July 1, 1956. In and around Aarschot, everyone nervously awaits the start of the Belgian National Road Race Championships. André Vlayen, who wins the race and crowns himself champion, is just a footnote that day. The 15-year-old Verbeeck is present as a spectator. "Like my father, I loved going to see the race. In our family, we were supporters of Ernest Sterckx. A Belgian Championship close to home, was the ideal opportunity to go and watch cycling. I had crawled under the stands at the finishing line to follow the race and admire the victor."
family. "Unlike my mother, my father supported my decision to start cycling. Although there were a lot of discussions about it at home." His parents both worked hard.
Father Verbeeck earned his living in the coal mine and later at a public water system. Before distributing soup in and around Overijse, his mother worked at a lamp factory in Vilvoorde. Frans would often help his mother with her duties. "The glasshouse gardeners didn't have time. They had too much work with the grapes. I remember distinctly that we stood on a square in Hoeilaart with bowls of soup, ringing our bell. Not long after people would come running from everywhere for soup."
Sometimes you have to be lucky enough to meet the right person at the right time to pursue a sports career. Someone who believes in you. In Verbeeck's case, this person was Florent Vanvaerenbergh. "After riding as a junior and amateur, I joined the Reno-Marcel Kint team of Vanvaerenbergh as an independent. When I made the switch to professional racing, Florent helped negotiate my first contract. I signed with Wiel's-Groene Leeuw - Berten De Kimpe's team – in 1964 for 2,500 francs. As a self-employed worker, mind you. You can't compare this with the fees and contracts of today. Even after those negotiations, I stayed in touch with Florent."
During his first years as a professional cyclist, Verbeeck competed in both the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain. He had to abandon the Tour, and finished 16th in the Vuelta. However, he did make a name for himself there by finishing 13 stages in the top 10, and securing a second place in the points classification after Rik van Looy. "In the mountain stages, the difficulties began above 2,000 metres. I could usually hang on, but if there were three climbs, I always had to drop out and would finish around 10th place."
Only in the Dauphiné I won a few mountain stages. I also wore the yellow and green jersey there. In fact, I was in shape too early in the season. After a good Dauphiné, I thought I would also be in top form in the Tour. This was not the case." In 1972 and 1973, Verbeeck would again appear at the start of the Tour de France. In 1972 he finished 16th, a year later he had to drop out after winning the team time trial in Sint-Niklaas with his team 'Watney-Maes'.
Back to 1966 and the Volta a Catalunya. A throat infection and a foot injury forced Verbeeck to abandon the race. On his own, he returned to Belgium, a trip that did not pass very smoothly. "My foot was extremely swollen. My shoes wouldn’t really fit me anymore, so I was wearing some kind of flip-flops. I cycled to the airport to buy a ticket. My clothes were still hanging in the hotel about seven kilometers away. I had some time to pick them up before the flight. To pay for my ticket, I had received money from Sorgeloos, the assistant to the sport director.
I maybe spent 10 minutes in the airport in total, but when I came out again, my bike was stolen. Though I had hidden it well behind a door. I was forced to walk from the airport to the hotel and back. That day I decided to give up cycling."
During all this, Verbeeck had been married to his wife Angèle for several years. "I didn't want my wife to have to work in order to support me. After I stopped racing, I took over a dairy farm in Wilsele - where I lived at the time. It was necessary to survive financially."
Nevertheless, Verbeeck started racing again in 1968. "There was a rider - I'm not going to name him, because he's still alive and I don't want to speak ill of others - who won a race. I said to my father and Roger Bollen: 'How is it possible that this guy can win a race.' Roger replied: 'Well, why not give it another try? I'll pay your insurance.' My father added: 'And I'll get you a bike.' The next step was to convince my wife, who unsurprisingly was not very pleased. During the first few years after my comeback, I combined work with cycling. First I rode around with milk, then I started training. I kept this routine up for two years."
Besides his father and Roger Bollen, there were two other people who played their part in Verbeeck's comeback: doctor Mertens and professor Bouts. "Fernand was a very skilled doctor from Wezemaal. He always accompanied us during the grand tours. Fernand patched up many riders in the Tour after a crash and kept them on their bikes." His son Marc adds: "He was hugely experienced in treating injuries. It was all about natural food with Bouts." Frans: "Pollen, germline, royal jelly."
