Battle of the Bulge
Barry Hoban is the only British rider ever to stand on the podium of both Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Here he is talking about his 1969 third place in Liège behind the great Eddy Merckx.
Words: Chris Sidwells and Barry Hoban
Photos: Offside and Andy Jones
"I liked racing in the classics, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race I enjoyed as much as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Probably it was my Yorkshire cycling upbringing, but I liked the type of hills they have in the Ardennes, and I liked the race route.
"You set off from Liège, heading south towards Bastogne, and there were a couple of climbs, but you did very little really. When I describe what the race was like in those days I say to people, “You went to Bastogne, you turned around the American tank left over from the Battle of the Bulge, and just out of Bastogne there was a feed, and from there to the finish you’d got 14 climbs, so one every ten kilometres.”
"That was in the old days of course, some of the climbs have changed now, and some have been swapped for others. In those days too Liège-Bastogne-Liège finished on the track in Rocourt. More recently it goes up towards Rocourt, but finishes before you get all the way there.
"Anyway, in 1969 we got going and an early breakaway went up the road. But back then, whenever there was a breakaway it always contained at least one of Eddy Merckx’s team mates to keep an eye on it. Eddy had Victor Van Schil in this one, and Van Schil was a very good rider. If you look at what Victor Van Schil did, he didn’t win any big races, but he was up there in practically every race. He was a man who was almost a winner, but who became a great team mate for Eddy Merckx.
"I knew what Merckx would do, I always did. There were some class riders in the bunch that day, and I knew Merckx would start attacking straight after the turnaround, using the hills to get rid of them. And sure enough he attacked on the first one, splitting things up until we had a sizeable working group going. Then we hit Stockeu.
"You drop down into Stockeu village and turn an acute right, then go up a climb. You do an acute left at the top, drop back down into Stockeu and; bang, up another steep climb straight out of town. So you’ve got a double whammy, and that’s where Merckx decided to really go.
"He went up the first climb, stringing everybody out, and over the top I was right up there, just behind him with Herman Van Springel and Felice Gimondi. We dropped down into Stockeu, up the next climb, and Merckx decided he wasn’t going to hang around for anyone, so he attacked again and went away.
"He quickly caught Van Schil and they started working together, but they only got about 30 seconds’ lead. We were a good-sized group behind, and could have worked well together but we had Martin Van den Bossche, Roger Swerts, and Joseph Spruyt; all of them team mates of Eddy Merckx.
"Still, Gimondi was working, I was working, Jos Huysmans was working, and some others were working too. But unknown to us Merckx, who already had a good team, wanted to make it even stronger the following year, so he’d offered Huysmans and Van Springel a place in it. So even though we had riders chasing from other teams, I started to suspect something was happening when I slowly realised that some of them, Huysmans and Van Springel in particular, weren’t giving it full whack.
"Then Van Springel stopped working altogether, and Huysmans stopped as well. Neither of them would come through and suddenly there was only Gimondi and me working, and we were still holding Merckx to a 30-second lead.
"Then I think another deal was done because Gimondi stopped working as well. So there I am, I've got Van Springel on my wheel, Felice Gimondi on my wheel, Huysmans on my wheel. These are all guys who won Classics. In fact Huysmans won Flèche-Wallonne that year, but it turned out Merckx let him win in return for his services in Liège. So in the end I said "Whoa you guys, hey, hang on, I'm not carrying you all to the finish. You can forget that.”
"So I stopped working and Van Springel told me what was happening. “Eddy wants to make this impressive and get a good time gap, he’ll pay you back with a favour another time,” he said. So basically nobody was going to chase Merckx, so I eased up as well and we just lost time and lost time and lost time. Merckx took eight minutes out of us, winning the race easily from Van Schil.
"Our group entered the Rocourt track together, with me thinking, right you guys I'll make you pay for not working with me. But then I saw that because we’d only been going steadily a few more riders, including the really good sprinter Eric Leman, had caught us. That’s almost like Mark Cavendish getting to the finish in Liège-Bastogne-Liège now, it just shows that we weren’t riding.
"Anyhow we came onto the track, and Rocourt track was a big one, 400 metres round, but Leman was no good in a track finish because he didn’t know how to use the bankings to accelerate. Being a trackie when I was younger I knew exactly how to use them, and I hammered them all in the sprint for third place, winning it from Leman.
"That race is a good example what it was like racing against Eddy Merckx. Yes he was the greatest ever, and yes he would have won the races he won with an ordinary team, but he didn’t have an ordinary team, he had a super team. He had team full of good riders, some who could win and had won big races. That meant Merckx always had guys at the front of a race, guys who could work with him in a breakaway, and others who got in the way of the chase behind. It doesn’t always get said when people write and talk about Eddy Merckx, but his team played a big part in why he was able to win by such big margins."