Words James Spender | Photography Mike Massaro
A friend once described Belgium to me as ‘the Wales of continental Europe’. This might seem unkind, but consider it for a moment and it really isn’t. Both have distinct dialects and languages, they’re about the same size and both offer unique riding experiences.
The former blends craggy mountains, barren wilds and rolling moors; the latter features short, battering-ram climbs, thumping cobbles and wind-licked fields. On their days, both can appear startlingly beautiful in a Constable-vs- Magritte kind of way, as well as repressively grey. They have moods. They have soul. But only one has Eddy Merckx. And he’s here.
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I once interviewed Eddy Merckx for this magazine. He was genial and warm and said he was pleased to meet me. I also discovered, in a roundabout fashion, that the great man was being paid to be available for interview.
This smarted my pride a little bit less when he slipped into conversation that his son, Axel, made more money than he ever did as a racer, despite the huge disparity between their achievements. Such were the times.
Something about the start line of this first edition of the Eddy Merckx Classic makes me think this pay-per-play might be happening again. In the lee of the King Baudouin Stadium in northwest Brussels on a warm-enough Saturday morning sits The Cannibal.
Every now and then he rises to shake hands with a fan and pose for pictures, bobbing up and down expertly like a slightly bored but affable meerkat. There is a wonderful straightforwardnessto Merckx as he perches unceremoniously on a garden chair.
Yes he has probably taken a few thousand euros to be here and put his name to this new sportive – something I’m told it needs to stand out, as Belgium puts on hundreds of races and sportives every weekend – but in this moment he embodies the antithesis to the pomp and sheer ridiculous circumstance of the modern sportsperson.
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When I get close enough to proffer my own hand and mumble something about having met before, Merckx, with well practised courtesy, replies yes, of course he remembers, and although there is still the unassailable air of authority only truly great people are in possession of, it is still impossible to shake the sense that Merckx is an entirely ordinary bloke, just like cyclists used to be.
Ordinary people who were good at riding bikes.
Coffee and cigarettes
As the peloton rolls lazily through Brussels’ city limits I’m still preoccupied by thoughts of Merckx. That and the memory of a bespectacled, moustachioed, tattoo-covered man in a part- buttoned Hawaiian shirt, casquette and bumbag, who to start his ride had to first drain his coffee and extinguish his cigarette before throwing a leg over his fixed gear.
The reason I say lazily is because, while the Eddy Merckx Classic is timed, the start operates more like a club meet than a race.
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Roll up any time between 7.30am and 11am, collect your race number, or buy one on the spot (or indeed, don’t buy one and ride anyway, like the moustachioed man) and set off whenever you please, noting that the course support ceases at 5pm.
It makes a change from the pre-dawn Eurohouse of an Italian or Spanish sportive.
Any effort to focus my attentions on the present rather than the past aren’t helped by the fact that the only remarkable thing before the first food station at 35km is a castle, which looks old and largely inhabited by horses.
But since no English-speaking Belgian I’m riding with can tell me anything about it, I presume it’s not part of any celebrated heritage I should know about.
What’s more obvious is that Belgium is overlaid with many, many bike paths, and while not always in the best condition they do appear to be well respected by all. I’m warned that it
is the law to stick to these paths unless you’re riding at over 20mph.
After some time I start to feel the urge to test this limit, so I work my way to the front of the bunch and lay down the watts. The result is a surge of fizzing tyres followed minutes later by a chorus of laughing cheers.
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Head down, I’ve failed to spot the orange course marker and have unwittingly broken off at some speed in a perpendicular trajectory to the group.
By the time I rejoin I am too breathless to make any witty comebacks to their jibes, but they’re largely good-natured and I’m ushered into the middle of the pack for a breather.
Berg, right ahead
France has cols, Italy has passos, but in Belgium it’s bergs, which loosely translates to ‘mounts’ in popular parlance and something along the lines of ‘angry walls’ in cycling vernacular. These bergs are rarely more than a kilometre long, but they’re often unexpected and invariably steep, like someone jabbing a finger into your chest.
Around 60km in, the urban sprawl has long since given up chase, replaced by tracts of farmland. Trees appear not in clusters but in windswept lines, used to demarcate fields as much as offer the crops some protection and the fauna some habitat.
According to the route, we’ve traversed four of the dozen bergs that comprise a projected total ascent of 1,481m. I’ve made higher ascents in a single climb before, which is not to boast.
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I did so with all the panache of a baguette in the rain, but it does put this ride in perspective.
Approach at speed and this terrain can be gruelling and often terrifying, dominated by narrow, 90° bends and peppered with sudden muscle-tearing rises. Approach with more civility, as the group I’m in seems inclined to do, and the going is sociable.
I learn that one rider, Phil, is an ex-pat whose approach to bike sizing is from the Mario Cipollini school of ‘ride it till it fits’.
