Rouleur Classic

The Last Descent: Richard Depoorter

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Photographs: Balint Hamvas
The Last Descent: Richard Depoorter

“They killed him. He wasn’t allowed to win. There were tyre tracks on his jersey, what other proof do you need?” Dirk Lameire, owner of Café De Hert in Ichtegem, is adamant: local rider Richard Depoorter was taken out in the 1948 Tour of Switzerland, because he was a threat to the cycling hierarchy.
“If it weren’t for them, he would have won the Tour.”
Schlager-style music is playing on the radio. Images from a US soap flicker on the muted television set warming up for the Scheldeprijs. Everyone’s waiting for the broadcast. The same faces keep dropping in for a beer every 45 minutes – workers and a dog walker (not sure who’s walking who, the Jack Russell takes up a stool and eyes up the pintekes on the counter), complemented by a sound installation salesman and a veteran in club kit back from a morning loop. The regulars hang at the bar. All except the vet, who sits down at a table with his black coffee. The salesman buys a beer, but Café De Hert still doesn’t need his sound system.
Dirk is beardy and sharp-eyed with a bone-crusher of a handshake. He was on Belgian television recently for his radical statements about Depoorter’s tragic death in the Alps. We’re here to get a local perspective on the official investigation, to figure out who “they” are – the people who put a line under Depoorter’s promising postwar palmarès. The us/them distinction can be a tricky one in the peloton, where nothing’s ever clear-cut.
I’m fluent in Dutch, but when they switch on the local lingo, consonants evaporate and I cling on for dear life, not letting go of Dirk’s wheel. I sharpen my ear, thicken my ‘R’s and try to get into the Flemish beat. It’s a beautiful language. They don’t talk about drinks – Dirk knows exactly what everyone’s having. It’s spooky. He seems to put out the glasses before the customers even come through the door. This is his umpteenth performance and it’s unfolding seamlessly, as it has done every day for the last 20 years. In 99 per cent of the cases, Dirk serves beer, but the vet has a black coffee and there are a couple of soft drinks, hinting at old habits unlearned. Beer is the beacon.
The walls are covered in cycling photos, old jerseys and cycling ephemera. A giant steel cyclist stands outside Dirk’s café. It’s the Depoorter monument. Next to it hangs a large poster with a black and white rider photo. “They’ve got the wrong guy,” says Dirk. “That’s Brik Schotte, not Poorterke. Schotte is from the next village – a decent rider, but no Depoorter. The mayor won’t correct it. He thinks Schotte is the only Flemish Lion.”
Around here, coming from the next village is like being born on another planet. After hiring a bike at the nearest station in Torhout to complete the journey, I asked half a dozen people for the way to Ichtegem, only a few kilometres away, but not a single one could (would?) give a clear answer. Even in Ichtegem itself, some people claim not to know Dirk’s café. They suggest alternatives. There’s an us/them café divide in the village. I want to meet Dirk because he’s not an official representative of the Depoorter family. He is someone who has embraced the legend, a diehard fan embodying the local take on the Swiss tragedy.
From the age of six or seven, Dirk would watch the Tour with his father. He even ended up doing some soigneuring: “Cycling has always been part of my life, like for most people in West Flanders. I suppose the closest you come to it in England is the football mania being passed down generations, but cycling’s more – it’s part of the landscape, the very fabric of the ground we walk on. We walk the streets Depoorter raced.”
Besides running his café, Dirk takes the microphone at races pretty much every weekend. He points to the wall next to the bar, covered by photos of him interviewing riders, including Nico Mattan and Niko Eeckhout: “I did 64 races last year, mostly local crits.”
Ichtegem was the official Ronde village in 2006, which only happens once in a generation. “It was as a tribute to Ichtegem star Jules Vanhevel,” Dirk says, “whose palmarès includes Paris-Roubaix, De Ronde, the Omnium of the Road and numerous other races – a class act, he was.”
There are around a dozen cycling races per year in Ichtegem and the village has a few other claims to fame in the cycling world, says Dirk: “Stive Vermaut finished 36th in the Tour in 2001, riding for US Postal, but had to quit cycling due to heart complications and died young for the same reason. In the early ‘90s, Jan Mattheus escaped 5 kilometres into La Doyenne, building up a lead of 20 minutes, only to be caught five kilometres from the finish and come in 14 minutes behind the winner. I’ve forgotten the name of the winner, but I can still see Mattheus riding…”
Mattheus was actually caught 85 kilometres from the finish – and ended up finishing 27 minutes behind winner Rolf Sorensen. Dirk likes to spin a yarn…
As the Scheldeprijs is about to start, an old chap in his eighties comes in. Dirk says it’s Robert Delaere, a rider from the Depoorter days. Dirk points to a small black-and-white photo on the wall with two uniformed lads, one in a striped champion’s jersey. It’s from 1951, when Robert was crowned military cycling champion in Germany. We drink to that!
