Half Man, Half Bike
The Life of EDDY MERCKX, Cycling's Greatest Champion
By William Fotheringham
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 William Fotheringham
All rights reserved.
FATHER AND SON
He was too small to have any chance of winning. That was the feeling among the group of teenage cyclists, maybe fifteen strong, when the little lad attacked as they sped across the old market place in Enghien, a small town south-west of Brussels. The boy was aged sixteen years and four months, a couple of years younger than most of the others, and was riding a smaller gear, pedalling at a furious cadence on his single-speed bike. He would never keep it up. The local youths had put their heads together before the start and had decided that one of them should win; the attacker was not a local, indeed they had no idea who this youngster was in the red jersey on the blue bike. But he looked too small to hang on to the finish line located across the Brussels highway, a few hundred yards down the road, outside the Café Alodie – known as the Pink Café – in Petit-Enghien. Or so they thought.
The race on 1 October 1961 was just one of seven such events run in Enghien each year by the local cycling club, Pedale Petit-Enghiennoise, and one of thousands of circuit races held across Belgium between March and October. They were usually organised to add a bit of pizzazz to a local fair, or kermis, with signing-on, start and finish at the local café. The Enghien race was over eight laps of a small circuit taking in the town centre, with primes – intermediate prizes – in front of each of the three cafés as the race went past. Kermis circuits, some claim, are specially designed so that the lap time is just long enough for the spectators to pop inside after the bunch has passed, order a round of brown beers, and get outside again to catch the next lap. For this race, a tombola had enabled the cycling club to put up 6000 francs in prize money, with 400 to the winner. The bouquet and cup were handed to the victor by a local girl, Marianne Leyre, daughter of the local police chief who was making sure the race was run safely. She was a friend of the organisers' two daughters and it just happened to be her turn that day. She was a little put out because her platinum-blonde hair had been poorly dyed chestnut.
Petit-Enghien was the first of eighty victories that Edouard Merckx – as the brief report in the Courrier d'Escaut newspaper called him – would take as an amateur, the first of a total of 525 wins he would land in more than 1800 races he would start in his career. It was not a particularly auspicious event. He had raced a dozen times since his first outing in July, at Laeken, the location of the bike shop run by the former professional Félicien Vervaecke where he had bought his blue bike. He had abandoned four times, come close to winning in a couple. His studies and his work in his parents' grocer's shop left him little time to train: he estimated he had put in two training runs of twenty kilometers, plus the daily trip to and from school. He was felt to be too frail to use the same gear as the others, so he rode a smaller one in order not to put too much strain on his young legs. It put him at a disadvantage.
The Merckx family were proud of their boy. Jenny Merckx, Edouard's mother, took the photograph of him smiling shyly alongside Marianne Leyre, bouquet and cup in his hand. Even then, in spite of his lack of success, young Edouard had two supporters – used in Flemish the English word implies a following more obsessive than in most sports – and so the vegetable merchant and the neighbour who lived above the bookshop across the road were invited for dinner that night. Although the following weekend Edouard Merckx was brought back to reality when he finished eighteenth in his last race of the season, he and his advisers drew confidence from that first victory. And no one would ever consider him 'too small to win' again.
Young Eddy had also been dismissed as too fat. Guillaume Michiels still smiles about that, more than half a century on. In the mid-1950s, Michiels was a professional cyclist who lived a few hundred yards away from the Merckxs' grocery, up what was then a steep hill but is now a gently sloping lawn in front of a block of flats. His mother helped the Merckx family in the shop, cleaning, cooking items while they manned the counter; they in turn helped her feed her four children with items from the business which was no longer quite good enough to sell, but could still be eaten. Michiels did not have a car – his father had died a few years earlier and the family was short of cash – so occasionally Eddy's father, Jules Merckx, a cycling fan, would help Guillaume get to races with a lift. On Sundays, when the shop closed at lunchtime, the family would come as well if the kermis was close by. It is likely that these were Eddy Merckx's first encounters with cycle racing.
One day, as they stood in the shop door, Eddy said to Guillaume – who was only ten years older than him – 'moi, je vais faire coureur– I'm going to be a bike racer too.' Michiels laughs as he remembers it, at his own reaction rather than the youth's words. 'I said "le foitie"' – this is something he cannot translate from Bruxellois dialect, but it relates to corpulence – '"in five years you won't get through that door, Eddy, given how fat you are".' Ten, fifteen, twenty years later, they would joke about the exchange as Michiels drove Eddy from race to race, the small plump boy now the greatest cyclist the world had ever seen.
