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“It’s horrible news.”
Speaking on the day that past world champion Claude Criquielion passed away prematurely at just 58 years of age, one of the riders who went head to head with him repeatedly in the Classics of the 1980s, Stephen Roche, paid an emotional tribute to his Belgian rival.
Both professionals for 13 years, Roche had several memorable jousts with Criquielion during the 11 seasons their careers overlapped. He was clearly shaken by the news when he spoke to CyclingTips on Wednesday evening.
“What can you really say?” he asked rhetorically. “We are all part of the same journey, and all of a sudden some of the people who have been on the same train as us for the last 25 years are no longer there.
“In the last two or three years, you have Fignon and a lot of other guys who have passed away. Okay, people die every day, but you can actually relate to guys like Fignon and Criquielion passing away. You say ‘shit.’
“It is a big shock. People can have accidents on the road or wherever, but this [Criquielion’s stroke] is like a mechanical failure. It’s very sad. Of course, my condolences go out to his family as I am sure they are devastated.”
The Belgian rider turned pro in 1979 with the Kas-Campagnolo team and quickly settled into the peloton. Criquielion’s first major success came when he won Brabantse Pijl in 1982, and he followed that up with victory in the Clásica de San Sebastiàn in 1983.
However 1984 was his big breakthrough, with victory on a tough world championships course in Barcelona showing just how good he was.
A proud Walloon, he was particularly fired up by the Ardennes Classics held in his home region. He did his rainbow jersey justice in 1985 when he scooped Flèche Wallonne and was runner-up in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Further victories followed in the GP du Midi Libre in 1986, the Tour of Flanders and Memorial Samyn in 1987, Flèche Wallonne in 1989 plus the Belgian road race championships in 1990.
Roche said that Criquielion lacked some particular qualities, but was still one of the very best in the sport in the big one day races.
“He was a great Classic rider, but wasn’t a sprinter. He was a good small, eight-day stage race rider, but wasn’t a great time trialist. He was a good all rounder, but not great at anything,” he said.
“Probably his greatest thing was his preparation for the Classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Flèche Wallone – they were in his back garden and every year he prepared so well for them. Every year he was there or thereabouts.
“That is how I was involved with him, because every year in the Classics, in Liège and Flèche, we often found ourselves in the same breakaways.”
“The tension probably lasted until 1994”
One of the standout memories from both riders’ careers is the utterly unexpected turnaround at the end of the 1987 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Anyone who followed the sport at the time, or who watched footage of the race in the years since will have seen one of the most dramatic endings to the event in history.
Criquielion and Roche were clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the field on the day in question, riding clear and opening up what seemed to be a race-winning advantage.
Roche said that the two of them initially pulled fully and fairly, something he knew he could rely on from the Belgian.
“When you were in a break with Claudy, you know who you had with you,” he said. “You knew that if you were away, you could count on him to ride and to give his best. He wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to try to economise, to try to beat you in the sprint. He was the kind of guy who would knuckle down.
“With his lack of a sprint, he knew that if the faster guys got back on he wouldn’t win. So every chance he had to win from the front, he knew he was better off playing it that way. He was really generous in that regard, and this is one of the reasons that he will be greatly missed.”
However, despite that commitment, things unravelled towards the end. The reason for this was a long talk Roche’s Carrera manager Davide Boifava had with him the night before the race, a strong pep talk which sought to turn things around for the Irishman.
He had finished second in Paris-Nice and was highly placed in a number of other events, including taking fourth in Flèche Wallonne. However he lacked victories.
Boifava was pushing him hard to change things, to ride more conservatively, and this is something Roche took to heart in the finale of the following day’s Classic.
Unfortunately, he followed it a little too literally.
“‘You are too generous when you are riding in the groups,’ Boifava said,” Roche recollected, almost 30 years later. “You have to be prepared to lose in order to win.
“I knew if I rode with Claudy and we went to the finish, there was a good chance he would beat me. But Claudy knew that if he rode with me and he led out the sprint, then I would probably beat him. So neither of us were sure what would happen.
“That was the bottom line. Neither of us were sure to win, so basically we were hiding our cards.
“Initially we rode hard and put everybody else off our wheel. We rode unselfishly. We were fully committed. But in the final few kilometres we started looking at each other.
“I totally forgot about the race behind us because of the conversation I had with Boifava the night before. Next thing, just before the sprint, Argentin came from behind.”
The Italian swooped past, shocking Roche and Criquielion. The startled riders did everything they could to get him back but, after many kilometres out front, they had to be content with second and third.