“I didn’t really know Depoorter,” Delaere says. “I started just after him, but I rode with some pretty handy guys, like Roger Decock.” He points to a picture on the wall. Decock won Paris-Nice in 1951, the 1952 Tour of Flanders and the Scheldeprijs exactly 60 years ago. His name will pop up later during this trip in more tragic circumstances. There’s still a few post-war riders pushing on in Flanders.
A discussion ensues about traffic furniture and hors catégorie roundabouts, not to mention Johan Vansummeren bunny-hopping into a woman on a traffic island during the Ronde the previous weekend. As the guy with the Lotto caps says: “There’s a reason that spot was free.” Boris Johnson should hire this lot as urban planners.
The discussion moves on to the favourites for the sprinters’ world champs, as Dirk prefers to call the Scheldeprijs. “It’s for Kittel to lose – Boonen can’t do it. He took it in 2006 and no Belgian has done it since. The German’s unstoppable, he’s got an extra gear, a Zabel in each leg.” Okay, so maybe Kittel is an exception to the rule: a sure-fire thing in cycling. I try to bring Dirk back on track – to the Depoorter murder mystery.
“He was even stronger than Vanhevel,” Dirk claims. “Poorterke won both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the National Omnium of the road twice. The omnium was the toughest race in Belgium at the time, a three-stage race, including hill climb, time trial and road race.”
Depoorter’s weakness was sprinting – not one for the Scheldeprijs, then. He was as strong as an ox and rode with a big heart. The others would let him do all the work and pip him to the line. The only way he could win was to attack from far out.
The problem was he didn’t need to cycle; his livelihood didn’t depend on it. It all started when Depoorter found a great mechanic in Torhout. He kept going back to fine-tune his bike, but he wasn’t really going for the bike – he fancied the mechanic’s sister, Martha Debou. She was the daughter of the Super bike factory owner in Torhout and business was thriving. When they got married, Depoorter was sorted financially, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing for his cycling.
He wasn’t one for winter miles and would start the season with only a few hundred miles in the legs, which meant he only got going by June, and after a brief peak he’d lose interest, unless someone annoyed or humiliated him in a race.
“Everything changed when he had a point to prove,” Dirk says. “In 1942, he had a decent season, but no wins. It didn’t help that he’d just returned from imprisonment in Germany. When Torhout rider André Malbrancke became Belgian champ, everyone suddenly seemed to forget Depoorter, which was all he needed to get going again.”
After training through the winter, he produced his best season so far in 1943, winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège ahead of his fellow countrymen Jos Didden and Stan Ockers. Depoorter also won the Road Omnium that year, one of the hardest Belgian events on the calendar. “When he set his mind to it, he was one of the best Belgian riders of his time, a real hardman excelling at time trialling and climbing,” says Dirk. By 1946, he was consistently finishing in the top 10 on top of his handful of victories.
So what happened to Depoorter? Who are “they”, the people who killed him? Finding out means digging up old reports, investigations and court records.
The West Fleming came well-prepared to the start of the 1947. It was as if he took racing more seriously as the years went by. He wanted to make them count. He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège a second time, but the big revelation was winning the Tour of Marca, a minor Spanish stage race.
It reinforced his belief that he should be a stage racer. It made sense: he had incredible endurance and recovery capacity. But Belgian team selector Karel van Wijnendaele remained dismissive of Depoorter’s aspirations, which made it all the more surprising when he was selected for the Belgian A-team for the 1948 Tour de France in spite of subdued performances in the spring. Depoorter had done the winter miles and his promising form was confirmed in the Tour of Luxembourg in June, where he finished third overall. Now even the Belgian press started believing in him as a Grand Tour contender.
When I ask why Depoorter would have been killed, Dirk says that’s cycling: “Anything goes. How do you think Janssen won the [1968] Tour? Van Springel was a much stronger TT rider, but on the day his French team car disappeared. No drinks for Herman, no technical assistance, he was simply abandoned.”