Even now, Woluwe is a curious mix of suburbia with hints of deep countryside. The villas and semi-detached houses cluster close together on the gentle slope, where the British Army placed an anti-aircraft battery after retaking the Belgian capital in 1944. The little suburb's centre with its avenue, vast Catholic church and its school is just over the crest of the hill. The great triumphal arch that marks the road to Brussels stands in one direction. Down the other way lies the deep forest that used to surround the Belgian capital. Just a few streets below where the Merckx family made their home above their grocery shop on Place des Bouvreuils, the vast old trees survive in thick knots now broken up with roads, parkland, new housing, motorways and business parks.
From his eighth-floor flat in Woluwe, Michiels paints a bucolic if hard-working picture of life in the Brussels suburb in the late 1940s and 1950s. The community is only a few kilometres to the south-east of the centre of Brussels, but in those days it had not quite been subsumed into the capital. Where there are now ranks of apartment blocks and houses, there were fields with peasants growing strawberries and beetroot and tending cattle. Children could be sent out to play in perfect safety. It was quite a contrast with what Jules and Jenny had experienced not long before they moved here with their one-year-old son in 1946. The greatest cyclist in the word was brought up in a very green suburb but he had been born in a community that had been ripped to shreds by atrocities of a ferocity and scale that are now barely imaginable.
Meensel-Kiezegem is a pair of small villages of some five hundred people fifty kilometres south-east of Brussels, in the peaceful rural heart of Flemish Brabant. It amounts to two little huddles of brick-built houses less than a mile apart on the top of a gently rolling hill. There have been many Merckxs in Kiezegem, the smaller of the two hamlets. Along with the name Pittomvils, Merckx is the most common on the stones in the small graveyard next to the brick-built church close to the road junction at the heart of the hamlet. One particular branch of the Merckx family, Rémy, his wife and their children, lived in no. 4 Kerkstraat, right next to the church at the crossroads where the lines of houses converge. When war came and the Germans marched through Belgium, Rémy Merckx's family, and another landowner, Félix Broos, sided with the occupiers. Gaston Merckx, the third oldest of the sons, was a member of Vlaamse Wacht, a Flemish paramilitary organisation sympathetic to the Nazis.
By July 1944 the tide had turned in favour of the Allies and the resistance became more confident, more open in its actions. There was the occasional 'liquidation' of a collaborator: these were isolated events, not always followed up by the Germans and their local allies, but in Meensel-Kiezegem it was different. On 30 July 1944, as he was walking to the nearby fair at Altenrode, Gaston Merckx was shot dead, a little distance from the village, right at the end of Kerkstraat, where his family lived.
Reprisals from the German SS and the local paramilitaries were swift and deadly. There were two round-ups, on 1 and 11 August, when most of the male population was gathered in the playing field of the school in Meensel. In total ninety-one people, some from outside the villages, but sixty-three from Meensel and fifteen from Kiezegem, were transported to prisons in Leuven and Brussels where they were tortured before seventy-one of them were taken to Germany, mainly to the concentration camp at Neuengamme, near Hamburg. Only eight returned. The detainees were mainly men: a large proportion of the male inhabitants of Meensel in particular was detained, and deported.
Just under ten months later, the man who would make the name Merckx a byword for immense achievement, colossal physical and mental courage and an unstinting work ethic was born into this devastated community. His father, Jules, was a distant cousin of Rémy Merckx. Jules had married Eugénie (Jenny) Pittomvils, a farmer's daughter, on 24 April 1943. Edouard was their first child, born at 29 Tieltstraat on the outskirts of Kiezegem on 17 June 1945. The house is several hundred yards down the hill from the church, the last in the road heading north to the fields and the neighbouring village of Tielt-Winge; the village football pitch lies opposite. The birth was a difficult one; Jenny Merckx was initially assisted by neighbours and a local midwife. When the doctor eventually arrived, he had to use forceps, which left marks on the boy's forehead. He was christened Edouard Louis Joseph; the name Edouard ran in the family.
By the time of his birth, peace had been declared in Europe, but that did not leave Meensel-Kiezegem at peace. This was a small community: every face was known, memories were long where even minor events were concerned. The impact of the events of August 1944 was immense and long-lasting. Jules Merckx, father of young Edouard, appears to have been blameless. He is said to have hidden in a septic tank which fortunately had been cleaned out just before the Germans began searching the village. It can be assumed that if he had had any allegiance to Rémy Merckx and that branch of the Merckx family, he would not have concealed himself.
