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Jan Janssen, Cycling’s Gentleman Warrior

Jan Janssen's palmares | 1968 Tour de France with video of final stage | Jan Janssen Cycles

Jan Janssen at Paris-Roubaix
Photo: Jan Janssen leads Willy Bocklandt on the cobbles at the 1967 Paris–Roubaix. Jan Janssen collection

“You’re going to like Jan Janssen, he’s a real gentleman,” Les Woodland told me as we set out for the Tour de France winner’s house. Indeed, Janssen, one of the finest riders to have ever turned a pedal, was a gracious host. He and his wife Cora made us feel right at home. I'm sure we asked him the same questions he's been asked a thousand times, yet he treated every one as if it were the first time it had been asked. Janssen is a gifted storyteller. When he talked about his career and winning the biggest races in the world, he made us feel the same thrills he had felt.

Les told Janssen that he had been one of my cycling heroes.
“Why?” he asked, very matter of factly, oblivous to my being a giddy fan.
“Because you combined physical talent with intellect,” I replied. His wins were almost always the result of careful thought and preparation.

“Plus, you wore glasses,” I added. Anyone who has ridden in bad weather with glasses can appreciate Janssen’s handicap of having to race over mud-covered cobbles or in pouring rain half-blinded with grit-coated lenses.

This interview was conducted November 24, 2011.


Bill McGann: Let’s jump right in with your 1964 World Championship at Sallanches, France. It was 290 km, 25 laps of 11.6 km. The main climb was the Côte de Passy. At the end you were with Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor and six seconds behind were Tom Simpson, Italo Zilioli, Jo De Haan and Jacques Anquetil. The peloton was 38 seconds back. What were the moves that broke up the peloton and created this selection?

Jan Janssen:  [Janssen first asks Les Woodland if he should reply in Dutch or French and they settle on Dutch.] I had two good teammates, Ab Geldermans and Peter Post. At that time Peter Post and [Belgian cycling great] Rik van Looy didn’t get along. They were enemies. I said to Post, stick to van Looy, look after him. A group of 24 got away with three Pelforth [Janssen’s trade team] teammates: Henry Anglade, Georges Groussard and André Foucher. I stayed behind in the bunch while my teammates were up the road. Four laps before the end, they were brought back and the peloton was together in a single bunch.
Then there were attacks by Zilioli, Poulidor…

BM: It was very aggressive with attacks going all over the place?
JJ: [nods in agreement]. The last lap started. We went over the finish line, turned right and went up the hill. Poulidor attacked [claps hands]. In 50 meters, whup! I bridged up to him. I came up alongside and looked up at him. Then Adorni came up, and then Simpson. Four riders. As we went over the top of the hill, Simpson was dropped. At the bottom of the hill, there was just us three, Poulidor, Adorni and Jan Janssen. Poulidor and Adorni were talking between themselves. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I didn’t speak terribly good French.
Later I asked them, “What were you two saying?”
Poulidor told me they had agreed Poulidor would lead out the sprint for Adorni.

BM: The deal was done?
JJ: [in English] The deal was done. [reverting to Dutch] Of the two, I thought Adorni was faster than Poulidor. So I took Adorni’s wheel. So as the sprint started it was Poulidor, Adorni and Jan behind Adorni.

BM: But you were much faster than either of them?
JJ: Adorni was pretty fast. Certainly after 290 kilometers.

BM: He had a big engine?
JJ: Yes. And four hundred meters before the finish, woof! I went past Adorni [He claps his hands]. It was Janssen, Adorni and Poulidor, and then after him Simpson came in fourth…then De Haan, Anquetil.

Janssen World Champion

1964: Jan Janssen wins the rainbow jersey in France in front of Vittorio Adorni and Raymond Poulidor. Photo: Inter Presse

BM: You saw Adorni and Anquetil making a deal, you got on their wheels and they took you to the promised land?
JJ: Yes. Zilioli, Simpson and Anquetil were only six seconds behind. That is nothing! Just 100 meters. I focused on Adorni and Poulidor and became World Champion at 24. My!

BM: What was the course like, the weather?
JJ: Drizzle. I had to clean my glasses [laughs].

Les Woodland: What was that moment like for you?
JJ: I was just 24 years old! With the rainbow jersey!

BM: Still a boy?
JJ: Yes! A jongen.

Les Woodland: What did you think when you came over the line at the age of 24 and became the World Champion?
JJ: I didn’t speak French, or perhaps a tiny bit. There were 40,000 people there. I had already won Paris–Nice and then the green [points] jersey in the Tour de France and was now World Champion, all in the same year. [whispering to emphasize his incredulity] Jan Janssen, World Champion.

BM: Jan Janssen, World champion!
JJ: Oooh! [leans back in his chair, clearly still affected by the events of 45 years ago]

Les Woodland: The medals?
JJ: I still have the medals.

Les Woodland: What happened when you got back home?
JJ: Parties everywhere, naturally. The mayor came out…

BM: Were you the first Dutch World Champion?
JJ: No, the first was Theo Middlekamp [1947]. I was the second. Then there was [Hennie] Kuiper.

