The Other Belgians

Three Belgians have won the Giro d’Italia. One of them, Eddy Merckx, has become a God of the road. The other two have slipped into obscurity.
Merckx’s five Giro victories came between 1968 and 1974. Understandably the Italians wished to regain control of their national tour, and they wanted to develop one of their own talents into the next Cannibal. After his accomplished debut at the 1975 Tour de France, in which he won two stages, the white jersey and wore yellow for a week, Francesco Moser was touted as Italy’s great Grand Tour hope. The following year Moser seemed to confirm his status when he won the points classification at the Giro. The 1977 Giro route included three time-trials, and with Merckx not riding, it looked like the perfect platform for the stylish Moser to take the title.
After eight stages, Moser was in the pink jersey, and though he only had a lead of 22 seconds, the race was going to plan for the 25-year-old from Trentino.
Then, a crash on what should have been an innocuous sprinters’ stage changed everything. At the Mugello motor racing circuit, Belgian Freddy Maertens came down during the final sprint and broke his wrist. Maertens had been lying in second place, and was Moser’s biggest threat. That evening Moser’s Sanson team must have quietly celebrated this piece of luck. With no Maertens, surely Moser’s chances looked considerably more rosy?
Over at the Flandria hotel, the mood was sombre. Maertens’ loyal domestiques Marc De Meyer and Michel Pollentier proposed that the team pull out, go back to Belgium and prepare for the Tour. Their team manager, with some gentle encouragement from the race organisers, persuaded them to stay. After all, there were still stage wins up for grabs. It didn’t take long for Pollentier to realise that he was in with a chance of a high overall finish. A gifted climber, Pollentier blossomed in his new role. He used his outsider status to escape on stage 17 to Cortina d’Ampezzo, crossing four mountain passes to take the maglia rosa by just three seconds.
On the remaining two stages in the Dolomites, Pollentier took more time out of Moser, and went into the 29km time trial on the penultimate day two minutes up on the Italian. A fearsome time triallist, Moser expected to take time back on the Belgian upstart, but could he take two minutes? The result shocked everyone. Pollentier won the stage, beating Moser by thirty seconds. He rolled into Milan the winner, and afterwards seemed to get a taste for winning; that summer he won the Tour de Suisse and the Belgian road race championships.
However, the postscript to Pollentier’s story is not a happy one. In 1978 he won the Tour de France stage to L’Alpe d’Huez and at the subsequent doping control was discovered to have a condom full of urine concealed under his armpit, with a tube system attached. He was thrown out of the race and his reputation never recovered.
At that year’s Giro, the tifosi anticipated a duel between sworn enemies Moser and Giambattista Baronchelli, but history repeated itself. Riding for Bianchi, Johan De Muynck had natural climbing talent, as he’d demonstrated with a second place in the 1976 Giro, but the Flandrian was supposed to be working for Felice Gimondi. His breakthrough came early in the race. On the third stage to Cascina, through the Tuscan hills, De Muynck attacked close to the finish. His captain was safely ensconced in the peloton and the favourites seemed happy to mark each other, so De Muynck took his chance. He got the stage win he was looking for, but also the maglia rosa. Unlike Pollentier, De Muynck suffered in the time-trials, but he excelled in the high mountains.
Baronchelli attacked him repeatedly but the Belgian was impossible to shake off, and Gimondi’s strong Bianchi team defended his lead stoutly. Curiously, for De Muynck, the experience of winning the Giro did not change him as it did for Michel Pollentier. De Muynck reverted to his role of loyal domestique and never won a major race again.
Three Belgian winners of the Giro: one famous, one infamous, one humble. In this year’s race there are no Belgians among the favourites, but just keep your eyes on those loyal domestiques.

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