A story that takes us back to the spring of 1967. About two years earlier Herman Vanspringel signed his first professional contract at the end of July 1965 with the Belgian Dr. Mann team led by Frans 'Swa' Cools. His record includes such races as Ghent-Wevelgem, Brussels-Ingooigem, Cras-Avernas and Hoeilaart-Diest-Hoeilaart. However modest all this may seem, the Antwerp native with as much power as manners is predicted to have a very big future. And so it has come to pass ... even though the first months of 1967 turn out to be a bit of a disappointment.
"That year I took part in the Bordeaux-Paris race for the first time", says Vanspringel. "I remember feeling very nervous during my trip to France. Fear of the unknown and of course the enormous distance. I had never ridden a course of 557 kilometres before. I could not assess that at the time. Let alone that I knew whether the preparation I had done was sufficient. Why did I absolutely want to participate in such a marathon race? Well, I was persuaded by Frans Cools, who was my sports director at Mann-Grundig at the time. My spring was a bit disappointing with a 26th place in Milan-San Remo and an eighth and an eighteenth place in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix respectively."
"Out of the blue he asked me if I could ride Bordeaux-Paris, but I wasn't really keen on that. In the end I was persuaded to sign up," Herman continues. "However, that year I had my sights fully set on the Tour de France. A year earlier I finished sixth in my first Tour, just under six minutes behind the French winner Lucien Aimar. Of course, I wanted more. At the time, there was a persistent rumour in the peloton that anyone who had ridden Bordeaux-Paris was completely exhausted and therefore unable to play any significant role in the Tour de France. Some even claimed that such a one-off marathon race could jeopardise the rest of your career. At that time I was only 23 and of course I didn't feel like it at all. But Cools kept talking to me until I told him it was OK. And look... I'm still not dead, eh." (laughs)
On Sunday 28 May 1967, at two o'clock in the morning, the 67th Bordeaux-Paris starts in Bordeaux. A total of 25 riders appear at the start. "That's not much, no" Vanspringel continues. "But you have to take into account that every rider had two pacers and then a support vehicle containing the sports director and a mechanic, so it was quite expensive for the organisation. Added to that was the fact that very few people felt called upon to take part in a race of such distance." (laughter)
"When we left it was still pitch dark and there are no lights on racing bikes, of course. Even for such a marathon race it wasn't specially fitted. There was a car in front of us with a couple of big fahrenzies on it, and behind us were the cars of the various team leaders and the race director, who drove at night with lights. We had to make do with that. It sometimes happened that the first car disappeared from sight a little bit and then it was always a question of looking well and staying focused. But all in all, visibility was not too bad. Even at night, especially in the villages and towns we passed, a lot of supporters were looking outside when we passed. In barely five minutes, everyone and everything had passed by. That was unique." (enthousiast)
"I could and perhaps should have won the first time I entered the race. At that time we had agreed with all the participants that we would stop at about 50 kilometres before we had to start the final stretch behind the dernies. At the side of the road everyone could do one last small or big thing, change their night clothes for day clothes and so on. It was an unwritten law that everyone had to keep to that appointment."
"Only the Belgian Georges Van Coningsloo ignored this and drove on without stopping. The year after this incident, the organisation introduced a compulsory fifteen-minute pit stop to prevent such unsporting behaviour from happening again. Because Van Coningsloo did not abide by the unofficial rules, he had a ten-minute lead before we reached the dernies. The bird had taken flight. I then immediately went full speed ahead. Ten minutes ahead with 350 kilometres to go is not insurmountable. At least, that is what I thought. Van Coningsloo, however, remained almost constantly at ten minutes."
"Frans Cools was both my pacesetter on the derny and my sports driver in 1967. Com on faster, Frans, you can do it', I constantly shouted. That probably got on his nerves. Oh, calm down Herman, that Van Coningsloo is going to kill himself soon', he said, a bit agitated. But I knew what I was doing. I felt there was still room for improvement, I was really good that day. Cools, however, wanted to do it his way and saw it all coming together. Until we got caught in a huge rain shower about 100 kilometres from the finish in the Chevreuse valley. Frans was wearing dark glasses and missed a bend at one point. He turned into the yard of a farm. I was just on that side of the road and had no choice but to follow him straight to the farm. So we lost even more valuable time."
"After Frans' mistake, my backup rider Gaston De Wachter entered the race with whom I made a last effort. In the end I ended up one minute and seven seconds behind winner Georges Van Coningsloo. If you know that I had been on my bike for 13 hours, 56 minutes and 45 seconds, it is a small difference. I was very angry and frustrated. Normally I should have won that edition, because I was the best man in the race. Noël Foré finished third at three minutes and completed the Belgian podium. With Willy Bocklant, Willy Monty, Jos Spruyt, Théo Mertens and Ward Sels we finished that year with no less than eight countrymen in the top ten."
