Imagine feeling regret, fear, perhaps even a bit of shame, for having fulfilled a childhood ambition. This happened to Rini Wagtmans in the Swiss city of Basel on the morning of Sunday 27th June 1971 on a crazy day that would see the young Dutchman and the rest of the Tour de France peloton ride three legs through three different countries from the crack of dawn until tea time.
“Like many young people, I always dreamed of wearing the yellow jersey,” Wagtmans, now 74, tells Re-Cycle. “But when [Félix] Lévitan [the organiser of the Tour de France] came with the jersey and said it was for me, I was really shocked.”
Wagtmans’ reasoning was quite clear. He’d been selected on the new Molteni team to ride in the service of Eddy Merckx, who had ambitions of wearing yellow from start to finish on his way to a third consecutive Tour win. But just one day in, this quest had been derailed – quite inadvertently – by one of his domestiques.
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“It was a real surprise for us,” Wagtmans recalls. “Later, Eddy wasn’t angry with me, and he told me to enjoy my time in the jersey. But he did say to me: ‘Rini, why are you doing this? You know this isn’t a game – it’s a real job that I’m busy with.’”
Wagtmans would go on to be a key member of the Molteni team that weathered a storm to deliver Merckx to a third triumph of a race that is, as Merckx’s biographer William Fotheringham declares in Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike: “now famous for a single day, the stage to Orcières-Merlette in the southern Alps, when Merckx was tested as never before”.
Wagtmans’ accidental yellow jersey came a week before that fateful 11th stage where Luis Ocaña crushed Merckx – on the first day of action following the opening prologue. It was a ridiculous three-part split stage that crossed three European borders and saw the Yellow Jersey change hands twice – and the Green Jersey on three occasions. Not only did it set the tone, but it introduced the upcoming Wagtmans as one of the key players in the Cannibal’s eventual grinding down of his great Spanish rival.
This is the tale of how one plucky Dutchman unknowingly denied his teammate the yellow jersey for a third of a day, before restoring order to the race, winning a stage of his own, and then fighting tooth-and-nail once Merckx lost the maillot jaune off his own back.
Who was Rini Wagtmans?
Nicknamed ‘Tufty’ by Dutch fans, on account of the patch of white he had in the fringe of his otherwise brown curly hair, Marinus Wagtmans enjoyed a short but sweet career as a pro cyclist.
Born on Boxing Day 1946 just around the corner from Wim van Est, ‘Rini’ was seemingly destined to be a rider. His father was a cycling trainer while his uncle, Wout Wagtmans, won stages on both the Tour and Giro and was a close friend and contemporary of Van Est, who in 1951 became the first Dutchman to wear the Yellow Jersey – only to then crash over a barrier and plunge 70m down the side of the Col d’Aubisque the very next day. Re-Cycle remembers Van Est’s story, the Tour de France-inspired song he released, and how he was lucky to escape with his life here.
Cyclists of the past are often described as having taken up the sport to escape a dour existence or to better their situation. With Wagtmans, that really was the case. Growing up in the sleepy town of Sint Willebrord in the province of North Brabant, Wagtmans was lumbered with an alcoholic father and a mother who was labelled “a whore” by his classmates on account of her having children by three different men. Kicked out by his parents when he was just 15 years old, Wagtmans packed a single suitcase and moved in with his aunt. He focused on being the best cyclist that he could be. And that proved to be pretty good: at just 22, Wagtmans finished third in his maiden Grand Tour, the 1969 Vuelta, behind France’s Roger Pingeon and the Spaniard Luis Ocaña.
But this was just the half of it. Without the family safety net, Wagtmans married early, when he was just 19. Then, just weeks after signing his first pro contract with the Willem II-Gazelle team, his father-in-law suddenly died and Wagtmans was asked to become director of the transport and recruitment firm that employed 350 people and was mired in tax debt.
