Hidden Belgium: The Belgian obsession

Hidden Belgium: The Belgian obsession
Credit: Belga

Cycle racing is a Belgian obsession. This little country of cobbled roads and steep hills is home to countless famous riders and classic races.

But one name keeps coming up when you talk to Belgians about cycling. Eddy Merckx, they tell you, was the greatest Belgian cyclist. Maybe even the greatest in the world.

Born in the summer of 1945, his parents ran a grocery store in a quiet Brussels suburb. Merckx wanted to be a cyclist from the age of four and spent his summer holidays listening to Tour de France commentary on the radio.

After training on race tracks in Brussels, he won his first race in 1961. Turning professional, he became known as the Cannibal because, the daughter of a rival remarked, he would eat up the competition.

He won 525 races in his career, including the Tour de France five times and the Giro d’Italia four times. In one year alone, he took part in 195 races, ending the season bruised and battered. For a couple of decades in the 1960s and 1970s, he was everywhere. No one could beat him.

Merckx quit racing in 1978, but he remains a Belgian hero. He can sometimes be spotted watching Anderlecht play football, or eating croquettes de crevettes in his favourite Brussels restaurant. His name now appears on a Brussels school, a metro station and a square. But the best monument is his old steel-framed racing bikes displayed in a glass case in Eddy Merckx metro station.

He rode the bike in 1972 when he broke the hour record in Mexico City, cycling 49.4 kilometres in one hour. For the next 12 years, no one beat the record set by the Cannibal. Yet Merckx was always modest about his achievements. He wasn’t interested in fame. He just loved cycling.

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.


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