Merckx mania.

I got a fever, and the only prescription is...more Eddy Merckx!
                          "The" Bruce Dickenson
Whoa, this just in!  Nike sacked Lance.  Thanks for the revenue kid, we'll just isolate ourselves from you now.   (It's not personal Sonny...just business.)  

And many more in the profi-wielerworld are getting similar reality slaps, and scrambling for cover.  The great purge of 2012 continues.  Purge = Good, methinks.  Good for the soul of the sport.

When a machine goes haywire, you fix it by setting the dials back to zero, and starting over again.   That means a return for a moment to the original cycling icon of my generation:  Eddy Merckx.

Over here in the good 'ol US of A, it's hard for many to comprehend the level of passion Belgians had - and still have - for Eddy Merckx.

I'd grown up hearing about it.  Seeing old grainy black and white clips from his first Tour win and triumphant Beatlemania-esque entry into Brussels Grand Place, back in 1969.  And 'La Course en Tete'  and 'Stars and Watercarriers'.   But being a natural doubting Thomas, I needed to witness it myself to believe it.   To begin to understand it.  

It was back in '93.   I was at the Brussels bicycle expo - a hybrid dealer/consumer show on a mild February day.  Eddy Merckx bicycles were a big deal in their major home-market:  The company had taken an entire separate room, off to the side of the main open exhibit floor.  Unlike most open trade show booths where one can walk in on any side, wander around, touch and feel the bikes, mingle and converse with the staff, the Merckx display was quite different.

But at the same time, oddly familiar.

I walked into the exhibit room through a double doorway.  It was a kinda dark.  The only lighting was concentrated theater-like on a semi-circular stage with a curtained back that hid inaccessible private rooms.  I think I recall the bikes slowly rotating...but not sure.   At a time when Euro bike-biz conventional wisdom wrongly predicted the mountain bike boom would eclipse and replace the road bike market, the Merckx exhibit was almost entirely comprised of colorful gleaming road racing machines, presented in a massive assortment of early-90's eurocolor: Fuschias, greens, blues and yellows.  The visiting masses were kept at bay by a low rail.  The stage was elevated several feet, putting bikes closer to eye level.

A crowd of wielersport pesantry, dressed in normal assortment bike dealer-enthusiast casual garb, were standing massed at the rail.  Some wore the odd cycling cap.  A lot of tragically-hip looking well-worn euro-casual apparel.   If you've ever been to a bike show, you know the look.

Those gathered were still.   They stood transfixed, admiring the bikes as if they were holy-icons.  And with eyes raised, they respectfully watched the every move of a man high above all others - literally, and figuratively.  Eddy Merckx.   Himself.   Eddy and his team were up on that raised stage platform, in fine suits.  Walking around, speaking among themselves quietly.


That's when it hit me.  I'm not at a bike show.  I'm in church.  And this is a Mass.  

It wasn't really a stage - it was an altar.  Eddy was the high priest, and his managers and sales reps, the altar servers.   The delineation between clergy and peasantry was stark, and literal.  But somehow appropriate.

You could have heard a pin drop.   Hushed, and reverent.  Like in church.

 It wasn't quasi-religious.   It was overtly religious.   Hell, if somebody had genuflected before that altar of steel frames, I wouldn't have blinked an eye.  

And it was then that the magnitude of what Eddy Merckx means to Belgians really hit me like a ton of bricks.   It was way beyond sports-fandom.   It was, in that now overused phrase, 'a whole new level.'

As a Catholic, I was immediately struck by the symbolism of the whole scene.   The atmosphere was completely familiar.   Never thought I'd ever see 'Mass' dynamics so literally transferred to a venue outside a Church.  

Eddy Merckx Fan lookalike Frans Geldof.
  Photo  Edith Van Wuytswinkel
Now bear in mind, this was fifteen years after Eddy Merckx had retired.   The awe, the reverence hadn't dimmed one iota.

I've never seen anything like it since either. Sure, Lance could draw a crowd.  So could Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods.  Lionel Messi.  We had a little David Beckham-mania a few years ago here in the US.  But the dynamics, and fan response to those sports superstars is common.  Big security.  Electric energy and excitement.  Yelling kids and fans.  Autograph lines.  Managed access.  It's whirlwind-esque.  Hollywood or pop stars appearances get the same treatment.

But this was way different.   There was no security, no handlers required.  It was much more respectful, a worship bordering on awe that felt more Pope than pop star.

What I always really loved about Belgium is that it has a way of pushing boundaries of lots of things into areas which over here we'd consider way, WAY beyond normal.   Extreme roads.  Extreme weather.   Extremely strong beer.  Extremely hard races.   Belgium pushes the envelope, shifting perspectives on just exactly where the frontier of 'normal' is.

Same goes for extreme passions.   Belgium is a place where hobbies commonly occupy space that over here might border on neurotic obsession.    Here's the Xenophobe's guide to the Belgians explanation:

"Beneath all that social conformity lurks a nation of strongly-moulded individuals - an individually expressed less in unconventional dress and behavior than in passions and enthusiasms, some of which can be all-consuming...they're avid collectors, like their enthusiasms and tolerate eccentricity"


In Belgium, Merckx-mania sometimes goes way beyond the extremes of the most avid sports fans over here.  It's like the passion some exhibit for Elvis Presley.   A continuum that ranges from hero to religious deity..even to neurosis or affliction.

