Belgium‘s political and social divisions are well known going back by some historical accounts for more than 2,000 years, emerging out of Roman imperial foreign policy, revolutions in the 16th and 19th centuries, two world wars and evolving economic differences within the country itself.
The 10 political parties vying among each other in the upcoming May 25 elections are an indication of its fractured state of affairs.
But, according to Guido Adriaenssens, who was a trade commissioner in the Belgium consulate general in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, there is one individual who has commanded the loyalty of the entire nation.
That person, he said, during an evening reception of the Belgian American Chamber of the South on April 17, is 68-year-old Eddy Merckx, who is widely acknowledged to have been the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known.
His statistics speak for themselves. After turning professional in 1965, he won the cycling World Championship three times, the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times each and the Vuelta a Espana once.
He also is widely known for breaking the world hour record before retiring in 1978.
Mr. Adriaenssens recalled during the reception at the Atlantic Station law offices of Burr & Forman LLP that in the 1960s and 70s when Mr. Merckx was racing “everything stopped.”
“Belgium stopped because he was in the race,” he told the 35 attendees. He was a unifying force. One person who could unify the whole country.”
As an example of the importance Belgium accorded Mr. Merckx, he cited the press coverage he received upon winning his first Tour de France in 1969, on July 21, the same day that Neil Armstrong was the first person to take a step on the moon.
While newspapers around the world devoted their entire first pages to Mr. Armstrong, who famously said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” the Belgian press included coverage of Mr. Merckx’s accomplishment as well.
No one has come close to matching his total of 525 races in his career, even the U.S. standout Lance Armstrong, who — until last year when the allegations of his drug use proved to be true — was a friend of Mr. Merckx’s.
Aside from being universally feared by all of his competitors and acquiring the nickname “the cannibal” because of his ability to outlast his opposition, his self-effacing ways have won him admirers around the world.
He also faced a number of hardships in his biking career including a crash in 1964 and in 1975 during a Tour de France he was punched in the lower abdomen by a spectator and later broke his jaw in a fall. Although he did not win that race, he competed to the very end nearly coming in at the head of the pack.
Once retired in 1978 at age 33, Mr. Merckx became depressed, but was pulled out of it by Uga De Rosa, founder of a famous line of racing bicycles, who encouraged him to start his own line of racing bikes.
Peter Vanham, the country manager for Eddy Merckx Cycles USA Inc., provided an overview of Mr. Merckx’s career with a series of compelling photographs of his races.
He said that although Mr. De Rosa knew that “he was creating his own competition,” he had such admiration for him that he decided to do so anyway.
The result is the emx-525, which Mr. Vanham praised for its speed and its safety. While the current model costs $5,500 to $12,000, a new less expensive line priced at $3,500 to $5,500 is to be released in August.
Tom Petit, a senior at the Atlanta International School, was the lucky recipient of one of the bikes at the reception where Genevieve Verbeek, the Belgian consul general, congratulated him on his riding accomplishments.
“Tom is the perfect profile for us,” Mr. Vanham told Global Atlanta. “Belgian born; an American rider. He has the merckx attitude to give it your all wherever you are or ride.”
Tom plans to attend Louvain University in Belgium next year where he told Global Atlanta he will continue to compete as a cyclist with the intention of eventually becoming both a lawyer and a sports journalist.
Meanwhile, Mr. Vanham is looking for cycling shops that will carry his merckx lines. He said that southern California, Florida and Colorado were the main centers for cycling in the U.S. at the moment, but that Atlanta is a rapidly growing market as well.