Excerpt: Cycling Heroes—Jan Janssen, Part II

This is Part II of Les Woodland’s portrait of  Tour de France winner Jan Janssen. Part I can be found here. For information on his book Cycling’s Heroes, go here.

I’d say he’s a few pounds heavier than when he stopped racing. The seventies were always an odd era, with flares and tank tops and silly sunglasses and long hair and Janssen is no less embarrassed about it than anyone else. He smiles wryly at a picture of himself looking like George Best. He ticks off riders like Robert Millar and Phil Anderson with their long hair now.

I forgot for a moment that he’d ever been world champion. He never mentioned it except in passing. I think it’s the Tour rather than the championship which holds the sweetest memories. Not surprising, really.

“The Tour is the biggest race, the most beautiful race you can win,” he said. But he won it at the last moment, as an afterthought. Surely, I asked, he’d rather have won with strength instead, instead of taking it on the final day without having once led the journey?

“But it was much more exciting that way, wasn’t it? We saw it when LeMond and Fignon decided it on the last day as well, with people crowding round the television or the radio, and the last day’s a sort of climax. And it was like that for me as well.

“And I don’t think I would have wanted to hold the yellow jersey longer. Right on the last day, nobody knew who would win the Tour, and that was my tactic. We had a team with three riders—Dolman, Beugels and Arie Den Hertog—and that was my team. And I was the fourth. I couldn’t do anything with a team that small, could I? The other riders had packed and gone home.

“So what could I do? I had to be very smart to win the Tour and the only chance was to do it in the time-trial.”

Two decades have passed, but those sensations that LeMond and Fignon must have known are still fresh to him. It took Janssen only a second to remember the gap between Bracke, van Springel and himself, and none at all to recall the number of seconds that put him in yellow.

It’s a back-to-front margin, to win the world’s biggest race with the smallest ever margin. And now he can’t even boast that.

“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “Ja.” He puffed again and stubbed out the remains.

“I was in Paris for LeMond and Fignon. I stood along the Champs Elysées. That’s not where we finished, of course, but it brought back the wonderful memories for me, that Tour de France. It has changed technically over the years, but the Tour is still the greatest sporting event in the world, and if you manage to win it, then you’ve achieved the most beautiful thing that the sport has to offer.”

It was the last year the Tour was public property. For the next four years it went to Eddy Merckx and the sport moved from a number of big-hitters to just one. I suggested that the game in Janssen’s era was more exciting. Not to my surprise, he agreed.

“I’ll go along with that. In my time, a lot of riders could have won. In the time of Merckx, Hinault, Coppi, it was a lot more predictable. You knew in advance who was going to win. Merckx was in the yellow jersey from the second day and the others couldn’t touch him. And for the public, the people who follow the sport on television and radio, that was less spectacular.

“When I rode the Tour, there were 10, 15 good riders. First one would win and then the next and then the next. But in the Merckx era, the Hinault era, the races were the same. So the public got fed up. Now, of course, there aren’t any big names such as Merckx. You’ve got very good riders, but…”

“Nobody as good as Jan Janssen?” I prompted.

“Who am I to say that?”

And then, as his son left to busy himself around the warehouse, I asked Janssen whether he had been born too soon, whether he would rather be his son’s age.

“It’s certainly changed now, that’s for sure. It’s more commercial, and the generation before me, van Est’s generation, they say it as well—we were born too early. There’s much more money to be earned.”

And that made it easier for him?

“Not easier. We had to be good all the time, from the first of February until the end of October. Because it was my duty to make the most of my sponsor’s name, to get publicity. I mean, there were other good riders in the team, but it was 80 per cent on my shoulders to get that publicity. And if you had an off-day, well, you were letting your sponsors down.”

So why, I wanted to know, is there more money now if in his own estimation the races aren’t so exciting?

“Because the whole sponsorship of the sport has taken off. It’s become so interesting to a company because a company that wants to get its name known, you can buy a good team, with good management, good public relations, and you can get all the big names.

“But it didn’t use to be like that, because the television in our time… Well; it was covered but not like now. Direct coverage for an hour and a half they have. Naturally, that is very interesting for the public.

“We got very good money, of course. And to be truthful, the French franc was worth a lot more than now. But I think the motivation has changed with the professionals as well. You get riders like Rooks and Theunisse saying after the Tour they’re stopping at home because they can’t be bothered with criteriums, and that’s not so attractive to the public. I don’t think you’re serving the sport doing that, because the more popular cycling is, the better it is for every one of the riders.