It was a massive blow for each of them. It was also a situation that took years to settle down.
“The tension probably lasted until 1994,” Roche admitted. “Sean [Kelly] was a good friend of Claudy’s. Every time we got into a race Sean would say to him, ‘hey, Claudy, Roche is down the back looking for you, he wants to have a chat with you.’
“Then he would come up to me and say, ‘Rochey, Claudy wants to talk to you, go and have a chat with him.’”
Kelly was likely being mischievous in part, but was also trying to get the two to speak and settle their differences. Roche and Criquielion were stubborn, however, with the latter being convinced that the Irish rider must have had a deal with Argentin.
It’s something Roche denies, pointing out that it would have been impossible to have negotiated such an outcome as Argentin had already been left far behind by both their riding.
It took until after the end of their careers for the dispute to work itself out.
The occasion for that reconciliation was Kelly’s retirement race, held in his hometown of Carrick on Suir in Ireland in the autumn of 1994.
“Claudy was invited to it as he was a good friend of Sean,” Roche said. “I came down for breakfast on the Sunday morning and there was only one place left at the table. It was opposite Claudy.
“I sat down. I said, ‘well, Claudy, do you want to go through Liège-Bastogne-Liège again?’
“He basically just laughed, then smiled, then shook hands. That was it.”
”He believed he could have won and he fought for his belief”
As dramatic as the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège was, the end of the 1988 world road race championships burned itself even more into the memory.
Criquielion was racing on home soil in Belgium and, fired up to try to take his second world title, was clear with the young Italian Maurizo Fondriest. The race looked to be between the two of them, but Canada’s Steve Bauer managed to bridge the gap in the final kilometre, putting himself into the frame for the gold medal.
Bauer had burned a lot of matches in getting across but nevertheless launched the sprint with 225 meters to go. Criquielion immediately latched onto his wheel and then kicked hard inside the final 100 metres, starting to pass him on the right hand side.
Bauer’s legs were buckling but he sat down in the saddle, shifted his gears and then rose again, trying to eke out every last kilojoule of energy and hold on until the line.
However, partly through fatigue, he lurched to the right. That closed the door on Criquielion, and the coming together of their elbows shunted the Belgian sideways and into the barriers.
His pedal snagged and he walloped to the ground, losing his chance in that split second.
Bauer’s back wheel rolled over the Belgian’s and, partly due to that and also due to shock, his sprint fizzled out and Fondriest swooped past.
Criquielion was utterly devastated and blamed the Canadian. He remained convinced he had the title won and ended up taking him to court. The case rumbled on for three years but the judge eventually dismissed the claim.
“That stuck with him, probably right to the end,” Roche said. “To be honest, personally I don’t think he would have won, because he wasn’t a great sprinter. I think Bauer or Fondriest probably would have got it.
“But he was the better-placed man to know whether he could have or not. He believed he could have won and he fought for his belief. It was the same way that he felt I had a deal with Argentin.
“That was one of Claudy’s things. He got hung up on stuff like this. He went to the courts to try to fight Bauer over the accident, and caused him a lot of grief. He really believed that Bauer stole his world championship from him.”
Part of Criquielion’s frustration with the accident was because he knew winning the worlds on home soil would have made a big difference to how he was regarded.
He was a French-speaking Belgian from the Wallonia region of the country. According to Roche, Criquielion felt that he didn’t get the recognition he deserved from the Flemish because of that.
“Nevertheless, I am sure on this day he is one of their own,” he pointed out.
“Claudy was a good personality. He was never the kind of guy who was overexited or too calm. We looked on him as being a gentleman racer, in the sense that he wasn’t extravagant, he wasn’t into fancy cars. He was a normal kind of Walloon.”
“It was just an accident of life”
Upset by Criquielion’s death, Roche said that it was important that people showed restraint and didn’t jump to conclusions about the causes of the fatal stroke.
“You can see people on Twitter, Facebook and everything else and they can allude to all kinds of stories and everything else,” he said, presumably referring to allegations of doping made against many former professinoals.
“But let’s not forget that that people die every day of the same thing. They are less well known and nobody raises an eyebrow.
“It shouldn’t be done,” he said. “There should be no reference made to anything else other than it being a health issue.
“You must not forget these guys are super-fit human beings, super-extraordinary human beings. The body is very, very fit. They are normally very well looked after medically by doctors and everything else. It is just an accident of life. Sometimes it just happens.
“There is only one thing sure in life; we all go some day. And it is always too early.”