Andrea Hofling’s pilgrimage to Merckx and genuflects on the cobbles
Graeme Freestone & I
If you thought the previous
week wed done a mad thing by setting off to Belgium so ludicrously
early in the morning that we had to share the first Victoria tube train of the
day with spaced out Friday night clubbers, think again. Because the following
week we decided to top the bright-and-early thing and go a degree madder.
It all began when I received an invitation to visit the Eddy Merckx factory
and be taken on a tour of the Eddy Merckx route around Merckxs home village
of Meise near Brussels.
In order to catch the 6.30am train from Folkestone, we had to meet at 4am(!)
on a Friday morning to meet Graeme, the UK importer of Eddy Merckx bikes on
Vauxhall Cross an hour later. It was still pitch dark, or in the case of Vauxhall
Cross, dimly orange.
The arranged meeting point under a railway arch where some years ago a murder
had been committed (And an IRA rocket attack). We didn’t know Graeme’s car and
there was no bicycle rack on the roof of the parked white estate, from which
a dark figure was emerging as we approached. As if to reassure us, he opened
the back to reveal some bicycle wheels, with a frame underneath. After brief
introductions he worked with the suavity of a conjurer to fit all three bicycles
inside the loading area.
There really is no romance in a channel crossing by car train. No luxury onboard
restaurant, not even British rail tea served from a passing snack trolley, so
it was just a limp croissant and a coffee in the nocturnal terminal building
in Folkestone, while waiting for our train.
We didnt care because Belgian waffles and chocolate beckoned. After a
fairly short drive along orange lit Belgian motorways, past the skyline of Calais
with its preposterously large belfry (reminiscent of Big Ben), and past Koksijde
with its preposterously large bell towers and spires, we arrived in Meise where
the Eddy Merckx bicycle factory is located inside an old pigsty. Eddy conveyed
apologies for his absence via his manager, due to being in Qatar for the Asian
Games. We readily forgave him.
After serving up some strong coffee, the manager took us on a tour of the factory
which is described
very aptly in Johns article about visiting the Eddy Merckx Factory.
Ill just say; it must have been a pretty large pigsty once, and Ive
never seen so many bicycle frames (in in various states of un-finished-ness)
in my life before stacked up beneath and above each other in long orderly rows.
There was a surreal golden glow about them which was due to their gold undercoat,.
The ride on the sign posted Eddy Merkcx route was spiced up, for John at least,
by the fact that Eddys own mechanic had fixed him up with Serge Pauwels-of
-the-Chocolate-Jaques-Teams bike. Being an Eddy Merckx (aluminum with
carbon bits) bike, it stood up rather well in the varied terrain on bumpy Belgian
roads, cobbled farm tracks and muddy paths through fields and forests.
On a particularly picturesque stretch of Flandrian cobbles
I felt the irresistible urge to throw myself down and have my picture
No Salade Liegois
We stopped at a swish looking restaurant for some much needed food and caffeine
intake. I tried to order the only Belgian specialty on the menu (available in
Flemish, French and English) called Salade Liegois, but it seemed to have been
discontinued in favour of a more mainstream European fusion menu. Which was
nice, but I think Gordon Ramsey would have a word or two to say about this lack
of local flavours. Plus the decor was fuzzy and overdone – there were what looked
like figures of witches and wizzards suspended (on swings!) from the ceiling
among a veritable magic forest of dried flowers and twigs ( and looking a bit
cob webby). Where is the f*****g simplicity? I hear Gordon ask.
And still the Belgian waffles were illusive, although from time to time we
could smell them, tantalisingly close! But we could never locate the source
before the ephemeral waffle aromas were once more transformed into more rustic
rural smells (such as pig swill). On a particularly picturesque stretch of Flandrian
cobbles I felt the irresistible urge to throw myself down and have my picture
taken, I cant really explain why. As I was lying on the ground I noticed
another tall church spire looming in front of me. In fact Belgium seems to have
more than its fair share of them; apparently thats what Kermesses are
all about, racing around the local church tower on a Sunday. I wonder how the
different Kermesses used to avoid falling over each other.
In Eddy’s shower
Back at the factory we had another round of strong coffees and I accepted the
offer of showering in Eddy Merckxs personal shower. Before entering the
factory we had joked about genuflecting and worshipping inside the hallowed
halls, but I guess its like once you realise the Queen goes to the toilet
too, she becomes just another little old lady. I appreciated the shower mostly
because our boiler at home had been out of action for the previous 2 weeks,
and having running hot water just beats the pants off having to heat up the
kettle every time you want a wash.
Eddy Merckxs cycling fame is not made a lot of in the factory anyway,
and chatting to the manager about marketing and customer care and such issues,
he was taken aback when I suggested that Eddy Merckxs cult status bikes
might affect customer expectations. The only things that allude to past glory
are a few oversized paintings of Eddy and some trophys tucked away in a cupboard
in a room behind Eddys office. Plus stacks of books about Eddy Merckx,
sort of casually left lying around the place. I wonder if he flicks through
them occasionally when he feels a bit gloomy, in order to cheer himself up.
At least thats what I would do!
Otherwise the cult of Eddy Merckx is very understated in his factory and on
his products – on some of the finished frames it may say in small lettering
on the top tube …My passion, on others …My experience,
It was getting dark and we hurried on our way back to Calais, but couldnt
resist to turn off at Brugge for a flying visit to the seasonal Ice Fair. Brugge
was prettily lit and festive and contrary to Calais, bustling and lively, even
after dark. The fair had an ice rink as its centre piece, but it was the Gluehwein
and Bratwurst stalls that attracted our attentions. And the chocolate shops,
a few of which were still open. Heaven! Now I heartily regret not having bought
much, much more, but we were really too tired and rushed to make any serious
We made it home at about 10pm and just collapsed into our beds. A crazy, madcap
adventure? You bet.
More about Merckx – at www.multimit.com/fkm/eddymerckx/index.shtml