This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Tuesday, July 28, 1981
Martigues to Narbonne
232 km/144 mi flat
“Where’s Freddy?” is a refrain that might echo around the Flanders Center on an hourly basis. Freddy Maertens, perhaps cycling’s fastest sprinter, works there now. “Where’s Freddy?” would perhaps have made a fitting title for his autobiography. Instead it is called Fall from Grace, which is also apt. Because that, certainly, is what Maertens did.
“Anyone who says they can do it naturally is a liar,” says Maertens, meaning racing without drugs. He used amphetamines in kermesses, “but never in the Classics or Tours,” though he lost the Tour of Belgium in 1974 after testing positive. He also tested positive in some big races in 1977, the season after his great year, at the Flèche Wallonne, Tour of Flanders, and Tour de France. In those days a doping positive didn’t result in expulsion, much less suspension, much less disgrace. The standard punishment was a time penalty, usually of 10 minutes.
Maertens’s own problems were just over the horizon…He was unhappy with his Flandria team in 1979, sensing a plot against him, suffering with an injury to his wrist, and only winning two minor races. He had fallen a long way from his eight stage wins and world race title of 1976. Three years later, he could barely finish races: “Depression was looming just around the corner,” he writes in his book. On the advice of his team boss, Paul Claeys, he traveled to the United States, to a school of medicine in Philadelphia, for tests.
Maertens stayed in Philadelphia for several weeks. He was under the care of a Dr. Fischer, who ran a series of physical and psychological tests. In Belgium, the rumor was that Maertens had been committed to a mental hospital. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, all the tests were clear; Maertens was told there was nothing physically wrong with him, although Dr. Fischer did suggest that his psychological problems were due to “the problems he has had in relation to drugs.” He added, “Though I suspect he will be tempted to use stimulating drugs when he is under competitive pressure, I think he has the inner strength to resist the temptation.”
Still Maertens could not rediscover his old form. Still he struggled to finish races; winning was out of the question. The rumors intensified: He was an alcoholic; a drug addict; he had a nervous breakdown. It was none of these things, Maertens says now. It was all a big misunderstanding. He did have a problem, and it completely derailed his career. It was financial. The taxman was after him. “Nineteen seventy-seven was good,” he says, “and ’78 was OK, but then began the problems with the taxes. It was the biggest problem I had in my career. But in the winter of 1980 my wife and I talked. She said, ‘You have to do it like you did it before.’” She meant training, focusing solely on cycling. “She said, ‘When it comes to speaking to the accountant, the lawyer, the court, I will do it. You have to train and nothing more.’” Carine shielded her husband, intercepting mail, phone calls, and even visits from the taxman.
At the start of the 1981 season, Maertens had a new team, Boule d’Or, and, with Pollentier and Demeyer no longer by his side, he had two new musketeers, Ronald De Witte and Alain De Roo. He was also reunited with his old director, Lomme Driessens, who had been fired after the 1977 season. But a return to his previous form seemed impossible. Although still only 29, Maertens was seen as a spent force. Whatever his problems, he had shone too brightly, too young, and burned out.
Maertens wishes to correct one point. “I was not an alcoholic. The problem is that when they see you drinking one beer, people think you are an alcoholic.”
He did use alcohol, though. He used it as a performance aid. But only champagne. “It was Lomme who said to try it. Seventy-six was the first time; you have to try it in training, not racing. That was the mistake Pol- lentier made. He tried it before the Baracchi Trophy and his legs were like that”—Maertens shakes his legs and they wobble like jelly. “Everything new, you have to try it in training.
“Once you know it works, then the fortnight before, you do not drink alcohol. No! Or the champagne has no effect. When the legs weren’t good, I didn’t drink it. But in big races I left the bottle in the car.”
A whole bottle of champagne? “No, no, no—half a bottle. In a cool box. A teammate went to get it for me at 30 km from the finish.” Who? “Normally it was Herman Beyssens who went back, because he would have a drink also.” By the time it reached Maertens, with Beyssens having had his share, it was “more like 33 centiliters.”
“It was in a bidon, mixed with some sugar and some caffeine.” He would drink it in three or four gulps. And the effect was like dynamite. Compa- rable to amphetamines? “Yes,” nods Maertens. “Like amphetamines, yes. It was like a legal high.”
What happened to the rest of the champagne? “Lomme finished off the bottle while driving the team car.”
But in 1981 even the champagne didn’t seem to be working for Maertens.
It wasn’t until Stage 3 that Champagne Freddy began showing his old speed.
Cycling Weekly: “Maertens moved as if on rails, accelerating, gathering speed until he put in that special effort that we thought we had seen the last of. He thundered across the line. . . . It was a spectacular, dangerous final sprint.”
Phil Anderson: “It was too dangerous for me.”
Asked who was faster, he or Sean Kelly, Maertens says, “Me. Me, me.”
Maertens went on to win three more stages, including the final one into Paris, and the green jersey. He also won his second world title later the same year, in Prague. Green jersey, world champion—his improbable comeback was the story of the year, and explanations were sought. “He’s riding two gears higher than the rest of us,” one unnamed rider said in a story in a Belgian newspaper. How did it happen?
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