“It was almost impossible to handle, but he managed,” says Peter Ouwerkerk, author of Unknown: Rini Wagtmans – From Street Boy to Knight, for which he sat down with the chatty cyclist for 25 conversations, each lasting for more than three hours. How Wagtmans juggled the two jobs together was no small wonder. He even rode his first two Tours in this period – finishing sixth in 1969 and fifth one year later (on top of winning a stage) as Merckx, his future mentor, took the spoils in devastating fashion.
In doing so, he caught the Belgian’s eye. “Merckx was very interested in the young rider and asked his manager Jean Van Buggenhout to offer Wagtmans a contract with his new Italian sponsor, Molteni,” says Ouwerkerk. Van Buggenhout wrote his phone number on a piece of paper torn from L’Équipe and handed it to the Dutchman during the Tour, urging him to get in touch. In the autumn of 1970, Wagtmans duly signed a contract.
This proved to Wagtmans that he could make a career out of cycling, and with the debts of his father-in-law’s business now paid off, the 24-year-old sold up and joined Merckx at Molteni.
Setting the scene: Merckx Mania
After three years with the Faema team, Belgium’s best-ever cyclist had joined Molteni at the height of so-called Merckx Mania. Alongside Wagtmans, the team had also recruited the 1968 Tour runner-up Herman Van Springel and the Italian sprinter Marino Basso. Merckx had won his fourth Milan-San Remo, his third Paris-Nice, and his second Liège-Bastogne- Liège earlier in the season. He added the Critérium du Dauphiné a few weeks before the Tour, where Ocaña finished within a minute of Merckx overall. Now the extra firepower of Molteni’s star signings stacked the deck even further in the Belgian’s favour.
For his part, Wagtmans had no regret at putting his own ambitions aside in the service of Merckx. He might have been a solid all-rounder who, he claims, “never got tired during races”, but Wagtmans treated his time at Molteni as an apprenticeship where he could learn the ropes before becoming a GC contender in his own right.
“I wanted to be a leader, but to do that I needed to learn my trade from the best at the races – and Eddy Merckx was at that moment the best rider in the world,” Wagtmans recalls. “I asked him if I could look around his school and see how he did everything. He would be my teacher. And he said yes. It was like an aspiring chef who starts by working in a five-star restaurant. And Merckx was, to me, a five-star racer. I said to him: ‘You give me the chance to look at you and learn how to do everything, and I’m sure that I can also be a good teammate.’”
While the ambitions of his young Dutch teammate were clear, Wagtmans’s assurances that he would ride fully in the service of his leader assuaged any concerns Merckx might have felt. Now there could be no denying that the Belgian superstar entered the Tour with an even stronger team than his former Faema squad. This all contributed to the strong ‘anti-Merckx’ climate that was prevalent at the start of the 1971 Tour after his crushing wins in 1969 and 1970. According to Pierry Chany, in his book La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France: “His repeated victories annoy people, and people are muttering that a defeat for him would be to the benefit of cycling.”
A walkover was expected, with some authoritative figures even suggesting to organisers that there should be a prize for first place after Merckx, with a considerable financial reward. The Cannibal himself was confident that he could wear the yellow jersey from start to finish – just like his countrymen Philippe Thijs in 1914 and Romain Maes in 1935. It certainly helped that the race started with a team time trial for which Molteni were the standout favourites.
And so it proved, with the team blitzing the 11km race against the clock at a collective speed of more than 50kmph. With Merckx leading Molteni over the line in Mulhouse, he went into the race lead. Although in what was a pre-echo of what was to come, an irate Merckx was unable to don the maillot jaune that evening because the organisers had forgotten to bring the jersey to the grand départ…
The split stage phenomenon
In 1965, newspapers L’Équipe and Le Parisien Libéré were taken over by the Amaury Sport Organisation that today runs the Tour. The newspapers were feeling the pinch from an economic recession in 1971 that meant only 13 teams of 10 riders could take part in the Tour. In a bid to generate more money from the start and finish locations, it was decided that the first road stage would be split into three parts. It was in this way that the influence of sports politics created the unlikely scenario of three partial stages being held on the same day, with finishes in Basel (Switzerland), Freiburg (West Germany) and Mulhouse (France).
