Hennie Kuiper reflects on his runner-up finish at the 1980 Tour, which saw unprecedented Dutch dominance and a 1-2 in Paris. With Jumbo-Visma in the ascendancy; is it time for more glory for the soaring cycling nation?
“The Tour de France waits for nobody,” Hennie Kuiper says. “It’s an expression, but it’s true. Sometimes you’re losing with a crash or health problems. The Tour is so hard and so big, you have to do your own thing the best you can.”
It’s something he knows well from his long and decorated career. Few in cycling history have been as versatile as this world champion and winner of four Monuments. Only Liège-Bastogne-Liège eluded him.
He is a two-time Tour de France runner-up too. Forty years ago this summer, Kuiper was on the lower step of the podium in a historic Dutch Tour de France 1-2 - the country's second and last win.
That 1980 Tour de France highlighted a nation with a sport in its stranglehold. In the race’s second week, Dutch riders won six stages in a row - seven if you count a TI-Raleigh TTT win, the last time one country has done this consecutively. In all, TI-Raleigh won ten stages, spearheaded by Jan Raas and Joop Zoetemelk. Perhaps they were helped by the driving wind and rain that battered the peloton for most of the race - decidely Dutch weather.
Meanwhile, Kuiper found himself as the outsider, a Dutchman racing against his former team-mates for French squad Peugeot. “I left TI-Raleigh because I had a dream: I wanted to win the Tour de France,” the 71-year-old reflects. That provoked the pique of his old team manager Peter Post. “Post wanted to win, he did everything to win. When you leave, you’re his enemy.”
“I went too aggressive in the first week,” Kuiper reflects. “We did a stage over the cobblestones, Hinault and I broke away and took two minutes. I think the problems started there for Hinault, he was fighting the bike so much.”
Hinault later went into the race lead, but something was remiss when the defending champion only finished fifth in the midrace time-trial. When the “almost unstoppable” Frenchman quit dramatically before stage 13, it opened up the race. Zoetemelk and Kuiper were the two remaining contenders, separated by only 78 seconds. But the older man, so often the bridesmaid with five previous second places, timed his final week form better and stretched his lead in the Alps. And so, Kuiper (below with KoM Raymond Martin and Zoetemelk) was beaten by a countryman to his dream, amid a rivalry sometimes stoked by the press.
“In sport, everybody has their favourite. And also, newspapers need two riders to make articles - like in Italy, with Bartali and Coppi or Moser and Saronni. When you’re a sportsman, you have one thing in your head - you want to win. You’re fanatical and aggressive about it.”
“Sometimes when I read some articles from that time, I have to smile: I’m really surprised at myself at what I said! And Joop about me, it’s crazy. But that also makes sport nice.
“We never had fights, we are both pretty calm and we did our thing. Joop was a great, great rider … it was no shame to lose against him. We are still good friends.”
Writing his beautifully-designed Dutch autobiography, which he is seeking to translate via a Kickstarter campaign, gave Kuiper a lot of cause for reflection. “I look back and realise what I did in my career. Fighting for the Tour, fighting for the Classics. Because it’s almost a dream [at the time].”
The mid-Seventies through to the late Eighties were halcyon years for Dutch cycling. While Zoetemelk remains their most recent Tour winner, Kuiper, Jan Raas and Gerrie Knetemann were big one-day race stars, with many others trading blows with the world’s best: Adrie Van der Poel, Johan Van der Velde, Jean-Paul Van Poppel, Peter Winnen, Gert-Jan Theunisse, Steven Rooks - the list goes on.
Kuiper attributes that immensely-talented generation to the organisation of Peter Post, the money of TI-Raleigh and simple healthy rivalry: “When one rider is good, the other wants to win a race too. Joop, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann and me were all different riders but everyone was fighting for his spot. Then for young riders coming in, we were good examples.”
If 1980 was a highpoint for the Dutch at the Tour, this year’s Tour de France could challenge that. For the first time in 40 years, a team from the Netherlands can claim to be the one in the ascendancy going into the race and Tom Dumoulin is third favourite with the bookies.
In a matter of a few years, Jumbo-Visma have transformed into a powerhouse squad with impressive versatility: Primoz Roglic and Dumoulin as leadership options, Wout van Aert as a super-domestique and sprinter, veterans like Tony Martin and George Bennett giving further strength-in-depth.
“Jumbo-Visma copy your English team [Ineos]. Brailsford is the big man there, Jumbo were looking at their way of preparing the races,” Kuiper says.
He feels their biggest challenge will potentially be coping with the pressure of holding the yellow jersey, something they have never faced in earnest before. “Sky had it every year and when it’s in the team, it gives you a big boost but also a lot of stress. You have to learn to deal with that. To be behind the yellow jersey and having it is a big difference. Because when you have it, everybody wants to beat you.”
“We will see some surprises, for sure,” Kuiper says. “This year’s Tour could be very special. We saw two things in the Dauphiné - that Jumbo was outstanding and that while you win the Tour de France over three weeks, you can lose it in one hour. Kruijswijk had a bad crash and won’t even do the Tour, and Roglic crashed and has to come back from it to do well in the Tour.”
The 40-year wait for a third Dutch winner could be over soon; Tom Dumoulin is a candidate to end their barren run, back on song after his knee problems. “I know a few people around him. In the moment, he is on the right line,” Kuiper says.
And if not this summer or even next, there is always Mathieu van der Poel to shake up one-day racing. He has Kuiper waxing lyrical in admiration. “What he did in the Amstel Gold last year and [the recent] Dutch championships: he is so special. You have Eddy Merckx, you have Bernard Hinault [and Mathieu] - such a rider is born once in 30 years ... when he is good, he is really, really good.”
Moreover, Kuiper appreciates the spectacle he provides. “That’s what makes the sport so great, people want to have a hero - and he’s really a hero, he gives 400 per cent.”
The Kickstarter to translate Hennie Kuiper's biography Kampioen Wilskracht into English is running through September 2020. You can support the project here.