Freddy Maertens deserves a mobster nickname like Freddy Nine Lives. He has known a succession of highs and lows – seasons of 50 wins, world titles, eight stages in one Tour de France, then next to nothing: tax problems that left him down to his last Belgian Francs, a heart operation paid for by rival-turned-friend Eddy Merckx and a feud with Roger De Vlaeminck that still isn’t settled. Run-ins with his father sound rather ordinary by comparison.
His mother Silonne was too trusting and nice, like Maertens himself; his father Gilbert was a draconian figure who drove him through his early cycling career. “I had to deliver newspapers from five o’clock in the morning and then I came home and was allowed to go training. He would ask me for the furthest point I was going and how many kilometres I’d be doing.
“He gave me a little book and if I said I’d be going over the Kemmelberg, I had to go to the [local] police station for a stamp. He always would do it, to check if I was there.”
He’d be angry if the evidence wasn’t there. Throughout his adolescence, Gilbert tried his damndest to keep his talented son away from distractions. One time, he saw a 15-year-old Maertens with a girl in their home town of Nieuwpoort. “In an instant, he was there with his car. I told her she should go home,” Maertens says.
All hell broke loose back at the house as his father forced his way into Maertens’s bedroom, kicking the door open. “He asked me ‘why did you do that? why did you do that?’ Then he took a saw and broke my bike frame. At that moment, I didn’t realise that it was for my own good. But later, I said thanks. Because he made my character.”
Maertens was on the road to success, but it also made him fragile, dependent on authority figures throughout his career, one of the most mercurial and extraordinary in the sport.
Freddy Maertens was interviewed at the Rouleur Classic. This year’s shows – November 2020 in London, Melbourne and Los Angeles – celebrate the Classics. Visit rouleurclassic.cc for tickets and more information