Another, Eduard, is a crime reporter for a local paper in the Netherlands, while Nathalie is an insanely strong twenty-something who is a nurse by day and a sponsored crit rider by night and weekend. Her scars are as impressive as her calves.
They all keep warning me about the Muur, one of Flanders’ most infamous bergs. The 1km rise to a 101m peak might not sound much, but throw in cobbles that on a damp day are like bars of soap, plus a 6.8% average that peaks at 20% just before the top, and it’s no wonder this berg has claimed as many champions as it has chosen in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
I’ve only seen it on TV, notably in 2010 when Fabian Cancellara screamed up it to the extent that the chasing Tom Boonen looked like he was riding a concrete-filled Raleigh Shopper.
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Atop the Muur is a chapel, which is why the climb is often called the Kapelmuur, and it’s around the last bend, the steepest, most technical stretch of the whole climb, that fans gather in their droves to witness the pain and soul-searching suffering on riders’ faces.
Our approach is cautious, but when the road takes a sharp right out of Geraardsbergen the proverbial fire and fury breaks out across our bunch. One or two riders slip gears and curse, Nathalie flies off like a rocket and I find myself treading a tightrope of acceleration, traction and balance.
The arrival of the Muur permits in me all the rhythm of an experimental jazz band.
At the top of the climb is a feed station, which is a pity as by this point the adrenaline has hit me hard and I’m ready for more. My group has other ideas though, so I pull in, unwilling to upset the social decorum (or then suffer the ignominy of getting chased down later).
Waiting to reassemble and eat does have its upsides. I get to ditch my bike and run to the chapel corner to witness other riders climbing the Muur, their faces contorted into shapes you wouldn’t think humanly possible. And I get to see my moustachioed fixie friend again.
I say ‘again’, as he’s been a near-constant feature. We initially caught him, only for him to later whizz past us on a descent, feet on the top tube and cranks whirling freely below.
When our group swallowed him up and dropped him 10km back I thought we’d seen the last of him, but by some superhuman effort he is wrestling his fixie up the Muur, defying bicycle physics and chain strength with each vessel-popping crank.
His cadence can’t be more than 9rpm and I feel a deep admiration for him – until he triumphantly ‘ghosts’ his bike (jumping off the back while ejecting the bike forwards) into the feed zone, narrowly missing the stroopwafel stand.
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The Bosberg is approaching. It has been the Muur’s partner in crime over myriad editions of De Ronde and is the race’s spiritual last berg, if not the actual last berg since the finish moved to Oudenaarde in 2012.
Since then it has appeared sporadically along the route. Shrouded in trees, the cobblestones of the Bosberg are a glisteningly lethal cocktail of mud and moss, so I elect to hit it as hard as possible in tandem with rapidly changing down gears in a bid to keep traction.
The strategy proves successful, far more so than on the Muur, although I’m helped by the climb being less brutal and much straighter, 986m long peaking at 11%. Still, I doubt I’d fancy it after 250km of racing, as the pros used to have to face.
As for the remainder of our own race, thesun has laid out its towel on a great lounger
in the sky and our group seems keen enough to revel more in the riding than the racing.
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A clutch of bergs come and go at roughly 10km increments, but are little more than annoyances. The overall feeling is a dreamlike sense of calm, as if we’re riding through the credits of a film that promised ‘scenes of mild peril’, but finished with all the characters living happily ever after.
Then Eduard gets a puncture. Using his crime reporting skills he deduces that a full two-inch nail has disappeared inside his inner tube.
I make a mental note of this as it seems like quite an unusual thing to have happened, and indeed people seem surprised when I relate the story over a beer at the finish in the sports stadium.
What: Eddy Merckx Classic
Where: Brussels, Belgium
How far: 85km/117km/155km
Next one: 24th June 2018
More info: cyclingheroestour.be
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How we did it
We took the Eurostar to Brussels-Midi, then on to Leuven, using Eurostar’s ‘Any Belgian Station’ ticket, with prices from around £85 each way.
If you’re flexible with travel times, Eurostar Snap (snap. eurostar.com) offers advance tickets from £25 each way, the caveat being that you will only get sent your precise train time 24 hours before travel and you can only select the date(s) and AM/PM travel, not specific trains.
We stayed at the Hotel Binnenhof, a pleasant hotel in the centre of Leuven, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. Leuven is 30km outside Brussels and has a wonderful feel, a long history, notable architecture and absolutely superb beer.
A trip to Brewery De Kroon is a must, and even the Stella Artois is good here – Leuven being its hometown.
Big thanks to Anita Rampall and Dries Verclyte from the Visit Flanders tourist board (visitflanders.com).
Anita organised our trip and Dries acted as expert host, guide and great Belgium ambassador, easily out-riding and out-drinking the lot of us.
Thanks also to Jakob Snellings from Leuven Leisure, who guided us around the city and in and out of the necessary pubs