Saturday, April 20, 2024

Harm Ottenbros

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Rest in Peace, Dutchman Harm Ottenbros who died recently at 78 years-of-age.

The man was best known for his world professional road race championship title in 1969; but sadly his win has been added to the list of ‘unworthy’ world champions along with the likes of Benoni Beheyt, Luc Leblanc and Laurent Brochard.

It has escaped most folks notice that the mere fact that the man was in the biggest one day race in the world, on the Dutch team along with the likes of Gerben Karstens, Rene Pijnen and Rini Wagtmans means that he was a ‘quality boy’, as we say in Scotland.

The Dutch selectors got it absolutely right that day, choosing him for a circuit perfectly suited to his characteristics. 

Harm Ottenbros (r) wins the 1969 World Championship Road Race in a two-up sprint from Julien Stevens. Photo©Getty

He came up through the Dutch amateur ranks riding races like the super-fast Olympia’s Tour and was a regular podium finisher resulting in a pro contract with Willem 11 Gazelle for 1967, winning a stage in the Tour de Suisse that year, he also took three podium finishes Giro stages in the company of big finishers like Dino Zandegu and Michele Dancelli.

He remained with the Dutch squad for five years, Willem 11 dropped out after four years and for 1971 the team was Gazelle. 

In 1968 he won another stage in the Tour de Suisse and was second in the Dutch Nationals to former Amateur World Champion, Evert Dolman.

The year he won the Worlds, 1969 saw him take two podiums in Vuelta stages and twice finish second in Tour de France stages, beaten in one by Britain’s Barry Hoban.

That year also saw the 5’ 6” former interior decorator who was born in Alkmaar in The Netherlands but lived in Hoogerheide confirm his reputation as a ‘Crit and Kermis King’ with a raft of podiums.

After his win an interviewer asked what he was going to do with all the money he’d make as champion of the world?

“Give most of it to the taxman.”

– came the quick-as-a-flash reply. 

He was pragmatic about his success, later he said;

“It was an odd feeling.

“The nearer the finish line came, the more I had to tell myself I was just in a kermis, although with a few more spectators than usual. 

“I had to forget that I was riding for a world title because if I’d realised that, I’d never have won.”

Harm Ottenbros
World Pro Road Champion, Harm Ottenbros. Photo©Getty

Season 1970 started well with third on GC in Ruta del Sol but crash in de Ronde, where he broke his wrist compromised the Classics season for him, albeit there was a Tour of Luxembourg stage win in June.

He rode le Tour and had three top 10 stage placings before defending his world title in England, at Leicester where he finished in 20th place. 

The loss of his right to wear the rainbow jersey caused him no sorrow;

“Believe me, I wasn’t in the slightest bit sorry when my year as world champion was over and I didn’t have to wear that jersey any more. 

“I could just go back to being the unknown rider in village criteriums. 

“But the old feeling never came back. 

“I was never happy again.”

In 1971 he enjoyed his perennial better than average share of crit and kermis podiums but no big results.

The 1972 season saw him with low budget Wybert Lakerol but he enjoyed some big criterium wins, including the GP Stad Vilvoorde and GP Stad Antwerpen.

The name on the jersey for 1973 was Kela Tapijt and the crit and kermis podiums continued to pile up.

For 1974 he was a back on a top line team with Frisol, alongside the likes of Fedor Den Hertog, Leo Duyndam, Cees Priem and Theo Smit – all big Dutch stars of the 70’s.

There was the usual rash of crit and kermis podiums and he stayed with the team for 1975 when it became Frisol GBC. 

That year, former Olympic Champion, Hennie Kuiper joined the squad and would go on win the world title that year.

Ottenbros and Kuiper’s team mate at Frisol, Vuelta stage winner and Six Day star, Australia’s Don Allan told us that Kuiper rated Ottenbros highly as a team player.

But Kuiper moved on to TI Raleigh for 1976 and it was back to low budget Ormas Sharp for Ottenbros.

It goes without saying that the crit and kermis podiums continued but ’76 was his last season.  

Don Allan gave us his remembrances of a man he was proud to call his team mate;

“Harm was a great guy, quiet and a deep thinker. 

“After winning the world title in 1969 he was criticised and even ridiculed and some called him “The Eagle of Hoogerheide”. 

[A reference to his lack of flair for climbing and the pan flat landscape where he lived, ed.]

“He won that world title fair and square taking advantage of the rivalry between Van Looy and Merckx. 

“After cycling he went through a dark period where he was unrecognizable in appearance and behaviour, even to those close to him. 

“To his credit he made a decision to come back to a normal life, which he did. 

“I last saw Harm at the Frisol team reunion in 2007 and he was fine, friendly and chatty. 

“I did call him after that as he was involved in a serious accident and I rang to check on his health. 

He appreciated the call. 

“The last I heard he had recovered and was cycling regularly with a group enjoying their company and his companions enjoying his company. 

“They say Harm was a reluctant world champion even though he beat a damn good bike rider in Julien Stevens. 

“I don’t think he coped well with the pressure and what was expected from him being world champion.

“Sad news and yet another phone number I won’t need anymore. 

“Rest In Peace, Harm.

Harm Ottenbros was still riding into his vintage years. Photo©supplied

Amen to that, Don” we say – how many of those critics and sceptics who mocked him ever earned the right to wear that beautiful rainbow jersey?