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Cycling never stops in Belgium.
On 25 June, 1947, a hundred cyclists met in Paris. They were not very well dressed, ungainly, with rings under the eyes and a stubble. Adventure was in the air. They were a hundred cyclists destined to make history.
It was the first time that the Tour the France was taking place after its last edition in 1939, just before the Second World War started, freezing civil life in Europe for almost a decade. The Tour did not escape this catastrophe and that morning of 25 June meant that the best race made life start again after eight years. The Tour was back.
Those men were facing a Dantesque race, in a half-collapsed country which was still healing the wounds of what many saw as a full-scale war. The winner was Jean Robic, whose helmet won him the nickname of Tête de cuir (leather-head). Robic was a French agonistic angel who made impossible efforts and who would lead future cycling stars.
In the sixth place and winner of a stage, a dreadful time-trial of more than 130 kilometres that left him exhausted just before getting to Paris was Raymond Impanis. He could have done better and even if that sixth place made many people happy, he was not satisfied. He was only 21, but wanted much more.
Impanis was fed up with his mentors, the ideologues of the Belgian jersey, which was pitch-black, an aesthetically correct garment that was too hot for the French summer. Impanis did not like black, it was too warm to wear, so he approached the Federation and said he wanted another colour, a light garment which made the harsh sun easier to stand.
The sky blue Belgian jersey was born…
The first design was just a sky-blue jersey with the Belgian flag in the chest:
The black was the colour of the armour.
The yellow was for the head of the lion on the coat of arms.
And the red, for the tongue and the claws of the Flemish lion.
At first it was horizontal, in reference to the Duchy of Brabant’s flag, then, following French lines, it changed to three vertical stripes.
The Belgian jersey has been worn in thousands of races, some of them very famous, others, shameful. The Road Cycling World Championship, Barcelona, Monjuïc, which made many important teams to split. The Italian team, because Gianni Motta, the greatest domestic rival of Felice Gimondi, is not there, absolute leader of the Azzurra. The Belgium team because there are unsettled issues between its two main names: Eddy Meckx and Freddy Maertens.
Unlike the Italians, the Belgians bring everyone. A big mistake. The inertia of the course makes a top quartet: the above-mentioned Gimondi, Luis Ocaña and two Belgians. Which ones? Maertens and Merckx.
And disaster strikes, the unsettled issues between both stars move to the road. When they are 60 kilometres from the finishing line Merckx wreaks havoc, and sets up the group of four. They help each other and hold a lead of two minutes. But in the final stretch Gimondi opens a gap and Maertens needs to go after him, but Merckx is not up to it.
Even if Freddy is quicker, his teammate does not help him. They wear the same jersey, but they are unable to agree. However, Maertens tries to catch Gimondi, but he has a smaller crown, a thirteen, which he uses to finish the race and become the world champion. Maertens is second, downcast, betrayed. He won’t talk again to Eddy for many years.
The sky-blue jersey is always at the fore, it never rests, like cycling in Belgium. In Spring is time to hit the road in Flanders and the heights in Wallonia. In Autumn, the cyclocross wakes up, a great mud adventure where skilled riders such as De Vlaeminck, Liboton and Nys made this frail modality great.
World championship afternoons, whether in Flanders, in the Netherlands, in Louisville, are always full of sky blue jerseys, three, four, five at the front, up and down, going up stairs, jumping boards without getting off the bike, making the crowd crazy. Four, five or six sky blue jerseys in the top ten.
But there is more, Ghent is a party those days with the Six-Days race in its legendary Kuipke indoor velodrome, celebrated since 1965. It is a place where the biggest names in cycling have made history: the above-mentioned Eddy Merckx, but also Patrick Sercu, who is believed to be the best racer of all times.
The Kuipke velodrome has 167 meters, so six tours are needed to do a kilometre, is a stadium that takes us back to the greatness of the six days, the belle epoque times of the 20s which are still alive almost a hundred years later. This is thanks to the enduring Belgian esteem for cycling, one of those circular loves. Such as the day when the sun never sets, as Albert Einstein said, so that the bike never stops moving.
Transparent by El Cuaderno de JoanSeguidor (Iván Vega)