There’s no stopping Dirk. He even throws in Michel Pollentier’s lost 1978 Tour de France. He claims the urine-filled rubber pear found under the West-Flemish climber’s armpit at the Alpe d’Huez doping control was discovered only because his manager sold him out: “Twenty years later, directeur sportif Fred Debruyne was given a chalet in the Alps by the French state. Maybe that’s why the French haven’t won since Hinault – they’ve run out of chalets.” Dirk looks at the sea of riders on the wall: “Everyone has a price. Debruyne’s a disgrace.”
Depoorter headed to the Tour of Switzerland as one of the pre-race favourites, at least in the eyes of Belgium. After the first two short half-stages, won by Jean Robic and Ferdi Kübler, Depoorter was seventh overall. On the second day he supplied the fireworks, attacking early with Frenchman Apo Lazaridès and Italian Alfredo Pasotti, building up a lead of over seven minutes, which made Depoorter the virtual leader, but when the Italian had a chain break, race leader Kübler caught up with the Belgian. At the end of the stage Depoorter had climbed to fourth overall.
On the rest day, speculations were rife about his role in the forthcoming Tour de France. Stan Ockers and Raymond Impanis were the protected riders in the Belgian team, but Depoorter’s riding begged the question if he didn’t deserve it too. The Ichtegemenaar was determined to show his worth in the fourth stage going over the Süsten Pass, including a 28km climb. On the day, there was a threatening sky and some reports suggest there was even rain. In any case, conditions weren’t ideal. Things started getting serious after 57 kilometres when Swiss pédaleur de charme Hugo Koblet attacked. He had 2’25” on the peloton at the foot of the Süsten Pass, but his advantage shrunk quickly when Kübler and Robic countered a kilometre into the climb.
Depoorter tried to respond, with a large group following in his wake. Koblet soon faded and after ten kilometres of climbing, Kübler and Robic were leading, 20 seconds ahead of Koblet, with Depoorter and the other favourites still at 2’25”. When the gap reached four minutes after 17 kilometres, Ockers and Depoorter went after the leaders, but Depoorter had to let his team-mate go towards the end of the climb.
Robic crested with 14 seconds on Kübler, Ockers at 2’54” and Depoorter at 3’34”. At that moment, Depoorter was virtual runner-up overall and still a had a lot left in the tank. According to reports, he even winked at a Belgian journalist standing at the top. Depoorter knew this was an important stage for him and took huge risks on the slippery descent between the snow walls. When he hit the snow, he had to stop to readjust his handlebars before resuming the descent. He entered the Scheitel Tunnel (now renamed the Depoorter Tunnel) at between 50 and 90 km/h depending on who you listen to. He disappeard into the dark and never came out the other end.
Dirk shakes his head. “They killed him.”
The Belgian Mondia team car followed into the tunnel moments after Depoorter. Driver Louis Hanssens veered right as he spotted a rider and his bike on the ground on the left side of the tunnel, almost scraping the wall with the wide Ford Mercury in trying to avoid the stricken rider. Hanssens pulled over at the tunnel exit for him and his three passengers to walk back to take care of Depoorter.
“The official version was he’d cycled too fast. Coming into the unlit tunnel with his dark shades, he couldn’t see a thing. That’s utter nonsense. If you look at the last picture of him, he wasn’t even wearing shades,” says Dirk, showing me a picture of Depoorter. The first doctor to arrive was a local spectator who’d been standing further down the descent: Dr Staffieri. He arrived at the tunnel half an hour after Depoorter had been dragged out by French journalist Jean Leulliot, driver Louis Hanssens, a mechanic from the French La Perle team and Charles Smulders, son of the president of the Belgian cycling federation. Depoorter’s body had been placed on a pile of gravel by the tunnel exit. After a quick examination, Staffieri concluded that the death had been caused by a skull fracture when crashing against the tunnel wall.
Arriving soon after the Ford Mercury, Francis Pélissier, directeur sportif of La Perle and legendary convict of the road, didn’t believe a rider could be killed by cycling into a wall. Looking at the bike, he suspected Depoorter must have been hit by a car. Why else would the back wheel be bent? Leulliot backed Pélissier’s theory: somebody had driven over Depoorter. But Pélissier’s claims were rejected by the Swiss police as opinion, not facts, and the journalist Leulliot’s story evaporated. Other theories soon popped up in the press: there must have been something wrong with the bike – hadn’t Depoorter stopped to readjust the handlebars? But on examination, the bars were fine and so were the brakes.
