Barry Hoban was the guest of honour at the Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend, to celebrate 40 years since he won the race. Hoban’s 1974 victory was at the expense of Belgium’s best cyclists when they were the world’s leading nation.
If you’ve followed cycling for any length of time, you’ll have heard of Hoban. He’s 74 now, lives in the Welsh mountains, and has mellowed a lot, but was a real firebrand when he raced.
He kept British interest burning in Europe after Tom Simpson died. They were difficult years, in which British cycling seemed to lose confidence. Hoban didn’t though.
He won eight stages in the Tour de France, two in the Vuelta a Espana and lots of stages in week-long races. He also challenged in the Classics with a number of high places, including third in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and third in Paris-Roubaix.
Hoban lived in Belgium, married Simpson’s widow and helped raise his children. It’s been an eventful life, and Hoban’s autobiography, Vas-y Barry, will be published later this year.
This is how he describes his Ghent-Wevelgem victory:
In those days you had three circuits of the Zwaterberg, the Molenberg, the Rodeberg and the Kemmelberg, three circuits. You went up the Kemmelberg three different ways.
I loved that climb, the guys always put on a 21, and I always used a 22. But one of the problems you had with the gears in those days, we didn’t have index gears. We didn’t even have the Simplex friction levers, which worked okay. We had Campag levers, and they were notorious for moving on their own whenever you put pressure on the pedals.
So I’m going up the Kemmel for the last time and I’m with Roger De Vlaminck and Eddy Merckx, side by side more or less, and suddenly I could hear my gears going tick, tick, tick, tick. I had to take my hand off the handlebars, push the gear back in three or four times.
I lost ground and I came over the top about 15 to 20 metres behind De Vlaeminck, Walter Godefroot and Merckx and a few others, and they didn’t hang around. They dropped over the other side down through Kemmel village and were on their way to Wevelgem.
Well, they were flat out in the crosswind and they formed a small echelon, but I’m in a line behind that, hanging on, taking the wind and praying for a right turn so they’d bunch up in the headwind. Then I could get in with them.
Eventually I was the last man hanging on to this echelon, riding my bike on the very edge of the road, sort of leaning into the next rider to get some protection. Then we turned right and bang, the group bunched up and I’m in it, 17 men are clear.
I didn’t usually have team mates in a break with me in a Classic, but this time I did. I had Alain Santy and Raymond Poulidor, but we had the crème de la crème of Belgian bike racing. Merckx was number one, De Vlaeminck, Eric Leman, Godefroot, Frans Verbeek and Freddy Maertens.
But what people never realise about Eddy Merckx is; okay, he was the greatest rider, but he had the greatest team, and he was never on his own, he always had three or four team mates with him all the time. Quite often I’d be with him in the breaks in a Classic on my own, but this was different.
Anyhow, we got through Menen, through Wervik, and we’re heading on the straight road into Wevelgem. You’d got like five kilometres, which was basically straight to the finish line. And I knew I’d got overdrive.
But gaps were opening. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume attacked, Herman Van Springel attacked and it’s zoom to the right, zoom to the left, gaps opening up, and I’m screaming at Poulidor; ‘Raymond close the gap, close the gap.’
Tino Tabak was the last to go, and we caught him just before the sprint started with 300 metres to go, and I was beautifully placed and just praying for a gap to open up.
Merckx, Leman and De Vlaeminck were flat out in front of me and I was waiting. Then 200 metres from the line they spread out a bit. There was a gap. I dropped the chain into the 13 sprocket and; bang, I went straight through the door.
That was the best win I ever had, it was magnificent. I’d beaten the greatest of the Belgians, Merckx was second and De Vlaeminck third. And you look on the line, it wasn’t inches. I was a full length clear.
After the finish there was a great photograph with Fred Debruyne doing interviews, and there’s me there full of the joys of spring and Eddy with a sour puss face on.
The headline asked; Who won and who lost?