Guilt or innocence was only one part of the lasting issue, however. Before the Allies appeared Gaston Merckx's three brothers, Maurice, Marcel and Albert, had escaped, most probably to Germany, and no one knew where they were: they were never seen again. There was no immediate closure. There were two waves of reprisals in Meensel-Kiezegem, one following liberation in September 1944, and a second when the few survivors of the round-ups returned to the villages from May 1945.
As in other communities across Europe, there was harassment and violence and destruction of property. Armed men searched houses at dead of night for collaborators who had escaped. In August 1945, one of the handful of men who had survived the concentration camps returned to the village and heard rumours that one of the Merckx brothers might be hiding on a farm owned by a member of the Pittomvils family, Louis. A group of former resistance men gathered by night and burned the place. Louis Pittomvils was shot dead, although he was innocent of any misdeed. The perpetrators were never brought to justice.
Jules, Jenny and young Edouard moved to the Brussels suburbs a year after the war ended. The events of 1944 and 1945 in Meensel-Kiezegem may or may not have played a part in the decision, but they are there in the background nonetheless. The community had been ripped to pieces by the atrocities, and the family had suffered. Two of Jenny's brothers, Petrus and Josef, had been deported to Germany. Josef died in Bergen-Belsen on 14 March 1945. Petrus was a 110-kilo colossus when he left but returned a wraith of just thirty-eight kilos, his legs deeply scarred from beatings by the Gestapo. His doctors said it was better that he did not discuss his experiences. Two other members of the wider Pittomvils family had died in Neuengamme.
In those difficult post-war years, the opportunity to lease the grocer's shop must have been too good to pass up on. Jules had left his family farm to work as a carpenter in the nearby town of Leuven but did not get on with his boss and was unhappy. Jenny's sister had a shop in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht and Jenny went there regularly to help her so she knew what was involved. It was Jenny who heard about the grocer's shop being up for lease; speaking to the writer Stéphane Thirion, she said, 'I wanted something else, for us and our son.' The chance for her son to learn French also mattered. Jules was less enthusiastic, she said, and 'accepted out of love'.
Jenny Merckx was also the driving force behind the running of the shop. It was not far from her sister, and also within reach of Jenny's parents, who remained in Kiezegem: the family returned to visit the farm at weekends. Eddy Merckx himself makes the point that they were warmly welcomed. He raced there at least twice in his early years; once in an event that has never been recorded when he was about twelve, the second a race in his first season, 1961, which he did not finish.
The grocer's shop opened by Jules and Jenny in September 1946 in Place des Bouvreuils, Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, was in a tiny square, barely fifty metres across, well away from the bustle of Woluwe's commercial centre. It lay on the south side of the square, which still boasts a newsagent's in another of the buildings: a small plaque in the traffic island in the middle of the street denotes the fact that Eddy Merckx was brought up here. They had moved a mere fifty kilometres – nowadays a rapid run down the motorway that passes the university town of Leuven – but the Merckx family did more than merely move house: they crossed the language divide, from a Flemish-speaking area, Brabant, to one where French was spoken, leaving the grandparents behind.
Belgium is a linguistic and cultural patchwork, divided between the largely Flemish-speaking north, Flanders, and the French-speaking south, Wallonia, with French-speaking enclaves to the west, Hainaut Occidental, and in the centre, the region around Brussels. It would be inaccurate to say that Walloons and Flandrians are completely separate: during research for this book, I kept meeting couples who were bilingual. The distinction between the various areas is clear, however. Like most Flandrians, Jules spoke only Flemish, although Jenny was fluent in French, having been taught the language by her grandmother. As well as crossing the language divide, they were also crossing a social divide: they were country people in a relatively rich suburb.
The move from Meensel-Kiezegem to Brussels had an important effect on young Edouard's future career, his identity, and the impact he would make on his divided nation. Most fundamentally, the name that is now synonymous with world domination in cycling would probably not have been Eddy. Merckx, with its consonants, is a Dutch name. The contraction of Edouard to Eddy is a customary French nickname. Had he been a pure Flandrian, it would probably have been shortened to Ward.
Had Edouard become Ward rather than Eddy, he would probably still have been a racing cyclist, given that Meensel-Kiezegem had its own champion, the double Paris–Roubaix winner, Georges Claes, who ran a local bike shop and took groups of youngsters from the area out riding on Sundays. That alternative trajectory would have made Merckx another member of a generation of cyclists from Belgium's Flemish-speaking regions that was arguably the most talented produced by a single nation at any time in cycling history. Merckx's contemporaries included stars such as Walter Godefroot, Herman Van Springel, Eric Leman, Roger De Vlaeminck and Freddy Maertens. Ward Merckx might still have turned out to be the strongest of the lot, but he might not have ended up a cycling demi-god. (Continues...)
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