You've got the collectors.  The video below is of Renaat Vancauwenberghe of the West-Flanders town of Sint-Lodewijk.  For over 40 years, Renaat has collected Merckx memorabilia, converting his attic into a veritable Merckx museum.  Over the top.


Or how about this clip, of journalist Johny Vansevenant.  A huge Cannibal fan since he was a kid, he collaborated with Patrick Cornillie on the book 'The Men behind Merckx.'  Johny was also one of the judges for Het Nieuwsblad's Eddy Merckx Photo Contest.



Over here, we've got a lot of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson impersonators.  So why not a Merckx impersonator?   Belgian Frans Geldof has become a fixture at Belgian races as the 'Eddy Merckx lookalike'.   I saw him in full Molteni regalia going up the Muur about a half hour before the leaders passed in the Ronde back in 2005.

He's become as much a part of the ambiance of the big pro races as 'the Devil.'

Check out these clips made for the Dutch reality TV series "Help, my husband has a hobby!"
I thought I was a fanatic, but Frans' obsession is totally over the top - he actually thinks he's become Eddy Merckx!!

Some might say it's unhealthy...but you'd probably have to ask his wife and daughters about that!       




I know, these are examples on the fringe.  But Merckx mania is still alive and well on a mass level.  Exhibit A?  How 'bout this new feature film, released in Belgium: Allez Eddy!

Allez, Eddy! is a heartwarming comedy about 11-year old cyclist-fan Freddy, son of a butcher in an idyllic village in nowhereland.  Freddy's isolated life totally is disrupted when the first supermarket opens its doors in the village. As their opening event the supermarket organises a cycle race, and the winner of the race will meet Eddy Merckx.  Freddy's father, a fierce opponent of the supermarket doesn't want to hear anything about the race. Freddy races nonetheless. By participating a new world opens up, not only for Freddy but also for the people around him.




“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”   
                                                                                                     John 20:26-29


My point is this jongen: A little religion helps many get through trying times.   A blind belief in something, or somebody.   Whether you can prove it to be true or not, doesn't really matter.

Many in the English speaking world hold - or held - Lance up as somebody to believe in.  But the amassed evidence has forcibly shattered the carefully curated narrative of 'Lance-as-deity'.  It's as is if the entire Christian world were suddenly force-fed irrefutable video and DNA evidence that, sorry folks, he never rose from the dead.

I understand why many continue to support Lance, with their own rationale.  Preferring faith to reason.  They prefer to just believe, keeping their faith in their chosen deity un-corrupted by what their eyes see.   Phil Liggett is in that camp.   To each his own.

But a lot of disillusioned cycling-masses this week likely need a replacement.  Someone else to 'look up' to.   Literally, and figuratively.

Set the dials back to zero.  Take off the yellow bracelet.  Allez Eddy.  

I'm not saying Merckx was perfect either.  Not the point.  Deities are best uncompromised by truth, or facts.  Do I believe Merckx never resorted to 'special preparation' to win races?   Wouldn't bet my life on that.  And I don't know if he's really a nice guy, though I believe he is.  Did he really have his soigneur Gust Nassens spike Freddy Maertens waterbottle at the '74 worlds?   Not sure about any of that...

I just know that this week, I'm sure as hell glad we've still got Eddy Merckx!

Now, where's that Molteni jersey?   

Comments

  1. Edo -
    The description of the '93 bike Expo is a gem that takes us to Flanders and is palpable to those who have been there (with you especially). A Bostonian like you years ago, I would say that Mr. Orr had and still holds a similar spell over those who witnessed his magic but the numbers may never have reached those of Meryx in Belgie.

    Perhaps DiMaggio or Mantle were worshiped similarly by the post war masses, but they were coddled by a "press" that was far too enamored with the deity to ever consider revealing their shameful flaws. Today, the media/press is obtrusive, expansive, and obsessive to find the facts. These flaws, present and past, are now the content that sell the story.

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  2. Nice piece, thanks for posting it. The new Merckx 525 book features some wonderful photos that in a way, reinforce your views of Eddy. Larry really liked it.

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  3. hey man, send me an email sometime . We like your site so much we have it on our links list.

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    1. Wow gianni, I'm honored to be a keeper man! Really love your site too: Velominati rocks. I'll email you... thanks for reading!
      EddyO

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  4. When I raced for the Worcester-based Bud Light team we were sponsored by Eddy Merckx bikes - actually the first team in the USA (even before 7-Eleven) - Eddy flew out to meet us and we all went out to dinner together. I sat next to him and we talked about car racing as he was into off-road racing at that time (I recall he raced for Toyota driving a pickup that looked like something from Paris-Dakar rally) - a total gentleman to all of us who tried our best to act normal - yep just having dinner with Eddy Merckx in Worcester, MA - the greatest cyclist of the 20th Century!

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  5. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=4209284747490&set=a.1633861003506.86657.1146112338&type=1&theater

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