Janssen business card

Jan Janssen has the coolest business card I ever saw. Few riders in cycling history have had the versatility to match Janssen's record.

BM: Your rainbow jersey was an incredible coda to a magical year. In 1964 you also won Paris–Nice and the points jersey in the Tour, along with two Tour stages. When you turned pro in 1962, were your goals that lofty?
JJ: At that time it was common for amateurs to turn professional in August. My first World Championship was Salo [Italy], which Jean Stablinski won.

BM: But did you think, when you turned pro, that you would become Champion of the World, winner of Paris–Roubaix…were you thinking that high?
JJ: Yes.

BM: You were ambitious?
JJ: For the Classics! But no, not for stage races.

BM: You thought of yourself as a Classics racer?
JJ: Yes.

BM: As a teenager, before getting an amateur’s license late in 1958, you won, perhaps 40 races. Did winning come easily to you from the start?
JJ:  Yes.

BM: Like LeMond? He showed up and just started beating everybody.
JJ:  He was a good amateur?

Jan Janssen with brother Ab

Boyhood photo of Jan Janssen (left) with his twin brother Ad. Jan Janssen collection

Les Woodland: He was a good amateur.
JJ: Tour de l’Avenir. I will tell you a story. In 1962, in Montpellier, the Dutch team was eating in a restaurant. We were seated at a table and a door opened on the other side of the restaurant and a gentleman came in. A gentleman, well-dressed, with tie…it was Maurice De Muer, director of the Pelforth team and he was looking for four riders for his pro team for 1963. Jeff Janssen [manager of the Dutch amateur team at the Tour de l’Avenir] spoke some French. He told me De Muer wanted to know if I wanted to turn pro. I thought I should think it over a bit. Don’t rush, I told myself.

And, I got back to him in October, in Antwerp. He had prepared four contracts, for Henk Nijdam, Jan Hugens, Emile Verstraete and Jan Janssen. When I went to Antwerp in October, Hugens had already signed by Anquetil, Nijdam had been signed to ride for van Looy on Solo-Superia, Verstraete…, he wasn’t really very good after that…and Jan Janssen.

BM: He had prepared contracts for these four riders, he was prepared to take them on, but only you were really ready to sign?
JJ: He had the contract there, I was to put my signature on it. The contract said I would be paid 3,000 a month, which I thought it was 3,000 Dutch guilders, which was my current pay. I took the contract to my [future] wife and we had it translated into Dutch. The contract was Belgian. It said I would get a bike, three pairs of shorts, three jerseys with long sleeves and short, travel costs were to be paid and I was to be paid 3,000…Belgian francs! [Janssen starts laughing].

BM: 3,000 Belgian francs [roughly $100.00 USD] a month?
JJ: Zero! [still having a hearty laugh]. I wasn’t married, I had no responsibilities. Come what may, I wanted to go to France because that was the heart of racing. 

BM: That’s where you go to get big?
JJ: That’s where you go to learn. Perhaps in a year’s time I’d get twice as much, or more.

BM: In order to invest in yourself for the future?
JJ: Exactly! In 1963 I was a young rider. I was able to ride Paris–Roubaix, my first big race, and get third. I came to the start and people asked De Muer, “What are you doing with a guy with glasses?” De Muer told them, “He won’t be far from the winning podium.”

BM: And you got third?
JJ: Yes, everything was on a crescendo, on the way up.

Jan Janssen with glasses

A pair of glasses for every occasion. Jan Janssen collection

BM: In September of 1961 you turned independent.
JJ: Yes.

BM: Why did you chose that route rather than turning pro?
JJ: At that time there weren’t very many pro races. But the amateurs could ride a lot more than the pros, so at the end of the year, I turned independent.

BM: As an independent, you could ride both the amateur and pro races?
JJ: Yes, I had the option. It was a time of tremendous learning for me.

BM: As an independent you won the Championship of Zurich (Züri Metzgete) in May of 1962. Did you have trouble adjusting the longer distances the pros rode?
JJ: No.

BM: Some professionals have told us that it took as long as a year to get used to the longer distance professionals ride. But it was easy for you?
JJ: I already had it in me to ride long distances.

BM:  You broke away with Marcel Onganae, a Belgian, and beat him in the sprint. It looks like from the beginning you were taking races away from Belgians?
JJ: Yes! [laughs, immediately understanding my reference to his narrow 1968 Tour de France victory over Herman van Springel] Hans Junkermann [a top pro] was also in that break. I was a winner! [saying this jokingly without a hint of boastfulness.] They wanted to pay me off, but I said, “No, no, I want to win.”

BM: They tried to buy the race from you?
JJ: Generally Belgians try to buy races…

1963
BM: In 1963 you were close several times with second in the Midi Libre, second in the Flèche Wallonne and third in Paris–Roubaix. Did you enjoy those cobbled classics?  
JJ: Yes, I was good on the cobbles.

BM: Were you a natural, supple rider over the stones?
JJ: Yes, Because I was supple, I could always ride a couple of teeth lower than the other riders.

