Monday, 26 March 2012

Tour Of Flanders 1919 - Borrowed Bikes And Beer.

The tale of the legendary 1919 Tour of Flanders has been told many times, but in the week of the one of the greatest races in the cycling calendar, I'm sure nobody minds if I repeat it. A true story of borrowed bikes, blonde beers and troublesome trains.


Henri Van Lerberghe took to the start line of the 1919 Tour of Flanders in Gent straight from his military post just 4 months after the end of World War One in full cycling attire but something was missing, the minor detail of his bike. After securing a ride borrowed from the brother-in-law of fellow competitor Jules Messelis, Van Lerberghe declared to his fellow 46 entrants: 'I will ride you all to hell!'. This caused much amuse with race favourite Jules Messelis and the rest of the bunch who laughed allowed. (Van Lerberghe was not a cyclist of particular note, his palmares were and still are very limited) Van Lerberghe replied with the threat that he would 'drop them all at their own front doors on the way to victory'.

Van Lerberghe was true to his word and attacked on the first climb that the riders came across, the peloton let him escape to take a brief, pitying, moment of glory assuming that his attack would inevitably be fruitless. Further up the road he saw a helper with a bag of food waiting for Marcel Buysse, and after he convinced the helper that Buysse was already out of the race, cheeky Van Lerberghe took the food for a much needed energy boost. It was to late when the peloton decided it was time to bring reel him back in. The 46 starters would not see Van Lerberghe again until the finish line.

Henri Van Lerberghe rode away with such intent that nothing was going to get between himself and victory, as the story goes he would later arrive at a downed level crossing, block by a freight train, where undeterred he lifted his bike onto his back and crawled through the open train carriage, escaping on the other side. (In 2004 the pro peloton would ride through a giant train in the Ronde erected in memory of the Van Lerberghe legend.) When the finish was within almost touching distance (Henri could see the velodrome) Van Lerberghe had such a time gap that he decided to stop at a local public house and order himself a local blonde Belgian beer. One led to another...and another, until a race official spotted Van Lerberghe enjoying his pint(s) and ordered the race leaders manager to go and fetch him.

With some eventual persuasion Van Lerberghe made his way to the finishing line within the velodrome where on his lap of honour, which heavily intoxicated, he walked, he announced to the onlooking spectators that 'You can all go home! I have half a days lead on the others!'. In fact by the time Henri crossed the finish line he only had a 14 minute lead on the eventual 23 finishers - even after his train adventure and several pints of Belgium's best, 14 minutes remains the largest time gap between first and second place in the history of the race.

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