Such a powerful feat, performed by a debutant, has rarely been seen. However, at the time Vanspringel was completely in the dark when it came down to his preparation. "You can't actually train for those 600 or so race kilometres," he admits. "In preparation I usually went to criteriums or other races of about 150 to 200 kilometres a month before the race. Before the start I had already trained about 80 kilometres and after the race I kept on riding behind a derny until it got dark and therefore too dangerous. On days like that I easily covered 350 to 400 kilometres. So before I came to the start that first time, I had never ridden 600 kilometres. You just can't do it in one day. Besides, of course, you have to rest sometimes and not only train. Let's just say that in that month of preparation I tried to do the actual race distance ten times."
"Whether I followed a special diet in the meantime? (starts laughing) There was no such thing back then. I just ate as usual. And during the race? Oh, there was the occasional chicken leg at night. Sandwiches and bananas too. It was mainly a question of not overeating, because that can make you seriously ill during the race. Especially because nobody is used to eating a lot at night. It's no use stuffing yourself with all kinds of things at such a moment just to have something to eat. Once, during Bordeaux-Paris, I got diarrhoea. I had to stop somewhere before we reached the derny's, which came about half way through the race. From then on it was impossible to stop and giving up was not in my vocabulary. When entering some town or other, I just sat down in the middle of the pavement to do what I had to do... And then I went on. Oatmeal juice brought a little relief at such times. Or just water, because those specific sports and recovery drinks came much later. Behind the Derny, it was then a matter of quickly grabbing a little something to eat, because eating at such a scorching pace is no mean feat."
"At such a moment you need all your concentration to stay in that wheel for as long a time as possible. In terms of equipment, I didn't use anything special, it was just an ordinary road bike that I used all year round. However, a larger gear was mounted on it: a 55-13, which was a large gear in those days. You can ride fast enough with that, you know (laughs). At the fastest Bordeaux-Paris I ever rode, my average speed over the whole distance was just over 46 km per hour. We didn't make any other alterations to the bike."
"So from 1968 in Châteauroux, you had that compulsory 15-minute stop before we started the final stretch behind the dernys. That break was meant to get rid of your night clothes, refresh yourself, put on fresh clothes, eat and drink something quickly, go to the toilet and off you went. That was no real rest, because fifteen minutes is no time at all. Moreover, you had to make sure that you found a toilet in time, because there were only three for all the participants. My soigneur Mon Stuyck sat down on a toilet half an hour in advance to keep one free for me." (laughs)
At the time, the distance of Bordeaux-Paris varied from 550 to 620 kilometres depending on the place of arrival. "Sometimes we arrived in a banlieue town just before or after Paris and that made a difference of a few dozen kilometres", Vanspringel explains. "In the end it doesn't make a big difference. When you are broken at the end of a race, every kilometre is one too many. But the reverse is also true: when you are good, you don't care if it's another ten, twenty or seventy kilometres. It goes without saying that I was broken every time I arrived at the finish, but considering everything, I was still pretty fresh at the same time because I had surplus."
"I attacked every time when I was 200 to 150 kilometres from the finish, the moment when my pacer Gaston started to get nervous. (laughs) So I gradually built up a lead of ten to fifteen minutes. So in the end I could always ride at a pace that suited me best. I didn't have to constantly go flat out because of that huge lead. However, those last hundred kilometres were the hardest. In the Chevreuse Valley, you are constantly faced with small mountains of one to three kilometres. When you are used to riding with a big plateau and suddenly have to shift down to a small gear after competing for 500 kilometres... It really hurts. Be careful, in a 'normal' classic such as the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix you can have the same feeling. Broken is broken. In itself, the distance does not matter at such a moment. You can break down anywhere and anytime."
"After Bordeaux-Paris there was usually no time to recover, because the next day a 100 km derny criterium awaited us. I often found the travel to those places worse than the criteriums themselves. (laughs) Sometimes those places were so far apart that you had to ride all night to get there in time. You hardly had time to lay down in a back hotel for a few hours' sleep."
In 1968 and 1969, Herman Vanspringel once again focused on the Tour de France and deliberately ignored Bordeaux-Paris for a while. "After my first participation in 1967, I only returned to the start in 1970", he continues. "That year I won for the first time. Of course, three years earlier I had already gained a lot of self-confidence by finishing unjustly in second place. I took that experience - also in terms of preparation and so on - with me so that from 1970 onwards I always appeared at the start in Bordeaux with a very good morale. Whoever wants to beat me here today, will have to be incredibly strong', you know that feeling."
