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Bicycle industry folks have Eddy Merckx stories in the way that revelers at the beach have shadows. In the United States there is a select generation of New Jersey citizens who (every single one it seems) had similar meetings with Bruce Springsteen. My Springsteen connection is once removed as my wife, who hails from The Garden State, was almost certainly “there” that one night when The Boss put some quarters in the jukebox and bought a round for the bar. My Merckx story, however, is a matter of fact and one of my fondest memories of business travel. It does not involve a jukebox.
A company meeting was to be held in Nunspeet, in the Netherlands and I traveled in advance of the meeting to attend the 2003 edition of Amstel Gold. I was informed that I would be staying at one of the host hotels for the race. Best of all, they told me excitedly, was that I was staying at an American style hotel. I didn’t want an American experience in Maastricht, but wasn’t about to complain.
An extended day of using every possible mode of transport put me at the front door of the Golden Tulip Apple Park Inn just before dinner, local time. It was during check-in that I discovered the two elements that qualify a lodging establishment as American style. On display in the lobby, next to the bell desk on the right, was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. To the left, an Applebee’s restaurant.
As I walked into the parking lot I was distracted by a station wagon. Damn it, I thought to myself. A quick check of the streets unrolling before me and all I could see was the bright, familiar glow of McDonald’s Golden Arches. Damn it, again.
Hungry and tired, I sulked back to the hotel and walked into the Applebee’s. The restaurant was quiet save for one big group occupying the bar counter and surrounding tables. Clad in matching polo shirts and tracksuits, the group was a mix of young and old men. It was the professional cycling team Davitamon-Lotto and one Eddy Merckx sat amongst the team.
Eddy was there sitting at a Friday night dinner table with his son Axel, also a former Belgian National Champion, who would be competing in Sunday’s race. I knew a few of the riders and staff but only in that way that you nod and smile.
I finished dinner and had a beer as the team began to break out in ones and twos. Not wanting to be the last man standing in the bar I paid my tab and headed toward the elevator. I could only see half of the Harley through the closing doors as a hand interrupted their motion to reopen them. It was Axel. And Eddy.
They were, and still are for that matter, bigger than me, and it was a small elevator for us three. Courteous pleasantries were exchanged. They returned to their own conversation about something compelling and important but it was so easy to see the respect between them, not urgent or nervous. Eddy was there for Axel and not the other way around.
I cracked a smile once I realized they were on the same floor as me. The door opened and, as you might expect, a courtesy duel broke out. You first, no you, no, please I insist… Clearly outnumbered, I exited first and began towards my room with Axel and Eddy drafting tightly in tow. Key in hand I reached my room and as the handle turned I felt a pat on my back. “Good night”, Merckx Senior said to me. I returned the same to both of them, noticing that they were my next-door neighbors. Both of them staying together just as fathers and sons were doing the world over before a big game, show or road trip.
As a young father in 2003 I was inspired by the fact that each man could own such great success on their own terms whilst never allowing it to interrupt the familial affection between them. In a recent interview, Axel said:
"He never pushed me into the sport. And yet at the same time, by his steady example and love for cycling, he communicated the idea that the sport was noble and interesting and that it had value … that despite cycling's difficulty—despite the suffering and dues-paying—there was no better way to spend your time and youth. Why wouldn't I try to emulate him?"
You learn a lot about success by being around the very successful. Most often, it is an unpleasant lesson.
Many years on, I have discovered that Eddy’s definition of success for his son was not founded solely on the day’s race result (Axel went on to finish 37th at Amstel in 2003). What mattered was that his son was earnest and had a passion for his own life. How great for Eddy that they share a similar passion and how impressive for us as fans, too, that he honors Axel’s exploits without comparison to his own. I am further impressed that, over the years, I have personally witnessed Eddy discussing the riding characteristics of the bicycles that carry his name while graciously deflecting the demand that he talk about himself. His spirit is fueled by a delight for bicycling, for the sport, for the business of bicycles and for a family that extends far beyond direct genealogy. For a man who absolutely had to win while racing, I see Eddy Merckx through my own experience as a man who does not address life in absolute terms.
Hennie Stamsnijder, 1983 CX World Champion and my counterpart at the European office, once told me that adults shouldn’t have heroes. But that night, in my room, I couldn’t help think Eddy was resting just a wall’s width away with his son. In that way, just being a dad, I thought he was heroic.
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