Biography of a Velominatus: Gert-Jan Theunisse

Biography of a Velominatus: Gert-Jan Theunisse

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The last Dutchman to win the KoM in le Tour was Gert-Jan Theunisse.  He was also the last Dutchman to win atop Alpe d’Huez.  The year was 1989 and I was too busy riding crotch-rockets, water skiing,  and coiffing the plumage of my mullet to notice much else besides an American and fellow Minnesotan had just won the closest tour in history.  But that last bit about the mullet, and that he’s a cyclist, piqued my interest in the man who’s name holds a spot on the eighth corner of Alpe d’Huez.  Eight Dutch riders have won on the Alpe.  Only two have gone on to win the polka dot jersey.

Boxing Theunisse into the Evanescent Riders of the 90’s category seems fitting.  His career as a pro road racer displayed flashes of “brilliant” riding and was riddled with positive controls.   Though his professional road tenure spanned 11 years, his notable palmares were all garnered between 1988 and 1992.  These include the previously mentioned KoM at le Tour as well as the top spot at San Sebastian, a stage win at the failed Tour de Trump, and an overall and stage win in Luxembourg.  Oh to be back in the day when a rider received a 10 minute time penalty rather than a two year ban for pissing a positive.  That said, I wonder if it isn’t more appropriate to say positive riders of the time were ‘caught out’ as opposed to ‘caught up’ in le dopage.

One could also make an argument for Gert-Jan’s hardness on the Jens Scale.  His palmares may not quite make the case for him being an Unsung Hardman but the adversity Theunisse has overcome comes closer.   During the second stage of Terrino-Adriatico in 1995 Gert-Jan was diagnosed with a heart problem and abandoned professional road racing.  After being struck by a car while mountain biking he was paralyzed in 1997.  He was unable to walk for six months but slowly regained his mobility and began coaching in the fastly growing mountain bike scene.  Then in 1999 his heart trouble resurfaced in the form of a heart attack.  Despite, or perhaps because of his injuries, he relocated to Majorca and rode himself back into form on a mountain bike where he met with success in European mountain biking.

Slideshow:
Fullscreen:

 

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cjZt3kleCb8[/youtube]

As with all of the lauded riders on these pages, Gert-Jan Theunisse seems to be as a complex character as they come.  Two things stand out about him for me.  The first is that his Spotted Jumper victory in 1989 is largely overshadowed, understandably so, by one of the greatest G.C. battles of all time.  But to be able to reflect on  riding le Tour in 1989 and being witness to such an epic, let alone winning the dots,  would be fantastic.  The second, which I think is the more interesting, is that pro cycling was cruel to Theunisse.  Sure he made his own choices but in the end he chose to stick with what he surely knew and more than likely loved, riding a bike.  Others could be forgiven for walking away from two wheels forever.  Chapeau, Gert-Jan Theunisse, you are a true Velominatus for continuing to ride.

 

 

// General

  1. Excellent job Marko! I was a big fan of Gert back then, along with Rooks, Lemonster, Yates, and the list goes on. This was all back when I couldn’t wait for my copy of Bicycle Racing Illustrated to show up in the mailbox (I’m having similar anticipation these days for my first copy of Velo to show up).

    I also seem to remember a mention of rumors of quasi nefarious rituals that he and his Velomihottie would do to give him extra strength. This only added to his badassedness in my eyes. Of course all of his doping positives disappointed me a little, but back then I can’t say that they were big surprises either.

    And of course his grinta in the face of his post Pro career trials and tests only adds to his stature.

    On L’Alpe:

  2. I always wondered what kind of character Theunisse was, getting a corner for himself on the way to Alpe d’Huez. Thanks for filling that gap for me.

  3. @Marko
    Factoid before Oli points it out:

    By the bye, only two Dutchman have won atop the Alpe, the other being Rooks the year before Theunisse.

    Theunisse was not the second Dutchman to win; several others have won there before. Peter Winnen won twice, as did Hennie Kuiper, Joop Zoetemelk. That’s eight wins in total. That makes us the most winning country atop that fabled hill. Which is two more than Italy. And is also why we call it Dutch Mountain. And why we’re so awesome.

  4. And by the way, awesome post and awesome to see someone give the old chap a head’s up. And here’s an example of why the Dutch are good at going uphill even though they hail from a mostly flat country. (Some of my relatives in NL live “at elevation”. Which mean that they live at, literally, 3m.)

  5. @frank
    Of course, terribly egregious error on my part. Funny, that factoid wasn’t squaring with my memory as I was writing it. Turns out I was looking at the dutch dots winners tab when I should have clicked on the dutch alpe winners tab. Thanks for catching that, turns out I’m not crazy, just lack attention to detail. Fixed it.

  6. Furthermore, the whole bloody head is eerily reminiscent of Ten Dam this year.

  7. My favorite GJT factoid is this: After one of his recoveries (I believe from the car accident), he had the ambition of returning to professional road cycling, but wasn’t sure how to get his climbing legs back. The solution? Buy a house at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez and ride it nonstop. If I’m not mistaken, his record was riding it 20 times in one day.

  8. @frank

    That video always cracks me up. Any idea how fast the wind was blowing in that?

