Eric Leman and Marie-Claire Monseré could pass for two retired, bespectacled teachers, shooting the summer breeze over coffee. But he is an unassuming three-time Tour of Flanders winner and she is the sister of a world champion cyclist, bonded by their affection for him.
We are in the garden café at KOERS,a cycling museum housed in a quaint former fire station in the Belgian city of Roeselare. This is where Jean-Pierre — “Jempi” to all but family and close friends — was born, raised and based. Inside, they have several cabinets of memorabilia belonging to one of the city’s famous sporting sons.
Arriving in their working-class family in September 1948, Jean-Pierre was the third-born after two girls. “He always got what he wanted,” Marie-Claire says. “He was jovial, constantly making fun. When he was young, he’d go ring on people’s doorbells then run away.” On one occasion, a neighbour hung out her husband’s shirts on the washing line to dry. Mrs Monseré received a knock on the door hours later asking if she knew why they had little holes in them. She shrugged, having been working in the family shop the whole time. Later, Jempi admitted he’d sneaked over and fashioned them with scissors.
He was full of energy and jokes. “When he was older, he claimed to be a big drinker,” she says. “He’d go and ask for two Rodenbachs [the local beer] because he was thirsty. When people weren’t looking, he threw them away on a nearby plant. After a few days, the plant was not looking so good...”
Monseré didn’t have the attention span for school, scribbling bicycle wheels on his papers instead. At the age of 12, he asked for a bicycle, but his parents insisted he needed 70 per cent on his exams. “He got 72 and what he wanted. And afterwards, you know what his next score was? 48!” Marie-Claire remembers.
At first, their father Achiel, an amateur bike racer as a youngster himself, did not approve of his son’s new hobby, preferring he stuck at football. So he went out racing in secret. Papa Monseré came round to the idea; at the 1970 World Championships, he was one of the first people to congratulate his son after crossing the finish line.
His adolescence, in which rivals included future team-mates Roger De Vlaeminck and André Dierickx, was packed with race wins and national titles. In 1968, he took his first ever flight, to Mexico, for the Olympic Games, where he came away with sixth in the road race. Sharing a room with Italian rider Giovanni Bramucci, he discovered their partners were both pregnant. Having married his sweetheart, Annie, at 18, Jempi swore he’d call their firstborn Giovanni if it was a boy, and the Italian said his would be Gianpietro. Lo and behold, his son had a very un-Flemish name when he was born the day after the 1969 Paris-Roubaix. “He was always impulsive, like me,” Marie-Claire says.
Possessing staying power, a shrewd tactical brain and an explosive sprint, Monseré won 25 races as an amateur that season, including Omloop Het Volk. His pro contract with the top Belgian squad, Flandria, was sealed with second place at the world amateur championships behind solo breakaway Leif Mortensen. Six weeks later, he lined up for his maiden Classic, the Tour of Lombardy. Dutchman Gerben Mem Karstens won their nine-man sprint on the track in Como ahead of him. A fortnightlater, he was disqualified following a positive amphetamine test and Monseré, just turned 21, was a Monument winner. The race hasn’t seen a younger victor since.
Such a feat is remarkable, but Monseré was a glittering talent in a golden generation. “It wasn’t exceptional that a new guy won a big race in his first season,” Lemansays. “I won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Roger De Vlaeminck took Omloop Het Volk and there was Valere Vansweevelt too [who won Liége-Bastogne-Liége aged 21].”
For 1970, Mars came in as title sponsor while they launched their world-famous bar in Belgium, leading to some questionable advertising photos of Monseré chomping on chocolate while looking straight to camera. They were certainly hungry — with Leman, Monseré, the De Vlaeminck brothers and Dierickx all under-25 and vying for supremacy, they comfortably won the 1970 World Cup for teams ahead of Eddy Merckx’s Faemino squad.
Their joker from Roeselare was a top ten regular in the year’s spring Classics: sixth in the Tour of Flanders, eighth at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Fléche Wallonne, tenth at Paris-Roubaix. The Belgian championships at Yvoir arguably proved most pivotal in gaining selection for the Worlds that August. “Merckx attacked several times, and Jean-Pierre caught him each time,” Marie-Claire says. “Merckx said ‘I wantto win, it’s the first thing missing from my palmares.’ So, Jean-Pierre told Merckx to
go and he’d stay back.” Accordingly, he had the champion’s blessing for a spot in the team for that summer’s World Championships in the English city of Leicester.
