It’s a shocking image. Too gratuitous to reproduce here. A rider lies sprawled on the tarmac. His bike is next to him, the front wheel bent in half. A car door is opening and the foot of its driver is just visible, stepping out to see what has happened. The rider is wearing a pristine white jersey with rainbow bands. He is the world professional road race champion. There is some blood on his left knee, but that won’t bother him now. He’s already gone.
The curse of the rainbow jersey is one of those phrases television commentators love to throw about. It can cover anything from a puncture to a loss in form to a doping infringement. But before Jean-Pierre (“Jempi”) Monseré died on March 15, 1971 the phrase barely existed, and his story makes the troubles of subsequent riders look inconsequential.
Indeed, had he lived, Jempi Monseré might have made the palmarès of subsequent world champions look inconsequential too. He was a rider feared by Eddy Merckx, a rider who was at least the equal of Roger de Vlaeminck. Monseré was one of the most talented of his generation. He was world champion at 21 and, before tragedy struck, he seemed set for a career that would have rivaled those of the two Belgian superstars.
Born in 1948 to a working class family in the poor factory district of Roeselare, Monseré exhibited his talent from an early age. By 16, already with four years racing experience in his legs, he was Belgian champion in his category. That same year Monseré rode a kermesse in Izegem, but this time the teenage “veteran” had to cede victory to a new face on the scene. It was Roger de Vlaeminck, taking part in his first race.
De Vlaeminck and Monseré became rivals, regularly clashing in kermesses and regional championships. In 1967, they moved into the senior amateur ranks and in their first national championship race they were taught a valuable lesson. In the last kilometer Monseré attacked the leading group. De Vlaeminck led the chase to catch him, allowing another rider, Valère Van Sweevelt, to take the win. Monseré and de Vlaeminck completed the podium.
Always a clever rider, Monseré realized that an ongoing rivalry with de Vlaeminck would be counterproductive. Other riders would take advantage of them, as Van Sweevelt had. So the two talented young Belgians created an alliance that soon became a firm friendship. Many years later, when talking about his amateur days, de Vlaeminck said of Monseré: “He was actually a little better than me, I personally found. He was a little faster in the sprint and a little more clever, he was very good.”
In September 1969, shortly after Monseré placed second to Denmark’s Leif Mortensen in the world amateur road championship, he and de Vlaeminck turned professional with Briek Schotte’s Flandria team—which already contained Roger’s older brother Eric de Vlaeminck. The three of them were known for their sense of humor, and particularly their practical jokes, of which the boss was often the target. Schotte didn’t mind. He liked to have a jokey atmosphere on his team, though no one who rode for him was under any illusions about his toughness. Schotte is sometimes referred to as “the last of the Flandriens” and is synonymous with the Tour of Flanders, which he started 20 years in a row (1940–1959), won twice and finished on the podium a further six times.
Five weeks after turning professional, Monseré won the Italian fall classic, the 266-kilometer Tour of Lombardy—though there is a comic tinge to the story. Monseré came into the race after taking second to Franco Bitossi in the 230-kilometer semi-classic Coppa Agostoni. Three days later, in Lombardy, after a race enlivened by attacks from Felice Gimondi, Gianni Motta and Raymond Poulidor, Monseré again finished runner-up, this time to the rapid Dutch sprinter Gerben Karstens. But Karstens was disqualified after failing a drugs test for amphetamines—not that Karstens had technically taken the test. As was a frequent practice at the time, he submitted his soigneur’s urine as his own. Unfortunately for Karstens, when he’d asked his soigneur to drive him overnight from France to Italy a couple of days earlier, his soigneur had decided to take the same amphetamines as his rider, just to stay awake. Monseré the neo-pro had a monument on his palmarès.
Monuments are all very well, but you’re not really a star rider until you have a nickname. Monseré’s was assigned to him in the rather unlikely setting of the Swiss Alps, and it was Italian legend Felice Gimondi who came up with it. On the fifth stage of the 1970 Tour of Switzerland the race crossed two major mountain passes, the Brünig and the St. Gotthard. Gimondi and Bitossi attacked. Monseré followed, then counterattacked alone. When Gimondi got back to the young Belgian, he asked, “Is that enough?” Monseré, characteristically, replied with another attack. At the stage finish he came in fourth, in the same group as Gimondi and Bitossi. Impressed with Monseré’s climbing strength, Gimondi said: “Vous, grande bandito! Vous, cowboy!” Monseré replied, “Moi, cowboy?” Then added in Dutch, “In any case I sit better on my horse than you.”
