Rouleur Classic

Portrait: Hennie Kuiper

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Photographs: Robert Wyatt
hennie kuiper

“Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own…”


Lunch at Hennie Kuiper’s house. The irony that he has to keep offering us food, as we’re too polite to help ourselves, is initially lost.


Not that you’d expect him to be a less than generous host, but his phrase quoted – or misquoted, according to Kuiper – in fellow Dutchman Tim Krabbé’s classic cycling novella The Rider epitomises the shrewd mindset one needs to succeed in this unforgiving sport.


There could have been a mistranslation somewhere along the line, or the author may have used artistic licence, but Kuiper says now that ‘finishing somebody else’s plate’ would have been his expression. Either way, the fact it’s often mistakenly attributed to Krabbé himself is a reflection of how Kuiper’s achievements have come to be somewhat overlooked.


The curious thing is, a superficial analysis of some of his greatest victories seems at odds with the seemingly efficient, ruthless style of racing you may expect from the exponent of such a quote. It seems the perfect place to start and yet immediately naïve to try and discover more about what he meant with that sentence.


“Gerrie Knetemann was always surprised that I had a good moment,” says Kuiper.


“He said ‘Ah, you are always lucky…’”
hennie bike

1972 Olympic road race, Munich

After 160 kilometres, Hennie Kuiper’s front wheel is the first in the race.


There are still 40 kilometres left to go. The main bunch includes Francesco Moser, Freddy Maertens and Cees Priem. But some upstart English-speakers are intent on showing the Europeans how it’s done. They hammer down the road after the lone escapee. They reduce his three-minute lead to 24 seconds, but it’s too late.


Kuiper had long since left the front of the bunch, not even pausing to lick clean anyone else’s plate. He has time to remove his hairnet crash hat and wave joyously to the crowd as he rolls over the finish line. These are supposed to be the “Happy Games” after all.


“That was not organised in my head, it was instinct, and maybe my aggression. I have to go early and not wait for the sprint,” says Kuiper of his Olympic Games road race title win.


“What I did was early, but at that moment I didn’t know it was for the victory. That was my biggest quality: I could go away, I could have 30 seconds and I could keep going.”


It’s hardly sitting on and just waiting for the sprint.


‘Bicycle racing is a hard sport. A rider’s body has to ripen…’


An early-season amateur race is taking place high up on a mountain near Dortmund. As the riders gain altitude, they climb into the springtime snow.


The cold begins to bite and riders start to abandon. Soon there are just 13 or so left in the race. Kuiper describes riding one-handed, alternating tucking a hand behind his back to try and warm it up. Eventually, he too abandons.


Sjefke Janssen, the uncompromising directeur sportif of Kuiper’s amateur team, former Tour rider and bronze medallist at the 1947 World Road Championships, had been watching the race. He was not impressed with what he’d witnessed.


“In the showers afterwards, he came to me, looked me in the eyes and said: ‘What’s going on?’


“I cried, ‘I’m cold, I’m cold.’


“‘What cold? The other guys, they’re not cold.’


“And that was a good reminder for me.”


He’d come to draw on such experiences throughout his professional career, revelling in the harsh weather of the spring Classics. He was no creampuff.


Like many Dutch riders, he lived near the Belgian border to make it easier to race there. But his focus wasn’t on winning these smaller races. Typically riding 100 kilometres before starting a 150km race, he’d have a helper drive ahead and leave a plate of food in his car for him to eat afterwards.


“Sometimes I went in the break in the beginning, not to win the race, but to bring me on to a higher level. You really have to go souplesse, to make it painful for your body.”


He’d eat in his car, grab a bottle, put on some extra clothing and ride a further 50 kilometres home.


It’s tempting to think his quote in The Rider was inspired by worries of a rival breaking into his car to snaffle the morsels he’d left there, whilst he was out warming up.


“But I wanted to do it because you can’t become a big star or hero, or win an Olympic race, without pain and preparation. You have to teach your body to suffer.”


1975 World Professional Road Race Championships, Yvoir, Belgium

Less than ten kilometres to go. Hennie Kuiper’s front wheel is again the first in the race.


Another solo break, this time to take the title from the Belgians on their own soil and become one of only three male riders to win the Olympic and World Professional road race titles (Ercole Baldini and Paolo Bettini being the other two).


Kuiper held off a quality chasing group including Moser, Bernard Thévenet, and the misfiring Belgian team of Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx and Michel Pollentier.


Again, it’s hardly draining your opponent’s resources whilst protecting your own.


“You should always look to finish the plate of someone else… but the way is sometimes different!


