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  • 02.08.16

    Portrait: Hennie Kuiper

    Olympic and world champion, winner at Roubaix, Flanders, Sanremo, Lombardia... The list goes on. One of the finest riders of his generation deserves greater recognition

'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…’”

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.”

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