November 2007

By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian










The World's: Back to Back

Rik Van Looy (WC 1960 & 1961), Belgium

Rik 2 Van Looy
Van Looy in 1962

Often referred to as the Golden Age of cycling, the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's were truly heady times for Belgian cycling. Rik Van Looy's early career overlapped that of Van Steenbergen and his latter years saw him crash heads with Eddy Merckx. To distinguish them, the Belgian fans called the two Riks simply Rik I and Rik II. But over time Rik II (Van Looy) assumed a much loftier title as the “Emperor of Herentals” (his home in the Flemish town and municipality of Herentals ).

Rik II's palmares is not as lengthy as that of Rik I but in terms of single day races he won everything that was worth winning (at least once) with an astounding grand total of 493 road victories. He was the first rider to win all ‘five monuments' and he was no slouch in the Grand tours. In the 1959 Vuelta he had three stage wins, finished 3 rd overall and won the Points Competition. In 1961 (the year of his back-to-back World's title) he won three stages plus the Mountains Competition (not bad for a Flemish road sprinter!) at the Giro. Perhaps his best Grand Tour was that of the 1963 Tour where he claimed three stages, the Points Competition and 10 th on GC.

“I think only of victory” he often said. Smiling rarely, Van Looy possessed a powerful sprint and developed a team to focus their entire efforts on his victories. His “red guard” predated Lance Armstrong's team strategy by almost four decades. I saw them in action at local Belgian criteriums several times. They were an awesome collection of riders who would take the race by the scruff of the neck when the master so desired. In return Van Looy would unfailingly win the race and his ‘red guard' would all go home happy and a little richer as the roar of the fanatical fans resonated in their heads.

In one contemporary report Van Looy was described as ‘studying his opponents as a mongoose studies cobras, searching for signs of injuries that may slow them down or force them to change their regular pattern of racing. He memorizes every course, locating trouble spots where accidents or traffic jams are likely to occur, picking his spots for passing and for his final sprint.'

Through his abilities plus the assistance of his dedicated team, Van Looy very much controlled the peloton's affairs out on the road. Proud, meticulous with his preparations and a consummate winner, he also had his eye very much on the financial rewards of his profession. But unlike Van Steenbergen he maximized his income through the then new concept of endorsements. His hawk like nose and narrow, haughty face appeared all over Europe on billboards and posters selling everything from beer to razor blades. During his prime years he was earning about $1.5M/year (in today's money).

SPECIAL NOTE: While Van Looy's back-to back World Championships headline his racing results, it is two other World Championships that illustrate his darker side. In the Belgian town of Ronse in 1963 a furious sprint finish saw Belgian teammate Benoni Beheyt claim victory over second placed Van Looy.

Beheyt coming around Van Looy
Van Looy was not a "happy camper"

The outraged Van Looy claimed that Beheyt had pulled his jersey. For his part Beheyt stated that he had simply eased himself past Van Looy and held out his hand to prevent them from bumping into each other. To this day the incident will ignite passionate discussion in Belgium. Rik II got over his disappointment and continued on his winning ways. Beheyt, a second year pro and the new world champion, saw his career sputter for a few more years before retiring from the sport. ‘The Emperor' had ways of dealing with troublesome riders!

When Eddy Merckx came along at the end of Van Looy's career, Rik II did not take kindly to being upstaged by the young upstart. Much to Van Looy's shame it was clear that he was not able to win the 1969 World's and he did not want another Belgian to take his place. He is known to have sabotaged Merckx's chances of winning on that day.

Van Looy was a professional from 1953 until 1970 and his reign as “The Emperor” has left an illustrious and indelible mark on the history of cycling. Now 77 years old he is often to be seen at various cycling related events in Belgium.


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