Wednesday 20 January 2021

Joop Zoetemelk: a great cyclist with a tragic secret

Joop Zoetemelk, gawky, shy and squeaky voiced, was never the object of the kind of adulation his sporting contemporaries Johan Cruijff and Ard Schenk received. But the professional cyclist whose nickname was ‘the eternal runner up’ should properly be called ‘the eternal number one’ say journalists Joop Holthausen, Jacob Bergsma and Peter Ouwekerk in NRC. Together they wrote a biography of a great cyclist with a tragic secret.

Joop Zoetemelk (1947) is the Netherlands’ most successful cyclist ever, winning 428 races including the Tour de France in 1980. In 1968 he brought home an Olympic gold medal. The Tour victory eluded him six times: he came second in all six.
But although Zoetemelk’s reputation as a cyclist is undisputed, many have felt he could have done even better than he did. Earlier biographies have made much of his serious fall in the Midi Libre race in 1974. In Joop Zoetemelk: een open boek (Joop Zoetemelk: an open book) Holthausen agrees the fall stood in the way of several more Tour de France victories.
His placidness was another reason for not achieving his true potential. Zoetemelk was castigated in the Belgian press for sticking to the wheel of his rival Eddy Merckx for too long but according to a Belgian sports journalist ‘he just didn’t have the temperament to whip himself into a winning state of mind, to give himself that extra push’. On the publicity front, Zoetemelk didn’t make much headway either, not having the knack for memorable one liners.
Alcoholic wife
But there was another reason Zoetemelk didn’t do as well as he might have done. No one, not even his own sister, knew that Françoise Duchaussoy, the French woman he married in 1971, was an alcoholic. Zoetemelk never talked about it, not even to his cycling buddies. Holthausen says it changed Zoetemelk from a normal, blokey sort of man into the retiring character he became later on.
Françoise’s drink problem worsened in time and had an enormous impact on Zoetemelk. She caused a serious car accident, their hotel venture in Meaux failed and she was unable to care for their children. A divorce was out of the question: his father in law threatened to take the children away from him and that was the last thing doting father Zoetemelk wanted.
Police cell
The cyclist himself says: ‘I later told my father in law that if I hadn’t become involved with his family my career would have been much more successful.’
Françoise died in 2008. ‘There were six police cars, lights flashing, in my garden. They thought a police inquiry was necessary to see if she had died of natural causes’, Zoetemelk says in the biography. He was fully expecting to spend the night in a police cell together with his daughter Loetitia.
Fortunately for him it didn’t happen. Holthausen is pleased to end his biography on a much happier note. Zoetemelk met Dany with whom he is building a new life. ‘She has made a huge difference to his life. He is just bursting with happiness’, he writes.

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