It was by no means the first time the Tour had run split-stages. In 1934, the 21st of 23 stages featured an 81km flat stage ahead of the Tour’s first ever individual time trial, which was won by the Yellow Jersey holder Antonin Magne ahead of Roger Lapébie, effectively deciding the outcome of the race Magne had led since the second stage. Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour, was convinced that the experiment had been a success – and both the time trial and split stage were here to stay. As Christopher S. Thompson explains in his book, Tour de France: “This change allowed the organizers to bring the Tour to more towns and cities, increasing the drama and the number of potential stage winners, which in turn maximized fan interest and newspaper sales.”
It’s worth noting that these split stages did not always feature relatively short legs. In 1935, the 58km Stage 5B followed on from a punishing 262km Stage 5A. Then, on three consecutive days ahead of the final stage into Paris, the riders had to tackle 459km of road racing and 183km of time trialling – for a grand total of 642km – all sandwiched between two stages in excess of 220km.
The format was tweaked in 1936, with the five team time trials making up the latter components of the five split stages. The phenomenon continued and became a regular feature at the Tour – offering fans two or more races in a single day, and bringing in more revenue for the organisers while creating more copy for the pages of L’Auto and its successors. In fact, the only people who were not overly enamoured by the whole fad were, of course, the riders, for whom split stages not only meant more kilometres, but further stress – breaking up the rhythm and placing additional burdens on them to meet the demands of the host towns, including very early starts, and finishes often much later than usual.
The 1970 Tour had included five split stages – much to the ire of the riders – and, for the second year running, not a single rest day (ditto). As a result of the uproar, some changes were made in 1971 with the length of stages reduced, the number capped at 20, and rest days made compulsory. Running just 3,608km, it was shorter than the previous Tour by 646km and the shortest since the third edition in 1905. A more mountainous route made it very challenging, although the second of three consecutive Alpine stages – from Luchon to Superbagnères – was just 19.5km long, making it the shortest road stage ever to feature in the Tour.
For the first time in a Tour there were air transfers, from Le Touquet to Paris, and Marseille to Toulouse. ASO addressed the increased financial running costs, bypassing the new 20-stage rule with – you guessed it – three split stages. As anger simmered away over the question of adequate prize money, it was the re-introduction of a rare triple-split stage on the first full day of the 1971 race that really hit a nerve in the peloton.
“It was the beginning of when the cyclists started to say enough is enough,” Wagtmans recalls. “People often say it was Bernard Hinault who started to strike back. But it was us who started to disagree with the stupid organisation. Three races in one day was very not nice for the riders. It was very strange, and it was around this time that it became very stressful, and we said it was not normal for the organisation to do this – that the health of the riders was also very important. Why were they treating us like animals?”
Wagtmans wears yellow for a third of the day
A team time trial replaced the prologue and saw Merckx land the race’s first yellow jersey – although he had to wait until the next morning before he could try it for size because of the delivery mishap. The times for the prologue had been calculated by adding up the times of the first five riders of each team. This was purely to work out who won on the day, for the gaps were not applied to the General Classification – which was just as well for Merckx’s big rival Ocaña, whose Bic team were more than two minutes down over the 11km course in Mulhouse.
Only time bonifications counted towards the classification, and their victory gave each of the Molteni riders 20-second bonuses. Three riders from second-place Ferretti and six from third-place Flandria-Mars received time bonuses of 10 and five seconds respectively.
