The world champion died on a Monday

The world champion died on a Monday, his motorcycle crumbled on the floor next to a Mercedes, his rainbow-wrapped body alongside it. He looked almost peaceful, his hands clasped on his chest. His teammates endure 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’ Monsere prepared with a kermesse in the Belgian town of Retie- not far from Antwerp- and induced the transgres. Shoulder to shoulder with his best friend Roger de Vlaeminck and Frans Verbeeck, the recently crowned world-wide champ 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 vehicle.

Fifty years ago today, at the age of simply 22, the predominate world champ was killed instantly.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

A knack among abilities

Before he was a tragic figure of cycling’s sepia-toned past, Jempi Monsere was just the very fast child of a working class family in the industrial township of Roeselare. Born in 1948 to a launder machine technician and his wife, Jempi’s talent for cycling didn’t take long to rise. The son started racing at 12, coming third in his first race. By 1964, his 15 th year, he had won two Belgian national championships for his age category. In 1967 , have still not been 19, he finished 10 th at his first elite world-wide championships.

Monsere 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 20 s it was clear Monsere had the potential to be one of the greats. His peers were a roll-call of cycling royalty- De Vlaeminck, Verbeeck, Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens- and according to his great friend De Vlaeminck, Monsere could have been one of the best of all time.

“Merckx would have had a lot of any problems with him, ” De Vlaeminck said during a documentary years thereafter. “Monsere was better than him, I remember. He was more of an all-rounder. He could sprint and clamber very well. He was … also more clever. In my opinion, he had to do less to achieve the same results.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Monsere’s star continued to rise, with a steady advance through the ranks in high-profile races. At 19, Monsere went to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as a aid equestrian for De Vlaeminck, but when his squad president suffered material heavy accident in teach Monsere 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 reiterate that ensued at Il Lombardia but was promoted to winner after the first man across the line, Gerben Karstens, be positive for amphetamines. Simply five weeks into his pro job, Monsere had won a Monument.

Monuments are one thing; world-wide championships are another. In 1970, at Mallory Park in Leicester, England, Monsere bridged to a small breakaway including Gimondi. There he withstood an try by the Italian to buy his cooperation, and with a kilometre remaining, Monsere 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 expletive

‘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 Monsere, there’s a ring of truth to it. According to cycling folklore, Monsere’s father- who suffered a heart condition and was unable to drink alcohol- died in the joy of celebrating his son’s victory.

And then followed March 15, 1971, where a reign world champion gate-crashed into a car on a straight, gray-haired street in the Belgian countryside, and passed into remembrance.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

There’s a brutal postscript to this story. Monsere left a young household behind, including two-year-old son Giovanni who grew up without a father but surrounded by cycling. Tragically, Giovanni sustained the same fate as his father, killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of seven. To match “his fathers”, he was wearing a rainbow jersey and journeying a Flandria bike that had been given to him by his godfather, Freddy Maertens.

Three generations of the Monsere family- their lives and fatalities defined by their relationship with the sport of cycling.

Jean-Pierre Monsere and Giovanni. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A lost bequest

Jean-Pierre Monsere have had an opportunity to Merckx’s great equal, and a household name. Now we’ll never know.

Half a century on from his tragically early demise, Monsere’s mark on the world is a nondescript residential street named after him in his hometown, a tombstone on the tree-lined roadside where he took his last-place breath, and a memorial race enduring his epithet on the UCI Europe Tour. The 2021 publication of that race, the UCI 1.1 GP Jean-Pierre Monsere, was won a week ago by Tim Merlier ahead of Mark Cavendish.

In his short career, Jean-Pierre Monsere achieved more than most professional riders, but seems to have left plenty more on the table. As De Vlaeminck said decades after the deaths among his friend,” he was far too good for this world .”

Jean-Pierre Monsere: 8 September 1948- 15 March 1971.

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