“It’s good that they’re well paid now, of course, but they have to give everything they’ve got. And now there are a load of riders who say ‘I only want to ride the classics in the spring and no Tour de France, no Giro d’Italia and no Tour of Spain, because it’s too hot there and there are too many mountains, and there’s this and there’s that.’

“And there are riders who say they’re not going to ride Paris–Roubaix over the bad roads, and no Tour of Flanders in the snow and rain. They pick and choose their races. Well, it didn’t use to be that way. You got a list of races from your team manager and you had to ride them.

“You can’t have a new Merckx or Hinault every couple of years, because people like that are rare, but what I would say is that the general level of top riders has gone down a bit. There are a number of good riders but no big-hitters any more. The whole sport has changed. They aren’t hungry any more. There’s so much money to earn now, even for a third-rate rider. Twenty-five years ago, a third-class rider didn’t get jam on his bread. So if they got 50 guilders for a criterium, they rode. But now every rider is well paid, so they don’t do so much for it. They say ‘Oh, I’ve got a good contract from the firm, I’m okay.’

“The hunger to ride well, to succeed and only then to earn money is over.”

He’s not bitter, I sense. Despairing perhaps, but realistic would be a better word. In 1967, by the way, Janssen nearly won the world championship for a second time. But he was, in two ways, just that little too late. To start with, he was half a wheel too late. But mainly, he had left it too late because he was now a mature man and with him was a youthful Eddy Merckx—just three years after the Belgian had won the world amateur race.

On the second lap at Heerlen, where Graham Webb and Beryl Burton had already won, there was an attack by Gianni Motta. So Merckx, the Spaniard Saez, and Holland’s van der Vleuten went with him. Merckx wrote later: “There was also an unknown Briton called Addy, who never took his turn and disappeared quickly.”

Bob Addy was a tall, home-based professional in the Holdsworth domestic team. How easily are one man’s dream moments dispelled!

Motta had been given excruciating distances to ride in training by a guru, half-doctor, half-svengali, and he was at that stage where fitness risked topping into exhaustion. Eventually guru De Donato would attract the attentions of the police, but for the moment he had Motta in peak condition.

You can judge how confident he felt by the fact that there were still 250 kilometers to go. The bunch wondered at his foolhardiness for a while; then, after the break had gained three minutes in 60 kilometers, began wondering again. There was a flurry of concern and the motorcycle blackboard man brought the news that Janssen had decided to chase.

That was bad news. Janssen was a brilliant sprinter—he beat Merckx on the line in Ghent–Wevelgem—and, what’s more, he’d proved in the Tour de France that he had the time-trialling ability to close a gap.

Motta turned to the blackboard man again and saw the numbers of the break, then a horizontal line with Janssen’s number below it. And, below Janssen, a large oval to indicate the bunch.

“Who’s with him?” Motta shouted. There were numbers missing, surely?

“Nobody,” the motorcyclist yelled back. “He’s by himself.”

The Italian turned to Merckx and called on him to work with him to stay away. Merckx wrote later in Eddy Merckx, Coureur Cycliste that Janssen was one of the few he considered “a true athlete.” But he wasn’t going to work to stop him.

Instead, he calculated that Janssen would be weakened by the chase but still strong enough to work to keep the group clear. More than that, the Dutch team—usually better organized than the Belgians, whom nobody could guarantee wouldn’t chase Merckx for their own purposes—would ease off if Janssen stood a chance. So too might anyone in Janssen’s circle interested in a contract for the following year. What’s more, van der Vleuten was already in the break.

In fact Peter Post did chase, but then equally Janssen did work with van der Vleuten. The Dutch figured that they alone had two in the break.

Before winning the amateur championship, according to a Dutch author, Merckx told his mother in Brussels that he would shake his legs on a downhill stretch to indicate that he felt fresh in the closing miles. He shook his legs and Mrs. Merckx was delighted. Young Eddy said later that he had done it because they were tired.

This time he remembered the wigging he got. As the bell rang for the last 13 kilometer lap, he winked at the television camera. It was the message to the folk back home.

But afterwards he admitted: “It looked confident but, frankly, I wasn’t that certain.”

Motta jumped on the last descent but failed. Janssen waited for the last 100 meters to sprint and Merckx leaped first. Through his arms, Merckx could see the Dutchman coming up on him inch by inch. Five meters before the line, he was alongside. Desperately, Merckx flung his bike forward beneath him and won by half a wheel.

Jan Janssen had to face his home crowd disappointed.

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