Olympic Games

How Robert Grondelaers narrowly missed out on a gold medal. Belgian team outclasses everyone and everything during the Olympic road race in Helsinki '52

10min reading time   by Stijn Vanderhaeghe on 01 August 2022
The 1952 Summer Olympics in the Finnish capital Helsinki - held from Saturday 19 July to Sunday 3 August - threatened to turn into a sporting fiasco for our country, which sent 136 athletes. Before the cycling road race got underway on the penultimate day of the Games, only the 'two rowers without a helmsman' Bob Baetens and Michel Knuysen managed to secure a silver medal in the final on 23 July. Our nation then pinned all its hopes on the four "mates on two wheels" Robert Grondelaers (19), André Noyelle (20), Henri "Rik" Van Looy (18) and Lucien Victor (21) - two West-Flanders, one from Antwerp and one from Limburg. Or how a Babylonian confusion of tongues lurked around every corner...

On Saturday, 2 August 1952, the Olympic cycling race is held in a northern suburb of Helsinki. A total of seventeen local laps of 11.2 kilometres have to be completed. A total of 190.4 kilometres. Piquant detail: about half of the course consists of ordinary street asphalt, the other half ... is rather sandy. Plugstreets avant la lettre, quoi. In short, spectacle guaranteed. In order to help out any unlucky people who have an empty fuel tank or other mechanical problems, four service stations have been set up along the way. It soon becomes clear that this is not a superfluous luxury. Start and finish are located in Koskelantie avenue in Käpylä, right behind the now-abandoned Olympic village.

A total of 112 riders from 27 different countries are suffering from an acute rush of gold fever that day. Only 52 riders - not even half or the equivalent of thirteen national teams - made it to the finish line. It was not so much the leaden heat and the numerous punctures that were the direct cause, but the scorching pace that broke the peloton into pieces almost from the start. Anyone who is doubled up is out of the race. The race commissaires - including Alfons Standaert - are implacable in that respect.

Team time trial

The road race does not start very auspiciously for the Belgian foursome. Early on Rik Van Looy gets involved in a crash and followed by a flat tyre later on. His chance of a medal, let alone the highest step on the podium, goes up in smoke before the race has even begun. In the end, he will not make it to the finish. After just five laps, eleven riders are already experiencing their final exit. In the sixth lap, the Swede Stig Mårtensson gives a famous boost and promptly takes 45 seconds. Only two laps later, the rest of the riders were able to catch him again. Half way through the race a front group of nine - with the remaining trio of Belgians running attentively - is formed, led by the Dutchman Arend van 't Hof, while in the chasing pack a crash, as massive as it is heavy, forces a number of riders to retire. In the eleventh lap Grondelaers, Noyelle and Victor no longer manage to put their blood away.

The three find each other and decide to turn it into a glorified Olympic team time trial. Their dizzying pace immediately claims a few victims. Only Dutchman Jules Maenen and West German Edi Ziegler can barely keep up. The lead of the five riders grows steadily. Maenen is forced to drop out at the end of lap fourteen. Only the tough Ziegler now stands in the way of a complete Belgian podium. Our national team representative is already aware of the situation. As they pass, he shouts at the tricoloured trio that they should not sprint. 'That fast German is too dangerous', he says ominously. Noyelle, in particular, takes this to heart. At the beginning of the last lap he is the first to jump to gold and eternal glory.

That fast German is too dangerous.

The Ypres rider quickly picked up a few bike lengths and eventually won with a 48-second lead. His average speed is over 37 kilometres per hour, not bad on a course that is sometimes quite winding and sloping. In the pursuit, Limburg's Grondelaers also chooses to take his chances halfway through the final lap, leaving Victor alone with Ziegler. His gamble paid off and he won silver. Not much later the German wins the sprint for the third and final medal. The Belgian rider, whose name ironically is a shortened form of victory, turns out to be the loser of the day with the fourth and most thankless place, especially at the Games.

Although ... due to the excellent team performance, our compatriots, in addition to the individual gold and silver medal, also convincingly take the gold plaque in the team classification ahead of Italy and France with, among others, the eighteen year old Jacques Anquetil - twelfth in the final classification at more than five minutes from Noyelle - in their ranks. With their combined times (15h 20min 46sec and 6 hundredths) André Noyelle (5h 6m 3s and 4h), Robert Grondelaers (5h 6m 51s and 2h) and Lucien Victor (5h 7m 52s and 0h) did almost thirteen minutes better than the Italians (15h 33m 27s and 3h) who with Dino Bruni, Vincenzo Zucconelli and Gianni Ghidini finished fifth, sixth and seventh respectively. Cycling victory of the young' is what the newspapers read the next day. The average age of the trio is barely twenty years. Only the unfortunate youngster Rik Van Looy returned from the Finnish capital without an Olympic medal, but his time was yet to come...

