Rik Van Looy - The Emperor of Herentals

 

Rik Van Looy (full name Hendrik Van Looy), born in Grobbendonk on 20 December 1933, was one of the most successful cyclists in cycling history alongside Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser. He was world champion among the road pros in 1960 and 1961 and even managed to win all five classic Monuments, a result achieved only by fellow countrymen Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck.

One of his nicknames, Rik II, was an allusion to Rik Van Steenbergen, then Belgian cycling champion, and came from an anecdote about his childhood. In the summer, when he was a child, Hendrik used to distribute milk to his neighbours on a big, heavy bicycle. The nickname "Emperor of Herentals" was given to him because of his Flemish origins and his role as a leader in the group.

 

The beginnings

 

1952 - Van Looy participated in the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952, running the Men's individual road race, but without completing it. His team, however, won the gold medal in Men's team road race.

1953 - Bronze medal at the 1953 World Championships in Lugano. That same year he became professional with the L'Avenir formation's jersey, but also competing for the Gitane-Hutchinson; in that autumn he ran for the first time the Paris-Tours, finishing seventh.

1955 - His first participation in the Giro d'Italia, with the Belgian national team, branded Girardengo-Eldorado, but without particular results.

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1956-1962: the years at Faema/Flandria and the affirmation

 

1956 - The engagement from Faema-Guerra-Van Hauwaert and the beginning of a period of great victories. In the same year, Van Looy won the Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Brussels in spring, and the Scheldeprijs and the Tour of the Netherlands in summer.

He also came fifth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and second at the World Championships in Copenhagen.

At the time he was racing for Faema, Van Looy used the domestiques made available to him, most of whom were international champions, to form what was later nicknamed his "red guard", creating the first version of the cycling "train" for the sprints: as the finish line approached, the domestiques took the lead, leading the bunch at high speed, allowing Van Looy to launch his long sprint and win at the finish.

1957 - Van Looy again came first in the Gand-Wevelgem, won the Tour of the Netherlands, and won the gold medal at the Waregem World Championship.

1958 - The first participation in Paris-Roubaix, where he came third. He then took second place in the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo and won six stages of the Vuelta a España. He also won his first Milano-Sanremo and became Belgium's national championship at Housse.

1959 - Another year full of victories. Van Looy won the Tour of Flanders, the Paris-Tours, the Giro di Lombardia, the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Giro di Sardegna.

On his second participation in Paris-Roubaix, he finished fourth and took third place in the Super Prestige Pernod. He finished fourth in his second participation in the Giro d'Italia, and third in the Vuelta a España.

1960 - First gold medal at the World Championship in Germany.

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1961 - Van Looy won his first Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Belgium, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and again won the gold medal at the World Championship in Bern with a Galmozzi Specialissima, as well as third place at the Super Prestige Pernod for the second year in a row.

At the Giro d'Italia, he had a good chance of winning thanks to a 150km Fuga over the Dolomites, but due to a muscle strain, he lost the lead and finished seventh.

1962 - Second victory at Paris-Roubaix, Giro di Sardegna and Tour of Flanders, and third victory at Gand-Wevelgem. This was also the year of his first participation in the Tour de France, but during one of the stages, he was hit by a motorcycle. The accident caused an injury to his kidneys, so he was forced to retire.

He still participated in the World Championships in Salò, but as he had not yet recovered from the Tour de France crash he was only 30th.

 

From 1963 to the retirement

 

1963 - Van Looy passed to the new G.B.C.-Libertas. In that season he came second at Paris-Roubaix and won his second national road title. At Ronse's Road World Championship he was about to win the gold medal, but because of the "betrayal" of his domestique Benoni Beheyt, who kept him back at the last stretch, he only came second.

1964 - Van Looy moved on to Solo-Superia, the team captained by expert Rik Van Steenbergen. During the year he won a stage at the Vuelta a España and Paris-Luxembourg.

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1965 - The third victory at the Giro di Sardegna and Paris-Roubaix, and third place at the Vuelta a España, winning eight stages. He also won two stages at the Tour de France, wearing the yellow leader's jersey for one day.

1967 - Van Looy moved to the Dutch team Willem II-Gazelle, staying there for four seasons. In his first year with the new team, he came second at Paris-Roubaix and won his second Paris-Tours. In the season he also wore the jersey of the Italian team Cynar at the Giro d'Italia

1968 - First place at the Freccia Vallone.

1969 - Last participation in the World Championships in Zolder, where he arrived twenty-fourth.

He retired from the competitive activity at the age of 37, on 22 August 1970, with over 370 victories, a record beaten only by the legendary Eddy Merckx.

After his retirement, Van Looy was sports director of some Belgian professional teams. He also founded and then directed, together with the late cyclist Noël Foré, the Vlaamse Wielerschool, a school for young cyclists. After the farewell to racing, he was also president of the Herentals football team and a commentator for newspapers and weeklies in his country.

One of Belgium's most popular characters, Rik Van Looy was publicly celebrated in 2005 at the presentation of his biography, Rik Van Looy, written by Roger De Maertelaere.

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(1) Van Looy and Bartali at the Giro d'Italia 1959
(2) Van Looy at the Giro d'Italia 1061
(3) Van Looy and at the Tour de France 1963
(4) Van Looy and at the Tour de France 1964

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