Stage 1A was a 59.5km ride across the border to the Swiss town of Basel, with riders rolling out of Mulhouse almost at the crack of dawn to accommodate the hectic schedule. Despite the short length of the stage, the riders performed what was thought to be the first go-slow protest in Tour history – with Wagtmans very much to the fore. The nub of the dispute was over the disproportionate awarding of prize money given to stage winners compared to what was on offer for the next 19 finishers.
After a talk with the race director Félix Lévitan in the lead car, an agreement was made to share it out more evenly between the top 30. The organisers also agreed to up the value of prizes for each leg of the split stages during the Tour. The rest of the stage was largely uneventful and resulted in the Belgian Eric Leman of Flandria-Mars winning the bunch sprint after an hour and 25 minutes in the saddle. Merckx came home in the main peloton alongside his Molteni teammates to retain the race lead.
Or so everyone thought. For during the break between the first and second leg, the Molteni riders were receiving massages on makeshift beds installed in a factory hall when Lévitan approached Wagtmans with the yellow jersey.
“Lévitan said to me: ‘Allo, Rini, I have a surprise for you,’” Wagtmans recalls. “And then Eddy Merckx said: ‘Monsieur Lévitan, it’s okay, just put the Yellow Jersey there on the table, please. I’ll put it on later.’ And Lévitan said: ‘No, no, Eddy – it’s not for you. The jersey is for your friend, Mr Wagtmans.’ Eddy asked how it was possible and Levitan said: ‘Rules are rules. He finished before you in the stage and so he is now the leader in the Tour.’”
It transpired that Wagtmans had finished the stage in 20th place, inadvertently crossing the line ahead of his team leader, who took 49th. With all the Molteni riders tied for time, countback came into effect, allowing the Dutchman to fulfil a childhood ambition in the most anti-climactic of scenarios. “I was shocked,” Wagtmans says. “It was Eddy’s big target to be in yellow from the first day to the last. But he was not angry with me – just the race organisation.”
According to Ouwerkerk, his biographer, Wagtmans was nevertheless grovelling to his team leader: “It’s unbelievable, Eddy. You must understand that this was never my intention – I did not want this, it happened completely unconsciously. I am no traitor, I’m sorry, sorry – a thousand times sorry.”
Wagtmans should not have felt so bad, for he was not the only Molteni rider to have unknowingly defied their leader: Belgium’s Jos Huysmans also finished ahead of his compatriot to push Merckx down to third place on the mid-morning overall standings.
So this was how Rini Wagtmans began the 90km second leg in the yellow jersey as the race crossed the border into West Germany ahead of a finish in Freiberg. In the event, his hold on the maillot jaune lasted a mere 15 minutes after he dropped back on a small hill to allow Merckx to make the most of another new rule change by picking up a five-second time bonus at the ‘Miko hotspot’ intermediate sprint (named after the sponsor) just seven kilometres into the stage. To make sure, Wagtmans was intentionally distanced near the finish, feigning an issue with his shoes before riding home with teammate Julien Stevens. His compatriot Gerben Karstens took the win on the cinder track inside Freiburg’s Möslestadion
“I lost, with much pleasure, one minute – to be sure that I didn’t keep Eddy out of the Yellow Jersey again,” he recalls with a laugh. “He was my boss. Then, two days later I won the stage to Nancy and people said: ‘How’s it possible? You weren’t very good two days ago…’ and so I told them I had a problem with my shoes. But it was just a joke – it wasn’t true.”
Merckx was duly back in the maillot jaune as the riders embarked on the 74.5km third leg back into France, where the Belgian Albert Van Vlierberghe won in Mulhouse. If the yellow jersey drama wasn’t enough, the battle for green saw three different riders don the maillot vert in a single day, with Leman, Walter Godefroot and Karstens all enjoying a stint topping the points classification.
Some reports wrongly claim that the demands of the triple-split stage in 1971 meant some riders had not finished the previous legs before the peloton was setting off for the next. Wagtmans says this is not true, noting that there was a gap of an hour or two between each leg, when the riders could “take a small shower, have a massage and refresh the body”.