Off course you can't surface as a top rider just by paying attention to your nutrition. "During the winter, I often trained uphill. There was a stretch of road in the Kesselse Bergen with a very steep incline. I trained with a fixed-gear that was too heavy to even reach the top the first time around. During the off-season I could only leave my bike alone for about 10 days. Looking back, I realize I was actually a trendsetter. Just like the riders nowadays, I never stopped. After two or three weeks I eventually reached the top of the climb. By New Year I repeated it 40 times with the same gear. This was when I knew I had gained a lot of power. It’s still better than power training."
Verbeeck's first big win came in the spring of 1970. He took the victory in the Omloop het Volk after a sprint with five competitors. "In the morning I was still on the road as a milkman. I had delivered cream to the local bakers. Then I went to Ghent in an old Volkswagen. One where the indicators were still on the side, with two small windows. Jomme Van Vlasselaar, who had always been my caretaker - without me he would never have pursued this kind of career, but he was an incredible masseur - handed me my sandwiches, which I ate on the way towards Ghent.
I only arrived there 45 minutes before the start. Especially on a financial level, that win changed my career. As a self-employed person, I got 15,000 francs a month after that victory, and that for 10 months. I still had to pay social security contributions myself. Before the Omloop I only earned 3,000 francs a month, I think."
With first-place finishes in the Tour of Flanders (4th), Paris-Roubaix (6th) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2nd), 1970 was a successful year for Verbeeck. He also finished eighth at the World Championships in Leicester. Fellow-countryman Jean-Pierre Monseré won the rainbow jersey.
"I still have a funny anecdote about that race," Verbeeck laughs. "We were hanging out with some people from the federation before the race. At a certain point all staff-members had to go outside, so only the riders were left. The first one, I don't remember his name right now, said: 'If I win, I'll give each rider 50,000 Belgian francs.' Godefroot, Roger De Vlaeminck and Merckx each offered us the same amount. Then it was my turn. I said the same. Monseré spoke last and said: 'And I'll give everyone one franc.'
We all laughed, but it was Jean-Pierre who became world champion in the end. Something we were not expecting beforehand. Everyone got one franc. Monseré was a very grand rider. We knew that we would hear from him again."
Verbeeck was also racing in Retie when Monseré died following a collision with a car that got lost on the race route. " We were together in the leading group, the peloton had gotten divided into several echelons. Monseré was riding about five to 10 meters behind me. Suddenly I heard a bang, and I knew immediately that the rider involved would be dead. At the time I didn't even realise who it was. We all stopped and turned back. Then I saw the world champion's jersey. 'Ai, ai, ai,' I said. The race was neutralised. In the first months particularly following that accident, the peloton was racing more cautiously. Especially the riders who were there in Retie."
In 1971 and 1972, Verbeeck proved his worth within the peloton. He won the Amstel Gold Race and, for a second time, the Omloop het Volk. He was collecting podium spots left and right. It took him a while before he had his first victory of 1973. In Gent-Wevelgem, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège he came second, each time behind... Eddy Merckx. Then, on 24 June, he finally succeeded. And how! Verbeeck grabbed the title of Belgian champion in Soumagne. "One of the best wins of my career, especially considering I beat Merckx," Verbeeck looks back. He relives the story of the race.
"Merckx had gone solo. Vanspringel, Godegroot and De Vlaeminck had fruitlessly tried to close the gap. I was able get close, but their remained a gap of 75 metres, then 250 metres. When I saw the efforts of Vanspringel, Godegroot and De Vlaeminck had no effect, I said to myself, 'This is the moment.' During the final lap I joined Eddy Merckx at 10, 15 metres from the top of a climb. We still had another kilometer left downhill to the finish. I still remember Merckx saying: 'Start pulling'. I looked at him and refused. During Gent-Wevelgem he had refused to help me as well. 'Now, it’s my turn,' I said to myself. And I won.
Frans’ son Marc was the first to congratulate his hero. "I was about eight years old," he says. Frans briefly intervenes and says: "He crawled past the policemen and was the first to reach me." "Moments like that are really intense," Marc says. "I remember it clearly, we were overjoyed. There was a huge crowd. They stopped everyone. I crawled through the legs of a policeman and got on the stage with him."