“A sprinter has to do it – everyone says sprinters are lazy. Sprinters are not lazy. Sprinters have to be quiet, otherwise they don’t have sprinters’ legs after 250km. You have to be smart, know when the right moment is. But the Belgian journalists said, ‘Is that a real World Champion? Is he not the same as Harm Ottenbros?’”


The unknown Dutch rider was the surprise winner of the 1969 World Championships, also held in Belgium, at the Zolder motor racing circuit.


A last minute replacement for an ill Jan Janssen, Ottenbros capitalised on extremely negative racing that saw the favourites ride to neutralise Merckx, instead of riding for the win themselves.


Merckx climbed off on the last lap, to jeers from his home crowd, and De Vlaeminck was locked in a stalemate with sprinter Gerben Karstens, neither wanting to instigate a break and carry the other to victory.


Ottenbros’ time spent as World Champion was a miserable one by all accounts and he was apparently keen to relinquish the rainbow bands, his tenure mercifully punctuated by an injury.


He earned the cruel nickname ‘The Eagle of Hoogerheide’ (an ironic reference to climber Federico ‘The Eagle of Toledo’ Bahamontes), on account of his complete lack of climbing ability and the unremittingly flat nature of his native south-west Netherlands. No matter that he was actually feared for his awesome sprint.


It’s no surprise Kuiper was keen to distinguish himself from his compatriot’s unfortunate experience as world champion. “That was one of the major reasons I got in the break in the World Champion’s jersey at [the following year’s] Paris Roubaix. And then I won a stage in the Tour de France.”


28 June 1976. Tour de France, Stage 4, Le Touquet to Bornem

Thirty-four degree heat. The joint longest stage in the whole race.


Freddy Maertens is in his first Tour and already in yellow. He’s already won three stages but the Belgian definitely want this one as the race heads over the border.


The reigning World Champion makes a late break with a point to prove to the waiting journalists. One of Maertens’ domestiques is dutifully deployed and is stuck faster to Kuiper’s wheel than the melting tarmac. He doesn’t pull an inch.


Kuiper leads out the sprint from the front and takes the hapless Flandria rider all over the road as he attempts to pass, squeezing him into the barriers. “That was my sign to the Belgian journalists, to show them I’m the real World Champion now.”


An apposite lesson to those with the temerity to attempt to feed from Kuiper’s own plate.


ParisRoubaix, 10 April 1983.

It has been raining all night. The cobbles are going to be wet, slippery and muddy.


“That’s good,” thought Hennie Kuiper. “I can make a difference when it’s not nice for the bike rider…”


The feared Trouée d’Arenberg is back on the route for the first time since 1973, coincidentally Kuiper’s first start in the race that he feels is his: he has finished in the top ten every year since.


He is first into the forest. Sixteen riders emerge the other side, including three-time winner Francesco Moser, setting a furious pace. And then a crash. All the main contenders go down or are delayed. A lead group of five emerges from the mess consisting of Kuiper, Moser, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, Marc Madiot and Ronan De Meyer.


Hennie stays quiet, not aggressive or nervous, taking on food and water. He decides to go on the Carrefour de l’Arbre, still a long way from the velodrome.


A ten-metre gap. Everyone thinks it’s Moser’s task to close it, but his plate is starting to look a little empty. A 15-metre gap.


Hennie Kuiper’s front wheel is the first in this year’s Paris-Roubaix.


“I go as fast as I can, keep going, but I was fighting for a long time.”


After a bruising tussle, the gap opens to just over a minute. He’ll need a good portion of that for what happens next. The victory music starts to play in his head. He’s five kilometres from the finish, approaching the last short sector of cobbles left in the entire race.


“I did a stupid thing, because I did not think that I should be staying in the middle of the cobbles and do my thing…”


A spectator crouches to take a photograph. He also does a stupid thing and doesn’t move as the leading front wheel in the 1983 Paris-Roubaix almost touches him.


Kuiper swerves violently, ripping the tub from the rim as his rear wheel hits the side of a cobble. It tangles between the wheel and frame, leaving him standing by the road waiting for a spare.


“It was only 30 seconds that I was there…”


Tour de Mont Aigoual 1977, 110-111km – Krabbé is counting down the seconds until he makes his potentially race-winning attack. ‘Three more seconds. Entire worlds can be thought in three seconds.’


How many multiverses can be conjured up in 30?


By the early 1980s, Kuiper felt he was starting to lose too much time in the mountains to remain a stage race contender.


“I had my chance for five or six years. I was five times in the top ten of the Tour de France and then [when] you’re losing 25 minutes, that’s hard to accept.”


On the advice of his good friend and team-mate José de Cauwer, he switched his focus to the one-day Classics, just as training was entering the scientific age. Moser had shown him the heart rate monitor he was using to prepare for his Hour record attempt. “I bought that thing immediately and then I did tests with the doctor, and they said ‘Hennie, you should train faster, your body is strong enough,’ and I sped up.”


