For the second time in history, the grand départ of the 2019 Tour de France is in Brussels. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first of Eddy Merckx's five wins, Saturday's opening stage is followed by two more days in Belgium paying homage to the Cannibal.
But relations with Belgium have not always been so cordial on the Tour.
In 1937 defending champion Sylvère Maes withdrew with his entire Belgian team while wearing the yellow jersey and just days away from Paris – in response to the apparent antagonistic actions of French spectators and partisan decisions made by the race jury.
And when Maes eventually won his second Tour in 1939, there followed a 30-year barren patch for Belgium. Time to take a closer look at the complex relationship upon which the foundations of the 2019 Tour are laid.
Eddy Merckx in yellow during his debut Tour de France in 1969
Image credit: Getty Images
Belgium and the Tour
Second only to the hosts' tally of 36 wins, Belgium have notched 18 victories in the Tour de France, including those five by the imperious Eddy Merckx. By contrast, Belgium are responsible for more green jerseys (19) than any other nation – with 10 more than second-place France. The nation's 471 stage wins is second only to France on 702.
The golden era for Belgian cycling – besides Merckx's monumental hegemony – came either side of World War One. Odile Defraye and Philippe Thys (twice) notched wins before the hostilities, followed by the successes of Firmin Lambot (twice), Thys (again) and Léon Scieur. French dandy Henri Pélissier, the peloton's pioneering peacock of white socks, finally ended Belgium's run with victory in 1923.
Entering the 1937 Tour, Belgium had won the two previous editions through Romain Maes and Sylvère Maes (who were not related). Following Sylvère's second win in 1939, no Belgian won until 24-year-old Merckx triumphed on his debut some 30 years later. Following the Cannibal's five wins, only Lucien Van Impe (1976) has added to that tally – making the current winless Belgian run stretch to 43 years...
The last time the Tour visited Brussels was in 2010 for the finish of Stage 2 starting in Rotterdam. The peloton rode through Merckx's hometown of Meise before finishing on the Avenue Houba de Strooper, with Alessandro Petacchi winning the sprint.
Maes, Lapébie and the 1937 scandal
In a particularly salty edition of the Tour, the entire Belgian team – including defending champion Maes – withdrew from the race ahead of Stage 17 because of "French chauvinism".
The Belgian team accused French spectators of throwing stones at them, of wrongly closing train crossings to thwart them, and even of throwing pepper in their eyes. They also accused the French jury of dishing out unreasonable punishments to Belgian riders while being overly lenient to French offenders – most notably Maes' chief rival, Roger Lapébie, he of the derailleur.
Entering the race, Belgium were going for a third straight win – something which riled the hosts. The great Gino Bartali was leading the Tour but plummeted down the standings after crashing into a river in stage eight; he retired a couple of days later with Maes in yellow.
As Maes (whose nickname was Le Nabot, or The Dwarf) looked a safe bet to retain his title thanks to his strong form and support, the organisers started to tinker with the race format – cancelling the team time-trial which would have favoured the strong Belgian team (which also featured climbing ace Félicien Vervaecke and Marcel 'Black Eagle' Kint).
Entering the Pyrenees, Lapébie trailed Maes by 2'18" but his weak French team were down to just six riders. On the rest day ahead of the mountains, Maes was allegedly approached by a person offering him 100,000 Belgian Francs to let his French rival win the race; Maes refused. After all, he was on his way to winning a second Tour – a good reason to raise a glass with his chums.
Belgium's Sylvere Maes is poured a celebratory drink during the 1937 Tour de France while in yellow - and before quitting the race
Image credit: Getty Images
But then things got out of hand.
Ahead of Stage 15, Lapébie was warming up when his handlebars came off in his hand. On closer inspection, he concluded that they had been partially cut through with a saw. With just minutes to get his bike repaired before the start, Lapébie frantically attached a new set but it lacked a bidon cage.
And so, the man who was second in the standings started the stage – which featured the fearsome quartet of the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque – with no water.
Although there was no evidence, Lapébie was convinced the Belgians were responsible for the act of sabotage. Demoralised, he was forced to take on food and drink from his brother, Guy, which cost him a time penalty for it was against the regulations. Lapébie later said:
It was done by someone close to the Belgians. They were staying in the same hotel. I put new bars on but they had no bottle cage. I was penalised every time someone handed a bottle up. I lost five minutes on the Tourmalet and panicked. I wanted to stop.
A mountain spring came to his rescue – and when Maes flatted further up the road, Lapébie was given a lifeline. But he was still almost seven minutes behind Maes over the summit of the penultimate climb.