BM: So it was easier for you?
JJ: Yes, being unusually supple on the cobbles was one of my strengths.

BM:  At this point in your career would you consider yourself primarily a sprinter or…?
JJ:  I was an all-rounder.

BM: With a fast finish?
JJ: Fast finish? Not super. But at every discipline, time trial, climbing, sprinting, I wasn’t the best. But I could do them all well. And later, I became a good stage racer.

BM: That’s probably a good definition of a stage racer, one who does everything well enough?
JJ: Yes.

BM: You crashed out of your first Tour in 1963 on the tenth stage after some very good placings, including winning the seventh stage where you come in four seconds ahead of Rik van Looy, Noël Foré and Jean Graczyk. Do you remember how you pulled off that coup?
JJ: There’s a nice story about that. The stage was from Angers to Limoges. In those days, where the last stage finished was where the next day’s stage began. But that day in Angers, Dick Enthoven, a teammate, and I had to go to where the stage had finished the day before. We got there, looked around and…nobody.

BM: Nobody?
JJ: Nobody. People were telling us, “They’ve already gone! They’ve already gone!” We followed the arrows to the Tour de France start. We rode for three hours, 80 kilometers. In the distance, we could see something happening. It was the Tour.

We rode into the peloton and got a jolly greeting from the riders, everyone was laughing at us.  But wait…I saw from the race bible that two kilometers from the finish in Limoges there was a very steep climb.

BM: A sting in the tail?
JJ: A fifteen percent climb. I attacked. Boff! [said with a sharp clap of his hands]. I got 20 meters. 30 meters. 40 meters. 50 meters. The finish was on a cinder track. I could ride on that, there is a cinder track where I lived. I had trained on a horserace track. I was at home there.

BM: So you knew how to ride on the cinders? You did an uphill attack and then on to the track?
JJ: After the climb, it was two kilometers to the track. I held the 50 meter lead and then with van Looy, Graczyk, Foré chasing, I won the stage. They had all been laughing at me. After all their teasing, I got the winner’s bouquet. [Janssen is really laughing hard].

1963 Dutch Tour team

All the Dutch riders of the 1963 Tour. From left: Ab Geldermans, Jan Janssen with young fan, Huub Zilverberg, Jo De Roo. Photo: Foto Anefo

1964
BM: You won the Tour de France points jersey for first time in 1964. Was it a team effort as in today’s racing or were you on your own, seeking stage wins and high placings?
JJ:  Individual. I was on my own.

BM: Your Pelforth team had Henry Anglade, who ended up fourth in the Tour that year. To what degree was your team devoted to getting him in yellow and were you expected to contribute to that effort?
JJ: I had the freedom to race on my own. That year, I won [the green jersey] as an individual, without help. I didn’t have a sprint train, like Petacchi.

BM: Was the Pelforth team devoted to helping Anglade get a high GC placing the way a modern team does, or were things less disciplined?
JJ: Things were more disciplined then. Team riders weren’t the same then as they are now. Anglade was supposed to win. They worked harder keeping their good riders at the front and working to get Anglade in yellow. But for the green jersey, I got no help at all. Regarding team discipline, you had to come down for the meal at eight o’clock in the morning. You had to be dressed in a team tracksuit. And then the whole team had to ride together from the hotel to the start.

Every evening, every time we sat for a meal, we would talk about how the day had gone, what had gone well, what had gone badly, how we could learn from it, what could we expect tomorrow, what was the course like, the weather, the tactics. Everything was arranged.

We didn’t have the [large] staff current teams enjoy with their doctor, soigneurs.... In 1963, we didn’t have a soigneur. He got in a car accident and had to go home.

BM: Teams were more like Bianchi and Coppi [famous in the late 40s and early 50s for its ironclad rule]
JJ: Exactly!

BM: Except your domestiques didn’t have to polish the team leaders shoes? [one of Coppi’s domestiques was required to polish his cycling shoes before each stage]
JJ: [Laughs, shakes his head]   

BM: Pelforth got second in the team time trial in 1964 Tour. Did teams practice this discipline in those days?
JJ: We didn’t do special training for that. We just rode the time trial.

BM: One can’t watch films of Tours in the 1960s without feeling that it was a brutal, unbelievably harsh race. Looking back, did it seem that way to you when you raced it?
JJ: Yes, yes. It was more individual sport than it is now, everyone for himself. But everyone had respect for everyone else. The sprints were more chaotic.

Les Woodland: How about the hotels? Was it true that that they would make a couple of riders sleep together in the same bed?
JJ: I never would have slept with guys in the same bed in a hotel. But they would have twenty riders sleep together in the same room. And the food was terrible. The steaks were paper thin. [Janssen groans at the memory].    

BM: How about compared to today?  Is it an easier race or are the difficulties different?
JJ:  The Tour de France is 1,300 kilometers shorter. We had 290 kilometer stages. The equipment is much better. The shoes! [slaps the table, making clear his feelings about how much better shoes are]

BM: Back then you had to nail cleats onto leather-soled shoes?
JJ: Yes! At the start of the stage we had two bottles. And then only at the feeding station halfway through the stage did we get a musette with two more bottles. And that was it.

