Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx yesterday turned 75 – or as he put it, “three times 25,” receiving birthday greetings from the nation and the world.
As well as visits from close friends at his home in Meise just outside Brussels, Merckx – de rigeur in these corona times – also received messages from cyclist Tom Boonen, national football captain Vincent Company and no less than Prince Albert of Monaco.
His biggest surprise, however, may have been the delegation from VTM and the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, who showed up at his door as arranged, but also accompanied by three old cycling companions of Merckx: Jos De Schoenmaecker (72), Jos Spruyt (77) en Willy Vekemans (75).
Recent months have been tough for Merckx. In October last year he suffered a fall and loss of consciousness which saw him confined to quarters just months before the same fate was to befall everyone in the country.
Admittedly, Merckx’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Brussels must not be the worst place to be confined, but he regularly lamented the effect of the lockdown on today’s cyclists. Under the rules, they were allowed to go out cycling, but not in the fashion they are used to in their training, in peleton-sized numbers.
“I wouldn’t want to have been a cyclist in 2020,” he remarked. “It must have been terrible for athletes.”
Despite the continuing limits on gatherings, Merckx received messages from 75 notables.
From the world of cycling: Sven Nys, Niels Albert, Victor Campenaerts, Roger De Vlaeminck and many more.
From the world of sport: former footballer and manager Johan Boskamp, Kim Clijsters, Kim Gevaert, swimmer Fred Deburghgraeve, José Mourinho and Eden Hazard.
From fans: Arno, Adamo, Guido Belcanto, Walter Grootaers, Helmut Lotti and Will Tura.
And from politics: Herman Van Rompuy and Flemish minister Ban Weyts.
After the celebration, Merckx had plans.
“Depending on the weather, we will take a bike ride with my team mates from the past,” he told the local VRT radio station. “And in the evening we’ll go out for dinner with the children, grandchildren and friends. But not with more than ten people. We still respect the corona measures.”