It was the first time the prestigious event had been in the UK for 48 years and money seemed to be no issue. Organised by Benny Foster, a local former bike shop
owner, the final spend was eight times over budget - £1.5 million rather than the projected £186,000.
Correspondents talked of some of the strongest winds the event had ever experienced on the flat, exposed nine and three-quarter mile lap, centred around the motor racing circuit of Mallory Park. “No beer stalls, no chips for sale, not even a board to hide behind,” a Belgian journalist grumbled. There were British quirks though: bacon and eggs, which Monseré gamely tried, bobbies marshalling the course and the local town crier booming out the names of officials and the 39 nations in attendance at the opening ceremony.
For the traditional powerhouse cycling nations, half the battle for Worlds supremacy was (and remains) getting a star-studded team to ride with a semblance of cohesion. The story goes that the 12-strong Belgian line-up went round the room prerace with the various favourites (Merckx, Godefroot, Vanspringel, Verbeeck, De Vlaeminck and Monseré) saying what remuneration they’d give their teammates in turn for support. When it came to the youngster, he said he’d buy them all a Rodenbach beer from his beloved home city. He ruled out his chances of winning to the Belgian media pre-race, but had asked his wife to pack smart clothes - a sign
that the post-race reception for the top three was on his mind. Being coincidentally assigned his lucky race number, 22, was another good omen.
Italy made the racing. Felice Gimondi got up the road early, with team-mates Gianni Motta, Giacinto Santambrogio and Michele Dancelli. Alain Vasseur (France), home rider Michael Wright and Monseré joined them. The Belgian sat on, rarely doing a turn, much to the chagrin of the boys in blue. With the bunch in close proximity 45 kilometres from the finish, Gimondi and Vasseur attacked, and Monseré bridged up alongside Britain’s Les West, Charly Rouxel (France) and Leif Mortensen (Denmark), Monseré’s vanquisher at the amateur Worlds a year previously.
Another ferocious chase ensued, but the six stayed away. Unfortunately, the TV camera switched away for Monseré’s decisive lone attack inside the final 1,000 metres. After the finish, number 21 (Eddy Merckx) reached through a mass of people to embrace him; Monseré kissed his cheek and ruffled his hair, grateful for his help. “I could race ten more years and never have a day like this,” Monseré reflected in the press conference. Rodenbachs all round for his team-mates- he really was as good as his pre-race word.
The aftermath was less convivial. Interviewed post-race by Les Sports journalist René Jacobs, Monseré accused third-placed Gimondi of offering him 600,000 Belgian Francs (£5,000) to give him a hand in the sprint; Gimondi refuted the accusation, saying he didn’t speak the language and the only time they’d talked was when he ticked off Monseré for not contributing to the early break.
Days later, runner-up Mortensen said he’d heard him suggesting a deal to Monseré and been proposed it himself; Gimondi talked of a conspiracy and threatened to punch the Dane the next time he saw him. The plot thickened: the Italian added he understood that Monseré had signed a pre-agreement with his own Salvarani team, had therefore expected help in the finale and accused him of biting the hand that fed. “He’ll be a champion, but aboveall, he’s reckless,” he said.
Monseré stayed put with Flandria: allegedly, he overlooked a clause in his contract which said if a new deal was not agreed by August 1, his contract would be automatically renewed for another year. The polemic petered out; Gimondi later admitted Monseré was telling the truth and was effusive in his autobiography, Da Mein Poi. “He would have been a great because he was already one... his inevitable rivalry with Merckx would probably have relegated me to second place,” he wrote.
Monseré rose with that Belgian blend of appealing on a local level - it was an era when Roeselare punched well above its collective weight, with locals Patrick Sercu and Benoni Beheyt also winning world titles - and being taken to heart by the whole country. It helped that the handsome, sideburn-sporting champion looked like he belonged in the Rolling Stones, a band whose music he adored.
