03 December 2015

Joop Zoetemelk: He Didn't Ride The Tour De France To Work On His Tan

Any New York basketball fan will tell you that Patrick Ewing is the most unlucky player who ever lived.

Why?  His career almost entirely coincided with that of none other than Michael Jordan.  Although Ewing earned many accolades and awards throughout his professional and collegiate careers, one prize eluded him:  the NBA championship.  Jordan retired with six of those.

There are similarly "unlucky" cyclists.  Perhaps the most benighted of all was Raymond Poulidor, "le deuxieme eternel"--the eternal second.  He finished the Tour de France in that position three times, and in third five times in the fourteen Tours he entered (and twelve he completed).   In spite of his consistency, he never even wore the yellow jersey.

What caused "Pou-pou" (With a nickname like that, how could his luck be anything but bad?) such misfortune?  Well, his professional career began in 1960.  Two years later, he entered--and finished third in--the Tour for the first time.  As fate would have it, Jacques Anquetil won his second consecutive (third overall) Yellow Jersey in that year's boucle.  Anquetil won the following two Tours, with Poulidor achieving his first second-place finish in 1964.

Anquetil retired in 1969, but that year another legend won the Tour for the first time. You probably know his name: Eddy Mercx.  Even though Poulidor rode his last Tour in 1976, a year after Mercx completed his last, the "Pou" still could not win the maillot jaune.

After Poulidor, the rider with the worst luck was probably Joop Zoetemelk.  He is one of only two cyclists to enter the Tour more often than Poulidor:  sixteen times, a record George Hincapie later equaled.  In those sixteen tries, he finished second six times.  And he actually won it once, during the unusually cold and rainy 1980.  I was one of the many fans who lined the Champs-Elysees on the day he circled the Arc de Triomphe and ascended to the podium in the Yellow Jersey.

He is the second-unluckiest, not only because he actually won and because he had more second-place finishes than Poulidor (though he was never third), but also because he didn't have to contend with Anquetil.  However, he pedaled through first part of his career --as Poulidor did in the latter part of his--in the shadow of Mercx.  And during his later years, including the year he won the Tour, Bernard Hinault dominated the cycling world.

While nobody can fault the way he rode in 1980, critics often point out that he achieved his victory in the year Hinault withdrew after the twelfth stage, when the weather aggravated the tendinitis in his right knee.  Hinault would win again the following year (when Zoetemelk just missed the podium with a fourth-place finish)  and in 1984 and 1985.  Zoetemelk finished his last Tour in 1986 when Hinault's teammate, Greg LeMond, won for the first time.

Few world-class cyclists have ever had fairer skin than the Dutchman.  That was the basis of a joke that went something like this:  He never tanned because he was always riding in the shadow of Mercx (or, later, Hinault).  However, fans in his home country are not the only ones who don't see him as riding in the shadows of anyone:  On its 75th anniversary, the Royal Dutch Cycling Federation named him the best rider ever to come out of the Netherlands. 

Perhaps most important of all, every cyclist who competed with and against him respected his work ethic as well as his natural talent.  More than one of his fellow riders called him "the perfect teammate".  According to Peter Post, his manager on the TI-Raleigh Team, "He followed the rules.  He got on with people...  He never asked for domestiques.  Joop never demanded anything."   A few observers also saw that as his weakness.  "He could not give instructions...when Zoetemelk won the Tour, the instructions had to come from Gerrie Knetemann and Jan Raas," according to fellow Tour rider Rini Wagtmans.  Still, he made this assessment:  "Joop Zoetemelk is the best rider the Netherlands has ever known."

Today, Mr. Zoetemelk turns 69 years old.  Wherever he spends his day, he will not be in the shadow of Anquetil, Mercx, Hinault or anyone else.

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