There is a reason why I am standing in a small, tidy square in the quiet Brussels suburb of Woluwe St Pierre. Why my eyes keep turning toward a garage door which belongs to a building that was once a grocery store; It was through that very garage door each morning that Eddy Merckx emerged, come rain or shine, for his 120km (minimum) training ride.
Tess, my fiancée, and I had set out on the trail of Merckx a few days previously from London St Pancras. I had Daniel Friebe’s excellent Merckx biography in my hand and Tess’ tales in my ear of how, having spent her childhood in the suburb of Woluwe St Pierre, her first bike rides were up the ‘Sharp Inclines’ (I am putting that one down to poetic license and maybe never having ridden it, Daniel) of Kouter Laan, one of the climbs that threads its way through the neighbouring district of Auderghem; A climb on which Eddy Merckx also used to train in his youth.
The plan was simple: Get ourselves some of the Brussels ‘Boris Bikes’ equivalents and enjoy exploring Eddy’s old stomping grounds, see the suitably understated plaque that provides the only clue as to the afore mentioned small square’s place in cycling’s folklore and which commemorates the Ogre of Tervuren’s (more than likely) never to be equaled career; And perhaps seek out some people who had memories or anecdotes of the young lad who pedaled around the streets delivering bread on his way to cycling’s firmament. Then, a coffee- maybe a beer. This is Belgium, after all. What we found was more than I could ever have hoped for..
“Yes- We used to buy our groceries there, of course, it’s not even a kilometre away. Madame Merckx used to serve us; Always very helpful, a charming little shop. They owned the shop for years- even when Eddy was winning everything, the most famous cyclist on earth, the Merckxes still ran the local neighbourhood grocery shop” recalls Annemarie, Tess’ mum.
Annemarie and her husband, Stephen, still live, 35 years on, in a house just down the hill from Place de Bouvreuils, that unassuming little square in the leafy Brussels suburb. She recalls the trips up the hill with her shopping basket like it was yesterday. Not because it was some momentous occasion to visit the Merckx’s but because it was just part of the daily fabric of life; You lived in the Chant d’Oiseau area of Woluwe St Pierre- you shopped at Mdme Merckx’s shop. Being a resident in this neighbourhood whilst Merckx was racing meant you ate the bread and vegetables from the store each evening while Eddy devoured the races by day.
The shop is long gone now, as is the bar a door or two down. The little square’s bustle has been replaced by a tranquil and well-groomed suburban calm. But, as with many of cycling’s most history laden back-lanes and citadels, the air is still charged with legend; The Muur de Geraardsbergen on a December morning or the Ghisallo on a still, May afternoon, both deserted, will always reverberate with the sounds of fabled moments in time to the ears of the attuned. The same is true at Place des Bouvreuils.
The heat of the August morning sunshine builds as we let the scene wash over us and admire our riding partner for the day Jon Canning’s recently completed pride and joy, a beautifully finished early 90’s Merckx Corsa Extra, which he is keen to take for a spin alongside the ghosts of Merckx’s youth as part of our quest. We agree to gloss over the non-era pedals as he has dutifully cast life and limb into the hands of fate by equipping it with Campagnolo’s infamous Delta brakes. The lush attention to detail of Alistair McLean’s maestro- like paint reworkings are being cooed over when we hear a voice over our shoulder adding it’s approval.
“Beautiful bike- and a Merckx too!” we turn to the owner of the voice who then points across the square “you see that house, there? Merckx used to live there..”
He has my attention- a local who knows. “Indeed- it’s Eddy’s old home and roads we’ve made the journey from the UK to come and see- do you know anything about the house or Eddy?” I pry.
“Know anything? Yes- I live there; I’m the new owner! And if it’s vintage old bikes and Eddy you are looking for today, how about I go and get what I found in the garage under a pile of old junk when I moved in?..”
Mattieu, the modern day custodian of chez Merckx, returns with a world weary but still proud Campagnolo-laden metallic silver-blue museum piece of a bike. As it stands there in front of us and I half expect to suddenly hear the tinkling of a bell on a grocery shop door such is its almost magnetic effect on time and the senses in this setting.
