"My most beautiful sprint victory was actually achieved in the Tour." A retrospective on the career of three-time Tour winner Eric Leman

19min reading time   by Dries De Zaeytijd on 26 March 2024
Eric Leman celebrates his 78th birthday in 2024. He certainly does not lack physical fitness. Leman still looks spry and sharp, and that's not by chance: "The fact that I stopped racing at a relatively young age was deliberate. I wanted to continue pursuing my passion for hunting even after my cycling career, and to remain physically capable of doing so."

Hunting is more or less the common thread in Eric Leman's life. This passion begins at the age of 12. Eric has an uncle who has bird hunting as a hobby, which was still legally allowed in those days, and occasionally accompanies him: "One day we heard some shots in the distance. Not far from where my uncle and I were watching, a wounded pheasant had fallen. Some hunters came to us and asked if we had seen where the pheasant had fallen. I pointed out the spot to them and immediately asked if I could join them sometime. A week later, I went out with them. The hunting bug has never left me since then."

Three years later, in 1961, Eric takes his first chance as a cyclist: "I played as a forward for Olympic Ledegem, in my hometown. That went well, but I was intrigued by my brother Robert, who occasionally had success in races. And so I made the switch."

During his first year, it was clear that he needed to take enough time to adapt. Nevertheless, Leman already achieves some podium finishes and victories. He can still effortlessly recall his very first victory.

"As a novice rider, I won a race in the Bosmolens district in Izegem. Halfway through the race, I had escaped with a certain De Schepper. As the race progressed, I felt the fatigue increasing and took fewer turns at the front. I told my companion that I would be happy with second place. But a little further on, I started feeling strong again. And then I saw the banner for the last kilometer...

The closer we got to the finish, the more I thought, 'this might be the only race in my life that I will win'. So I decided to sprint after all. And I beat my fellow escapee, despite having given him my word. That wasn't fair, I know. Anyway, after the finish, I didn't linger too long and quickly went home (laughs)."

A racing butcher's apprentice

Leman's career takes off steeply. Wearing the colors of the cycling club KSV Deerlijk, he strings together victories: "My second year as an amateur was really good. Of the last 16 races, I won 14 and finished second twice. Not that I was beaten fair and square then, mind you, I just needed some pocket money."

In the meantime, Eric has completed his training as a butcher and works as a butcher's apprentice in Ledegem: "I started working every day at 6:30 a.m. and did my meat round. In the afternoon, I worked in the butcher’s shop. Fortunately, my boss was a cycling enthusiast and I also got the necessary time off to go racing. Mind you, I had to make up for that time afterwards."

In 1967, Leman is logically the king of victories among the amateurs, ahead of Roger De Vlaeminck and Valère Van Sweefelt. The Ledegem native counts on a selection for the World Championships in the Dutch city of Heerlen, but it doesn't happen: "Through the press, I found out that I wasn't selected. I was really angry and jumped on my bike and rode to Hector Dekeerschieter, who also lived in Ledegem. He was a delegate for the Belgian Cycling Federation and had a lot of influence. But apparently, he couldn't select me.

Hector had a pigeon loft with a door that was half wood and half glass. How that glass didn't break when I slammed the door shut hard, I don't know either. I'm not saying I was going to become world champion, but I wasn't given the chance to capitalize on my good form at that time."

Scoring as a neo-professional

In the winter of '67, Eric receives a call from Briek Schotte, who was team manager at Flandria at the time: "Briek offered me a professional contract for 1968. He made a financial proposal which I immediately accepted. It wasn't much, but we weren't accustomed to much back then either."

Racing alongside Walter Godefroot, Noël Foré, and Wilfried David at Flandria meant competing with some big names. Despite the strong lineup, Leman immediately distinguishes himself. He wins his first ever race among the professional riders with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Furthermore, by the end of 1968, the Ledegem native already has twelve victories to his name. In addition to Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, he also triumphs in Porto-Lisbon – a race covering 365 kilometers – and claims a stage win in the Tour de France.

Leman recalls: "That year, the Tour was still raced in national teams. I was part of the Belgian B-team myself. But we performed better and earned more than the A-team: Georges Vandenberghe wore the yellow jersey for 11 days, and Godefroot and Eric De Vlaeminck, like me, won a stage. With Ferdinand Bracke, we even had a chance at the overall victory. The bosses of his trade team Peugeot promised us money if we could still help him, but after three weeks, Bracke was too tired. Ferdinand ultimately finished third in the general classification."