"We celebrated that title thoroughly, with lots of people," Frans continued. "I asked the local brewer for some beer, he brought half a truckload. People kept singing. And then there was a nice parade a few months later in Wilsele."
So at last Merckx had been beaten. "Congratulations, Frans. You deserved that title more than anyone" titled 'Sport 70' after the win at the Belgian Road Cycling Championships. "We can't phrase it differently. He was the best and still remains so this day. Or for me anyway. Off course, there are some great riders nowadays, but it can’t be predicted if they will stand the test of time. Albeit difficult to compare two generations."
One of his nicknames is "the Flemish Poulidor". His eight podium finishes (!) - without a win - in cycling’s monuments, might have inspired some people to grant him this name. "I was always focused on being first, so naturally it was rather frustrating to finish second. Although you don't dwell on that too much. The race goes on." Marc intervenes for a moment: "After that second place in the 1975 Tour of Flanders, you gained more publicity than the victor."
Merckx left Verbeeck in his trail, one kilometre from the finish. Afterwards Verbeeck mentioned the following, during an interview with Fred De Bruyne: 'He's riding 5 km per hour faster than us. I don't know what it is'. "Even younger fans still ask me about that moment. But seriously: I really did not know that Merckx could race that fast. I asked sports director De Kimpe for a towel. I was so knackered, I couldn't see anything anymore."
Verbeeck got on well with Merckx, Vanspringel and Roger De Vlaeminck, among others. He also managed to form a bond with some foreign riders. "Especially with Ocaña and Agostinho. With Gimondi too. He even stayed in our home once when he had to ride a criterium in the Netherlands. Even though I had argued with him during Gent-Wevelgem. That's racing, huh."
In 1977, at the age of 36, Verbeeck retired from professional cycling. ""Do I regret anything?" Marc helps him for a moment: "That second place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège made you lose some sleep." Frans: "Yes, that's right." Marc: "You came in second behind Merckx. Everybody focused on the wrong finish line. And Frans won the sprint for that line. But the photofinish was on a different one. And on that line Merckx beat him by a few centimeters." Frans again: "I don't think much about it anymore. I’m more occupied with Vermarc." "He still comes here every day to drink his coffee," Marc says.
Verbeeck continued to play his part in cycling, even after his career. Almost immediately, he started a business in cycling clothes. "Initially, I was going to take over my parents’ bike shop, but I knew nothing about bike mechanics. When I came home, my father would always clean my bike. I never had to look after it. Whenever someone came to replace some parts, I was always scared. The sweat would run down my body.
I had spent the last two years riding at IJsboerke and Willy Peeters was the Colnago importer there. He said: 'Frans, why don't you get involved in the clothing business'? That's how I started with Vermarc. I was thinking about a name. I thought: 'Frans Verbeeck', I'm not going with that. So I went with Vermarc which comes from a fusion of Verbeeck and Marc."
Frans watched the company grow systematically. "First Marc joined, after which we expanded rapidly." Marc: "The moment Lefevere left Mapei and started his own team, we negotiated a deal with him. At the time, he was team manager of Domo-Farm Frites. So we then joined forces with that team as well. As a result, we took a huge leap forward.
It was a financial risk, but on the other hand we immediately had riders like Museeuw and Boonen wearing our cycling clothes. Lefevere went to Quick-Step and Domo became a co-sponsor for the Lotto team. Those two teams played a huge role in our growth process."
Frans: "Nowadays we are known for our quality." Marc: "But don't forget about a good price, it's a combination of both. At the moment we find ourselves in a period of crisis. Everyone is suffering from the wage cost, the energy cost. We have re-signed with Lotto Dstny - whose owner (Daan De Wever, ed.) also lives in Rotselaar - for three years. It's very important to us to work with Belgian teams. That way you also support Belgian cycling and young talents. The traditional clubs are getting pushed aside. But let’s not forget, that's where you'll find the next generation of racers. Those clubs are most important, because the bigger the pool of riders at the bottom of the pyramid is, the more chances we create for some of them to reach the top."
Vermarc also has a new branch in Roeselare since last May. "Dieter Vanthourenhout operates that shop. We wanted to be present in that region - still thé cycling region - too."
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