But racing three stages – however short – in one day was both strange and stressful for the riders. “It was crazy,” he says. “It was really not normal. It was like going to Wimbledon and telling Nadal to play not once, but three times a day.” Wagtmans says that it led him to do some investigating, where he discovered that the organisers gave the riders only 15% of the profits made from the Tour. And this apparently led to the riders holding another strike later in the race, ahead of the second split stage before the first rest day.
Wagtmans’s role in Merckx’s revival
Rini Wagtmans’ cameo in yellow, his stage victory at Nancy two days later, and his coordination of the strike action over prize money was not the whole extent of the part he played in the 1971 Tour de France. And the fact that Eddy Merckx had lost the yellow jersey for a third of a day on the opening Sunday soon became a moot point when the double reigning champion crumbled on the climb to Orcières-Merlette, on Stage 11.
Luis Ocaña’s victory on the Puy-de-Dôme three days earlier had underlined the Spaniard’s form, while the events of the 10th stage to Grenoble, where Merckx lost time (and the Yellow Jersey to Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk) when he punctured at a key moment, told the Belgian that Ocaña was prepared to use every trick in the book to finally beat his rival. But no one could predict Ocaña’s swashbuckling ride the next day when the Spanish climber, like a man possessed, soared into yellow after finishing the best part of nine minutes clear of Merckx, who led home the other favourites on a day when 71 of the remaining 109 riders finished outside the normal time limit. “The Emperor Shot To Pieces” ran the headline in the rest day edition of L’Équipe.
As Fotheringham, the Cannibal’s biographer, writes: “Luis Ocaña had managed something that was seen only once in the years when Merckx was in his prime. He had crushed the Belgian and he had done it by the kind of gaping margin Merckx himself was accustomed to open.”
With Merckx now almost 10 minutes down in the standings and in fifth place, rumours spread that he might quit because of a back injury. Instead, he took receipt of a new bike from Belgium and went out with Wagtmans and his teammates on a brutally hard rest-day ride. The Molteni riders then planned how they could turn things round.
“It was my plan – 100 per cent,” says Wagtmans of the following stage to Marseille that turned the race on its head. The 251km ride to the Mediterranean coast played out in sweltering temperatures and started with a fast descent from the ski resort of Orcières-Merlette after an early 8am start. While Ocaña was at the back of the pack talking to journalists ahead of the stage, Molteni made their move from the gun.
“I said: ‘We take three or four people and take the start like crazy people,’” Wagtmans recalls. “I went to three or four other riders from other teams, and so we were seven, and we made a plan to go at the first minute to pull for the first 56km. And that’s what we did.”
A handful of other riders joined what was a lead group of 12 riders as Ocaña – who’d just minutes earlier described the transition stage as “a formality” – battled off the back on the twisting descent. Driving the move was Wagtmans, who was one of the best descenders in the peloton – a skill that earned him the nickname ‘Witte Bles’, or White Blaze, on account of his striking white forelock.
Wagtmans was joined by Molteni teammates Huysmans and Stevens as they continued pushing on the descent. The unexpected move fractured the peloton, and then a crash behind held up the likes of Ocaña and his Bic teammates. There was no easing-up at the bottom of the climb, with Merckx and his men pushing such a fast pace that they arrived in Marseille one-and-a-half hours ahead of the fastest predicted time.
Italy’s Luciano Armani took the spoils ahead of Merckx, but no one was there to see the sprint and the preparations at the finish line had not even been completed. Owing to what was the fastest ever average speed of a Tour stage to date – a staggering 45.351kmph – even the live television slots were missed, while the roadside spectators were still eating lunch. As a result, the mayor of Marseille was so upset that he vowed never to let the Tour visit his city again during his lifetime. A total of 51 riders – including four from Molteni – finished outside the time limit and had to be reinstated by the race jury.
