I try to cycle every day. That way, I keep my weight down.”
Roger stretches and checks his watch. “Bon, I’m going to have to leave you: there’s a race on television. Tirreno-Adriatico. I won that race six times. A record. Can you imagine Sagan doing that? Didn’t think so.”
This is an abridged extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 19.2.