Should you find yourself in Belgium next Spring with a few hours to spare, you are well advised to drop in at the Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde. And whilst deeply engrossed in the Ronde-related vintage bikes, jerseys and ephemera, your attention may be interrupted by spotting a bloke who bears an uncanny resemblance to the great Freddy Maertens.
This is no doppelganger, but the Freddy Maertens; double World Champion, triple Green Jersey winner in the Tour and first across the line in a total of 16 Tour de France stages – eight of them in 1976. The best sprinter of his generation possesses a palmares longer than your arm: 222 professional victories as a professional, a record 54 of them coming in the one season.
All told, not the CV of a man you would expect to see working in a museum in Belgium. A series of ill-advised business ventures and a tenacious taxman swallowed what money Maertens had made during his glittering career. He estimates somewhere between eight and nine million Belgian Francs disappeared from his grasp by the time he retired from the peloton in 1982 – a small fortune.
But Maertens is not bitter. What happened, happened, he says. Nothing can change it now, so why get angry? He enjoys his work and is a fine host of a museum dedicated to one of the few races he never won (second in 1973 to Eric Leman was the closest Maertens got). You can even book a guided tour of the exhibition with Freddy himself as group guide: an honour indeed.
And while one of the all-time greats is showing you round, ponder this: As Mark Cavendish, with 15 Tour stages in the bag over three years, opens his account at the Vuelta, consider Maertens’ Spanish achievements in 1977. Out of 19 stages that year, the Belgian crossed the line first 13 times. Not surprisingly, the points classification and overall also went his way.
If, as most sprinters concede, Cavendish is unbeatable on his day, what does that make Maertens?