  9. here’s a factoid: anyone…I mean anyone who can ride w/panache & a mullet is a stud. Now before you bust your hymen, this feat is not easily balanced and only for the EuroPRO’s lest you fall into weirdoville.

    Not to mention your ‘hill repeats’ just happen to be Alpe d Huez…peats sake man.

    Chapeau!

  10. All right Marko. I saw Gert in person at a stage of the Tour Dupont/Trump, both Gert and Leman at the start and Gert was the guy you couldn’t stop looking at, a striking face. I might argue he didn’t have a mullet as much as a long thin hair, f’ing Mario had a true euro-mullet. Any photos of yours? He asked politely.

    In the world of professional cycling, where conformity is the rule, he always stood out as his own person.

  11. @frank
    brilliant video Fronk – gotto love the Dutch! Bizarre muzac, but just so spot on for the clip

    Love the guy with the Aerobike at 55secs

  12. @mcsqueak

    @frank
    That video always cracks me up. Any idea how fast the wind was blowing in that?

    There’s another version of this vid (can’t find it right now) that mentions the wind speed. It’s hard enough that sailors say, “Dayum.”

    @Dr C

    @frank
    brilliant video Fronk – gotto love the Dutch! Bizarre muzac, but just so spot on for the clip
    Love the guy with the Aerobike at 55secs

    Totally. Especially with the caption: Yes, Michael. You have the lightest bike.” Dutch sarcasm – which holds within it a mastery of irony – at it’s finest.

  13. @marko
    Awesome to see a little homage paid to Hiawatha, by the way! Love it, great piece!

  14. Nice one, Marko.

    Le Tour 1989 was my introduction to the world of pro cycling. Love that photo of him crossing the line, arms up. White tape looks boss with the white HT.

    Gianni, wow, you’ve seen him in person? Very cool. Always cool that many of you have been Velominati since I just learned what road racing was.

    I watch that video from CBS all the time, might have had it on VHS once upon a time.

  15. @Marko – Great post. I always thought Theunisse was bad ass back in the day, images taken from the pages of WInning and other magazines. Maybe it was the hair. I sported similar hair at the time, with a microscopic amount of the speed. Steel frames, long hair, no helmets. Yes please.

    @Frank. Great video. Damn impressive wind to be training in.

  16. @Ron
    I was trapped at my in-laws in central Pennsylvania and for unknown reasons one stage ended there in Harrisburg and started in Gettysburg the next day. This was when 7-eleven team was king and somehow some europeans came over for this second class stage race.

    I was hanging out right at the start and it was a mix of europeans and Leman, but it was Gert I remember clearly. And as always, sheesh, these guys are not so big.

  17. Wasn’t Gert’s nickname Geronimo? I presumed it was because of awsome hair and fearsome race-face.

  18. @Jim

    Wasn’t Gert’s nickname Geronimo? I presumed it was because of awsome hair and fearsome race-face.

    I thought it was Hiawatha for the same reason you think it’s Geronimo. Maybe they called him both and probably Oli can settle this for us without us needing to resort to our dueling pistols.

  19. @frank
    I remember him being called both Hiawatha and Geronimo. Back then, it was Phil Liggett and John Tesch on CBS. I can hear their voices saying both names. I have the VHS tapes, but I don’t have a VHS player. And Merckx forbid I spend all night combing YouTube looking for the moments when they said them.

  20. Shoot, Gettysburg is nice cycling country. That is awesome that you saw them right in front of you. I think the constant application of The V makes them look big, but I know many of them are slim from all that riding. Nonetheless, Big Ring Legs on many of them.

  21. @marko
    Any backstory on the bloody scalp? What happened? Did he pull a Tens Dam and take a nose dive over his handlebars?

  22. Nice one Marko…

    My GJT experience was in Cairns, Qld, 1996 MTB World Champs. He was ‘coaching’ Bart Brentjens, and it was in the time of juicing in the ranks (the XC winner Jerome Chioti came across from the Festina road squad and ‘cleaned’ up the race, later admitting EPO use). All week, I’d see Gert, skin brown and leathery, covered in tatts, hovering around the pits, looking menacing and scaring little kids. Or, he’d be riding laps up and down the highway on his hardtail with slicks, just up and back, over and over and over…

  23. I love Gert Jan. When he wanted to become a professional bike racer, he hit his head against the wall until he fell unconscious. Just to see if he could suffer enough to be a pro.

  24. If he did that he’s a fucking idiot.

  25. @brett

    All week, I’d see Gert, skin brown and leathery, covered in tatts, hovering around the pits, looking menacing and scaring little kids. Or, he’d be riding laps up and down the highway on his hardtail with slicks, just up and back, over and over and over…

    Is this the same guy, as he scared the shit out of me in a recent movie….?

  26. you can find his website here http://www.gertjantheunisse.nl/
    there’s a couple of interviews in dutch that you can translate and some photos

  27. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    @frank I remember him being called both Hiawatha and Geronimo. Back then, it was Phil Liggett and John Tesch on CBS. I can hear their voices saying both names. I have the VHS tapes, but I don’t have a VHS player. And Merckx forbid I spend all night combing YouTube looking for the moments when they said them.

    What? You don’t want to hear all that AMAZING (where’s the italicized script when you need it) synthesizer music?!?!?

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