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Daniël (Danny) Willems


Danny Willems
Danny Willems.

In Scotland the last two weeks have seen us lose two fine young men from our cycling scene; gone before their time, Ben Abrahams and Dougie Young. But over in the Belgian Heartland they’ve suffered too – with the recent passing of Daniël (Danny) Willems at 60 years of age.

Who’s Danny Willems?’ I hear you ask.

I’m not surprised you should ask that; there’s been very little reaction to Willems demise – but those of my generation remember him as tall, stylish, classy and a big name in pro cycle sport in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Danny Willems was born 16/08/56 in Herentals, home of Belgian legend, Rik Van Looy.

A prolific winner on the amateur scene, an Olympian and Belgian ‘Military’ road champion in 1976; in ‘77 he won the Belgian amateur road championship as well as the highly Prestigious ‘Ruban Granitier’ stage race in Brittany.

The big amateur wins kept rolling in ’78 and when he turned professional with Belgian ice cream firm ‘Ijsboerke’ he wasted little time in proving that what he could do with the professionals he could do with the amateurs, taking the pan flat and highly sought after Championship of Flanders in Koolskamp from Belgian ‘kermis king’ Gerry Verlinden.

Danny Willems. Photo©

In ’79, still an ‘ice cream man’ he won the late lamented German Classic, Henninger Turm, the Brabantse Pijl, Scheldeprijs and was on the podium in the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

All in all he captured 13 winner’s bouquets in ’79. Belgium was in ecstasy, ‘The New Merckx’ had arrived.

The five time Tour winner man had retired in ’78 and whilst Roger De Vlaeminck had won Milan-Sanremo and Het Volk in 1979 it was apparent that ‘Old Father Time’ was in pursuit of ‘Le Gitane.’

Freddy Maertens? The man with the biggest thighs in the business was in the wilderness; invisible until he flashed back across the sky like a long forgotten comet in ’81 to win the green jersey in the Tour and the Worlds before he stumbled back into the Mojave, or was it the Kalahari ?

All three of these riders – Merckx, De Vlaeminck and Maertens – were capable of, and did win up to an incredible 50 professional races each per year.

It was hard for Belgian fans to accept that those days were gone and they longed, lusted for a man to allow them to recapture that rapture – Danny Willems was to be that man.

In 1980 Willems won Paris-Tours, the Ruta del Sol and stages in the Tours of Belgium and Switzerland en route to his excellent season total of 21 wins.

The following season saw him trade the yellow and blue of Ijsboerke for the blue and yellow of Capri Sonne soft drinks.

Danny Willems
Danny won the Tour de France stage 21 to St Priest from maillot jaune Bernard Hinault, having won stage 12 at the Roubaix Velodrome. Photo©unknown

The win tally slipped to 17 but included the Fleche-Wallone and two Tour de France stages so there was little cause for concern.

There was another jersey change for 1982 to the red and white of Boule d’Or – a complicated team story where, as a cigarette manufacturer, Boule d’Or could not advertise their wares in French races, notably le Tour so they bought a French chocolate concern of the same name and the team carried their name into the world’s biggest race.

The win count slipped again to 11 for the year but as well as stages in the Three Days of De Panne, Four Days of Dunkirk and GP Merckx time trial there were another two Tour de France stage wins and notably, a top ten finish in Le Grand Boucle.

Perhaps Danny was going to be a Grand Tour challenger ?

The answer to that was a resounding ‘no’ as ’83 saw just two kermis wins with the nearest to a big win being second in the GP Merckx TT behind Jean Luc Vandenbroucke who he’d beaten into third spot in the same race, 12 months previously.

Boule d’Or wouldn’t pay big bucks on the strength of that and for 1984 the name on the jersey was ‘Murella Rossin’ riding with future Giro winner, Franco Chiocciolo in the Italian squadra.

There were no wins that year – or in his last year, 1985 with low budget Belgian squad, Safir.

The official line was that illness ended his career but it was more likely the title of that Specials song; “Too Much, Too Young?