What of Ocaña? After what Fotheringham describes as “probably the longest and most dramatic chase the Tour has ever seen”, the Spaniard came home just under two minutes down. While his lead over second-place Merckx was still a hefty 7:34, Ocaña had taken a mental and physical battering on the French riviera.
“The gap was only two minutes,” says Wagtmans. “But it’s like in boxing when the fighter goes down and the referee counts to 10 and he can’t stop until the fighter puts his hands up and shows he is okay. Well, Ocaña was down – he was down on the canvas in Marseille. I looked at him and he was yellow in the face. He was completely off. And I said to Merckx: ‘You did not take much time, but you will win the race because Ocaña is finished.’”
It was to prove a savvy prediction. Two days later, after Merckx crept 11 seconds closer to yellow after winning the 16km time trial in Albi, an exhausted Ocaña crashed out of the Tour. Going over the Col de Menté, the second climb of the day, Wagtmans had kicked clear of the main pack on Merckx’s orders – to put pressure on the Spaniard on the descent in what were apocalyptic conditions.
“It was very dangerous weather at that moment,” Wagtmans remembers. “The heavens were coming down and the devil made the rain come down like a war was starting. In cycling, it’s important to see if your colleagues are fresh or not fresh on the bike – and Merckx could see Ocaña was in difficulty, so he told me to push on.”
Shortly after the summit, both Merckx and Ocaña skidded and went down when overcooking a flooded bend. Ocaña was hit by a rider as he got up in the middle of the road, and a few moments later, he was hit again as he stood on the roadside requesting a spare wheel from his team car. “When you are in a race, you can see when a rider is starting to lose his power,” Wagtmans elaborates. “And Ocaña was, that day, so tired that we knew he could not fulfil all the things necessary by himself. He was on a day when he was not just losing, but losing everything.”
Luis Ocana accidenté dans le col de Menté - 12 juillet 1971
Image credit: Eurosport
Semi-conscious and unable to breathe, the man in yellow was taken to hospital. Ocaña’s Tour was over. Merckx, meanwhile, was back in the Maillot Jaune. He won three days later in Bordeaux, and then again in Paris to complete his comeback. That final time trial into the centre of Paris saw Molteni place five riders in the top seven – with Wagtmans an impressive third. After being pushed further than ever before, the Cannibal’s third consecutive Tour win was, in the end, by a comfortable margin of nearly 10 minutes over Zoetemelk. Wagtmans had proved his weight in gold as a teammate.
What happened next?
The split stage phenomenon continued to be a contentious issue in the Tour with Bernard Hinault – Merckx’s successor as the patron of the peloton – leading the protests in 1978 that saw a farcical Stage 12A to Valence-Agen retrospectively cancelled after the riders pootled along at 20kmph before walking across the finish line.
It was hardly surprising: the preceding stage had featured the Tourmalet and Col d’Aspin ahead of the summit finish at Pla d’Adet, followed by a long transfer to Tarbes that meant the riders did not get to bed until midnight, before waking at 5am for the first leg of the split stage.
Hinault, the French national champion who had just won the Vuelta, demonstrated his combative qualities by leading the strike action against the unfair demands placed on the riders by the organisers over the years. It was the man known as the Badger – who would go on to win the first of his five Tours later that month – who dismounted first on the home straight and, with numerous Gallic shrugs of the shoulders, led the riders over the line before striking a pose worthy of Napoleon.
Resentment continued to grow until 1985, when the riders faced what is deemed by many to be the Tour’s last split stage – two mountain tests that ran from Luz-Saint-Sauveur to the Aubisque, and from Laruns to Pau.
But as Eurosport and GCN stats guru Cillian Kelly says: “It was in fact 1991 that the Tour last had a split stage – but it is easy to miss because in all results lists, the two stages are listed separately. So, they didn't use ‘A’ and ‘B’. But Stages 1 and 2 that year were on the same day.”