Hearing the different versions, it’s clear that someone was bending the truth, because nothing adds up. Riders Koblet and Luxembourger Jean Goldschmit, who followed Depoorter on the road, claimed they’d seen the bike lying in the middle of the tunnel with the wheel still spinning. Others claimed the bike was gone. Two days after the events, Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad advanced the blowout theory and again there was mention of a car running over Depoorter’s legs and left hand. “Depoorter’s brother Willy also discovered the tubs weren’t glued on properly. No need to tell you what that means in an Alpine stage,” says Dirk, still convinced of the conspiracy theory.
Three thousand people attended the funeral in Ichtegem on June 24, 1948, including numerous dignitaries and professional riders. Depoorter’s death was a national tragedy. Belgium had lost a potential Tour de France winner and the press wasn’t going to let the Swiss get away with a slapdash investigation, especially as this looked like a perfect blend of incompetence and cover up.
Convinced there had been a conspiracy to let Kübler win, Willy Depoorter pushed for an exhumation of his brother’s body and in September 1948, Professor Thomas from Brugge did a post-mortem examination. Willy was convinced there was a plot – Kübler had to win. Others claim that Ockers was the chosen one and that Depoorter had been betrayed by his own. Whatever the case, Professor Thomas contradicted Dr Staffieri’s conclusions. Everything indicated that Depoorter had been killed by a car. The multiple rib fractures could only have been caused by something large and heavy crushing the rib cage.
Although Dirk doesn’t go into it, all accounts indicate that Hanssens was a shady character and it’s not entirely clear what he was doing at the race in the first place. He had a criminal record for selling stolen goods. He’d come as the driver of Belgian federation president Smulders Senior, who’d sent his son Charles instead, although when it came to testimonies, the latter claimed he wasn’t there on official business.
Hanssens’ car had an official Belgian federation badge, but he too denied being there on official duty. He was just there as a ‘tourist’… Meanwhile, in the backseat, soigneur Driessens wasn’t even watching the road or the riders – he hadn’t seen a thing. Makes you wonder what the Ford was doing there. “A ghost car between the riders,” Dirk comments. “Even if it had been a proper team car, it wasn’t supposed to be between the riders.”
The vagueness and contradictory testimonies in the Depoorter case are probably to do with no one wanting to admit they messed up. The Swiss organisation had briefed everyone on the dangers of the stage, but no marshal was posted before the tunnel to warn the riders. Hanssens admitted he never bothered to go to pre-race briefings. Moreover, as Dirk says, the follow cars weren’t allowed to squeeze in between the riders on the descent. The Ford should have been stopped on the col and followed after the riders.
Hanssens may not have wanted to get caught up in another investigation, as he was already in trouble with the law. And the Belgian federation can’t have been too keen on boasting about a team car manned with a tourist, a criminal and a dozing soigneur driving over a Belgian Tour de France contender. Unfortunately for them, the only decent person on board seemed to be the fourth man: journalist and future Paris-Nice organiser Leulliot.
The Scheldeprijs ends in a sprint and predictably the “German Derny” wins it again. He doesn’t sprint, he attacks and escapes when everyone else is sprinting. He’s the third rider after Piet Olliebrandt  and Mark Cavendish to get a hat trick at the unofficial sprinters’ worlds.
Dirk gives his analysis: “Cav’s got his work cut out. With Kittel, Degenkolb and Mezgec, the Dutch team are giving Quick Step a run for their money.”
Petacchi finished fourth today, but with the quality of the Quick Step train and Boonen’s efforts, the guys in the café would have expected more. “Problem is they’d rather sit up than be humiliated by Kittel,” says Lotto cap man.
I prompt Delaere, the military champ, a couple of times about his post-war riding with Decock, but he hasn’t come to make small talk. He’s here to watch the race analysis and sip at his beer. It’s amazing he’s even there, a contemporary of Depoorter. The next day on the train back from Belgium, I read in the paper that, like every year, Decock attended the Scheldeprijs with his friend René Mertens, a winner in 1947. But 2014 was different – it was René’s last edition of the race. He died of a heart attack. A minute of silence was held at the start. We hadn’t heard. We must have talked over the bad news, enjoying the local brew – Ichtegem Bruin.
Attending the Scheldeprijs was the highlight of Mertens’ year. A rider all the way, he insisted on coming, even if he’d become weaker lately. Can’t help thinking there’s a bit of Depoorter living on in Delaere and Decock almost 70 years later.
In court, Leulliot would go on to reveal that when they came driving out of the tunnel, Depoorter’s bike was on the bonnet of the Ford Mercury. This goes against Koblet’s claim that it was on the ground next to Depoorter when he passed by the Belgian team car. A reconstruction by Swiss paper La Semaine Sportive and the local police in November 1948 suggested that the body had moved position after passage of the car, partly explaining differences between Leulliot and Koblet’s observations. It also showed that it would have been impossible to avoid the body at 50 km/h. Even at 25km/h it was too dark to distinguish the police officer who’d taken Depoorter’s place on the ground, which made it very unlikely that Hanssens managed to avoid the body in the narrow tunnel. Dirk does his own reconstruction on the counter, using beer mats and glasses.