Strongest man in the race

After the protocol ceremony with a refreshing double dose of Brabançonne, runner-up Robert Grondelaers - then still a timid teenager from Opglabbeek, now Oudsbergen after the merger with Meeuwen-Gruitrode in 2019 - quickly realises that unfortunately you do not win silver, but lose gold. A towering cliché in sports circles, so there must be some truth in it. Later, he will tell his four-year younger brother Marcel that as the final approached, he felt he was the strongest man on the course.

Maybe André Noyelle was the most lucid at that moment, because when he attacked first, Grondelaers was not allowed to jump on his wheel immediately. That was team tactics. After all, Dré was the fastest, so his teammates knew what they had to do in such a scenario: counter and block a possible counter attack. To Ziegler's great annoyance, Victor in particular apparently took this quite literally. The speedster from Roeselare cut him off a few times. A few German curses and well-meant gestures of dismissal are his share, but in Oekene they are more used to that. As soon as the bird finally took off, Grondelaers easily outruns his two remaining breakaway companions.

Meanwhile, at home people are forced to follow the adventures of their local hero in far-off Helsinki on the cracking radio. Tension and suspense at their peak. Barely half an hour after the arrival of the road race, almost the entire village knows about the silver and gold medal of the butcher's son Robert. When he returns home on Monday 4 August, he is duly honoured. According to eyewitnesses, there have never been so many people on the street as when 'the silver Grondelaers with a golden edge' set foot in the village again.

Around seven o'clock Opglabbeek was unusually crowded in the streets, says Het Belang van Limburg. The Fanfare St. Joseph in front, the organizing committee, girls with flowers, sportsmen and lots of other people marched to the metre where Robert would arrive around eight o'clock. Assaulted by his companions, showered with kisses, he was received there. The Fanfare played the Fatherland song. In a well-ordered group with marching music, they entered the village, between a hedge of hundreds of spectators, until they reached the Town Hall. There he was received by the town council and the parochial clergy. The mayor, Jan Awouters, joined the tribute telegram of Limburg Provincial Governor Louis Roppe and even the local priest Frans Beelen paid tribute to the Limburg hero.

In service of others

Of whom we have not seen the last for a long time. At least, that is what the racing experts of the time say. At the age of fourteen, Robert already has a taste for racing. Every week, he overloads his bicycle with deliveries to the nearby mining communities. At first, his mother is not very pleased with his youthful and steep ambitions to become a racing driver. With his first racing bike he mainly rides 'street races' under the church tower, but from 1948 he rides with the under beginners. And how! Grondelaers made his debut with thirteen victories, seven second and six third places. Out of 32 races, he only missed the podium six times. Talent for sale is what it's called.

One year later, Het Belang van Limburg headlines "Grondelaers Rob. the biggest acquisition of the Limburg Nieuwelingenlegertje 1949", a year in which he takes home eighteen victories. His racing career seems to be completely launched now. Strangely enough, it was not to last long. From 1954 he was racing with the independents, but bad luck and an operation on his throat were among his problems. To make matters worse, he had to do his military service a year later. During that year and a half Grondelaers keeps on training, but he can't really go for the bike.

At 24, Robert decided to stop racing. He started working full time in his parents' butcher's shop. Nevertheless, in 1957 - the year he turned 24 - he was part of the famous Faema-Guerra formation led by no one less than Guillaume "Lomme" Driessens with, among others, such greats as Gilbert Desmet I, Charly Gaul, Hugo Koblet and Rik Van Looy in his ranks. However, after just one year he wants to break his contract with Faema to ride on his own account from now on. As a rider, you don't get the opportunity to take advantage of your own chances, because you always have to stay in the back row as a domestique," he says disillusionedly. Meanwhile, he is married to Annie Nouwen from the neighbouring village of Meeuwen. His cycling career never really got off the ground again, despite some fine performances. 'My brother just couldn't take it anymore, the spring was broken', Marcel Grondelaers will explain later.

Member of the Butchers' Association

He continues to follow his favourite sport closely, and continues to cycle aswell. Together with his son Frank, among others. The two of them regularly go out for a ride. Robert had the same intention of doing so on Tuesday 22 August 1989, but Frank was unable to join him, so he cycled on his own. On returning home he takes a shower and suddenly falls over backwards. A ruptured heart abruptly ends the life of the former professional cyclist, who neither smoked nor drank and always kept an eye on his diet like a sportsman.

Fate spares nothing and no one. Grondelaers is barely 56 years old. A few days later, under the black-and-white passport photo of his obituary in the newspaper, it is not written 'Gold and silver medal winner at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki', but only 'Member of the Butchers' Association'. It immediately typifies the enormous modesty with which Robert Grondelaers has always gone through life. His Olympic splendour has been immortalised by means of a bronze statue - the only precious metal he did not win at the Games - in the municipal park behind Opglabbeek's town hall, although he has to share that statue with Carlo Bomans and Luc Roosen, two other local cycling heroes of yore.

Robert Grondelaers

Robert Grondelaers (28 February 1933 – 22 August 1989) was a road cyclist from Belgium. He won the silver medal in the men's individual road race at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. At the same tournament he claimed the title in the men's team road race, alongside André Noyelle and Lucien Victor. He was a professional rider from 1954 to 1962.
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