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Eddy Merckx told me the story of his 1973 Roubaix victory in hellish weather. Alfons De Wolf told us how he attacked on the Poggio in 1981 to solo to Milan – San Remo victory. There were stage wins, yellow jerseys and classics victories all around us. Just a typical group ride with Eddy and his friends.
Eddy Merckx Cycles had organized this ride around Flanders with the Cannibal and some of his most trusted teammates and oldest friends. These gentleman, some in their 70’s, ride together every week and for one day we were invited. They raced on Faeme, Molteni and FIAT before the big pay checks and the plush team buses. They helped create the legend of the Belgian hardman, immune to the elements and pain. They wore the years of suffering on the bike in the lines across their faces and the years since in the extra inches on their waistlines. Regardless of age and fitness, as Eddy and his friends mounted their bicycles (all by Eddy Merckx Cycles, of course) they folded into pedaling machines, as only professionals can. Still upper bodies, smoothly spinning legs and a very tidy double pace line, shoulders rubbing and smiles broadening.
While more than 25 years have passed since any of them turned a pedal in anger they are still an unmistakable band of brothers, forged on the anvil of professional racing in the late ’60s and ’70s. There is a casual and calm presence to the group, of which Eddy Merckx is the undeniable patron. Easy banter and wits still as quick as in their racing prime, it was a glimpse behind the curtain of perhaps the greatest era in professional cycling when Eddy Merckx, with the unyielding support of these men, wrote a resume that will never be equaled.
After 60 kilometers at a pace riders of any age would be proud of we sat down for lunch and beers at the Palm Brewery. We heard more from Eddy. He talked about the 54×14 gear he used to win Milan San Remo and the diabolical 44×26 they used to climb the toughest mountains in the Grand Tours. He told us his ’69 Tour victory means more to him than anyother and he never suffered more than when breaking the hour record in the altitude of Mexico City.
We wrapped up our day with Eddy and his friends in front of the TV watching the last 50 kilometers of E3-Harelbeke. With the assembled group debating wether the break would stick, who would attack next and the race anything but decided, Eddy quietly said, ‘Sagan.’ With a big attack at 25 km to go, Sagan laid the aground work for the victory Eddy predicted. It was almost as if Eddy, with a quiet word, had given his approval to a Sagan win and the Gods of Belgian racing had listened. Almost.
Tomorrow we head off for 135 kilometers of the Gent-Wevelgem Sportiv on bikes bearing Eddy’s name and his famous victory tally, the Merckx 525. Who knows, if some of the Merckx magic rubbed off on us today we just might head down the 200 km route instead.