Rivalry with Godefroot (1)

Leman's first experience in the Tour, despite his young age, is undoubtedly positive. Yet, after all these years, there's still a slight bitter taste: "In the last stage of the Tour, there's a breakaway at one point. I want to jump in, but Walter Godefroot shouts for me to wait.

I listened to him and held back. But looking back, I should have taken my chance and maybe could have grabbed a second stage win. Now, I think Walter deliberately called me back. A neo-professional winning two stages in the Tour right away was detrimental to his reputation as an established figure."

In the fall of 1969, Walter convened a meeting with me and Pol Claeys. He issued an ultimatum to Mr. Pol: either I or Walter would leave himself. In the end, it was the latter.
Eric Leman

The relationship with Godefroot takes another blow during the 1969 edition of Dwars door België. In the final stretch, Leman is leading alongside Albert Van Vlierberghe and Willy Vanneste. "Suddenly, Briek rides up next to me and says I should wait because Godefroot has escaped from the peloton.

I replied: 'Why should I wait?' to which Briek asked, 'Can you win?' I confirmed that I could win, but now I had to prove it, of course... As we entered Waregem, we still had to cross the bridge over the highway, and that's where I attacked. I arrived solo at the finish and won. Godefroot finished fourth.

From then on, things were never the same between Walter and me. In the fall of 1969, Walter convened a meeting with me and Pol Claeys, the big boss of Flandria. He issued an ultimatum to Mr. Pol: either I had to leave or Walter would leave himself. In the end, it was the latter. The following year, Godefroot raced for Salvarani."

Rivalry with Godefroot (2)

In 1970, Eric Leman crossed swords multiple times with Walter Godefroot and, of course, also with the Cannibal Eddy Merckx. This was evident in the finale of the Tour of Flanders: "About six kilometers from the finish, Walter surged ahead and took a 250-meter gap. I chased after him but had to ride full throttle for at least two kilometers to overtake him. And all the while, Merckx was glued to my wheel. In such a phase, Eddy never took a turn at the front. Of course, there are no images of that... (laughs).

As we caught up with Walter, Eddy immediately jumped away with Walter on his wheel. But I was able to catch them. Shortly after, I heard them say something to each other. I didn't catch everything, but I understood that they had agreed to take turns attacking. I was extra vigilant and far from exhausted. When Merckx accelerated again, I went with him. At 300 meters from the finish, he slowed down a bit.

In such a moment, you have to decide in a split second: push on or wait. I decided to give it one more push, with the thought of delivering a big final surge at 100 meters from the finish. And I succeeded. I was really good at that, putting in that ultimate extra acceleration. And so I clinched my first victory in the Tour of Flanders. Ahead of Walter Godefroot and Eddy Merckx."

About six kilometers from the finish, Walter surged ahead and took a 250-meter gap. I chased after him but had to ride full throttle for at least two kilometers to overtake him. And all the while, Merckx was glued to my wheel. In such a phase, Eddy never took a turn at the front. Of course, there are no images of that...
Eric Leman

A few days after Flanders' Most Beautiful, the Tour of Belgium begins. Leman wins a stage there and, on the last day, a journalist from Nord-Eclair visits him. He told me, 'I have greetings from Godefroot. He told me he will drop you by minutes in Paris-Roubaix.' That's the kind of thing you should say to me. During Paris-Roubaix a few days later, I attacked 40 kilometers from the finish, something I rarely do. But I had to catch a rider that day: Walter.

Twenty kilometers before the end, Merckx caught up with me, along with Roger De Vlaeminck, who unfortunately had a flat tire. Not long after, Eddy left me in the dust. Roger caught up with me again, along with André Dierckx, all Flandria riders. Roger asked me if he could finish second, considering I had already won the Tour of Flanders. So Roger finished second, I finished third, and André fourth. And Walter? He finished 24th, almost a quarter of an hour behind. Yes, I definitely enjoyed that!"

Ruta del Sol

Just like in previous years, Eric Leman – along with the entire Flandria team – performs remarkably well in the Spanish stage race Ruta del Sol, in the 1971 edition. Eric says, "I always came out of the winter in good shape. After the Tour of Lombardy in October, I put my bike aside until after New Year's. Do you know that after the last race, it took almost 14 days before I could sleep normally again? We raced 150 races a year. It takes a while to detox from that.

During the winter period, I did fifteen minutes of gymnastics exercises every morning and evening, and I went running for half an hour. I was naturally flexible and my engine was good. I knew very well what I was doing, both in terms of training and during races. That's how I maintained my fitness. And of course, I often went hunting. Sometimes even with Georges Vandenberghe or Guido Reybrouck, also avid hunters. I have always loved being outdoors, in nature. Besides, I can tolerate the cold very well.

