So, Monday was another day of rest and recovery from the beating that we all incurred on the pave of Northern France - with hands still slightly sore, we all started the day with another delicious, European breakfast. The mornings have been bright and beautiful - the cottage has a good number of large windows looking out over the Belgian farmland just outside of Westouter. We're also just 3km from Kemmel - a place where another famous race, Gent-Wevelgem, a semi-spring classic, takes place, flying up and down a cobbled hill called the Kemmelberg. As I mentioned before, Belgium doesn't have a great deal of hills, but the hills that they do have are treated with great respect, and anytime one rides their bike up a hill in Belgium, it's a sure sign of respect.
Anyhow, back on track...the breakfast was another doozy! Pastries and the like - same menu, but one of which I'm sure I'll never tire. After the usual chitchat and coffee, we piled into the van and Alex's car and drove out to Zelik, Belgium, just outside of Brussels to visit the Eddy Merckx factory. Eddy Merckx bicycles moved to a new location in more of a urban area from the older, more rural location that it called home for years - since it's inception in the late 70's actually. The new location is totally modern and quite close to Brussels, which I'm sure gives them a more efficient spot shipping-wise. It was a 130 km drive, so we had a nice tour of the countryside as we approached Brussels, chewing the fat along the way. The Velominati guys like to affectionately refer to Eddy Merckx (cycling's greatest, most winningest legend) as "The Prophet." Funny - just goes to show the passion these guys carry around with them each day.
The factory was interesting - pretty much sure that they didn't show us everything, but what they did show us was still quite interesting. Since all of the Merckx frames are made overseas in Asia now, the headquarters has become more of an assembly spot for Europe and the U.S. Actually, mostly Europe, really. So, we got a very good look at hundreds upon hundreds of bike boxes all filled with bikes ready for delivery to GITA Sporting Goods in the U.S. as well as other distributors in closer proximities. GITA has done an outstanding job in promoting the brand in the U.S., and I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to work with Nick Good at GITA. I thought of them often as I wandered around the place. Our tour guide briefly explained the Merckx line of bikes in a show room and then took us downstairs where a couple mechanics were assembling a few bikes as well as a collection of painters were masking and painting frames. Merckx does offer to paint older framesets as well, so we did see some ol'gems hanging up, waiting to get some fresh color again. Merckx also still had a few older jigs and other tools that were certainly used more during the factory's in-house building days. I'm proud to say that my old Corsa Extra was made by hand in the old Merckx factory back in the late 80's. They mostly use the jigs now for those very rare custom frames that are requested of them every now and then - even then, those are only done in aluminum or sometimes steel. It was a small crew and no, unfortunately, Eddy was not around when we were there - we were told that yes, he does show up to work every now and then. He recently sold his majority shares in the company and still has just a small percentage to continue representing his name - his iconic name, that is.
The green and yellow bike was painted for Sylvan Chavanel, who wore both the yellow and green jerseys for the Belgian cycling team, Quick-Step, in the 2010 Tour de France. The black matted frames that you see are EMX-7's, Merckx's top end carbon race bike. That's how they describe road bikes here, as "carbon race bikes." Many of his bikes come equipped with Fast Forward wheelsets, so they had a truckload of them hanging out on the assembly floor, plus the TopSport Cycling Team rides the wheels as well.
After the factory tour, we headed into Brussels for a little sight-seeing and a quick lunch. Alex and William wanted to take us to one of their Malteni Beer clients, a bar near the town center. The Walvis, which means "whale" is this funky joint at the corner of the block, is in a slightly sketchy part of downtown, but promotes live music and serves up a delicious array of lasagna! I had the spinach. Duval is on tap and Malteni is in bottles. Following lunch, we said good-bye to Chris, an Australian-turned-Brit who works for a TV station in Abu Dhabi, and Mark, an American who works as a manager for a very large factory-type company in Switzerland. I rode into town with Chris, who shared with me his love of war history - specifically WWI history. Perfect considering the country we were traversing! As expected, Chris like many other Europeans have a pretty solid appreciation and knowledge of war history - appropriate considering they live in the thick of where it all took place.
We took a nice tool around the more touristy part of Brussels, where Jeff and I wandered just this past Friday. Except this time, my camera has more juice in the battery, so the photos were plentiful. I love the architecture of Brussels - I know I've already raved about it, but I can't get enough of the gothic mixed in with the modern stuff. It's extraordinary - such detail and so old! I love how one of the churches made great use of space by allowing businesses to be built right up along both sides of the church. The streets are so narrow at times - no cars allowed on many of the streets - just wandering locals and tourists. It was grand. The time snuck up on us and we then all agreed to get home quick for a chance to get back on our bikes and see how we all felt, post-Roubaix - 2 to 3 hours spin up and around the Kemmelberg...twice. I was beginning to recognize the humor of William and Alex. William, mostly as his competitive, Irish tendencies seem to keep him moving a hundred miles a second - us included! He and Alex have been such gracious hosts! I cannot believe all that they have put together - really, the best trip you could possibly imagine as a cycling fan. They have such generous, genuine personalities as well...I can't express my sincere gratitude enough, really.
On the way home, we had to make a pit-stop at a bike shop to get a replacement post for Mark's BMC - the one that got gobbled up by the pave, as you may remember? Nice shop - plumb full of stuff! I've never seen so much in such a small spot, really. Many brands and a lot of parts and accessories. The shops here have a very roadie perspective - the road bike is definitely "king" here. Although, they did have plenty of commuter bikes and a few mtn bikes - mostly hardtails. Pinarello, Museeuw, Ridley, Colnago, and Wilier were a few of the brands on display. They also had any ProTour team kit that you could imagine hanging on the racks! Very cool. We didn't spend too much time there as William wanted to get us back for the ride asap. I have to give him credit - he got us all out of there in 15 minutes stat - all of us drooling fools who wanted to just wander and check everything out for hours! As soon as we made it back, we all suited up and took to the Belgian countryside with our machines. A couple of the guys had work to do or weren't feeling so hot, but the majority were all for a ride. William and Alex took us up and around Kemmel - they were trying to figure out a route to take Johan Museeuw for his visit the following day.
Let me tell you, the Belgian countryside is so unbelievably gorgeous - even more so by bike! I know I've typed this or something similar before, but I just can't get over how incredible inspiring it is to ride through these small towns and along little, narrow farm roads, eventually finding the climbs. One climb is actually in the French Flanders region, taking us to this old monastery village called Mont des Cats, or Katsburg. They don't make beer here, but rather, cheese since 1890 using the milk of local farms, much like the farm next to our cottage in Westouter. It's a common breakfast cheese. The road takes you right up to the front door of the church that overlooks a deep, long valley. The older of the two churches has been there since 1650, and you can certainly tell from the color and wear of the bricks.
William and Alex continued to lead us along the race route until we finally headed home for some showers and another hearty meal - a delicious quiche. Every one of our meals always concluded with wine and cheese, by the way. Not surprised and certainly appreciated!
The next day was going to be another winner for sure! We are going to visit the National Cycling Museum and then eat and ride with Johan Museeuw!
Thanks, again, for reading and hope you are all doing well?!