3 Dec 1946 – One of only two Dutch riders to have claimed cycling’s biggest prize, Zoetemelk rode his first Tour de France in 1970. He came second to Merckx… who else? He went on to ride 16 Tours, at the time a record. He won once, came second six times and was in the top 10 on a further five occasions. The robust Dutchman was the very epitome of consistency.
But ‘consistent’ and ‘robust’ aren’t terms to set a cycling fan’s heart a- flutter. Such riders do not readily garner unconditional affection and Zoetemelk was no different. Despite his immense palmarès, he was criticised more than commended. “Why is Zoetemelk so pale? Because he rides in the shadow of Merckx,” ran the famous joke. Even the 1980 Tour, the race he won, is remembered more in France for Hinault’s injured knee than Zoetemelk’s win, with the Dutchman forced to defend himself as a valid winner. But Zoetemelk does deserve his place in history. He won 10 stages of the Tour, including legendary ascents of Puy- deDôme and L’Alpe d’Huez. In 1985, he became world champion aged 38, attacking in the final kilometre before the sprint. No one could call him a mere follower any longer. Tour de France 1980: When Hinault abandoned due to tendonitis, Zoetemelk swooped. He inherited the race lead and cemented the win in the final TT in St-Étienne to finally claim a Tour after 10 attempts Tour de France: 1980 Vuelta a España: 1979 World Champion: 1985 Paris-Nice: 1974, ’ 75, ’ 79 Tour de Romandie: 1973 Tirreno-Adriatico: 1985 La Flèche Wallonne: 1976 Amstel Gold: 1987 Paris-Tours: 1977, 1979