The world champion died on a Monday
The world champion died on a Monday, his bike crumpled on the ground next to a Mercedes, his rainbow-wrapped body alongside it. He looked almost peaceful, his hands clasped on his chest. His teammates stood around him futilely calling for help. The driver sat at the wheel of the car, hands still locked to the steering wheel, staring blankly through a shattered windscreen.
In the lead-up to 1971’s Milan-San Remo Jean-Pierre ‘Jempi’ Monseré prepared with a kermesse in the Belgian town of Retie – not far from Antwerp – and made the break. Shoulder to shoulder with his best friend Roger de Vlaeminck and Frans Verbeeck, the recently crowned world champion pulled a massive turn in the 16-rider lead group, drifted to the trailing edge of the echelon, took his eye off the approaching traffic on the open road, and slammed into an oncoming car.
Fifty years ago today, at the age of just 22, the reigning world champ was killed instantly.
A talent among talents
Before he was a tragic figure of cycling’s sepia-toned past, Jempi Monseré was just the very fast child of a working class family in the industrial town of Roeselare. Born in 1948 to a washing machine technician and his wife, Jempi’s talent for cycling didn’t take long to emerge. The boy started racing at 12, coming third in his first race. By 1964, his 15th year, he had won two Belgian national championships for his age category. In 1967, not yet 19, he finished 10th at his first elite world championships.
Monseré was a product of his environment – cycling-mad, earthy, determined. His sporting prowess could be a pathway to a better life for his family, and by his early 20s it was clear Monseré had the potential to be one of the greats. His contemporaries were a roll-call of cycling royalty – De Vlaeminck, Verbeeck, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens – and according to his great friend De Vlaeminck, Monseré could have been one of the best of all time.
“Merckx would have had a lot of trouble with him,” De Vlaeminck said in a documentary decades later. “Monseré was better than him, I think. He was more of an all-rounder. He could sprint and climb very well. He was … also more clever. In my view, he had to do less to achieve the same results.”
Monseré’s star continued to rise, with a steady progression through the ranks in high-profile races. At 19, Monseré went to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as a support rider for De Vlaeminck, but when his team leader suffered a heavy crash in training Monseré was free to fly. He finished sixth, the youngest rider in the top 10.
In September 1969, the young Belgian signed his first pro contract, joining the Flandria squad as the season wound down. A month into his professional racing career, he finished second at the Coppa Agostoni ahead of Raymond Poulidor, Marino Basso and Felice Gimondi. Three days later he repeated that result at Il Lombardia but was promoted to winner after the first man across the line, Gerben Karstens, tested positive for amphetamines. Just five weeks into his pro career, Monseré had won a Monument.
Monuments are one thing; world championships are another. In 1970, at Mallory Park in Leicester, England, Monseré bridged to a small breakaway including Gimondi. There he resisted an attempt by the Italian to buy his cooperation, and with a kilometre remaining, Monseré pounced. The Belgian soloed to the line and crossed it a champion. He was just 21 years old, the second-youngest world champion in history.
‘The curse of the rainbow jersey’ has become a constant refrain in cycling, turning and tumbling out of mouths until it’s smooth like sea-glass, overused to the point of irrelevance. But for Jempi Monseré, there’s a ring of truth to it. According to cycling folklore, Monseré’s father – who suffered a heart condition and was unable to drink alcohol – died in the jubilation of celebrating his son’s victory.
And then followed March 15, 1971, where a reigning world champion crashed into a car on a straight, grey road in the Belgian countryside, and passed into memory.
There’s a cruel postscript to this story. Monseré left a young family behind, including two-year-old son Giovanni who grew up without a father but surrounded by cycling. Tragically, Giovanni suffered the same fate as his dad, killed in a bike crash at the age of seven. To match his father, he was wearing a rainbow jersey and riding a Flandria bike that had been given to him by his godfather, Freddy Maertens.
Three generations of the Monseré family – their lives and deaths defined by their relationship with the sport of cycling.
A lost legacy
Jean-Pierre Monseré could have been Merckx’s great match, and a household name. Now we’ll never know.
Half a century on from his tragically early demise, Monseré’s mark on the world is a nondescript residential street named after him in his hometown, a monument on the tree-lined roadside where he took his last breath, and a memorial race bearing his name on the UCI Europe Tour. The 2021 edition of that race, the UCI 1.1 GP Jean-Pierre Monseré, was won a week ago by Tim Merlier ahead of Mark Cavendish.
In his short career, Jean-Pierre Monseré achieved more than most professional riders, but seems to have left plenty more on the table. As De Vlaeminck said decades after the death of his friend, “he was far too good for this world.”