When I started cycling again, my regular training group with Daniël Van Ryckeghem, Jean-Pierre Monseré, Walter Boucquet, and Willy Bocklant had been training on the road for several weeks. But I could easily keep up with them right away. It's not surprising that Leman immediately had good form in the first races of the year. In 1969, he won four stages in the Ruta del Sol. In 1970, he took two stage wins, just like in 1971.

"At the beginning of the year, we were always at training camp near Malaga with Flandria. We also rode the Ruta del Sol each time. In 1971, we won everything there was to win. I grabbed two wins, and Roger De Vlaeminck also won two. And Monseré was the leader. In the very last stage, it was still exciting for the overall win, but in the final sprint, I forced Domingo Perurena to swerve, preventing him from taking bonus seconds and thus snatching the overall win from him. Afterwards, just like after my very first victory as an under-beginner, I didn't stick around for long..."

Triumph and Tragedy

Following the Ruta del Sol, tradition dictates the Paris-Nice, held in 1971 from March 10th to 17th. Leman demonstrates his prowess and wins three stages. He remains particularly enthusiastic about his third victory: "On the way to the finish, the Dutchman René Pijnen had escaped. Pijnen, like Willy Teirlinck, had a very strong final kilometer. With 300 meters to go, I'm still 100 meters behind. At 200 meters, I pass him, and at the finish line, I win by several lengths. That was one of my best sprints ever."

After the fifth stage, on March 15th, the peloton receives the news that Jean-Pierre Monseré has died during a fairground race in Retie. "Briek told us that Jempi had passed away. It was a shock, of course. I had a really good bond with Monseré. The next day, we went home."

The sudden death of Jempi is far from processed when Eric faces another devastating blow: "On March 28th, I was driving with my wife, my daughter Charlotte, and my sister to the start of the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands. It was a beautiful sunny day until we suddenly found ourselves in a fog bank in Lokeren

I crashed into the back of the car in front of us. It turned out to be the De Vlaeminck brothers' car. It was a heavy impact. My sister, my daughter, and I only had a few scratches, but my wife was seriously injured. I immediately started running around looking for a phone booth, as cell phones didn't exist back then. I found nothing and returned.

By the time I got back, a passing ambulance had already taken my wife Marie Rose to the hospital in Sint-Niklaas. In the hospital, the doctors couldn't do anything. Those are the accidents you'd rather not encounter, but well...

After a few days, Briek called: 'What are you doing?' he asked. 'Nothing,' I replied. Then he said, 'Get on your bike and start racing again.' And indeed, on April 4th, I was at the start of the Tour of Flanders. I finished 24th."

Best sprint ever

Despite all the setbacks, Leman performs exceptionally well in 1971: "Why that is, I don't know either. It's strange, I realize that." After earlier stage wins in Paris-Nice, he also scores stage victories in the Dauphiné Libéré and in the Tour de France. In the 1971 Tour, Leman wins no less than three times. According to him, he also rode his best sprint ever.

"On July 2nd, two stages were scheduled, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Stage A ended at the Amiens racecourse. Just before we arrived there, there was a narrowing. I had to brake there, or I would have crashed. I immediately lost thirty places.

Once on the track, I opened up all the stops. I accelerated and passed the entire peloton. At 300 meters from the finish, I was in the lead and I won. I sprinted for a whole kilometer, unbelievable. I actually thought this was even a better sprint than the one during Paris-Nice. This was probably my best sprint ever. That evening they showed it several times on French TV."

In French employment

In 1972, Leman no longer rides for Flandria but for the French team BIC: "I was a bit dissatisfied with Briek. I had asked him for more support during races so that I could win even more. But that didn't happen. And BIC saw me performing well during the Tour and liked what they saw."

However, Leman quickly realizes that for French teams, only the Tour matters: "When we went on training camps, it happened that French teammates would return to the hotel after only 60 km. 'We still have time, the Tour is only in July,' was their thinking. So, I just did longer training sessions on my own. Once I rode 200 kilometers in the rain. Across the road, I saw another fool on a bike. It turned out to be Frans Verbeeck, another self-torturer. Because to be good, you have to be able to torture yourself in a way. It often happened that after a training session, I didn't even remember which parish I was from."

Because to be good, you have to be able to torture yourself in a way. It often happened that after a training session, I didn't even remember which parish I was from.
Eric Leman

The hard training pays off in 1972 and 1973 with significant results. In '72, Eric wins the Tour of Flanders for the second time. Again in a sprint where he manages to beat André Dierckx and Frans Verbeeck this time. Also in 1973, Leman is the best in Flanders' Finest: "That year, I rode for Peugeot. At the finish, I beat Freddy Maertens.