A few weeks later Monseré lined up for the Belgian national championships at Yvoir in the Ardennes. The course was hilly, the weather sweltering. Merckx, the reigning Tour de France champion, was the outright favorite, and was determined to take the Belgian title for the first time. After 15 ascents of the Côte d’Evrehailles to soften up the field, Merckx began attacking. Six times he attacked. Six times Monseré countered him. Merckx, who was three years older than Monseré, knew his rival well—they’d raced each other frequently since their amateur days. When Merckx attacked for a seventh time, Monseré did not respond and instead slipped back into the peloton, where he stayed for the rest of the race, a marked man. Merckx won, Monseré took third.
Afterward, Monseré told his doctor that he’d done a deal with Merckx to get a guaranteed place on the Belgian team for that year’s world championships. Merckx also offered a large sum of money, Monseré claimed. It’s unclear whether there’s any truth to this story—probably only Merckx knows—but Monseré got his place on the Belgian squad for the worlds. He and Merckx became friends and often rode together in track meetings that summer. As with Roger de Vlaeminck, Monseré had the intelligence to make allies of his strongest rivals.
Not only was Monseré fast and intelligent, he was also ambitious. Having secured his place on the worlds team, he set about preparing for the race with a single goal: victory. Merckx was known to be indifferent to the race because the circuit at Mallory Park, near Leicester in central England, was not very selective. Monseré saw his opportunity. Instead of making his Tour de France debut, Monseré trained specifically for the worlds, which took place August 16. Throughout July and early August he sharpened his form by riding Belgian kermesses, with extra motor-paced sessions before or after. Although he had a reputation as a joker and something of a playboy, Monseré was very serious about training. And he showed his good form by winning the opening stage of the Paris-Luxembourg race on August 10. He was ready to shoot for the rainbow jersey.
In Britain, the designated leader of the Belgian team was classics specialist Frans Verbeeck. Merckx was riding but seemed happy to play a supporting role. Monseré too was supposed to be playing a supporting role, and early in the race he went up the road in the main break of the day, a big group containing his old friend Gimondi. The group was caught but Gimondi attacked again. Monseré went with him, along with four others, and this time the break stuck. Approaching the finish on the Mallory Park motor racing circuit, the group was hanging strong, with Bitossi and Verbeeck closing fast.
Monseré stayed cool, coasting and looking back to assess the whereabouts of his team leader. Then with a kilometer to go, confident the group was going to stay away and noticing that Gimondi was boxed in, he attacked into the headwind. The others had no response. Despite being in the breaks all day long, the cowboy came down the finishing straight, past the rows of British bobbies, to throw his hands in the air, two seconds ahead of Mortensen and Gimondi.
World champion at the age of 21, having been professional for less than a year. Jempi Monseré had the world at his feet. Merckx said of him: “He had something more than the others. He had the face of a champion.” And Gimondi agreed: “The kid had all the elements to become a great champion. Intelligent, cunning, he made the right tactical choices and most of all he was fast.”
The 1971 season should have been the one when Monseré started to take on Merckx. Everyone knew he had the quality, and now in the rainbow jersey he would surely have the confidence and the team support. The year got off to a good start, with Monseré winning the season-opener Ruta del Sol, his first stage race victory. Next on the schedule was Milan-San Remo. Rather than prepare for it by riding Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice, Monseré and de Vlaeminck opted to ride a series of kermesses at home. The last one before they traveled to Italy was in Retie.
It was not a particularly significant race, just one of the dozens of kermesses that took place across Belgium every week. As such it was run under conditions most British and American riders will be familiar with—the roads were not fully closed and police attendance was minimal. The peloton was obliged to keep to the right of the road while lead cars signaled oncoming traffic to slow down or stop. Some have speculated that Monseré perhaps switched off for a second. It doesn’t really matter. The world champion was in a leading group of 16, riding in echelon formation. He’d just done his turn on the front, swung off and drifted to the back of the group, which happened to be in the left-hand gutter.
Imagine being a rider in that breakaway, seeing the fabled rainbow jersey floating beside you across the rough roads of Flanders, its young owner so fluid and confident. The rattle and clicks of gears…the soft hiss of silk tubulars…watery sunshine and a fresh wind to remind you that spring hasn’t quite come. Every rider takes his turn. There he is, Monseré, turning his legs over, no more. He’s only here for the training. Milan-San Remo is coming up in five days’ time.
A Mercedes dawdles toward the group in the opposite direction. The riders at the front of the group are safely on the other side of the road. Back down the line, heads down, they flick around the car. The fifteenth rider, Raf Hooyberghs, sees it at the last moment and swerves to save himself. The rider behind him hits the Mercedes head-on and is killed on the spot.
Jempi Monseré was a star. He didn’t live in anyone’s shadow, not even Eddy Merckx’s. We’ll never know what he would have achieved, but what he did accomplish in his short career is enough for cycling immortality. He’ll always be the Cowboy of Mallory Park.
From issue 41. Buy it here.