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Only his eyes could slow down this racer

Now legally blind, Gus Van Cauwenberge, 83, still follows his beloved bicycle racing and will be rooting for Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France today.

By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Gus Van Cauwenberge has quite a collection of newspaper clippings.

Some, crisp and new, are about the Tour de France -- articles giving day-by-day accounts of the world's most prestigious bicycle race, which ends today in Paris.

Others, frayed at the edges and yellowed with age, tell the story of Van Cauwenberge's own history as a professional bicyclist in Europe, before and after World War II.

Now 83 and legally blind, he reads the articles with the aid of a projector showing the images on a large television screen.

In all, over a career that spanned seven decades in Europe and elsewhere, Van Cauwenberge won more than 200 bicycling awards.

He began his fateful relationship with bicycles at age 13 in his native Belgium. The son of a coal miner, his family had little money in the days before World War II, so he took a job delivering pastries to wealthy families on Sundays.

Eventually, he persuaded his mother to let him quit school and work at the bakery full time. The 50 francs (about $1 at the time) he earned each month went to the family, but tips were his to keep.

"That was how I bought my first bicycle," said Van Cauwenberge, who now lives in Spring Hill where he retired in 1980. "I rode a bike all the time. It was the best beginning I could have had."

Soon, he entered local races against boys his own age. Four times a week, up to 60 competitors would race through the streets of Belgium.

"People were always lined up along the streets to watch," he said. "Racing there is nothing like it is here. Here, you have to go to a football game to see the kind of people that bicycling draws there."

With his first win, Van Cauwenberge pocketed twice what he made in a month at the bakery. His path became clear. In nine months, he won 72 races, earning more money than his father made in a year.

"They called him "The Fox,' " recalled Van Cauwenberge's wife of 60 years, Marie. "He would make believe he couldn't make it, then at the end he was ahead of them all -- just like a fox."

By age 20, Van Cauwenberge had secured his position as a professional bicyclist. Two years later, in 1938, shortly after he enlisted in the Belgian army, he was chosen to race in the Tour de France. He got a week's furlough to finish the race.

The Tour de France was a different race then, Van Cauwenberge recalls. Bicycle design was much different, training methods were less refined and there were bumps in the road not experienced by today's athletes.

"The bicycles only had one gear for everything -- going up the hill or flat. It was all the same gear. And if you got a flat tire, you had to change it right there," he said. "That could cost you easily three or four minutes. Today, you just jump on another bike."

"It was four days before the war," he said. "I finished the race, and soon after I was on a train passing by houses that had been demolished."

Van Cauwenberge finished fifth in the race. But after the war, he had decided, he didn't intend to race again.

"There was a time when I didn't want to see a bike ever again," he said. "I just couldn't bear it."

In 1954, he and his wife moved to the United States, where he worked in a grocery store in New Hampshire for 13 years.

"I was pretty happy there, but it was never like racing," he said. "And when the chance came to get back, I couldn't turn it down."

Thirty-three years ago, friends told Van Cauwenberge he was crazy to open a bicycle shop in New Hampshire. The sport had taken off in California and other western states, but the boom had yet to move east.

"Nobody was buying bikes in New Hampshire," he said. "Nobody thought I would make it."

But the business grew, and eventually thrived. Van Cauwenberge began racing again and took the New Hampshire State Championship seven times and the New England Championship four times.

"It was as if I had never left," he said.

After he moved to Florida, Van Cauwenberge continued to travel around the country, participating in bicycle races and winning medals.

In 1998, after racing in the national championships in Tallahassee, his vision became impaired. Doctors diagnosed the racer with macular degeneration, a progressive form of blindness that usually affects older people.

"Once, I told a friend that I would race until I was 100," he said. "But that wasn't meant to be."

Now, Van Cauwenberge keeps up with the Tour de France daily through newspaper and television coverage. Like many, he favors American Lance Armstrong to win his fourth consecutive championship today.

"I know just how he feels," Van Cauwenberge said. "There is nothing like the feeling of that win."

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