Somehow, Lapébie eventually caught back up with Maes before the finish in Pau – pipping the Belgian in the sprint behind the lone leader, Julian Berrendero. He always claimed he made up the time on the descent of the Tourmalet but the truth was far more sinister: he accepted pushes from the French fans and had held on to the cars of the French journalists on the Aubisque, including that of Felix Levitan, the future director of the Tour.
Later, Lapébie confessed that he had encouraged his supporters to lend him their collective helping hands.
I said, 'I can't stop the crowds pushing me. I'm asking them not to.' In fact, I was quietly asking them to push me harder.
The Belgians were furious and yet Lapébie was only penalised 1'30" – a mere slap on the wrist which further aggravated the yellow jersey and his team-mates. When they argued that Lapébie's penalty left him in a better position than he would have been had he not cheated, the French were indignant and threatened to leave the race if the penalty was increased.
The upshot was that Lapébie now trailed Maes by 3'03" with the Pyrenees over. Then, in Stage 16 to Bordeaux, Maes flatted and his rival attacked. Maes received help from his countryman Gustaaf Deloor to chase back – but the latter, despite being a two-time winner of the Vuelta, was riding as an individual and not in the Belgian team, therefore this was contrary to the rules.
Closing in on the Lapébie group, Maes and Deloor came to a level crossing just as the signal man lowered the gate after Lapébie had gone through. Dousing fuel on the fire, the local fans threw pepper in the Belgians' eyes. Maes grappled under the barrier and across the tracks to continue the chase, limiting his losses to 1'38" at the finish. But owing to time penalties, his lead was slashed to just 25 seconds.
Threatened by the French fans and victimised by the jury, Maes – who felt the railway man had intentionally lowered the barrier – decided to boycott the race with his fellow Belgians ahead of Stage 17 in Bordeaux. He clearly believed it was better off quitting while ahead than letting himself get cheated out of the win by the officials and partisan fans. It was the first time the yellow jersey had quit the Tour in such circumstances.
What happened next
Lapébie went on to become the first rider to win the Tour while using a derailleur. But the row continued well after the race.
In Belgium, supporters protested against the Tour organisation. Within 24 hours, 20,000 protest letters had been sent to a sports magazine; after another 10 days, more than 100,000 Belgian Francs had been sent to the national cycling organisation to support the team.
Crowds lined the streets of Brussels as Maes and his team-mates came home, while the Belgian federation ensured that they were paid the same bonuses they would have received had they won.
For his part, while many felt that Lapébie's victory stank, the Frenchman always insisted he would have won anyway.
The remaining stages were flat and filled with time bonuses which would have played into my hands. I was convinced that I had already won the Tour when we were in Bordeaux. I was frustrated by the withdrawal of the Belgians because it deprived me of a victory that would have been more complete and more convincing. I clearly possessed the means to beat Sylvère Maes fair and square.
Henri Desgrange, the father of the Tour, did not share Lapébie's stance and did not ask the Frenchman back to defend his crown in 1938. Lapébie is one of only five defending champions never to have raced another Tour – the others being René Pottier, Fausto Coppi, Bradley Wiggins and that man Maes.
For although Maes only came fourteenth when he returned to the race one year later, when Bartali stayed upright and took the spoils, the Belgian eventually won his second Tour in 1939 before the outbreak of World War Two ended his career. He later became manager of the Belgian national team and opened a bar near Bruges called… The Tourmalet.
As for Lapébie, after following the 1938 race as a reporter, his career ended in 1939 when he broke a kneecap in Bordeaux-Paris. He stayed in the sport as a driver for French television.
The spectre of the Belgian walk-out returned in 1950 when Bartali's Italian team did the same thing after he felt threatened by spectators, who caused him to crash with the 1947 champion Jean Robic during the descent of the Col d'Aspin. Bartali claimed fans subsequently punched and kicked him, with one even threatening him with a knife.
Although leading the race at the time, Fiorenzo Magni accepted Bartali's decision and abandoned the race. The Tour organisers' suggestion that the Italians should wear neutral grey jerseys (so that the spectators would not recognise them) fell on deaf ears. As a result, Stage 15, which was originally scheduled to end in Sanremo, was rescheduled to end in Menton.
Later in the same race, the Belgian team felt they had been deprived bonus seconds by the race jury's decision to give second place in Stage 15 to Frenchman Louison Bobet over Stan Ockers. Maes was the manager and protested, threatening the pull the Belgian team if the decision was not overturned. The jury held firm and Maes… backed down.
Following Maes's win in 1939, a long fallow period of 30 years followed for the Belgians – until Eddy Merckx burst onto the scene in 1969. Why was this the case? The respected Belgian cycling journalist Hugo Coorevits has his theories.
