Olympic champion, world champion, five-time Tour de France stage victor and multiple one-day Classics winner – Dutchman Hennie Kuiper’s palmarès is as impressive as they come. Riders as versatile as ‘The Gentleman’ don’t exist any more, and probably never will. To celebrate Kuiper’s achievements, Rapha is hosting an exhibition at the Cycle Club Amsterdam this month from Friday 15th January until Sunday 27th February. For those who can’t make it, we present five short stories from a gold-plated career.
He wanted revenge. The stocky farmer’s son, whose heart was as strong as his legs, wrestled himself through the lower categories – his spirit tough enough to make the 1972 Olympic team. Munich! Munich, that’s where he wanted to be, that’s where his legs would do the talking. But they took away his bronze medal after the team time trial. A team mate had allegedly been doping. Kuiper wanted revenge. He trained, rested. He still had the road race to compete in. His world was the bike back then. He didn’t know about the Palestine conflict, even when there were shots fired by masked men in the Olympic village and Israeli athletes were killed. What did he know? What did he need to know, at twenty-three years of age and motivated for gold? The chairman of the Olympic committee stated “the games must go on!” and the Dutch team started in the road race. Kuiper fell twice, and came back twice. Two laps before the end he accelerated, shockingly, painfully, but with souplesse. He sat up, for the first time his name in the international cycling world: Hennie Kuiper, the 1972 Olympic champion.
Looking back is an art form. That same wiggle, the waving arm and surprised look as at the Olympics in Munich but this time at the Road Race World Championships for professionals in Yvoir in Belgium. He takes a quick, scanning look behind him. Perhaps a few Belgian riders will appear from the emptiness; Eddy Merckx or Roger De Vlaeminck. But no, they have been beaten. Our man blazes through a large crowd of scornful Belgians with a smooth cadence. The future is waiting for him. It is a rider in orange, with number 81 on his back. Hennie Kuiper is once again the strongest, smartest and the unruliest. He scouted the course in detail with team leader Jan Janssen beforehand. The tactics were clear: Joop Zoetemelk was the leader in the finale, but before that Kuiper could grab the opportunity if it appeared. And so he did. Two laps before the end Kuiper escapes and they let him get away because of his daring character. He churns a huge gear, growling, chastising. The leading group doesn’t stand a chance. The Belgians aren’t capable of following either. Zoetemelk and Knetemann disrupt things behind. His lead never gets big though. One dip and the chasing group is on his wheel again, but then… the final kilometre! Kuiper looks back again, his face relaxes and a smile forces above the need for oxygen. With one hundred meters to go, Kuiper waves as happily as a kid to his parents. Again, he is the best, but this time of all the professionals. The number two, Roger De Vlaeminck, is disillusioned. Kuiper is the hero, Belgium are the schmucks.
Forty-eight seconds. That was the difference in 1977, between winning the Tour and, in hindsight, never winning it. Did Kuiper give too much leeway to the young German Thurau? A tactical error by his director sportive Peter Post perhaps? Well, by the Alps ‘Kuipertje’ had shown his strength and intentions to become the second Dutch Tour winner anyway. The next year, in 1978, Kuiper was strong again. He got within eight seconds of the yellow jersey but higher than the second step of the podium was out of reach for our man. He won on the Alpe, after dropping Hinault and Zoetemelk. Kuiper smelled yellow and made his plan. That day, eight… eight (!) cols in the Alps were waiting. For Kuiper, the longer, the tougher, the better. He was untamable and took his chance. Only the greatest could follow him, among others Hinault, Van Impe and Zoetemelk. On the top of the Col du Granier the peloton was already 30 minutes behind. During the descent Kuiper took more and more risks… and then it all went wrong in a turn. A steering error, he braked, slid on gravel and smacked against the rocks. Crrrrack. His collarbone broke in two parts. An ambulance transported him to a hospital in Chambéry, where they screwed a steel plate in his bone to keep it together. The Tour: it’s as tough as stainless steel.
An unclosable gap is sometimes not more than half a metre. Especially after 200 kilometres, when sugar hardens to acid in your muscles, when character determines everything, and where the cycling heart knows exactly when you can use your last ounce of strength. Kuiper has escaped, but lets the others think that they’re still in his wheel. To create a gap, sometimes you have to play with them. The rest is history, or so it seems. With twenty-five kilometres to go Kuiper creeps to the front together with Fons de Wolf and Daniel Willems. He starts dictating the pace and… there’s the gap! The adrenaline unleashes all his horse power. Kuiper expands the lead, his face marked by all that he has conquered so far that day: Kwaremont, Koppenberg, Bosberg. Then, at two hundred metres before the finish line, when behind him there’s nothing but divine emptiness, we see that release again. The straightened back, the waving arms and a look back just like in Munich, in Yvoir. It is 1981. Kuiper has won Ronde van Vlaanderen.
See him standing there: Hennie Kuiper, the impatient, hand-clapping racer on the side of the road by Hem. The last cobble section looks like it might be fatal. That stupid hole, that treacherous puddle that hides its murky depths and the cobble that pulls the tube off his rim. Kuiper, seeing that he can’t continue, gets off the bike, shouts, has a firm word with his mechanic, clenches his fists. With this picture, Kuiper will create cycling history. The panic is fake though; he is pulsing with self confidence. Hennie knows that the chasers will not catch up. His lead is too big, and he loves the cobbles too much for them. The cobbles have glided smoothly under his wheels this year. It was exactly how he had dreamt it. Kuiper at the front, steering away from danger, with Francesco Moser among four men working hard to stay in the wheels. Kuiper knows he won’t be able to win in a sprint so with a firm pull on the Carrefour de l’Arbre he rides all his competitors out of sight, centimetre by centimetre. The maniacal preparation bears its fruits. The Wednesday and Thursday before the race he had been on the bike more than seven hours. He has ridden himself down to the rims, body and bike. Moser, Duclos-Lasalle and Madiot can’t close the gap, not even when the cobbled sector in Hem forces him off the bike. And there he is again, straightening up in the velodrome, with a quick glance over his shoulder and then two arms in the air.