Too many races, too much expectation, too much pressure…

Danny Willems
Danny Willems, RIP. Photo©Belga

Whatever the cause it’s very sad that Willems should go from Classics winner and Tour de France stage winner to forgotten man and death before his time.

His palmarès illustrate the range of his talent – Koolskamp, the Scheldeprijs and Paris-Tours are all for the sprinters but Henninger and Flèche Wallonne are far from flat, they’re for the Ardennes riders – and then there’s the GP Merckx time trial win against specialist “testers”.

Rest in Peace, Daniel Willems, some of us remember you at your very best, sir.

Ed Hood
Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 47 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, a team manager, and a sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days for some of the world's top riders. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

In Memoriam

It’s 10 Years since we lost Laurent Fignon

As Julian Alaphilippe defended his maillot jaune in the first mountain stage of le Tour today, it’s 10 years since we lost another man who not only wore that beautiful jersey but won it outright twice in 1983 and 1984. Monsieur Laurent Fignon. Here’s what I wrote about the man back on that sad day in 2010.

Ben Abrahams

Obituaries, part of the deal if you write about cycling; check their palmarès, think about when you saw them race when you were a boy then put a piece together. But when it's someone you knew, liked, laughed with, there's more to it than that - the randomness of life; one minute a friend is there and happy with a whole life to look forward to, the next, he's gone. A car crash involving a lorry and Ben Abrahams, and here I am writing this.

Steve Beech

My old dad used to say to me that you knew you were getting old when it seemed like every other week you had to attend a friend’s funeral. I scoffed; but now I understand what he meant – it’s not funerals with me but rather writing cyclists’ obituaries and sadly, I must another to the list, my old GS Modena, Brummie team mate, Steve Beech.

John F Murray – Sponsor of GS Modena in the 1990’s

It's always sad when you lose a friend - when it happens on Christmas Day it makes it all the more painful. So it's with particular sadness we report the loss of John F. Murray, sponsor for several years of Scottish cycling team, GS Modena / M & M Windows. John and I set up M & M in 1988; hitherto GS Modena had been sponsored by CR Smith.

Ivor Reid

On Tuesday morning we awoke to the sad news that North of Scotland stalwart, Ivor Reid had died at just 57 years-of-age. Tragic. I wasn’t privileged to call Ivor a close personal friend but I knew the man for a long time; from the early 80’s and when we met there was always a warm hand shake and some good chat. When I saw pictures of him racing as a ‘Master’ on the track I always had to smile; the gear was always the best and right up to the minute - be it aero helmets, ‘keirin’ gloves, wheels, shoes, his enthusiasm and love for all things track cycling shone from those images.

Paul Sherwen

‘Well Phil,’ the words that we all remember so well, used by Paul Sherwen when he was about to put co-commentator Phil Liggett right about something during one of the hundreds of Tour de France stages the pair covered for TV networks from England to Australia via the USA. Sadly, we’ll hear that catch phrase no more, the 62 year-old Briton having passed away in his sleep at his home in Kampala in his adopted nation of Uganda on Sunday.

Hugh McGuire

Hugh McGuire, who has died suddenly of a heart attack aged 71, was the Glasgow-born Scot who became one of the top UK cyclists in the 1960s, representing both Scotland and the British Army. He took part with the best of GB riders in the Tour of Britain / Milk Race era, winning stages - and in so doing following the wheels of a slightly older top gun, Jimmy Savile. McGuire became noticed, and in 1962 and 1963, was selected to travel behind the Iron Curtain to participate in the annual Berlin-Warsaw-Prague road race, the co-called Peace Race designed by the Soviets to bring together the world's top cyclists in reconciliation between Warsaw Pact countries and the West.

Jocky Allan

Jocky Allan has passed. Life is strange, sometimes. Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine, we got round to talking about cycling, and with a far away look in his eyes, he reminisced about his first bike; "my maw pushed the boat out and bought me this beautiful red racer, it had white wall tyres and white transfers on the tubes - JB Allan."