The first bicycle race I ever saw — not including those I witnessed from over the handlebars, chasing my brothers and friends around the block on our 30-pound Schwinns — featured none other than Eddy Merckx. I was hooked.
I’m reminded of that race again now as the winter (slowly) turns into spring and another season of Classics begins.
The race occurred on 27 August 1975; I had just turned 14. It was a nothing race, a local competition for a festival day that took place after the season — i.e., the Tour de France — was largely over. The race was called the Druivenkoers Overijse, a kermesse through the countryside and several small farming towns south of Brussels, Belgium. We lived about 10 minutes away, and although neither of my parents were bike-racing fans, the whole family piled into our old Volvo station wagon to go watch.
As Americans living in Belgium, we of course knew who Merckx was — although I had never even heard of bicycle racing before. In fact, we had been told about the national hero’s exploits time and time and time again by enthused — no, rabid — Belgians whenever the opportunity arose.
I even remember one French-language class in school that evolved into a lecture on Monsieur Merckx and his training regimen with simulated high-altitude atmosphere in his garage for his 1972 hour-record ride in Mexico City; this discourse was delivered by our oh-so-chic Belgian female teacher, who seemed the furthest thing from a cycling enthusiast that I could imagine, then or now.
The way to watch a Belgian one-day race is not to crowd around the finish line and await the finale. Instead, when in Belgium, do as the Belgians do: My family went to a bar on the edge of the town of Overijse along the race course, and my parents soon had goblets of Belgian beer in hand.
The bar was a quaint old roadside place, and it was overflowing with cycling — and beer — fans. Everyone milled around outside right on the road edge as the peloton came by for the first time.
The racers were a blur, gone in two, maybe three, seconds.
So, everyone went inside the bar and drank beer and ate moules-frites, until someone outside shouted that the riders were coming around the course again.
Everyone rushed back outside, and another blur went by. Then back to the beer and lunch.
Those blurs were darn impressive. The riders were so fast, a rush of colorful jerseys and bicycle frames, sunlight glinting off the spinning aluminum wheel spokes, shouts from the riders and fans, a slipstream you could feel on your face, and that wonderful, musical, fast-tempo click of the freewheels — a symphony of Campagnolo!
Fans at our bar pointed out Merckx, who was there at the front in each of the successive blurs. And he was working, hard, even in a race that didn’t matter. There were no points to be won, no prize money of serious account, no real fame to be had. But he rode for his home fans, and they appreciated it all. Perhaps it was missing out on winning his sixth Tour that year that pushed him so.
By the end of the race, we saw three blurs go by. In the center of Overijse, Merckx had won — in the world-champion rainbow jersey, none the less, riding for the famed Italian team Molteni, and astride a glorious DeRosa-built bicycle. His archrival Roger de Vlaeminck, riding for Brooklyn Chewing Gum, finished third. Lucien van Impe, who’d win the Tour the next year, was seventh.
In retrospect, I actually saw little of that race, just those amazing blurs. But the cultural event — and Merckx’s head-down, all-out, dust-and-sweat-coated determination — stuck with me forever. (Ditto for the rich taste of true Belgian frites with mayonnaise.)
Can’t remember if I unbolted the chromed-steel fenders from my fire-engine-red, three-speed Schwinn Speedster that same afternoon, or if it was the day after. Probably brought me down under the magical 30-pound mark, but I was ready to ride.