Les Woodland: I asked this last time we talked, [in the early 1990s Les interviewed Janssen for Cycling Heroes] given all that, were you born too early?
JJ: [Laughs hard] I asked the same question of Wim van Est [legendary rider of the 1950s who was the first Dutchman to wear the yellow jersey] and riders of the generation before me. Wim van Est said that when he rode for Locomotief, he got a bike, a jersey and 1,500 guilders a year. And this was Wim van Est, a great rider.

I’ll never forget, in the criteriums after the Tour de France; [Jacques] Anquetil got 5,000 new francs. [Rudi] Altig, 3,000 francs. [Felice] Gimondi, 3,500. Janssen, 3,000. Van Looy, 3,000. That to ride a pro race around the houses. Anquetil would get 5,000 new francs to ride a 100-kilometer race. When he rode in Belgium, Lance Armstrong got 100,000 dollars to ride a race.

BM: Times are different?
JJ: Times are different. There is a lot more money now than before. Michael Boogerd earned 1,400,000 euros in a year. He was a good rider, but not…that good. He bought a Mercedes in ’86 that was 28,000 guilders at the time and now costs 200,000 euros. I used to be able to buy a square meter of land for eight euros and now it costs 750!

1965
BM: 1965: Another Tour de France points jersey for you and another fourth place in GC for Anglade. You beat Guido Reybrouck 144 points to 130. Was there a conscious battle between you two for the points classification?
JJ: I knew I was better in the hills than [Ward] Sels and Reybrouck. They were better sprinters.

BM: Mark Cavendish won this year’s points classification after twice getting special dispensation to continue in the Tour after being hors délais. Would that have been possible in the 1960s?
JJ: No! [waves his finger for emphasis]

BM: Should the Green Jersey go to a rider who cannot finish all the stages within the time limit?
JJ: Personally, I think that even if you are the green jersey owner, if you finish outside the time limit, you should go home. If your are the green jersey, you must finish the Tour.

1966
BM: 1966 Tour de France. After stage 8 (in Bordeaux) the Tour attempted to impose dope testing. Anquetil led a riders’ strike where the riders dismounted and talked with officials before resuming racing. How did you feel at the time about Anquetil’s efforts?
JJ:  Anquetil was passionately against dope testing. We all knew why. He didn’t ride that well for nothing. He wanted to show [Tour managers Jacques] Goddet and [Félix] Lévitan who the boss was.

BM: And Anquetil was the boss?
JJ: Anquetil was the boss. And also during that time, you had to get up at five o’clock in the morning and ride three stages in single day. Three hundred kilometers in a single day. It was crazy. It was not good, but Lévitan just looked at the money. And what about the riders? They just had to make their own way.

Les Woodland: Were you for or against the riders’ strike?
JJ: It wasn’t really a riders’ strike. We more or less stopped for a drink.

BM: So you were indifferent?
JJ:  It was more against the long stages, the transfers, getting up early...

BM: It was the same strike Hinault led in 1978 over the difficult conditions the riders endured and the uncaring attitude of the Tour management?
JJ: They were the same!

BM: Stage 10 of the 1966 Tour, from Bayonne to Pau with the Aubisque ascent saw Tommaso De Pra take the maillot jaune. You led in the first group at two minutes. Nine minutes back were Poulidor, Anquetil, Simpson, Bitossi and lots of other big-money riders. What happened that day? Why the early go-slow on the part of the big guys? A psych-out on Anquetil’s part?
JJ: Anquetil sent his teammate, Lucien Aimar, ahead on a break. The problem was between Anquetil and Poulidor. Poulidor didn’t do anything, he wouldn’t take on any of the responsibility of chasing. Aimar was up ahead and Anquetil said, “I’m not going to do anything.” There was no strike [as many journalists have asserted]…so the lead grew to nine minutes, ten minutes.

BM: So the big guys just stayed and watched Anquetil?
JJ: Yes.

BM: You didn’t wait, instead escaped with Aimar, Mugnaini and the others. Why did you break away when the other strong men watched each other?
JJ: I thought that since Aimar had two or three minutes and Poulidor wasn’t doing anything, Anquetil wasn’t doing anything and nobody was doing anything about it…and everyone in the break was working…

BM: It was time to go?
JJ: [Nods affirmatively] So I went. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes…ten, twelve minutes, wow…I thought, I can get through the Alps and I can win the Tour de France. 

BM: After that stage you were now in second place in GC to Tommaso De Pra. Had you been riding for GC till then or did your ambitions change after stage 10?
JJ: I was always riding for the yellow jersey.

BM: During the entire 1966 Tour de France your goal was to be in Paris in yellow?
JJ: Yes.

BM: Stage 16, Bourg d’Oisans to Briançon with the Croix de Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier. Most of the riders in your stage 10 break were still sitting at the top of the standings. Julio Jiménez attacked on the Télégraphe and Poulidor and Anquetil went after him. You stayed with Aimar, Mugnaini, Gabica, Vandenbossche and Pingeon, among others. What was your plan that day? Mark the others and not worry about Anquetil and Poulidor?
JJ: I stayed with the other high GC men. This wasn’t my very best day, but I was in the yellow jersey in Briançon.