"Only in 1981 - during my last participation on Sunday 17 May - I had some doubts, because I was 37 and no longer that great. Desperation suddenly struck. When I drove to the starting point, 'I won't lose now, in my last year...' flashed through my mind. And then I won again with just under ten minutes advantage. (laughter) Ferdi Van Den Haute, who is nine years younger, finished second at 9 minutes and 56 seconds. I consider that seventh and final victory the best, because I had so many doubts beforehand. During the preparation I never really felt one hundred percent and if you can win in such a way, well..."
"It remains a pity that I have to share one of my victories, that of 1974, forever with the Frenchman Régis Delépine. Why is that? Well, that is a very stupid story. At a certain moment I was, as usual, ten minutes ahead of everything else. Jacques Goddet, who was director of the race at the time, was in front and the French gendarmerie was riding in front of him. I followed them without knowing that they were in fact riding completely the wrong way. Suppose I had suddenly gone the other way, everyone would have called me crazy? Both the police and Goddet suddenly turned left, while it was apparently straight ahead. After about six or seven kilometres they suddenly realised they were going the wrong way. They hurriedly looked for the shortest possible route to get back on the right track, but in the meantime I had lost six minutes of my large lead on the first pursuer. With seven extra kilometres in my legs I finally got back on track."
"What do you do then? Drive full speed ahead to widen the gap, of course. And that worked out bit by bit. I even built up my lead to a quarter of an hour at the finish. Then came the same cérémonie protocolaire as usual. I was ready to go home from Paris when a Belgian journalist came to tell me that I had been downgraded. My sports director, pacer, attendant and I all fell out of the sky of course. I had just been honoured as the winner, hadn't I? It turned out that the rules of Bordeaux-Paris literally state that the participating riders are supposed to know the route by heart. It was no coincidence that a Frenchman, Delépine, had come second that day and that's when the chauvinism of the French comes into play. Of course I immediately went to get information."
"What the official rules said, I couldn't possibly refute, but it was still ridiculous. When both the police and the race director drove to the left, I must have gone straight on by myself without any guidance. What madness, but apparently everything was right to get that Frenchman on the podium. And so it happened... They didn't dare to remove me from the rankings after all, so they declared an ex aequo. Despite the fact that Delépine arrived about fifteen minutes after me, he got the same finish time. (turns eyes) Ridiculous."
"Although I have to say, in fairness, that the French did give me the full first prize. At the time, that was the equivalent of 100,000 Belgian francs (just under 2,400 euros), flowers and a flag, but I no longer have it. (laughs) No, that's certainly not a lot for such a race and then I had to share it with the pacer, because he didn't do it for fun either. So Bordeaux-Paris was definitely not for the money. Certainly not if you consider that you were always working very hard for it more than a month beforehand. I also gave up training, and not only during the race.
Vanspringel eventually appeared at the start of the famous marathon race ten times. He finished on the podium in the French capital the same number of times: seven times in first place, twice in second place and once in third place. Faut le faire! "When I finished third in 1979 I had a bad fall," says Vanspringel. "I decided to carry on, which was totally irresponsible. I should have stopped, but you know what a racing driver is like. It's not like a footballer. (laughs) If you crash at 60-65km/h... It was a stroke of luck that I fell next to an embroidery or I would have been finished, because I'm talking about the time when you didn't have to wear a helmet. How did it happen? Well, my chain didn't go on the thirteen. My mechanic was fixing it from the car. Suddenly I probably faltered on the car door handle and went down. Oh well..."
"I still think it is a pity that Bordeaux-Paris ceased to exist at the end of the eighties. If you see what they do nowadays to organise races all over the world, resulting in very far away rides for everyone... Nowadays it can't be far enough: the Tour of China, WorldTour races in Canada, the Giro in Israel, etc. (blows) And they let such a beautiful traditional race like Bordeaux-Paris go to waste. So I don't understand that."
"Whether the current generation of riders could still do that, ride a 600-kilometre race? Bah yes, they can all do it, but they have to want to ride of course. Those men earn so much money, why should they work hard during a marathon race? Roger De Vlaeminck already said that to me at the time: "You are crazy to ride such a race! I told him that it was possible that I was crazy, but I just wanted to win as much as possible. Roger clearly didn't want to work hard for a month and more. I was happy to do it, because I knew I was good at it and had a good chance of winning. If there had still been marathon races in my time, I would probably have taken part in them."
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