The Eagle of Hogerheide




Bergen-op-Zoom, Putte, Antwerp, Temse, Buggenhout, Lebbeke, Aalst

New year's day, south on the semi-main road that runs the 25km or so to Belgium. Not a sparkling ride normally but Holland was sleeping in, the streets a wreckage of burned-out fireworks, food wrappers and beer cans from the night before.

About halfway to Putte, which straddles the border, I reached Hogerheide. The main road skirts it but the bike route runs through the middle, and I didn't mind that. I fancied a coffee and there was a chance that if I picked the right café and the right company, I could get to talking about the Eagle of Hogerheide.

You may not have heard of him. Few people now recall him, which is perhaps as well because it's a sad story of a life ruined at the moment of its glory.

Hogerheide in the 1960s was the home of an everyday racing cyclist called Harm Ottenbros. On Sunday, August 10, 1969, he lined up in an orange jersey as a last-moment selection for the Dutch team in the world road race championship. He was 26 and until that day had won little.

Holland's star man was a bespectacled rider called Jan Janssen, who'd been world champion before and who had won the previous year's Tour de France. A week before the race, though, Janssen fell ill. The selectors couldn't find another star of his standing but they weren't going to send a team short on numbers and so Ottenbros got his call.

The race was a competition in reverse. The field contrived not to win but to make Eddy Merckx lose. Merckx had won everything and to have him take the world championship as well was too much. Every move he made was negated. The crowd of 150,000 jeered and whistled as he gave up the battle and stepped off.

Then nobody knew what to do. Merckx had been defeated and that's all that mattered. Out of this lull, with four kilometres to go, raced Ottenbros and a Belgian called Julien Stevens. At the finish, Ottenbros won by centimetres.

"It was an odd feeling," he said. "The nearer the finish line came, the more I had to tell myself I was just in a kermesse, although with a few more spectators than usual. I had to forget that I was riding for a world title because if I'd realised that, I'd never have won."

The world of cycling turned on Ottenbros with bitterness. An unknown had no right to be champion. On top of that, every time he put on his rainbow jersey, he personified the guilt the others felt for riding against Merckx. Such was the contempt that Ottenbros earned no more as world champion - €2,500 - than he had as a criterium rider. Rivals contrived to stop him winning even the most minor of races. Often he was lucky to get even start money.

They jeered at his weakness on hills and called him The Eagle of Hogerheide, an ironic reference to the climber Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, and the flatness of south-west Holland where Ottenbros lived. Even the public deserted him when they grew disappointed by his lack of further results.

"Believe me," he said, "I wasn't in the slightest bit sorry when my year was as world champion over and I didn't have to wear that jersey any more. I could just go back to being the unknown rider in village criteriums. But the old feeling never came back. I was never happy again."

He considered suicide. In 1976 he rode the bridge across a huge sea inlet called the Oosterschelde and there, with another rider, he threw his bike into the North Sea. The pair watched it until it disappeared. You wouldn't think things could get worse. But they did. His marriage broke up and he lost touch with his three children. Homeless, he moved into a squat and slept on the floor for two years, surrounded by fellow dropouts.

"I had money in the bank," he said, "but I never touched it. I wanted nothing to do with cycling and the self-centred life that had led to my divorce."

He took up sculpture but abandoned it when people began buying his work and there was a risk it would make him well known again. He tried never to mention his name for fear someone would recognise it.

He lives now in rented housing south of Rotterdam. Some days he glues tiles to walls and floors, other days he fits carpets. In his spare time he works with mentally handicapped children. He occasionally makes appearances with bygone stars like Jan Janssen - whose absence from the championship led to his downfall. But most have no idea who he is, how his greatest moment turned to dust.

"If I could live my life all over again," he says sadly, "I'd miss out the cycling bit."

In a way, I was glad none of the cafés in Hogerheide was open. I knew the story well. I wanted to hear it again. But then again, I didn't.

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