Ghosts of the Peloton: Henri Van Lerberghe, the Death Rider of Lichtervelde
This weekend the best Classics riders in the world take to the cobbled lanes of northern Belgium for one of the biggest one-day races of the year: the Tour of Flanders. In the lead-up to “De Ronde”, Connor Christensen takes us back to the early years of the race, to tell the story of a man who’s name will forever be associated with the 1919 edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen: Henri Van Lerberghe.
If there is any fact that holds true over the long, rich history of professional cycling, it is that the breakaway rarely wins. The small group of lone riders ahead of the field is inevitably destined to be caught, to be reassimilated into the unstoppable, indefatigable peloton. This truism leads to one of the most frequently asked questions by new fans or casual observers of the sport: If the breakaway is so doomed, why would a rider ever try to be part of it? If nearly every renegade group ends up caught by the peloton, why expend the effort? Why take the flyer?
The answer, of course, is that sometimes, despite the overwhelming odds, the breakaway wins.
In 1914, during the second edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Belgian Henri Van Lerberghe had broken away from the main peloton of 47 riders. He was slowly reeled in by a select group over the ensuing 280 kilometres, passing through fields that were to become hallowed ground within the year. The diminished pack of seven reached the velodrome at Ghent after 10 hours of bruising riding over the rutted farm tracks and punishingly steep cobbled bergs of western Belgium.
Once in the velodrome, Van Lerberghe rode neck-and-neck with 1913 Tour de France star Marcel Buysse on the last lap of the race. On the final turn, Van Lerberghe went high on the banked track. Buysse took advantage of the slight gap, shot past the upstart Van Lerberghe and outsprinted him for the win, pushing Van Lerberghe into second place.
The breakaway lost again.
Then as now, there were star riders that could win on a mountainous parcours, or that could sprint to victory on a flat run-in to the line. But some riders in the peloton were never going to out-climb the best climber or out-sprint the quickest sprinter. To ever win a race, no matter how unlikely, they had to take their chances by expending the energy, splitting from the peloton, and staying away until the finale.
This was consistently Van Lerberghe’s strategy, which won him the nickname “The Death Rider of Lichtervelde.”
Van Lerberghe would ride as fast and as hard as he could for as long as he could, putting either his competitors or himself into the metaphorical grave. More often than not, Van Lerberghe would tire out, crack, and lose in spectacular fashion. But occasionally, the break would hold off the fast-charging peloton and Van Lerberghe could compete for the win.
The previous year, in the 1913 edition of the Tour de France, Van Lerberghe was one of 140 riders in the peloton with little chance of winning a single stage, let alone the overall classification. Being unaffiliated with a professional team, Van Lerberghe had the added difficulty of starting every stage 15 minutes behind the rest of the peloton. But on the fifth stage between La Rochelle and Bayonne, a monumentally long 234-mile (377km) march up France’s western coastline, Van Lerberghe caught the team-affiliated group, broke away from the peloton, and kept the gap to the line to win his first Tour de France stage. He abandoned the race two stages later.
After Van Lerberghe’s achingly close loss in the 1914 Ronde van Vlaanderen, he returned to the Tour de France that summer, hoping to make his mark once more and win a second stage. That edition of the Tour de France began on June 28, 1914. This quirk of scheduling meant that the Grand Depart coincided with one of the most impactful events in human history, a moment that singlehandedly ended an era and drastically reshaped the entirety of the 20th century.
On the same day that the peloton set off from Paris for Le Havre, on the other side of Europe, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was shot and killed in a non-descript Sarajevo street by a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist. By the end of the Tour a month later, Van Lerberghe had abandoned the race due to poor form, fellow Belgian Philippe Thys had won the overall classification, and armies across the continent had prepared for the most devastating, destructive, and unnecessary war in human history.
Days later, Germany invaded neutral Belgium.
The Belgian army fought valiantly at the fortress of Liege, but was no match for the gigantic Imperial German force. Within days, the entirety of Belgium was occupied by Germany, save for a tiny western corner behind the Yser River. The Belgian Army and the Yser Front held until the end of the war.
While the fighting at the Yser Front was not as destructive or deadly as at Ypres, Passchendaele, or Arras, the Belgian troops stationed there suffered immense hardships. One of the soldiers likely at this front was the Death Rider himself, Henri Van Lerberghe.
Van Lerberghe was not unique amongst his cycling peers in joining the war effort. Many of the great pre-war riders volunteered for service early on in 1914. The director and founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, published an article imploring his countrymen to join the fight. Desgrange even volunteered for the army in 1917, despite being 50 years old.
Cyclists took on a variety of roles, serving as traditional infantrymen, pilots, or even using their cycling skills as couriers behind the front lines. Some became casualties, joining the millions upon millions of young men shot down in their prime in the dense mud and unending trenchworks of Flanders, the Somme, and Verdun. Tour de France winners such as Lucien Petit-Breton, Francois Faber, and Octave Lapize all died fighting for France, just additional numbers in the cataclysmic struggle.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, more than four years after Franz Ferdinand was shot in that Sarajevo street, the war finally, mercifully ended. Now began the process of reshaping boundaries, relocating refugees, and rebuilding a shattered world.