BM: You were in yellow after stage 16 with Anquetil’s teammate Lucien Aimar at 27 seconds. Where you on your own or did you have a good team helping you?
JJ: That year I did not have such a wonderful team.

BM: They were not so strong?
JJ: I had a bad team.

BM: So once again, you were on your own?
JJ: I was alone. There were a couple of teammates who were OK, but the others were no good at all. Anything I had to do, I had to do by myself.

BM: Before the start of the 17th stage you were in yellow. What did you think of your chances at this time?
JJ: I had confidence in myself, total self confidence. I could have ridden with my fingers in my nose. I didn’t even have to breathe. A day later, after the stage from Briançon to Turin…

BM: That was the  incredible 17th stage. The story is that Anquetil nursed Aimar up the Coletta, the day’s penultimate climb and then told Aimar to attack on the descent. You lost sight of Aimar? When did you find out about the attack?
JJ: With all of my self-confidence, I was in the back of the peloton talking with Anquetil when I should have been up there, at the front. At that moment, Henk Nijdam [rider on Televizier team] came up. He said, “Jan, Aimar has escaped.”
I rode up through the bunch and looked around. No Aimar. No Bitossi, no Brands, no van Springel. I said, “Shit!”
I got my teammates together for the chase, “Ride for me!”
At that moment, [my director sportif Maurice] de Muer came up and told about Aimar’s flight. I said, “I know! You could have told me earlier.”

BM: De Muer missed the move as well?
JJ: He said the Tour radio had broken down, that he didn’t hear anything. I don’t think he was actually listening.

BM: You think he wasn’t paying attention at that crucial moment?
JJ: I admit, were I to put my hand on my heart, I would have to say that as the leader of the race I should have been up at the front of the peloton and been aware of who was there and who wasn’t.

BM:  The story goes that Anquetil went back to talk to you. Was that his attempt to distract you while his teammate Aimar was escaping?
JJ: It’s possible.

BM: Anquetil was always thinking…
JJ: [Hearty laugh]

BM: At the end of the day you were down a minute and a half.  Did you see a chance to reclaim the lead in the Paris time trial?
JJ: No. After the rest day following the 17th stage, there was a stage [the 18th, finishing in Chamonix] with the col de Forclaz. There was an attack by Edy Schütz from Luxembourg with Poulidor and Anquetil. Aimar…he was dropped right away. Anquetil and Julio Jiménez pushed him up the hill.

BM: So you ended up second in the 1966 Tour de France?
JJ: I was one minute thirty behind Aimar [before the Paris time trial] and I wasn’t super that day. [Janssen finished 67 seconds behind Aimar in the final GC].

1967
BM: 1967. It seem you always won something big. This time it was your victory in Paris–Roubaix after twice making the podium. Anquetil abandoned early and then predicted your victory.
JJ: Good.

BM: Were you feeling as good as you must have looked to the others?
JJ: I wasn’t wonderful that last week. 

BM: When Altig attacked at Mons-en Pévèle he created a selection that was a race fan’s dream: you, Altig, van Looy, Georges Vandenberghe, Ward Sels, Willy Planckaert, Raymond Poulidor, Eddy Merckx, Arthur De Cabooter and Gianni Motta. Four World Champions. You all came into the Roubaix velodrome together. Can you take us through that final kilometer? [I show him a picture of the sprint]
JJ: It was ten kilometers before Roubaix, I attacked. In 100 meters a rider, I don’t remember who anymore, came up, bringing the others with him. We were together now. I thought, I’m going to win the sprint now.

My! There were sprinters in this group!  Sels, Planckaert, van Looy, Altig; all of them were great sprinters. But after 250 kilometers of cobbles the strongest isn’t always the best sprinter. It’s a matter of who has the best resilience. I sat on Vandenberghe’s wheel and on the banking I came around the top of him…van Looy came even further around the banking and he was a length too far behind.

There’s a whole story behind this, that nobody else knows. I had a very soft back tire. Had there been another two kilometers to go, it would have been the end.

BM: You went on to win the Vuelta, taking the lead in the penultimate stage, the Villa Bona-Zarauz time trial. That year the Vuelta had a good field that included Simpson, Poulidor (winner the year before), Anquetil, Julio Jiménez and Francisco Gabica. One account ascribes your victory to careful tactical riding managed by De Muer. Is this true or was this another victory you crafted on your own?
JJ: Three or four days before the end, one of my Pelforth teammates, Jean-Pierre Ducasse, had the lead. He died later [in a hotel in 1969 of carbon monoxide poisoning from a defective heater], but at that moment had the leader’s yellow jersey. We drove along the time trial route to see the course. We saw Ducasse, and he was groaning, very unhappy.

