November 2007

By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian










The World's: Back to Back

Rik Van Steenbergen (WC 1956 & 1957), Belgium

Rik 1 Van Steenbergen
Van Steenbergen on the cobbles of Belgium

To say that Van Steenbergen was idolised in Belgium is a gross understatement. I had the honor to see him at a six day race in the 1960's. Every time that he made a move during the racing it was the closest thing that I have ever seen to mass hysteria as the ‘standing room only' crowd roared in support. His professional career lasted an incredible 24 years starting in war torn Belgium in 1942. Estimates vary wildly but many claim that he won close to 1000 races on road and track.

While the media and his legions of fans focused on the prestige of his wins, Van Steenbergen focused simply on one thing – money. He would ride every possible race to maximize his income. A modest criterium would take precedence over considerably more important races if that criterium offered him a rich purse in appearance money.

As an incredibly talented athlete he could succeed at any discipline of cycle racing. Having completed a full season on the road, Van Steenbergen would turn to the smoky ‘Sportspalais' of Europe and earn his money on the wooden boards of the ‘Six Day' races. But as a proud champion he was not just there to secure his sizeable appearance fees. He won an incredible 40 Six Day races.

Van Steenbergen was a classic Belgianflahute', tough as old boots, who could handle his homeland cobbles and foul weather as well as he could conquer the three weeks of a Grand Tour. As a master of the rugged cobbled Belgian criteriums and kermesses, his terrific road sprinting ability was enhanced by his long hours on the indoor tracks.

It is often said that had Van Steenbergen been born into our modern racing era with it's preference for specialization, then he could have become a great Grand Tour champion. His only weakness was the high mountains. Instead he focused on stage wins where he accumulated 4 at the Tour de France, 15 in the Giro d'Italia and 6 at the Vuelta a Espana. His best ever Grand Tour GC result was at the 1951 Giro where he came second to the great Fiorenzo Magni just 1m 46s back.

Van Steenbergen actually won the World RR Championship three times. The first was in 1949 in Copenhagen and the list of those that he vanquished that day gives lie to the magnitude of the man. Second was the fiery Swiss champion Ferdi Kubler, 3 rd Fausto Coppi, 4 th Brik Schotte and 5 th Gerrit Schulte. Basically the cream of the crop at that time.

Undoubtedly Van Steenbergen's back-to-back rainbow jersey in 1957 was the sweetest of all. Again he took out the greatest riders of the time. The first three-time Tour winner Louison Bobet was second. One of the greatest road sprinters of all time, Andre Darrigade, was third and the emerging new Belgian superhero, Rik Van Looy was fourth. The icing on the cake was that he won the race in front of his home crowd in Waregem in Belgium . One can only imagine the pandemonium that exploded amongst Van Steenbergen's adoring-fans on that historic day.

Looking through the lists of Van Steenbergen's achievements his back-to-back World's victories almost get lost in a sea of illustrious race names. Included are eight major classics, 7 Belgian Road Championships, 6 European- and 9 Belgian- track championships and an almost endless list of lesser races. When Van Steenbergen passed away in 2003 at the age of 78 his funeral was attended by all of Belgian cycling's ‘royalty' headed by Merckx, the Belgian Prime Minister and Hein Verbruggen, President of the UCI.


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