Not many riders can claim that they frustrated Eddy Merckx during their careers. Walter Godefroot is one of the few that can make this claim. He won the 1965 Belgian championship, 1967 Liége Bastogne Liége and 1969 Paris-Roubaix in front of Merckx. Certainly, more than the average rider can claim to have taken from him. This isn’t all Godefroot achieved, though. Far from it. Two Tour of Flanders, ten Tour de France stages along with a green jersey, are just some more victories off of a very long list.
Walter Godefroot was a very complete rider. He was a great sprinter but also one of the best classics riders of his generation. Until the 1990s there were very few pure sprinters in pro cycling. Riders like Eric Vanderaerden, Sean Kelly, Freddy Maertens or Eddy Planckaert were very fast riders who were also very skilled in other domains like one-day races or Grand-Tours (GT). Godefroot was like this as well.
He turned pro in 1965 and immediately became Belgian champion, which was one of the two wins he achieved in his debut season (the other was a minor Belgian classic). The following year though, the serious winning started. He won the Dwars door België (current Dwars door Vlaanderen) and a stage in the Belgian Tour, while placing 2nd in the Omloop Het Volk, 4th in the Liége Bastogne Liége and Paris Bruxelles, and 6th in the Gent-Wevelgem. His one-day race potential was clear by the end of his first spring classics’ season.
In 1967 he was 7th in the Milano Sanremo. This would be his first of four-straight top-10 finishes in the Italian Monument. A victory that would elude him throughout the entirety of his career. In fact, the only Monuments Godefroot did not win were the Italian ones. While he did place in the top-10 of the Milano Sanremo five times throughout his career, his best result in Il Lombardia is 14th in 1968.
Until the 1967 Paris Roubaix the classics season wasn’t really going Godefroot’s way. After the Hell of the North, though, he won the Nokere Koerse and, more importantly, the Liége Bastogne Liége, thus claiming his first Monument victory. Later that year, he started the Tour de France for the first time and claimed his first stage win in a GT.
Walter Godefroot started 1968 at full gas. Two stage wins in the Paris Nice, plus victories in the Dwars door België, Tour of Flanders, Gent – Wevelgem, and podium places in the Paris Roubaix and the Liége Bastogne Liége (3rd and 2nd). The winning would remain through the Tour de France, where he took two stages and was second in the green jersey rankings, behind Italian Franco Bitossi. Despite all his achievements so far, Godefroot still rode for the Belgian B team in the Tour de France.
As a curiosity, 1967 and 1968 were the last years national teams competed in the Tour. They stopped participating in the French GT in 1961 but returned during those two years. They went away again in 1969 to never return again.
His biggest win in 1969 was the Paris-Roubaix, the last of the three Monument races he won in his career. He won plenty more one-day races during that season but none that compared to the one below.
1970 was a year filled with honorable places but not many wins. Ironically this was Godefroot’s best performance at the Tour, where he won two stages and the green jersey. It was also the year when he won his first stage in the Giro. However, outside of this, the season was filled with heartbreak for the Belgian. He placed in the top-10 in the Milano Sanremo (5th), Gent Wevelgem (3rd), Tour of Flanders (2nd), Paris Roubaix (5th), Belgian (6th) and world championships (7th).
When I write “heartbreak”, I mean, for a rider of his stature. His 1970 season would be a career defining year for 99% of riders out there.
The following year the success in GTs continued but his classics performances did not improve, in fact, his results plummeted. This was the first sign of decline of what is still a very short career. While, at this point, Godefroot was still only 28 years old, his best classics performances were already behind him. On the other hand, his GT performances were still very good. In 1971 he accumulated another stage win in the Tour and his first (and only) two stage wins in the Vuelta.
From 1972-1977 he amassed four more stage wins in the Tour, along with his second Belgian national title and what is now known as the Eschborn-Frankfurt classic. He placed on the podium of the Paris Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race, and Liége Bastogne Liége (twice), but did not win any Monument races in this period.
That changed in 1978, when, ten years after his first victory, he repeated his 1968 Tour of Flanders win. Godefroot won a three-man sprint to the line, narrowly beating reigning Giro champion, fellow Belgian Michel Pollentier.
Unsurprisingly, his career ended with a victory, in 1979, in a Belgian one-day race: the Circuit des Frontières.
He represented the iconic Flandria team between 1967-1969, and there he coincided with fellow Belgian sprinter Patrick Sercu, three-time Tour de Flanders winner Eric Leman, and legendary Roger De Vlaeminck.
He briefly moved to Italian team Salvarani, in 1970 where he met another one of Eddy Merckx’s foes, Felice Gimondi, and two-time Giro winner Franco Balmamion.
At the end of the 1970 season, he moved to the Peugeot-BP-Michelin team (big names) for two years, where he shared a locker room with French Tour winner, Bernard Thévenet.
Back to the Flandria team it was for Godefroot at the end of the 1972 season. This time Roger de Vlaeminck wasn’t there anymore but another Belgian legend took his place: Freddy Maertens. Not really a drop-off if you ask me. Michel Pollentier, the rider Godefroot defeated to win the 1978 Tour of Flanders, was also his teammate during this period.
The last four years of the Belgian’s career were spent at Ijsboerke – Colnago, a secondary Belgian team at the time. Herman Van Springel, Rudy Pevenage, and Frans Verbeeck were some of the Godefroot’s teammates at the team.
After retirement, Walter Godefroot stayed in cycling, becoming a team manager. He is mostly known for being Telekom’s team manager during the team’s successful Tour de France participations in the 1990s and early 2000s. These included two overall wins through Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich (1996 and 1997), along with six green jerseys through Erik Zabel (1996-2001).
As a rider, Walter Godefroot was undoubtedly one of the best classics’ riders of his generation, as well as a remarkable sprinter. Not many riders can say they beat Eddy Merckx in such big races after all. As a team manager he certainly was controversial. In the end he is an inevitable figure in the world of cycling that earned his place as one of the best in history.