It was a very hilly course, up and down. He thought he was going to lose his jersey. After the second or third hill [during the reconnaissance]…I was then sitting in second or third place in GC, only a few places behind, and I knew I was going to get that jersey [taps table for emphasis]. When I saw him [Ducasse] really worried about the route, I knew I could take the lead. He knew he couldn’t win and I’d come in second or third [in the time trial].

It was raining and it was slippery and there was oil everywhere on the road in those days.

BM: It was a bike handler’s course?
JJ: Yes. I took the jersey and two days later I won the Vuelta.

1968
BM:  That brings us to one of my favorite races (and I suspect yours as well), the 1968 Tour de France. I imagine you liked that race.
JJ: Yup!

BM: Back then it was raced by national teams. Your fellow Dutchmen weren’t really Grand Tour racers were they?
JJ: No.

BM:  Stage 12, Pau to St. Gaudens with the Aubisque and Tourmalet left Georges Vandenberghe still in yellow, which I think was surprising.
JJ: Big surprise.

BM: And you not even in the top fifteen, more than six minutes down. How could you even think about winning the Tour at that point? That’s crazy!
JJ: [big laugh] No, not crazy…That wasn’t my best day.

BM: You heard the Italians talking about you as if you were dead for this Tour?
JJ: Yes.

BM: But didn’t that change your attitude?
JJ: I was so…kapot! [body language makes clear his complete state of exhaustion at the time] There were twenty showers in a row. I didn’t even sit there, I just lay in the shower, I was so tired. I heard the Italians walking in front of the shower. They were saying, “Janssen, morto, morto. Domani a la casa. He’s dead and he’s going home tomorrow.”  I heard that and I thought, “Shit!” [clenching his fist at that moment] I took that as a dare. I washed and I went to eat and I thought, I’m going to try to win this. The next day I wasn’t super…

BM: But good enough?
JJ:  A day later, St. Gaudens to Seo de Urguel, van Springel won and there was a big field sprint. And then came Seo de Urguel to Carnet-Plage and there I was good, super! I won the stage. [Janssen won alone, two seconds ahead of a Walter Godefroot-led peloton and was now sitting 13th in GC, 5min 52sec down]

BM: Stage 16 (Albi–Aurillac), you were down to three domestiques: Eddy Beugels, Arie Den Hartog and Evert Dolman. Could any of them help you in the mountains?
JJ: With those three I had more success than I had with the whole team in 1966.

BM: Franco Bitossi told us that his friend Lucien Aimar of the France B team [there were three French teams in the 1968 Tour, A, B & C] wanted to ruin Roger Pingeon’s and Poulidor’s chances by attacking him when Pingeon slowed at the feed area. Were you in on Aimar’s plan?
JJ: No, I don’t remember that.

BM: Stage 18, St. Etienne to Grenoble with the République, L’Epine, Granier, Cucheron and Porte broke things up. Pingeon took off with Bitossi for company, but you led in van Springle, Pintens and Houbrechts four minutes after Pingeon won the stage, making you third in GC to Gregorio San Miguel and van Springel, only 42 seconds down. How did you ride this stage? Were you mostly marking van Springel?
JJ: Van Springel was, for me,  the most dangerous rider overall. I thought he was a very good rider, a super rider. But, after that Grenoble stage, there was also Ferdi Bracke, the World Hour Record holder [now sitting fourth, at 67 seconds]. Roger Pingeon [67 Tour winner, sitting in 9th place] was only so-so. And Aimar [7th at 1min 51sec] was, naturally, the cleverest. You had to keep your eye on him. I learned my lesson in ’66!

I knew what I had to do with my teammates. I had to look around and see which breaks were dangerous, which ones weren’t. Who was where. If they didn’t count, I could let them go. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in ’66. I paid attention.

After we were done with the Alps, my director, my teammates and I talked and decided to stake everything on the last time trial.

BM: After Sallanches [Stage 19] van Springel took the lead and you were 16 seconds from yellow. How do you sleep at night when you are 16 seconds from the Yellow Jersey?
JJ: No nightmares. That is the true sign of a champion, that you have the resistance, that you can cope with the worries in your head.

BM: You could put the worries away and go to sleep?
JJ: Yes, the moment I put my head on the pillow, I was asleep.

BM: Italo Zilioli said the same thing about Eddy Merckx. He said Merckx was a war machine. While Zilioli would stand on the dresser at night tormented by nightmares, his roommate Merckx was sleeping.
JJ: Yes, yes. There are plenty of riders who are just as good, who could have the same successes, because of that…

BM: Because they can’t relax when they have to, in order to recover?
JJ: Exactly. There are riders who can cope with all of that and there are riders who have nightmares at night and are always nervous.

BM: That final time trial, 55.2 km to La Cipale velodrome in Paris. The top nine GC riders had two former Tour winners and a World Hour Record holder and they all were within 148 seconds. You didn’t have special time-trial bikes back then. Do you remember what chainrings and back cluster were mounted on your bike? Anything else special?
JJ: I wasn’t a time trial specialist, I was an all-rounder. In a time trial, I could always expect to be in the best ten or twelve. That morning I had a 120 or 130 kilometer stage [stage 22A, Auxerre–Melun]. That was a good opening for me, a good introduction. A very good warm-up.