After the early-arrival debacle of Stage 12, the Tour did not return to Marseille for 18 years until 1989 – three years after the death of the disgruntled mayor Gaston Defferre, who kept his promise. Rini Wagtmans never spent another day – or even another morning – in yellow. In 1972 he switched teams to Goudsmit-Hoff and picked up the last of his three career stage wins on the Tour. But he was then forced to retire from cycling after just five years as a pro because of a heart aneurism. He was only 26. Wagtmans went on to become a well-established cycling coach, politician, and a successful businessman – founding the Rogelli sportswear brand. He also became an honorary consul of the Republic of Kazakhstan and is a former advisor to the Astana team, which he helped found in 2007.
“I was not upset or angry about the prospect of stopping racing,” he admits. “I realised that cycling wasn’t the only thing in the world. For a lot of racers, stopping is like a black hole. They haven’t found their way in life. But I knew I was a businessman at heart. If none of the two billion people living in China know the name ‘Wagtmans’, then it’s not so sad that I had to stop racing.”
Wagtmans has no regrets having given what was, in hindsight, his best year in the sport to Merckx. “I was flying in 1971 – I had never ridden better than then,” he told his biographer Ouwerkerk in Unknown. “Why did I only finish 16th overall in Paris when I had already come sixth and fifth in my previous Tours? Because I was Merckx’s helper, of course. I could have attacked every day if I wanted – but I wasn’t allowed to. But my third place in the final time trial was proof of my good form.”
Could Wagtmans, who claims he would drop from 76kg to 69kg during a Grand Tour, have beaten Merckx had his career not been brought to a premature end?
“Not Merckx. But Thevenet and Van Impe – yeah,” Wagtmans says. “They both won the Tour, but I’m sure I was in the same class as them. I was never afraid of these riders, you understand? Sometimes you win the Tour because you are the strongest, but also the possibility that you must have is that you can win from everybody in the top 10. And Merckx was the best in history. There’s nobody in a good condition who could beat him – some days, maybe, but not over the course of a year.”
Despite being one of the principal orchestrators of his downfall in 1971, Wagtmans remained on good terms with Ocaña, with whom he had trained a lot before the Tour that summer.
“I know every day of the career of Luis Ocaña,” Wagtmans says with pride. “We were very close even after that Tour – and he said to me once: ‘Rini, I will become the Tour champion one day.’ And I said: ‘I’m sure also’. He was a good friend of mine, you understand.”
Ocaña was right: in 1973, in Merckx’s absence, he finally won the Tour. Twenty-one years later, the Spaniard committed suicide after a long battle with depression.
To date, Wagtmans is one of 71 riders to have worn the maillot jaune on just the one occasion. For the Dutchman, that occasion was not even a whole day. But his two-hour-and-29-minute stint in yellow is not the shortest in the record books. After Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert won the opening stage of the 2011 Tour, his time in yellow lasted only 25 minutes after his Omega-Pharma-Lotto team could post only the 10th-fastest time in the subsequent 23km team time trial.
As a local politician, Rini Wagtmans was the driving force behind bringing the 1978 Tour de France to his hometown of Sint Willebrord – an event for which he was able to pose for pictures with his uncle Wout Wagtmans and local legend Wim Van Est, all three riders from the small town exhibiting the yellow jerseys they won during their illustrious careers.
Perhaps fittingly, the stage to Sint Willebrord was in fact the first part of a split stage from the Dutch city of Leiden, with the race continuing that afternoon to the Belgian capital of Brussels. It was, aptly, a Dutchman, Jan Raas, who won the stage and kept the Yellow Jersey he’d picked up for winning the prologue in Leiden.
“It was fantastic to see a town of just 9,000 people attract 100,000 fans for a cycling event,” Wagtmans recalls. And for that, the Tour can thank ‘White Blaze’ and his accidental yellow jersey for helping to put Sint Willebrord on the map.
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