“Now, I can’t promise you that this absolutely belonged to Eddy.. but I found it in there-” Matthieu points to the garage doors that had been arresting my gaze earlier, “and I’ve done some research with the help of books and experts. It is almost certainly the work of a certain Félicien Vervaecke, a frame builder from back in the time of Merckx when he lived here..as far as we can establish it is from about 1962..it was just laying under a pile of stuff that hadn’t been moved for years..” The bike is inspected an admired with no small amount of willing for it to be the genuine article - none of us could deny that something about the whole thing did just feel very right though.
We bid Matthieu a good day and roll away down the hill from Place de Bouvreuils wrapped in a will to believe that I suspect to be the lifeblood of UFO hunters or seance participants the world over. We’d definitely seen something; whether it was definitely one of Merckx’s old training bikes, we couldn’t say for sure, but we’d seen something.
We cut along Avenue des Bécassines to the junction with Kouter Laan, the kilometre or so of hill that is often associated with Merckx’s youthful tearing around the neighbourhood. I’d previously walked up it a number of times but never attempted it on a 30kg city bike. I wholeheartedly take back my pithy asides regarding Msr Friebe’s appraisal of the inclines after my dismal efforts to propel myself up them on my rented-by-the-hour machine. But at least the relaxed geometry and surface smoothing 60mm tyres made for a very pleasant glide back down the hill and through Woluwe park as we made our way to out towards Tervuren where the Brussels city boundary gives way to the region of Flanders. We are heading for Stockel to continue our quest. It is here that, on the instruction of a man named Adrien Joveneau from the Le beau vélo de RAVeL, a bike ride that is the subject of a popular Belgian TV and radio show, I need to make contact with a lady named Catherine. Catherine is the press officer for the mass participation bike ride that RTBF, the Belgian equivalent of the BBC, on which Le beau vélo de RAVeL is broadcast, were staging that day for the people of Brussels.
The event is free of charge and winds for 25km around the commune of Woluwe St Pierre. And for good reason- this event, a celebration of cycling, local food, music and beer which we discovered just hours before our departure from the UK, was in honour of Brussels’ favourite son: Eddy Merckx. He also happened to be the event’s guest of honour; it couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d dreamt it up- we’d come in search of the fleeting spirit of Merckx in the city and managed to stumble upon the great man himself!
We spent the afternoon cruising through the elegant streets and parks of Brussels in the company of Eddy’s most loyal tifosi- even Merckx’s old Soigneur, Guillaume Michiels, sat astride an immaculate bike in the classic orange of the hour record era, complete with a tasteful portrait of the ‘Cannibal’ on the headtube framed by, of course, the rainbow stripes. Everywhere you looked there were lovingly kept vintage bikes from the era of Eddy’s reign and items of clothing which were still providing long retired marketing men with a return on their investment, albeit on products that had long since disappeared from the shelves. After the leisurely ride and an ice cream by the lake in Park De Woluwe it was time to see if the mission’s jewel in the crown could be achieved: A meeting with Eddy Merckx himself.
“You must be quick- one photo is all we have time for..” decreed a hot and harried Catherine as we threaded through the radio and TV backstage areas. The whole event is broadcast on the national networks. “Eddy has just finished his radio interview and is due on TV in a couple of minutes..you need to be quick- it’s a live broadcast and we cannot delay”. Catherine delivered us to a quiet area amid cables, VIP tents and TV broadcasting juggernauts. Eddy Merckx was sat with a couple of friends on white plastic garden chairs. 25km in 30 plus degrees had left the 70yr old with a brow shining with sweat. I pondered that this angle and the effort of the pedalling that caused it would not be something many of his adversaries would have been parlee to in his heyday; more likely the back of his head and a clean set of heels! Eddy enquired as to our day’s work and nodded with a smile when we reeled off the names of places we’d been to in our quest to track his youthful self down. A pose for a portrait shot for photographer Pieter Van Hoorebeke’s lens and then a beckoning arm towards me to jump into the frame with him.
It was at that moment it suddenly hit home to me; This was not a day of chasing the ghosts of a long gone age or attempting to bring back to life jaded sepia images of the hero of a generation. This was a day of interacting with a living, breathing man, on the one hand just like you or I, but also, without doubt, an icon and a link to a golden age of the sport’s history as he enjoyed doing what he had always loved: Cycling around the roads of his youth among the people that he grew up with.
The massed crowds in front of the giant TV stage were waiting, the playful chant of “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy” rang out not for the first time that afternoon. The question as to whether he remembered a Campagnolo equipped, silver-blue Félicien Vervaecke would have to wait until another time…