Alongside his world-beating, Monseré made time for everyone off the bike. “When he saw kids, he stopped to give them autographs or even put them on the bike and did little lap with them,” Marie-Claire says. “I believe that’s one of the explanations he’s still popular today. And of course, he’s the boy next door, so I think it’s the combination of those facts - and also the fact he died.” By 1971, Merckx had won two Tours and bestrode the sport. But Monseré, three years his junior, looked set to increase his challenge. That February, he claimed the overall at the Tour of Andalucia.
Eric Leman, Roger De Vlaeminck and Jempi had already dominated the race, winning two stages each, but the last day proved their biggest test. “Jempi was leading by 15 seconds,” Leman says. “I told him there’d be war: Perurena, a Spaniard, was second, it was a homerace and they hadn’t won yet. When the flag went down, the Spanish riders attacked; by the last lap, me, Roger and Jean-Pierre were knackered.”
There was a 30-second bonus at the finish. Leman led out Jempi and when Monseré passed him, he closed the door on the rival. “Monseré won the overall,” Leman says. “After the finish, I rode straight on to my hotel because I was afraid of the Spaniards!” He advised his friend to accompany him at Paris-Nice to prepare for Milan-Sanremo; the younger man preferred to race in his homeland.
On March 15, he lined up for a kermesse at Retie near the Dutch-Belgian border. Monseré was near the back of the 16-man leading group as a Mercedes drove in the opposite direction. Being a small event, the police had not seen it necessary to halt traffic on the course. Jempi was likely looking over his shoulder for a moment and was hit head-on. He died at the scene, joining the likes of Stan Ockers, Rudy Dhaenens and Wouter Weylandt as Belgian champions whose lives were extinguished in random incidents.
Mars-Flandria subsequently pulled out of Paris-Nice midrace; race leader Eddy Merckx wept when he heard the news and rushed back after winning Milan-Sanremo to be at the funeral, one of 20,000 on the streets of Roeselare. “Look at the pictures from that day, those crowds,” Dries, the KOERS employee on hand to translate Eric Leman’s Flemish, interjects. “It’s like a king who was going to be buried.” His widow Annie received a telegram from the Belgian royal family. Tragedy after tragedy starts to pile up. Thirteen days after his friend’s death, Leman was driving to the Amstel Gold Race in thick fog when he was involved in a crash, which killed his young wife. Five years later, in 1967, Monseré's seven-year-old son Giovanni was fatally injured by a care while doing laps of the neighbourhood on his bike.
It's almost too much to bear. How does one find the strength to carry on? "It's something that you have to accept. It's something you never forget," Marie-Claire says. She has not been to a church for decades. "Why [did this happen]? I said he was too beautiful to live on this earth. Giovanni was a lovely little boy, completely lik his dad... it's because it has to be that way. You can't change it. You have to live with the good moments that we had, and te rest, you have to forget. But forgetting is hard."
This is sombre interlude in a conversation full of laughter and lightness; Marie-Clare is beatific ball of energy. "If you don't laugh, life is over. And I chat to everyone, even little dogs," she says, "Jean-Pierre had the same character as me. My other sister thinks more before she speaks.” We jump in her car for an impromptu tour of the Monseré haunts. “30km/h zone, phh!” she mutters at a road sign, before animatedly moving her hands to let other drivers out in Roeselare’s mini rush hour.
First stop: 182, Populierstraat, their old house on the city outskirts. The place has been modernised, but there’s still the drainpipe that the teenage Jempi would use to sneak out, go to discos and meet girls till the early hours. “My dad used to check if he was sleeping without switching on the bedroom light,” Marie-Claire says. “So my sister or I would be in his bed. When he came back, he’d throw stones at the window to get us to open it. My parents never knew.”
We pass his old schools and stop at a giant mural of a smiling, rainbow-collared Jempi spread across the white house wall. They don’t forget their greats here: it’s heartening to see how Monseré is literally part of the place. But the cycling fervour in Flanders can cut both ways: when Merckx later knelt at Monseré’s grave, a punter had the gall to ask him for an autograph.
Jean-Pierre and Giovanni Monseré’s resting place is our final stop. Marie-Claire lovingly moves some flowers from the grave, which she visits three times a week. “When I have problems, I come here to talk to him,” she says. “It feels like yesterday, not 50 years ago. It’s almost not possible all that time has passed. We speak about him every day; Jean-Pierre didn’t live long but the time that he had, all the things he did... it was exceptional.”