Chocolate, Components and Conspiracy


chocolate_c_c_1The 1970s saw Flandria innovate in other ways. In 1970, the Mars chocolate company were planning to launch the "Mars Bar" in Belgium and wanted maximum exposure for their product. They decided they could do no better than to associate it with the most high profile and most successful Belgian cycling team. A deal was struck, and Mars were brought in as co-sponsors of the Flandria team. As it had done with the invention of the lead-out train, and the creation of the first all-round powerhouse team, Flandria had again revolutionized professional cycling, participating in a high-visibility launch of a flagship product by a global corporate giant.

In 1973, Flandria initiated another major development. The Japanese component manufacturer Shimano was eager to enter the European market but had made little headway. Bicycle components were mostly supplied by Italian and French manufacturers, and the thought of a Japanese manufacturer equipping professional bikes was considered laughable. Flandria, however, had acquired a reputation as a progressive and open team, willing to try new ideas, and they struck a deal with Shimano. In return for feedback and suggestions for improvement from the riders, the Japanese company would develop a brand new line of components specifically for the Flandria team: the Dura-Ace range. The Flandria-Shimano team was born. This was the first time that an Asian manufacturer’s components had been seen in the European races, and the association with Flandria saw the prestige of Shimano soar.

chocolate_c_c_2Shimano did not have to wait long for Flandria to deliver a victory for Dura-Ace, as Walter Godefroot won a stage of the Ruta del Sol in February 1973. Flandria gave Shimano more great results that year, including 3 stage victories in the Tour de France, and Freddy Maertens’ second place in the infamous 1973 World Championship in Barcelona.

The day before the Barcelona World Championship, the Belgian team was out on a training ride when a car pulled up beside Maertens and Godefroot. In the car was Tullio Campagnolo, the head of the Italian component manufacturer Campagnolo – the number-one brand in Europe. Campagnolo asked Godefroot who was going to win the race. Godefroot pointed to Maertens and said “this one”, to which Campagnolo replied, “Oh God, not him. He rides with Shimano parts. At all costs Shimano must not win on Sunday”. On the day of the race, a group of four riders escaped close to the finish: the Spaniard Luis Ocana, the Italian Felice Gimondi, and two Belgians, superstar Eddy Merckx and the 21-year-old Maertens. In such a situation a Belgian win was the most likely, and the young Maertens had pledged to help superstar Merckx win the sprint if the opportunity arose. Merckx asked Maertens to lead out the sprint for him, but as the line approached, it was Gimondi, not Merckx, who came past Maertens for the win. Merckx, surprisingly, was several bike lengths back in fourth position. Merckx claimed that he had run out of energy and could not follow Maertens’ lead-out, which for Maertens was a bitter pill to swallow, given that Maertens could have won comfortably by himself, had he known that Merckx was in no condition to contest the sprint. Speculation arose that Merckx had deliberately concealed his exhaustion from Maertens, in order to prevent Maertens from going for the win himself. Had Merckx, out of loyalty to his own component supplier, Campagnolo, intentionally denied victory to Maertens, the only rider using Shimano components? Whatever the truth of the matter, this incident caused a bitter 30-year rift between the two champions, played out in detail in the Belgian press.

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