There are several reasons. First we did not have that huge talent. Second: the fans were more excited by one-day races. Perhaps the cobble classics are in the DNA of the Belgian cycling fans and afterwards, we started to specialise in this area. The French have nearly the same problem now even though the Tour is more important and more sentimental for them.
Belgium's Eddy Merckx leads the peloton in yellow during his debut Tour de France in 1969
Image credit: Getty Images
1969: Merckx takes yellow on home soil
During those lean Belgian years, Brussels hosted its first grand départ in 1958, the year of the World Exhibition. Eleven years later, the Tour passed through Brussels too – and a legend was born.
After an opening prologue in Roubaix (in which Merckx finished second behind Rudi Altig) and Stage 1a that took the riders across the border into Belgium, Stage 1b of the 1969 Tour was a 15.6km team time trial in the Brussels suburb of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre. The route passed the front of Merckx's parents' grocery store, so it was fitting that the Belgian's Faema squad won the stage. And by virtue of a 20-second time bonus for the winners, Merckx donned the yellow jersey in his hometown.
It was the first of a record 96 yellow jerseys the Cannibal would amass during his career – and even though he conceded the race lead for four days afterwards, he took the maillot jaune back after Stage 5 and wore it all the way to Paris.
Merckx's first yellow jersey marked one of the best days of the illustrious Belgian's career, according to Coorevits, who is covering his 25th Tour for newspaper Het Nieuwsblad this July.
It's the day Eddy remembers the most. He is still emotional when talking about that day and also when he entered the Velodrome of Vincennes [at the end of the 1969 Tour], which he said was the nicest days of his career.
50 years on: commemorating Merckx
For the second time, Brussels starts the Tour in celebration of Merckx's half-century. The opening stage is a 192km ride from Brussels to Charleroi and back, with the peloton passing through Woluwe-Saint-Pierre in the final 20km. A day later, echoing that 1969 Tour, a team time trial in Brussels finishes at the landmark Atomium building – a vestige of the World Exhibition of 1958.
To prove Brussels is ready, even the famous Manneken-Pis sculpture has for months been decked out with an original 1958 yellow jersey, commemorating that previous grand départ in Brussels.
And Merckx himself will be present to set the riders going at the start of the first stage of a race that also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the yellow jersey. Coorevits expects the grand depart to attract "huge" crowds in Brussels.
It's all because of Eddy Merckx who is, after King Philippe (of Belgium), the most popular and well-known person in the country. It's a nice tribute to fifty years ago and the one-hundred-year anniversary of the yellow jersey gives it extra historical significance, with Merckx himself set to start the race on Saturday.
Coorevits claims that the opening stage is "a tribute to the heart of Flanders as well as the Walloon part of the country" while the second stage, the TTT, is "a wink to the history of fifty years ago".
Stage one is a 'salut' to the cycling country whose capital is Brussels, which is the capital of Europe. So, it's a homage to all Belgians who made history in the biggest race of the world. I think the right place to do this is Brussels, and not Liège or Antwerp or Ghent or Charleroi.
For Coorevits, as well as for most Belgians and perhaps most cycling fans in general, Merckx is synonymous with the yellow jersey.
Merckx is symbol for all records of cycling because he is and was the most important rider in the long history of cycling. More than Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil or Fausto Coppi or Gino Bartali or Peter Sagan.
The 2019 grand depart, says Coorevits, "does not only commemorate Eddy – it pays homage to the cycling capital of the world. Some things come together like fifty years of Merckx and one hundred years of the yellow jersey."
But with no Belgian having won the Tour now for 43 years, what does the future hold for the cycling-mad nation?
Remco Evenepoel, UCI World Championships 2018
Image credit: Getty Images
"For fifteen years the federation have been investing in riders who can climb," says Coorevits, citing Lotto-Soudal's Bjorg Lambrecht, Deceuninck-QuickStep's Remco Evenepoel and Bahrain Merida's Dylan Teuns as part of a generation who can ride well uphill.
I think we must judge [former double junior world champion] Remco within five or six years. Then he's still young but then we know whether he has the skills to win the Tour de France one day. We also have a new generation of powerful riders with [Jumbo-Visma's] Wout Van Aert, and perhaps again a top sprinter like [Corendon Circus'] Tim Merlier and [UAE Team Emirates'] Jasper Philipsen. There is much to come.
There wouldn't be a more fitting nod to Merckx this weekend than a Belgian winning the opening stage of the Tour and going into yellow on Saturday in Brussels – or, perhaps more aptly, going into the race lead by virtue of Sunday's team time trial. Should they do so, there's not a chance they'd quit while ahead – even if tested by the race jury. A nation awaits…
Felix Lowe - @Saddleblaze