Following the publication of the Swiss paper’s conclusions, the public prosecutor in Bruges requested the investigation files from the Swiss authorities. A second exhumation and autopsy ensued, this time by a Dr Enderle from Brussels, who confirmed Professor Thomas’ diagnosis of multiple rib fractures and death by car crushing.
In Ichtegem, the suspicions of foul play endure to this very day. The main conspiracy theory involves Depoorter becoming too much of a threat to favoured team-mate Ockers, but Dirk thinks it was a pro-Kübler plot. “Depoorter’s death was convenient for everyone,” he says. “Not the first time a Belgian rider was done over in a race. Leaders never like mavericks rattling the hierarchy. Depoorter was too strong for his own good.”
Once Dr Enderle had confirmed Professor Thomas’ conclusions, Hanssens was accused of involuntary manslaughter. Sitting in the passenger seat, Leulliot testified that he’d felt the shock of driving over the body. He’d even heard a scream. Once Hanssens stopped the car at the tunnel exit, Leulliot immediately got out to go back into the tunnel to help the fallen rider. They’d seen it was a Belgian jersey, but weren’t sure who. While the Frenchman walked into the tunnel, the three Belgians stayed in the car to confer.
The trio remaining in the Ford points to a first discussion about how to tackle the accident. Clearly the priority was to get their stories straight and to make Leulliot shut up. Add to this that a couple of witnesses had seen Hanssens wipe off a dark patch from the wing of his car and it all looks pretty damning.
It might be far-fetched to claim that Depoorter was deliberately run over. The story played out more like a cover-up done by people who didn’t have the decency or spine to own up to a major fuck up. The Swiss organisers and the local police were equally cowardly and complicit in this scenario. Various pressures from the Belgian and Swiss cycling federations must have contributed to the omerta around the Depoorter case too. Dirk disagrees: he thinks I’m naive: “It was no accident, it was too convenient. That’s what cycling’s all about. Being a strong rider isn’t enough, you need cunning people behind you…”
Depoorter deserved better. The least the witnesses could have done was to speak up. It seems Leulliot was the only one who tried, but even he was quickly silenced initially. Were there threats of reprisals from the Swiss and Belgian federation? Did Hanssens have contacts in the underworld? Whatever the case, Leulliot and Driessens worked in the peloton, and making enemies or complicating people’s work wouldn’t have done them any favours. As a journalist, Leulliot had also organised races and would run Paris-Nice from 1951.
Hanssens wasn’t sentenced for involuntary manslaughter until 1954. For a long time he tried to omit the presence of Leulliot in the car, as he was a compromising witness. Hanssens also claimed that he’d driven very slowly and avoided Depoorter, which was impossible, as according to soigneur Driessens they were trying to keep up with riders descending at 70km/h.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that it took so long for the case to come to a conclusion, as the cycle of lies seems to be one of the constants of top cycling (and what makes it so intriguing). The Depoorter journey is yet another example of the peloton as a great exponent of human tragedy, but when all the fragments of truth were put together, it was clear that only the Ford could have crushed Depoorter. Leulliot’s testimony was deemed more credible than the Belgians’, because he had no reason to lie and because Hanssens tried to omit the Frenchman’s presence in the car.
Hanssens received a six-month prison sentence, a 1000 Franc fine and payment of 88,317 Francs to cover the legal fees, as well as payment of 1,768,168 Francs to the family for moral and material damages. The sentence was held up in appeal, but the prison sentence was reduced to one month. It took another three years before Depoorters’ widow and children received the compensation for damages, nine years after the tragedy.
Whatever Dirk says, I still find it hard to buy the crime story. Part of me wants to believe it – that’s what I came looking for in West Flanders. That’s what caught my interest. But Depoorter’s fate is even more sinister. Cycling is dangerous, accidents happen, but it’s heartbreaking when people don’t even have the decency to show some respect for a colleague. Depoorter is not the only cycling tragedy left to simmer in pretence and petty excuses, but if riding style says something about character, I’d like to think that a Flandrien like Depoorter would have acted differently than the cowards in that Ford.
Depoorter died at the front, not hiding behind some half lies or half riding. Hup Poorterke!
Originally published in issue 52 of 1

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