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!
Friday, July 01, 1994
Lille to Armentieres
234 km/145 mi flat
They are sprinting for the line in Armentières at 70 kph (43 mph): a heaving, jostling bunch, a slightly downhill finish, a right- hand bend with 400 m to go, another right-hander with 150 to go; then the road kicks slightly up. All heads go down.
Phil Liggett, the TV commentator, is shouting, his voice shrill: “We’ve got Ludwig up in second place. . . . The Novemail team still trying to bring their man through, and Abdoujaparov is here! He’s on the wheel of Nelissen! Abdoujaparov is swinging from left to right, this will be a shoulder-to-shoulder battle . . . As they come up to the line, Nelissen—“Oh, and they’ve gone! They’ve gone! One after the other!”
There’s a huge noise at the moment of impact. A collective gasp, a roar—the sound of shock. As Liggett said, they were there, shoulder-to-shoulder, and then they were gone. They were gone.
OLD GOLFERS NEVER RETIRE. They just lose their balls. So the joke goes. A variation of this joke could be made about Belgian cyclists—that they never retire, that is. The sport of cycling is so big in Belgium, the scene so vast, that it seems to absorb all the ex-pros. Retired riders become team directors, race organizers, national selectors, they run amateur teams, or, in Freddy Maertens’s case, they are employed in the Flanders Cycling Museum.
Not Wilfried Nelissen, however.
Nelissen seems to have disappeared. “Wilfried Nelissen you want? That’s a tough one. Give me a bit of time,” says one Belgian journalist.
Another one first expresses surprise that I want to contact him, then admits it might not be easy.
Nelissen was the third man in a golden generation of sprinters, though he tended to be obscured by the shadows cast by the other two, the flamboyant Mario Cipollini and the lethal Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. Cipollini—“Super Mario” as he liked to be known, “Il Magnifico” as he liked even more to be known—was an Italian playboy and showman who be- came ever more outrageous, arriving at the start of one stage of the Tour in 1999 dressed as Julius Caesar in a chariot. (In case you were wondering, it was Caesar’s birthday.) On other occasions, Cipollini wore one-of-a-kind, nonregulation skinsuits: tiger print, zebra print, a translucent muscle suit. In retirement, he hasn’t changed much. During the 2013 Tour de France in Corsica, I drove past a fit-looking 46-year-old riding his bike with his top off and an impressive all-over tan. It could only be Cipollini.
Abdoujaparov was his polar opposite. A dour Uzbek, he was the Tashkent Terror, a stern-faced warrior. While Cipollini was tall, bronzed, and dashing, with his chiseled jaw and mouth full of white teeth, the dark- haired, razor-cheeked Abdoujaparov was compact, powerful, and dangerous; outrageously fast but a menace in a bunch sprint. There was nothing malicious about Abdou. It was just that with elbows out and head down there was no telling where he would go; he weaved left, right, seemingly out of control.
But the main victim of Abdou’s erratic sprinting was Abdou himself. He was involved in one of the most terrifying crashes in Tour history, on the Champs-Élysées in 1991. Head down, he was heading for the win when he veered dramatically, and wholly unnecessarily, to the right, colliding with one of the Coca-Cola advertising posts that jutted out from the barriers. It was as if his bike was swiped from under him. It was stopped dead by the obstacle while the sprinter was catapulted from his bike and tossed through the air and into the road like a rag doll.
Motionless, he lay in a crumpled heap, where he was hit square-on by another rider. Robert Millar, who was in the bunch as they streamed across the line, said later that it looked as though Abdou had fallen out of a plane. It was the final stage. He was in the green jersey. He had to finish. Somehow he was helped across the line and then loaded into an ambulance, an oxygen mask strapped to his face.
Nelissen [was] dark-haired, with thick eyebrows over pale gray-blue eyes, his mouth struggling to contain tombstone-like teeth. Nelissen resembled a boxer who had lost a few fights. He looked like a typical Belgian hardman. He came from Tongeren, not just the oldest town in Belgium but, more significantly as far as cycling is concerned, one located in the southeastern corner of Flanders. Any athletic child in Flanders has little chance of not growing up to be a cyclist.
Nelissen turned professional in 1991 at age 19, with the Weinmann team, switching to Peter Post’s Panasonic (which became Novemail) in 1992. Known as “Jerommeke” to his countrymen and “Willie” to his teammates, Nelissen came to prominence during his first year under Post with a win at Paris–Bourges, two stages at the Tour of Switzerland, and two at the Dauphiné Libéré. In 1993 he won the early season semiclassic Het Volk, to ensure his celebrity status in his native land, especially in Flanders.
Nelissen was the fastest of the lot, faster even than Cipollini and Abdou, according to Marc Sergeant, his lead-out man in 1994. Sergeant was a teammate to lots of good sprinters, and these days the Lotto team he di- rects includes André Greipel, one of the best sprinters of the current generation. Yet he says, “Honestly, Willie was maybe the fastest guy I ever worked with. He was a real sprinter.”
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