By March, the war had only been over for a handful of months. Diplomats and heads of state had yet to sign or even draft a final peace agreement. But after five years away, Flanders’ finest race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, returned in 1919. For a devastated continent, for a country that spent the intervening years occupied, fought on, and later liberated, it was well overdue. March 23, 1919 was a day for cycling.
Forty-seven riders took to the starting line that day, including Van Lerberghe. He had come straight from his army post, so unprepared for the race that he was forced to borrow a bike from the brother-in-law of another cyclist. And yet prior to the start, he announced to the assembled peloton that he would ride them all into the ground. The more respected favourites viewed Van Lerberghe and his unprovoked statement as absurd. They openly laughed at him, fuelling his anger. Although he had nearly won the 1914 Ronde, he was not a marked man for the first post-war edition.
And yet, 120 kilometres from the finish, he did what he had threatened to do, what he did in nearly every race. Van Lerberghe broke away on one of the steep cobbled bergs of Flanders and rode on alone, into the wind.
Although the race served as a small way to bring the country back to normalcy, nothing about the route or the circumstances was normal. The parcours had always been difficult, running over the farm roads and steep climbs (or hellingen), of western Belgium. Now, it would traverse land that was just fought over, killed for, died on.
The race, running through the open country near Ypres, must have resembled No Man’s Land itself, with gigantic craters from artillery shells, vast trenchworks built into the earth, war materiel strewn aside. Near Ypres, “whole villages had disappeared, leaving a smear of brick-dust or a pile of stones on the upturned soil.” This desolate landscape would play host to one of the most ridiculous, bizarre, likely apocryphal set of events in cycling’s long history.
Van Lerberghe, riding at the head of the race for hours now, needed to refuel. He somehow identified a helper for Marcel Buysse, the man who had beaten Van Lerberghe in the sprint in the 1914 Ronde, and convinced him that Buysse had dropped out of the race. In that event, wouldn’t it make sense that Van Lerberghe take his food, so as to not let it go to waste? Improbably, Buysse’s helper fell for it.
Fueled on by his rival’s own food, Van Lerberghe continued with his solo breakaway, until forced to halt at a crossing by a stopped train. Instead of waiting, Van Lerberghe allegedly shouldered his bike, calmly climbed into the train car, walked past the seated and likely confused passengers, and remounted his bike on the other side.
According to the legend, Van Lerberghe reached Ghent alone, with an insurmountable gap between him and the rest of the peloton.
Then and now, sport has often been overly correlated to war, with races immortalised as epic battles, great teams hailed as conquering armies, and any strong increase in pace described as a vicious attack. But this was a bike race competed by soldiers, at the end of an epoch-shattering war, raced over the same fields that were fought over, that comrades had died on, that modern warfare had devastated. As Van Lerberghe led the race across that destroyed landscape and into Ghent, far ahead of his rivals, he did what any sane individual would do under the circumstances.
He stopped at the pub next to the velodrome and ordered a beer.
The story goes that Van Lerberghe, having finished that beer, decided that he had quite enjoyed it. It only made sense to order a second. Eventually, someone in the bar recognised him, alerted the race organisers, and got him back to his bike which, due to the beers, he was unable to ride without falling down. Van Lerberghe therefore had to take his victory lap on foot, walking around the velodrome with his bike beside him.
He drunkenly yelled out to the cheering crowd that they could all go home, that the rest of the pack was a half-day behind him. Five years prior, Van Lerberghe had been defeated on that track, but his long-range breakaway finally worked. He had finally won the Ronde.
Van Lerberge’s career would continue into the 1920s, although he would never win a single race again. But for a true Flandrien, for one of the tough men from the Belgian countryside that grew up riding over fields and cobbled hellingen, winning the Ronde was more than enough of a victory.
Every year in modern editions, the Ronde organisers will designate one village on its route as the Dorp van de Ronde, the Village of the Ronde, to honour a former winner. In 2004, Lichtervelde, the hometown of Van Lerberge, was the chosen village. As the peloton rolled through the small town’s streets, they passed a small plaque honouring Van Lerberghe’s birthplace. And in the main square, the race organisers had set up a large arch over the street.
In a final nod to the Death Rider’s ridiculous race 85 years prior, the arch was made to look like a train car, which the modern-day cyclists rode through on their way to the finish line.
The improbable events of the 1919 Ronde don’t entirely hold up to historical scrutiny. Van Lerberghe may not have actually done all, or even any, of the unlikely things he’s alleged to have done on his solo ride to Ghent. Much of the story was likely fabricated 30 years later by a newspaper writer. But whether the exact details are true or not, one thing is unquestionable.
The breakaway won.
The breakaway won by fourteen minutes.
The breakaway won by the largest margin ever recorded in the Ronde.
And Van Lerberghe, patron saint of doomed breakways, became an indelible part of cycling lore.
About the author
Connor Christensen is a freelance cycling journalist, covering the forgotten stories of the sport’s early days. He lives and works in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter here.
– “The Shattered Peloton: The Devastating Impact of World War I on the Tour de France” by Graham Healy
– “The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races” by Peter Cossins
– “Tour of Flanders: The Rocky Roads of the Ronde van Vlaanderen” by Les Woodland
– “The First World War” by John Keegan
– Flanders Classics