BM: That was a two-stage day, 130 kilometers in the morning with the final time trial in the afternoon?
JJ: Yes.

BM: And your gears?
JJ: I had a special bike, a light bike with 28-spoke wheels. The tires were 180 grams, they were like condoms, good for 100 kilometers. I had a 13-tooth cog in the back, a 13-18 cluster, 52-48 in the front. I had never ridden a time trial of that distance. Previously, they had been 28-30 kilometers, maximum.

So I started, not full, not flat-out. Then came the blackboard man [ardoisier] who told me I was 12 seconds behind van Springel. I had been 28 seconds behind and now I was 12 behind. That looked good. After 30 or 35 kilometers, I was 15 seconds in front of van Springel. I’ve gone past van Springel [in time]. At 40 kilometers, I was 25 seconds ahead.

BM: You’re gaining all the time?
JJ: Everyone is shouting, “Janssen, maillot jaune! Janssen, maillot jaune!” All the spectators are shouting. Oh, they gave me wings! I was a half-Frenchman by that stage. I rode for a French team and was very popular in France. The last 8 kilometers were…

BM: Fabulous?
JJ: Fabulous! I came onto the track and did the fastest finishing lap on the track. I couldn’t have ridden another 500 meters. I was finished. I looked up and saw my time. I sat in a chair, I had to wait for van Springel [as the yellow Jersey, van Springel started last]. He came in. He was all over his bike, fighting it. He wasn’t very supple.

BM: He didn’t look good?
JJ: No. And then I realized I had beaten him. 54 seconds. And then everyone came around me, shouting, “Janssen!”  They were applauding me, lifting me up. And when they lifted me up, I could see my wife, Cora, 20 meters away, with my young daughter, Karin. My wife was expecting Jan. When I saw them, I just broke down, the tears streamed down my face. It was very emotional for me.

BM: You started two or three minutes behind Bitossi, who said, “That year Janssen started right after me. When he passed me he was going so fast that I thought it was Merckx. He was flying!”
JJ: [big, hearty laugh]

BM: Was it windy that day?
JJ: We had good weather.

BM: You were the Tour de France champion. How did this compare to your World Championship or Paris–Roubaix victories?
JJ: The best for me was winning the Tour de France, then the World Championship, Paris–Roubaix, and then the others.

Jan Janssen's trophy case

Jan Janssens' trophy case

BM:  You raced for four more years but never again attained the astonishing heights you reached in the mid to late ’60s. Your story of how you decided to retire is interesting. Would you mind telling it again?
JJ: I won the Tour de France. What was there left for me to win? What that meant was my motivation was no longer the same. I was no Merckx, I had to fight for everything. Yet, I was unlike Merckx also in that I didn’t have to win everything, regardless.

I rode for Bic [in 1969]. Then I rode for Flandria and there were problems with my contract. They said I wasn’t really living up to the standards they expected of me. They didn’t support me as a team leader. I won a stage in the [1972] Tour of Luxembourg and I thought maybe that would reestablish me. Flandria’s organization was rubbish.

I had enjoyed a fine career, won the Tour de France and had been a pro for ten years. My children had grown up in that time. I was always on the road. I started thinking I wanted something else. There’s something else in life other than cycling. I didn’t know what to do in the way of a business.

I stopped racing in 1972 and the other racers on the other big teams asked me, “What are you doing now? What are you going to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”

The director of Flandria in Holland, a nice man, said to me, “I’ve got an idea for you. You should make your own bikes with your name. Why don’t we make bikes with your name on them? There’s a fair [bike show] coming up in Amsterdam and we can have your bikes there.”
That lasted only two years. They weren’t very good bikes.

So I started buying frames from Taiwan, Shimano from Japan and we started our own assembly plant and began building our own bikes. I went to the fair in Amsterdam. At the fair, the director-general of Union, a big Dutch company, came to me. “Jan Janssen, what nice bikes you have there,”  he said.
“Thank you. Appreciate it.”
“We don’t have bikes like you make,” he said. So we had a conversation that went on for about ten minutes. Three days later he called me. “Mr. Janssen, would you be interested in selling your business?”
“At what price?” I asked.
We came to an agreement, I sold the business…the name Jan Janssen, the equipment, the building, sold it all to Union.

BM: Done?
JJ: Done. My son Jan, who worked in the factory with me, was sold with the factory. [laughs]
I had to stay for five years to act as a consultant-director.

It was a disaster. There were all sort of complicated problems with the bikes. The first two years were all right, but during the remaining three years there was nothing but problems. At the end of the five years my contract was finished. I parked my car outside the factory. I didn’t say goodbye, I just walked off.

Two or three months later, my son came to the house here, “Papa, the Jan Janssen brand of Union has failed. It’s finished.” Well, they had paid me.
Then a couple of days later my other son, Pierre, came and said, “Papa and Mama, We want to talk to you. We want to buy back the failed business from Union. Do you want to work for us?”
“Forget it!”

