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Retro Talk: Track Champion Herman Ponsteen
Retro Interview: Of all the track men who deserved a rainbow jersey, Dutchman Herman Ponsteen should have pulled on that magical maillot. The powerful rider from Hellendoorn came so close at World and Olympic level, returning with a bag full of medals. Ed Hood spoke to Herman to hear about the booming track scene of the 70s and 80s.

Herman Ponsteen, foto Cor Vos ©2003

Imagine a cycling firmament where Peter Sagan, Niki Terpstra and GVA all rode the world pursuit championships. Wouldn’t that be cool? Hard to imagine?

But that’s how it was back in the late 70’s and early 80’s – Francesco Moser, Gregor Braun, Bert Oosterbosch, Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke and Roy Schuiten were some of the biggest road names on the planet, but all have mounted the podium of the world professional pursuit championships. And then there were the specialists whose year centred on the event knowing that the rainbow jersey meant inflated start money in the six days – or some just because they wanted to be the best.

Britain’s Tony Doyle and Danish perfectionist Han-Henrik Orsted are the best known of these greyhounds. But there were other men on the scene, men who were quick, made the podium but never got to pull that magical jersey over their heads. Herman Ponsteen of The Netherlands made the amateur (silver) and Olympic (silver) podiums and twice the professional medals (bronze and silver) not to mention a team pursuit bronze – and a kilometre bronze for good measure. Here’s his tale. . .

Moser, Oosterbosch and Herman Ponsteen - 1979 World championships

PEZ: How did you get into bike racing, Herman?
Herman Ponsteen:
In The Netherlands you had to be 15 years-old before you could get a race licence but there were ‘thick tyre races’ on ordinary street bikes you could enter so I rode those when I was 14 years-old, that was in 1967. I started racing in ’68 and won six or seven races in the youngest category.

PEZ: I remember you exploding on to the Worlds track stage in 1973 with three medals.
I had actually competed in the 1972 Olympics in Munich in the team pursuit where we finished fifth – that was the start of my international career. It came easy in ’73 with Worlds medals in the kilometre, pursuit and team pursuit – I believe I was the first rider to win medals in three different disciplines at the Worlds. But really I wanted to be a road rider – although my speciality was the pursuit.

Munchen - Germany  - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -track - baan - bahn - piste     Herman Ponsteen  pictured during  Worldchampionships Track1978  in the Olympic Track Stafion in Munchen - photo Cor Vos © 2014
Munich 1978

PEZ: Then there was Olympic silver to Gregor Braun in Montreal in 1976.
In 1974 I was sick and it took me 18 months to recover so it was the middle of 1975 before I started to get back to being myself. I don’t know if I could have beaten Gregor Braun (Germany) in the final if I hadn’t had that time out. But ’76 was a great year, I won three national titles; kilometre, pursuit and team pursuit – and bronze in the tandem sprint!

Munchen - Germany  - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -track - baan - bahn - piste     Herman Ponsteen  pictured during  Worldchampionships Track1978  in the Olympic Track Stafion in Munchen - photo Cor Vos © 2014
1978 World championships

PEZ: Do you think if you’d specialised more on the track it would have paid dividends – pursuiters don’t usually ride the tandem!
Ah! That was just for something to do; now they have the Dutch track championships over just two days but back then it was over five days. Some days there was nothing for me to ride so rather than get bored I rode the tandem for fun.

PEZ: Pro pursuit bronze in 1979.
The 1978 season was my first as a professional, I turned pro in the winter of 1977 so I could ride the six days. In ’78 I was fourth in the Worlds , Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke (of Belgium, uncle of the late, great Frank, ed.) beat me for bronze – Braun won, he beat my countryman Roy Schuiten in the final. In those days the standard was very high, as well as those three there was Francesco Moser, Oosterbosch and even Roger de Vlaeminck riding the pursuit. In 1979 I was third behind Moser and Oosterbosch but I believe I could have won it that year if I hadn’t broken my arm just 14 days before the final; that made things very difficult for me.

Munchen - Germany  - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme -track - baan - bahn - piste    Herman Ponsteen (NED) pictured during  Worldchampionships Track1978  in the Olympic Track Stafion in Munchen - photo Cor Vos © 2014
Munich World championships 1978

PEZ: Then silver in ’80.
Yes, that was my last Worlds podium, Tony Doyle (GB) beat me in the final. He wasn’t picked for the Olympic individual pursuit and there was a lot of anger in him which helped him to win. In ’81 and ’82 I rode the points race at the Worlds - I’d had 10 years of pursuiting by that time – I was fifth in the points those two time if I remember correctly?

PEZ: You mentioned the six days?
Yes, I rode the six days in the winter, several of the German races and all of the Dutch ones. I rode Milano a few times and was third in Montreal, Canada with Staf Van Roosbroeck. The six days were much harder back then, Berlin would start with a 100 kilometre chase – but it was worse for the generation of six day riders who came before us, then you had to have at least one rider on the track for 24 hours of the day over the whole six days. Peter Post was race director in those days and the races had to be fast, fast, fast – hurry, hurry! But the spectators don’t want chases like that, it’s 40 kilometre madisons now with more short races and Dernys.

Herman Ponsteen 1977

PEZ: What about the road?
My first pro year I was with the second of The Netherlands professional teams, Jet Star Jeans. I rode all of the Belgian Classics and lots of three/four/five day stage races in Spain – including the Tour of Catalonia. But back then no one knew what you were doing, there was no internet and the Dutch papers didn’t cover the racing down there. Right now, the Tour of the Basque Country is on Eurosport and you can watch virtually the whole stage. I enjoyed my time as a road professional but never enjoyed the success I would have liked, I didn’t get the big wins. But you have to remember it was an era when Dutch cycling was very strong – the time of the famous Peter Post and the famous Raleigh team.

Ponsteen 1974

PEZ: How did you train for the pursuit?
Mostly on the road, I used the road miles to build condition – I rode short stage races to make me hard for the pursuit. I didn’t go to the track until three or four weeks before the finals but even then I’d still do 100 kilometres on the road in the morning. But the pursuit is different now; the first four is virtually decided from the first ride on times. Back then you had to ride up to five times to reach the final. It makes it difficult to compare progress across the generations.

PEZ: Why and when did you quit?
I ended my career in 1983 because of problems with my knees; I was having to expend too much effort to achieve the same results as I had in previous years. I’d been in a position to win a Worlds medal every year between 1972 and 1982; after so many problems with my body I decided that if I couldn’t make the Worlds podium then it was time.

Dutch National championships 1982

PEZ: What did you do when you quit?
I opened a shop, sporting goods and bikes but now we re-cycle old bikes for use in the city.

PEZ: Regrets?
No, I had a lot of fun and saw a lot of the world. It would have been nice to earn more money, I think it’s easier now with riders making more money; my contemporaries all had to go to work hard after they finished racing. Just a pity we didn’t race 20 years later – but anyway, I love my work and I’ve decided I’m going to work until I’m 90 years-old!

Evert Kroon, Enith Brigitha and Herman Ponsteen 1976

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he's covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,600 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself - many years and kilograms ago - and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.


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