By Graham Healy
In the 1970s, the Belgian teams at the World Championships were overflowing with talent. Not only did the team have Eddy Merckx for many of those years, they also had the likes of Walter Godefroot, Roger de Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens.
It could be extremely difficult to get such a talented team to work together, with so many riders feeling that they could win the Worlds.
At the 1973 Worlds in Barcelona, Maertens and Merckx refused to help each other, until the closing kilometres when Merckx offered a payment to his compatriot for his help. However, the Italian rider Felice Gimondi won instead, and the Belgian pair had a big falling out.
There was further controversy the following year at the Worlds in Montreal. Maertens had broken clear with Frenchman Bernard Thévenet and Constantino Conti of Italy. The Belgian had taken numerous victories that season including stages of the Tour of Belgium and the Four Days of Dunkirk in addition to the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen.
Maertens was confident but he started to struggle in the break. He later alleged that a laxative had been put in his drink. He said his masseur, Jef D’Hont, had told Merckx’s soigneur Gust Naessens that he was going to eat and asked him to hand a bottle to his rider, which Maertens willingly took.
The Belgian later said: “I got confirmation of that (spiking) from Gust Naessens. I asked him, ‘What did you do in Montreal?'” He said Naessens replied: “It was normal, Freddy. I was asked to give you your drink and I put something in it. You were too good for my guy, so I put something in it to block you.”
Thévenet would stay clear on his own until the last lap. He was caught on the final climb as Merckx, French riders Raymond Poulidor and Mariano Martinez, and Giovanni Santambrogio of Italy went clear.
Poulidor tried to break clear on the final climb but couldn’t shake Merckx. The Frenchman led out the sprint but was easily beaten by Merckx. In winning the Worlds, he had completed the Giro-Tour-Worlds treble.
Only 18 riders managed to finish the race and Maertens was not amongst them. He would go on to win the Worlds two years later though, and again in 1981.
Merckx and Maertens wouldn’t speak for decades but eventually patched things up in 2007 when the two met in a hotel in France.
“I was smoking a cigarette and he asked me for a cigarette,” Maertens explained. “He said to me, ‘Freddy, we have to talk about Barcelona.’ I said, ‘I think so too.’ And then we spoke about it for three hours and we shook hands and everything was over.”