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Top 14 stories of 2014: Riding with Eddy

Logan VonBokel tells the story of hopping in on Eddy Merckx's local group ride and rubbing elbows with legends of the sport

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece, from the June 2014 issue of Velo, as one of our favorite stories of the year.

After three days in Belgium, the Visit Flanders tourism board laid out the following day’s agenda. Our group of American journalists would be going for a bike ride through the hallowed lands of the spring classics. While on much tamer roads than the previous day’s ride, which took us over various parts of the Ronde van Vlaanderen course, today we would be riding with a local cyclist, and a dozen or so of his friends.

The local was Eddy Merckx, and many of his friends were also his former teammates.

I found myself struggling to speak for much of the ride; the cumulative palmares of the group would rival that of a Tour de France peloton and, yes, I was a bit gun shy. The other five journalists and I stayed at the back of the two lines of friends. We stood out like sore thumbs.

Everyone else rode Eddy Merckx bikes of various generations and wore black kits covered in Eddy Merckx logos. We were on loaners, Eddy Merckx EMX-525s, and we didn’t know where the ride was going. We didn’t belong and we felt it, more so than the friends and teammates at the front — they weren’t fazed by our nervous presence.

The pace was brisk, but not fast; it was steady and easy to sit in. We’d been told Merckx was recovering from an injury sustained in a crash on this very group ride a few months earlier, though he didn’t show it. He doesn’t ride uphill much anymore. The roads around his home are mostly flat, and wrap like ribbon around the countryside, much like paved singletrack. After about 10 miles, Merckx, forever the patron, shouted some directions in Flemish and floated back in the group.

Then the group began to rotate. The paceline on the left moved forward, while the right moved backward, like a dual paceline, but the rotations were slower, the pulls longer. This system ensured that you pedaled next to a different person every five to 10 minutes as you inched closer to the front of the group.

I didn’t want to be on the front. I didn’t want to go too fast, or even worse, too slow. As I was sitting second wheel, the rider in front of me started half-wheeling another of the American journos, or perhaps it was the other way around. Regardless of who had half-wheeled whom, the ride started going much faster as the one-upmanship skyrocketed at the front end. Then shouts came from the back; I asked former Molteni team member Karel Rottiers what was being said.

“They’re yelling to slow down, that when you move up there it’ll keep getting faster,” he said. Apparently, the black kit I was wearing was terrifically slimming on this day.

The ride rotated again and I found myself on the front with 1981 Milano-Sanremo winner Alfons “Fons” de Wolf. “We ride for 3k here, and then you rotate over,” he said. I fumbled with my Garmin, changing it to display kilometers as quickly as I could. Then, feeling far too confident, I asked him how far we had until the sprint. I was partially joking, as he still looked like he could best any rider on his home roads.

A few kilometers later, as we came around one of the last turns, I felt a hand on my hip, and panicked, imagining I was doing something wrong. No.

De Wolf shouted at me to go. I was riding next to Merckx at this point, and Merckx said that this was the last little rise, and that it was all downhill back to the brewery. I went nowhere. This wasn’t my ride, and there was no way I was going to open up a town-line sprint. Let me remind you that I was riding next to the Eddy Merckx. The greatest cyclist, ever, without question.

Back at the Palm Brewery, in Londerzeel, we were able to catch the end of E3 Harelbeke. In the conference room of the brewery, the journalists, Merckx, and all of his friends spectated. While we couldn’t understand everything the former teammates said to one another in Flemish, the collective sigh that passed through the room when Belgian national champion Stijn Devolder went from on the attack, to out the back, was one of unmistakable disappointment.