It was a few years ago now and the second time I’d been up the Atomium building in central Brussels and not found any chips at the top. I know the Belgians like a dollop of mayonnaise on theirs but I feel there’s only one rule with chips…Enough chips. Except in Belgium perhaps there ought be another – The chip shop must not close before the venue. It’s perhaps the French side of Belgium letting their fat fryers switch off early because their owners are a bit tired, but twice I climbed up this architectural structure to eat chips at the cafe and twice came away hungry, all be it with some tourist tat.
It’s quite a destination in the respect that as a museum of sorts, filled with displays of times and designs past, you get the feeling that you really have been teleported into a 50s sci-fi film with each new 45degree escalator you step onto, heading up into the mothership. Built for the 1958 World’s Fair it’s about as literally futurist a shape as architecture gets, and yet it’s so of that post war 50’s hopeful white heat of the future feeling it’s almost frozen as a bold statement of a time that passed before it grew up.
So the first time I visited the Atomium we came for lunch and left with a snow globe. This time it was for a joint birthday bash with two of Belgium’s X-Men, Merckx and Ickx.
As with most sports, there are plenty of names that need no introduction in cycling. Though my Tour de France awareness began with the names Millar, Roche, Lemond and Fignon, the name Merckx reigns over all in recognition. He is perhaps the Pele of his profession. His playing field – the Alpine climbs and the banked wooden velodromes of a generation. A name on trophy’s and top tubes alike for years, Merckx was sharing a 70th birthday year with another Mr X of Belgium, legendary racing driver Jacky Ickx. And when you’ve got a back catalogue worth showing off and you have a birthday bash with a fellow countryman and icon, you might as well make it an Expo and wheel in your old hour record bikes and Paris Dakar 959s for drinks.
An Atomium morning became a bike factory afternoon then a party into the night. It was an evolution of a celebration in Martini Racing colours and signed with a Sharpie.
There was a history of a generation in that expo, from the incredible photographs of Ickx shaving in the wing mirror of a Porsche in the middle of an African desert to the image of Merckx stamped into the tongue of a pair of 70s Adidas tennis shoes. These two were spokespersons for an era of sporting heroicism before the age of proper safety precautions and augmented team tactics. It was an age where a rider would hand drill out their bike components to shave a few grams before a race through mountains like the excess metal removed from the nonstructural parts of a racing car.
There was the present unveiling of the first of 70 ltd edition birthday bikes for one of the birthday boys, handed over by historic ally, Valentino Campagnolo and as ever new cycling friends were made and old friendships cemented with shared press gathering stories. But I seem to remember my goal at the time, after image making was buying the expo book of two halves – a blue cover being Ickx and a red one, Merckx. And escaping with them signed. Or at least the red one.
As the clock hands turned and it neared home time, I realised I hadn’t checked that the bookshop was still open. To miss out on chips is one thing, to go home without the scrawl of a legend in your inside cover, quite another. Like the Atomium gift shop, this was the second time I had met Eddy Merckx. My memory of our first fleeting conversation at another birthday party – Campagnolo’s 80th, was of his both having a warm handshake and a Sharpie. It was to be a trait of his still.
My priorities changed instantly from a viewfinder to a book shop queue just in time. And I was tooled up as I tend not to do any job without a little spare duct tape and a marker pen. My moment came in a scene of thirty somethings play acting teen pop star mania but in an orderly queue and with Sharpies.
My book was touched by the hand of Merckx. And he had spelled my name wrong. I was now to be known as Gust. So gutted was Gust that I queued all over again and bought another copy and changed my name to Augustus. I heard later on that it wasn’t wrong as much as the Belgian way you’d say Gus, but I still have Gust on a shelf in case I ever need prove I am someone else in Belgium, where the word of the X men is taken as gospel.