You know what was also nice about that victory? There was no place provided to wash and change after the finish. So, I knocked on a farmhouse near the finish. The farmer's wife let me wash in a shed and gave me a kettle of water. And suddenly, Gerard Delva arrives, a supporter of mine who went everywhere with me. He brought the victory flowers. Whereupon the farmer's wife immediately allowed me to use her bathroom (laughs)."

Milan-San Remo

At first glance, 1974 seems like a season without many highlights for Leman. But the West Flemish rider collects numerous podium finishes that year. Second in Milan – San Remo, 5th in Gent-Wevelgem, 4th in the Tour of Flanders, 4th in the Fleche Wallonne... the list seems endless. Leman says, "That year I rode for MIC Moneymakers. We received our salaries for the first four months, then nothing. Misery. Despite that misery, we rode very strongly as a team. We even won the World Cup for teams that year. We scored a total of 85 points, of which I collected 55."

In '74, Leman comes very close to victory in La Primavera: "Because I had already warmed up in the Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice, I was in top form by the time Milan – San Remo arrived. So it was that year too. On the Capo Berta, I was in a group of four, with Frans Verbeeck, Freddy Maertens, and Roger De Vlaeminck. But the cooperation stalled. 20 km from the finish, we were caught again.

Gimondi flew away, and I was the fastest of the rest. But Gimondi couldn't climb during Paris-Nice, which ended two days before Milan-San Remo, and now he was flying.
Eric Leman

And then, I still see it happening before my eyes, three riders attacked: Marc Demeyer, Jos Huysmans, and Felice Gimondi. During the ascent of the Poggio, we managed to catch Demeyer and Huysmans, but not Gimondi. We descended like crazy towards the finish. I still don't know how we stayed upright. I was really scared then, I remember that.

Long story short: Gimondi flew away, and I was the fastest of the rest. But Gimondi couldn't climb during Paris-Nice, which ended two days before Milan-San Remo, and now he was flying. Well, I should have had a team director like Lomme Driessens, right? He would probably have made a fuss..."

World Soap Eric Leman

Just like in 1974, Leman finds himself with a French team that is not without financial troubles the following year. In 1976 and 1977, the ace cyclist finds refuge in smaller Belgian teams: "In '77, I rode for Marc Soap Central. Sponsor Marc Dewindt asked me at one point if I fancied working for him and selling soap.

By then, I had already expressed my desire to stop racing. I felt my body weakening, and I had always kept in mind that when I stopped racing, I wanted to continue for a while. Because I am an avid nature lover and enjoy hunting and fishing. And I wanted to be able to do that long after my cycling career.

When Marc asked me to sell soap for him, I hesitated for a moment. Eventually, I decided to sell soap, but not for Marc, on my own. Given my well-known name, that seemed like a good idea to me. I did buy soap from him for about four months, but I quickly realized that the purchase prices at Marc Soap Central were much higher than at the factory where they made everything. So, I also bought directly from the factory. Marc wasn't too pleased with that."

Under the name World Soap Eric Leman, the three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders builds his business with a depot in Hulste: "Thanks to my cycling career, I was able to build a thriving business. But it's not enough to be well-known; your products and prices also have to be good. And mine were very good." From then on, Leman is no longer directly involved in cycling: "I did have the opportunity to become a sports director, but I didn't want to. As a professional cyclist, you're away from home for five months a year. As a sports director, you're never home. And then, moreover, I couldn't go hunting anymore."

Honorary Citizen of Ledegem

The cycling career of Eric Leman seems to have slipped through the cracks of the collective cycling memory, despite his impressive palmares. The fact that Leman raced during the Merckx era and a Belgian flourishing period played against him. But also the fact that he wasn't much of a talker: "Maybe I should have spent more time talking to journalists myself. On the other hand, I preferred they leave me alone."

Not that Leman doesn't feel recognized. In 2010, he is proclaimed as an honorary citizen of Ledegem, his hometown: "I am very proud of that." Moreover, he is also very proud of his grandson Seppe Leman, who in 2024 is trying his luck as an aspiring cyclist in the peloton.

Leman is a loyal supporter but leaves the guidance to others: "There is a big difference with my time. Besides, he is a young lad, and I know from experience that you shouldn't overwhelm young guys with advice. But I am always there for him if he feels he needs it. And I quietly hope that he becomes my successor."

Eric Leman

Eric Leman (born 17 July 1946) is a former professional road racing cyclist from West Flanders, Belgium. He won the prestigious Tour of Flanders three times.
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