Much to the bemusement of his training partner Gerrie Knetemann.


“I was watching the results on the heart rate monitor and waiting at a red light, my heart rate goes down, under my level. After the red light I started to sprint again, I wanted to have my level again. He said ‘What are you doing? Is your house on fire or something?’”


No more training by hanging out the back of lowly Belgian races to get the interval effort of closing the gap after every corner. “I was going so fast on the Wednesday and Thursday [before Roubaix]. Because I know my body, and I was training with my heart rate.


“I went by myself on the Wednesday, six and a half hours. The next day, seven hours. I couldn’t even ring the bell to come in the house! I called José de Cauwer, I was like, ‘I’m in pain, empty…’


“‘That’s good’ he said. ‘Go to your bed, two times 24 hours to recover for Paris-Roubaix.’


“And then came the race.”




Hennie smacks his hand on the coffee table to emphasise the impact of his wheel hitting the side of the cobble.


“For me, the most important thing at that moment was to have my bike. I was nervous for sure. But I was not crazy or panicking. ‘I need my bike, I need my bike! You know, I have to go!’ And then I had my bike, no problem.”

roubaix jersey_0

‘A beloved theme in bicycle racing; more races are lost than won.’


“You lose more races than you win, but that race was really special. Cycling is not an individual sport. You need your team-mates and also good staff. My mechanic did everything perfectly.”


Knowing his spare bike had been left in a small gear, he pushes Kuiper as he changes up through the gears until he is back up to speed.


“After 200 metres I was riding at full speed again.” A potentially catastrophic race-losing situation swiftly dealt with in a professional manner. The victory music can again play in Kuiper’s head.


“The nicest thing for Paris-Roubaix is coming onto the track by yourself. When I want to win, I have to go by myself.”


Another lone win. So much for first finishing the plates of others.


24th April 1980. ‘Neige-Bastogne-Neige’

‘…after the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater pleasure.’


‘Strike! Strike!’


The Italians want to go home because they don’t like to work in the shit weather. They’re not the only ones. Half the field abandons after the first hour of racing. Only 21 riders finish out of the 174 starters. Many of those that continue ride one-handed to keep the snow out of their eyes…


After the Stockeu climb, Kuiper found himself in a group behind Bernard Hinault and Ludo Peeters of TI-Raleigh, his previous team.


“I was in my second year of riding for Peugeot. So when Peeters first got dropped by Hinault, I didn’t do so much work – at first clean the plate of somebody else – because I was with four Raleigh riders, so I was just sitting there.”


Hinault dropped Peeters and Rudy Pevenage on the Haute-Levée climb and continued to ride away from what was left of the shivering peloton on his own.


The gap grew as he found his rhythm. “They came with the motorbike [showing the time gaps] with two minutes, three minutes, four minutes… and then La Redoute, and it got up to six minutes. I made an attack, I was so mad.


“Hinault wanted to stop, in the lead, he had frozen fingers, but [his team manager Cyrille] Guimard said ‘Continue, continue, you win and you have a bath.’”


(Guimard had earlier instructed Hinault to remove his race cape at Bastogne, because the ‘real race’ was about to start.)


Hinault later said he decided the only thing he could do was ride as hard as he could to try and keep warm. After 80 kilometres alone in the snow and freezing rain, his lead had grown to nearly nine and a half minutes by the finish back in Liège.


“The winner is always right. But maybe if he was with another rider he quit, eh?” says Kuiper.


Whilst he is quick to acknowledge just how strong Hinault was that day, he clearly feels it was the one that got away. “You don’t know… but I was strong enough that day to be with him. In the beginning, that day was very good.”


There is a danger that to ride in the style of finishing your opponent’s plate is to ride like Reilhan in the Tour de Mont Aigoual – to risk being called a wheel-sucker. But Kuiper rode with a generous heart, as Krabbé acknowledges. Coolly calculating and often tactically perfect, but in no danger of being open to such an accusation. After all, it takes a true racer’s tenacity to continue in such dreadful conditions, over ten minutes down, and with no hope of catching the leader. What cold?


“…and so Knetemann says to me, ‘You are always lucky.’ No, I was not lucky. You have to have the quality to make it in that moment.”


As our conversation stretched into the afternoon, a plate of biscuits were brought out by Kuiper’s wife, Marianne – the really special ones, reserved only for guests, Hennie noted with delight.


We finished our plates, wondering if the wily old champion’s racing instinct might kick back in and he’d pounce at any moment. But we needn’t have worried.


Hennie’s not lucky. He’s quality, like the biscuits. And as both a rider and a host, he has a generous heart.


This feature first appeared in issue 58 of Rouleur magazine.

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