Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Joop Zoetemelk
Joop Zoetemelk was a cyclist from the Netherlands who is widely regarded as one of the greatest riders of all time. Zoetemelk competed in an amazing 16 editions of the Tour de France, finishing the race in every one. In a 13-year span from 1970 to 1982 (he didn’t compete in 1974), Zoetemelk finished no worse than eighth, appearing on the podium seven times. Zoetemelk won the Tour de France once to go along with his six second place finishes.
Zoetemelk was born in 1946, and had success in the 1968 Olympic Games, winning the gold medal for team time trial along with three of his countrymen. He would then go on to begin his professional career, with his first Tour de France appearance coming in 1970.
In the 1970 Tour de France, Zoetemelk came out of nowhere to finish second to all-time great Eddy Merckx of Belgium. Although Zoetemelk finished over 12 minutes behind and didn’t win any stages, his performance was quite impressive, especially for someone making their first appearance in the Tour de France.
Merckx would spend the next several years of his career coming close but not quite close enough to winning in the Tour de France. His second appearance, in 1971, led to another second place finish, again to Eddy Merckx. This time, Zoetemelk wore the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, albeit for just one day. In the next two years, he would not finish on the podium, although in 1973 he won his first stage along with the prologue, and spent another day wearing the coveted yellow jersey.
In 1974, Joop Zoetemelk had a career threatening injury resulting from a crash where he fractured his skull. Luckily, Zoetemelk was able to make a full recovery and in 1975, he returned to cycling and to the Tour de France. He picked up right where he left off, finishing fourth and even winning a stage along the way.
The next year, Zoetemelk had a legitimately good chance to come away the winner of the Tour de France, dueling with eventual winner Lucien van Impe in the mountains before finishing a few minutes behind him for yet another second place finish. Still, it was Zoetemelk’s best showing yet, as he won three stages.
After a disappointing step backward with an eight place finish in 1977, Zoetemelk added two more second place finishes in 1978 and 1979. Though he lost to the great Bernard Hinault both years, these were Zoetemelk’s best efforts yet, as he wore the yellow jersey for four and six days, respectively, in the two years. Zoetemelk and his fans hoped that he had finally reached the level he needed to win the Tour de France, after five second place finishes. It turns out that he had.
In 1980, Zoetemelk won the Tour de France for the first time with a margin of about seven minutes ahead of the second place Hennie Kuiper. Although Zoetemelk won only two stages, he was consistent throughout and held onto the yellow jersey for ten days of the race. After ten years of competing in the Tour de France, Zoetemelk had finally reached the summit.
Many thought that Zoetemelk could add another win or two to his Tour de France resume before his career was finished, but it was not to be. He did add another respectable fourth place finish and a last podium finish (second place) in 1982, but in the mid-80’s, Zoetemelk’s performances declined in quality. He finished 23rd in 1983, 30th in 1984, 12th in 1985 and finally, 24th in his last Tour de France appearance in 1986. In 1987, he retired.
It’s easy to wonder what Joop Zoetemelk’s resumé would look like if he had not raced in an era with greats like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault. However, despite the stiff competition he faced, Zoetemelk’s Tour de France win in 1980 and five second place finishes place him squarely among the best to ever compete in the Tour de France.