Belgium has a face and it is Eddy Merckx.
The 2019 Tour de France Grand Depart festivities in Brussels, Belgium, have brought with them iconic images of the cycling legend, from a football field-sized banner at the Brussels Expo Center that you can see from your flight into Brussels airport, to a subway stop simply called Eddy Merckx. The man himself wandered the team paddock during stages one and two, and it was easy to track him when he did: If the fans went mad, you could narrow it down to Merckx or Peter Sagan. No other legends come close to the enthusiasm the two garner.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the coolest bike I spotted at the Tour de France so far was also emblazoned both with Merckx’s famous name and unmistakable visage. It was easy to spot: thin tubes, blaze orange paint, the famous name, and a man standing behind it wearing one of the most recognizable jerseys in all of cycling. Molteni.
“I bought it used from an Italian collector,” says Kristian Blume, the bike’s owner. And it’s in near-pristine condition, with almost flawless paint and plenty of original spec components. The wheels, he says, are not original, since he was actually out riding the bike. Training wheels would have to suffice for the Tour.
Blume is from Denmark, and while there are plenty of Danes having impressive starts to the 2019 Tour de France, Blume might have cause to beam the most. “I got it signed yesterday,” Blume says, pointing to a black scrawl on the top tube near the seatpost.
The signature wanders a bit — it must be difficult to append one’s name to a round metal tube, something most of us will never experiment with — but it is unmistakable, like the face of its executor: E. Merckx. It appears Blume has wisely covered the signature over with protective film. How tragic it would be to rub that scrawl off with the inside of one’s leg, perhaps in a Belgian rain storm.
Once you get past the initial awe of the bike, with the famous signature created by legendary hands, the details start to command your eyes to them. Look at the fluted seatpost, or the sleek, shiny stem with another famous name — Colnago — stamped into it. Ernesto Colnago’s surname appears on the frame more than Merckx’s, in fact, and rightfully so, since it was Ernesto who designed the frame for Merckx so long ago. Two icons, joined in orange by ornate lugs.
The downtube shifters invite you to turn them, stretching the cable and activating the derailleur over a set of cogs paltry by today’s standards, and in the back of your head it’s all but impossible not to marvel at the sheer power those riders must have been pumping out to conquer the cobbles and cols throughout Europe.
And with Merckx’s face on the head tube and the seat tube, it seems right — almost divine — that he should come across Blume and his Molteni jersey, his Merckx-branded Colnago bike, and have a moment to sign his name to a piece of history that had found its way to Brussels by way of Denmark, and further by way of Italy, and who knows where before that.
Superbikes surround us. Each racer’s bike costs the same as a no-frills car. Every tube shape is optimized to take the wind’s power, every bit of friction finds itself lubed or minimized. Saddles feature carbon and cutouts and featherweight materials. Even tires are no longer just rubber that separates wheel from pavement. In the age of optimization, the beauty of bikes lies in the effort it takes to make the ride effortless.
The Merckx Colnago all but screams for attention because it stands so starkly juxtaposed from today’s best. Yet its DNA has spread throughout the team paddock over the years, everything borne from this orange piece of art leaning against the barriers that separate the fans from the superhumans. Without thin steel tubes and lugs, we don’t have carbon. Without leather saddles with steel rails, we don’t have featherweight seats made from synthetics, padding, and cutouts that sell open air. Without tubular tires, without brake hoods, without fork crowns, without rim brakes — without the beauty of the original, we never get the perfect iterations of the modern.
All of that romance sweeps through fellow fans as they take in the bright orange Colnago. I am swept into it, too, compelled to take photos and chat with the bike’s owner, to bond over a shared sense of awe not only of the bike’s namesakes but also of the feats we are about to witness here in Brussels in 2019. It is all so perfect, our sport, in a moment when we’re allowed to reflect on the beauty of it all rather than the stains and warts of its past and present. And all it took was a bit of steel, and a Sharpie marker to make the collective greater than just a bit of steel.