After five years I bought it back for “an apple and an egg”.

BM: You own the name?
JJ: Yes. My two sons still run it.

1961 Avenir

A born winner. Jan Janssen wins stage 13, Limoges–Tours, of the 1961 Tour de l'Avenir

BM: Who made your personal racing bikes? Did you use a custom builder like, say Tom Simpson did when he had Faliero Masi build his Peugeots, or did you use the bikes supplied by the team?
JJ: When I rode for Pelforth I rode Lejeune bikes from the Lejeune factory.

BM: How many kilometers did you train?
JJ: [pauses and recollects] I remember in the winter of ’63-’64, it was very cold, I spent six weeks skating outdoors, which is very good for cycling. In Holland we skate very long distances. I spent the whole winter skating and then I got a letter telling me I would be riding Paris–Nice [run March 9-17] for Pelforth. I had ridden only 1,500 kilometers.

BM: Before Paris–Nice?
JJ: Before Paris–Nice. I could at least skate well. But I could ride Paris-Nice “with my fingers in my nose”. [Janssen was certainly right about that. He won the 1964 Paris-Nice by 1 minute and 1 second over Jean-Claude Annaert]

BM: Praise from one’s peers is always nice. Franco Bitossi called you “an artist of the bicycle” and said you could do what you wanted with your bike. May we ask your impressions of some of the great riders you met and raced during your career? First, Jacques Anquetil.
JJ: A stylist. Yes, a natural on the bicycle, smooth [said with real admiration in his voice].

BM: Tom Simpson
JJ: Tommy! A type of rider, rather like Jan Janssen. He had class. He was a determined, strong-minded man.

BM: Maybe too much courage?
JJ: [pauses and thinks for a moment] I think so.

BM: Raymond Poulidor
JJ: Special. He was a very big rider. Sympathique [nice]. Courageous. But…he lacked the winner’s mental sharpness [I’m paraphrasing here]. As for money, he got much, much more money than Anquetil. Now Poulidor won’t do anything for nothing. Everything has to be paid for.

BM: Rik van Looy
JJ: Van Looy? As a rider? The top! As a person? Zero!

BM: There were problems between you two?
JJ: Yes. There is a whole story about it. Van Looy’s farewell appearance was an omnium race in Antwerp with van Looy, Bracke, Janssen. Van Looy said, “I’d like to win, it’s my farewell.” We’re behind the dernys [he makes motorcycle sounds], we had agreed that I would win the last derny race, but van Looy stole it from me.
Later on, I said to him, “Rik, you are a very fat champion.”

I neither heard from him nor had anything to do with him until sometime later when a journalist from the Dutch Cycling Union magazine came along and said, “I want to write something about you and Rik van Looy”. I made an eleven o’clock appointment with van Looy at his Bloso training center. I arrived, and there was no van Looy. I waited a half an hour and still he didn’t come. I looked around and saw there was someone in the office and said to him, “Sir, I have an appointment with Rik van Looy, is here he there?”
“I don’t know anything about it.”
Another half- hour later, I asked, “Could you ring van Looy for me?”
He got van Looy on the phone and I said, “Rik, we have an eleven o’clock appointment and it’s twelve and you’re not here.”
“Oh, oh…I can be there about a quarter past one.”
“Never mind, don’t bother.” If you have an appointment, you must always respect it.
But, still, as a rider, he was fabulous!

BM: One last question. Was bike racing fun? Did you enjoy it, or was it just a job?
JJ: I never thought of the money. It was a passion. To be there with all the world’s great racers, Merckx, Bitossi, Poulidor, Anquetil, with Bahamontes, Gabica…It was wonderful! I never thought, “If I can win, I can get this much money.”

BM: The plan was to win, and if you made money along the way, even better?
JJ: Voila!

With the interview finished Janssen said we had to have some champagne. What a nice man! With flutes filled with bubbly he gave us a tour of his home, showing us his trophies, medals, photos and cycling art. It was a testimony to a full life, lived well.

Jan Janssen and Les Woodland

Jan Janssen and Les Woodland enjoy a glass of champagne in front of Janssen's cycling medals, including the one for his World Road Championship.


Here is a list of Janssen’s more important accomplishments:

1962:
Championship of Zurich

1963:
2nd Midi Libre with 2 stage wins
2nd Flèche Wallonne
3rd Paris–Roubaix
2 stage wins in the Tour de France

1964:
Paris–Nice: GC and points
Tour de France green jersey with 2 stage wins
Champion of the World

1965:
Tour of the Netherlands with 1 stage win
Dauphiné Libéré points classification
Tour de France green jersey with 1 stage win

1966:
2nd in the Tour de France GC

1967:
Paris–Roubaix
Vuelta a España GC and points with 1 stage win
Paris–Luxembourg with 1 stage win
2nd in the World Championships
Tour de France green jersey with 1 stage win

1968:
Tour de France GC with 2 stage wins
Vuelta a España points classification with 2 stage wins

1969:
Vuelta a Mallorca with 1 stage win
Tour of Switzerland points classification
2nd Tour de France points classification