Monseré Designs would not exist were it not for Chris Sidwells and his outstanding article on Jean-Pierre Monseré. Through the wonders of the internet I was able to get in touch with Chris personally and he was kind enough to give me permission to reprint his article here at our little slice of web.
IN THE SHADOW OF MERCKX
BY Chris Sidwells
In the first of a new series focusing on riders who raced in the shadow of Eddy Merckx, we look at the tragically short career of Jean-Pierre Monseré, a brilliant rider who perhaps could have challenged the Cannibal’s omnipotent success.
Some people are just not meant to last; they are fireworks who fizz and pop like noisy children, delight all they touch and are gone. ‘Jempi’ Monseré was one of them. Hugely talented as a bike rider with the electric personality of a born entertainer, Monseré had just one full year as a professional cyclist before he was killed in a tragic freak racing accident at the start of 1971. But what a year it was. Even Merckx did not have a pro debut like Monseré, provoking the question: would Eddy’s career have been so great if the boy from West Flanders had lived? We will never know. Monseré would certainly have been a threat in any Classic, he had already proved that.
Monseré was born in Roeselare in 1948 – the same place as Patrick Sercu – surrounded by bikes. A cyclist was all he wanted to be, and by the age of 13 he was winning races. He progressed through the junior and amateur ranks winning 20 to 30 races per year. He was a star.
At the age of 20 he took the silver medal in the 1969 World Amateur Road Championships at Brno in Czechoslovakia. Leif Mortensen from Denmark won the race, in which the winning break was instigated by a British rider, Pete Smith from York, who finished eighth.
Monseré was snapped up by the Flandria team as a true Flemish rival to the predominantly French-speaking Belgian, Merckx. His impact was immediate. Just one month after his 21st birthday Monseré won the Tour of Lombardy after Gerben Karstens failed a dope control. Six weeks a pro and already he had won a monument!
It was sensational, and Jempi was just as sensational in his private life. He loved parties and was great company, earning a bit of a reputation as a playboy. But that was all it was, a reputation, though he did go to enormous lengths to preserve it.
Freddy Maertens was very close to Monseré. Their wives were related and grew up together, and he remembers Monseré well. “He liked to make people think that he wasn’t serious – it gave him a kick and he would do anything to make them think he didn’t train. It was all a trick, because if you did go training with him it would kill you, he rode very hard. Like everything he did his training full on. Sometimes, in the summer, he would go out training at 6am, returning at 9am to change back into his dressing gown. When the guys he had arranged to go training with arrived, he would tell them that he didn’t feel like it that day. As soon as they left, he would be out again for two hours behind the Derny.”
He was serious, he was talented and he had the drive to make it really big. The road World Championships in 1970 were held at Leicester, on a course criticised by some, particularly Eddy Merckx, as being too easy. Monseré saw Merckx’s indifference as his chance and set about 1970 with just one objective in mind. After a good show in the early Classics – top 10 placings in Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix – he decided not to ride the Tour de France and started preparing for Leicester in the time-honoured Flemish way.
All through July and August, Monseré rode the kermesses, hard circuit races that are held in every village in Flanders. They were a cycling world of their own in the Seventies, with their own heroes and villains. Ever heard of Richard Buckaki or Jonny de Nul? Probably not, as they rarely raced outside Belgium, but became wealthy men and could pull as big a crowd in Flanders as Eddy Merckx. Monseré rode three or four of these very competitive races a week, often winning (he won 17 times in 1970) and trained before and after them, sometimes behind a Derny. By the Worlds he was flying.
Since Merckx had made his feelings about the circuit plain, the favourite from Belgium was Frans Verbeeck, who had already won 20 times that year. Maybe this helped Monseré, because the Belgian team was happy for him to go with every break. He was away with the big one that contained top Italians Gianni Motta, Michele Dancelli and Felice Gimondi, among others. Then, when they were caught and Gimondi went again with the Frenchman Alain Vasseur; Monseré was able to bridge the gap to the new leaders with Leif Mortensen, Charly Rouxel and local hero Les West.
They worked like mad together, and the break stuck. Monseré had been there all day, just like Gimondi, but maybe he had been cleverer with his efforts. Now, with the world title just down the road, he committed everything to an attack with one kilometre to go. There was nothing the others could do. Jempi Monseré won alone, with Mortensen taking second, Gimondi third and Les West fourth. It was a superb win for the Belgian.
Monseré was now the man, eclipsing even Merckx in Belgium. What did the future hold? The man with the playboy reputation spent a serious winter, enjoying the receptions he went to, while knowing when to leave. He won the Ghent Six with Patrick Sercu, and was in fine form the following February when he won the Tour of Andalucia.
His first major objective for 1971 was victory in Milan-San Remo. Briek Schotte, Monseré’s manager and twice world champion himself, had convinced the new world champion to adopt his old-fashioned training methods: long miles in the Flanders rain, rather than too many races in the south. Schotte was very close to Monseré, he came from the same area and, despite being 56 years old at the time, trained with his protégé from time to time. The knowledge gained on these rides and the Andalucia result convinced Schotte that Monseré didn’t need another stage race, so Paris-Nice was missed in favour of a long weekend of single-day races in Belgium as final preparation for ‘La Primavera’.
On the Saturday, Monseré was second to his great friend and kindred spirit, Roger de Vlaeminck, then ninth the next day. One more kermesse in the little village of Retie, near Antwerp, and it was off to Milan. Monseré had wanted to race at Retie because it was the place where he had taken his first victory wearing the rainbow jersey the previous autumn, a sentimental thought which somehow encapsulates the west Flandrian’s generous nature. All through the race, his rainbow jersey was plain for the large crowd to see, at the front. Then disaster struck.
At 71 kilometres, a break of 15 was strung across the road in echelon formation. Monseré had just done his turn, and had settled at the back of the string in the left-hand gutter when a car that had somehow strayed onto the course headed towards them. It happened so fast – the roads were closed so no one expected it. Raf Hooyberghs, who was just in front of Monseré, saw the car at the last second, swerved and missed it. Monseré didn’t. He hit the car head-on and died instantly.
The cycling world was stunned. Frans Verbeeck, who was also in the break, says that he has never been able to forget the noise of that crash. Roger de Vlaeminck, perhaps the rider closest to Monseré, had travelled to the race with him and remembers: “It was terrible. I had to take his car back home, but I was in a daze. I couldn’t believe it. In fact it took me a long time to accept it.”
A great talent and a great person had gone. And with tragedy seemingly knowing no bounds, the Monseré family was struck again a few years later when Jempi’s seven-year-old son, Giovanni, was killed when hit by a car while riding his bike on the road.
Article originally published in Cycle Sport March 2002. Used with permission.