"Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride" Eddy Merckx

Exhibition celebrates giants of Belgian sport

Living legends

Eddy Merckx and Jacky Ickx are without doubt Belgium’s most legendary sports heroes. With 525 victories over the course of 12 years on the professional circuit, Flemish road and track cyclist Merckx is the most accomplished rider cycling has ever known. And as six-time winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, eight-time Grand Prix victor and winner of the Dakar rally, Brussels-born racing driver Ickx can look back on one of the longest and richest careers in motorsport.

On the occasion of both men’s 70th birthday, sports publisher Kannibaal and production team Pièce Montée present a spectacular exhibition about their careers.

“It’s important to be the best during the time you’re a professional, but you cannot compare generations,” said Merckx at the opening of the exhibition, modestly downplaying his accomplishments. Ickx agreed: “In any profession, you have to try to do the best you can, and, it’s true, sport is becoming more and more important in today’s world. But we certainly shouldn’t overestimate its significance.”

In stark contrast to this humility, the exhibition speaks only in superlatives. Following a winding parcours, we encounter almost every detail of their professional careers, in pictures, video and original gear from private collections.

“All the bikes Merckx used for his victories in the Italian Giro and the Tour de France are lined up here, as well as his original shirts,” curator Gautier Platteau tells me. “We even got hold of the bike on which he won his first championship for amateurs in 1964. This is a dream come true for cycling fanatics.”

Two years of collecting

Motorsport fans can’t complain either: Undoubtedly more appealing to the eye, the retrospective shows nine authentic cars that played pivotal roles in Ickx’s career. There’s the blue Gulf GT40 he won his first 24 Hours of Le Mans with in 1969, the spiked Ferrari 512S he competed with in 1970 and – his personal favourite – the Porsche Spyder 936 in which he won Le Mans in 1977. Charts specify technical details and maximum speed.

 

Platteau admits that putting together the largest sports exhibition ever held in Europe wasn’t without its headaches. “It took us two years to retrieve and collect the pieces. Most are in the hands of museums and sports fanatics,” he explains.

For instance, “the bike Merckx won his 1964 amateur championship on is in the possession of an oil sheik and had to be shipped over from Qatar,” Platteau continues. “Race cars were brought in from the Porsche museum in Stuttgart and private collections from British and Swiss collectors. In fact, the cars are still sporadically being used for staged historical races.”

Kristien Van Damme, the exhibition’s researcher at Pièce Montée, agrees: “We only managed to get the most exclusive pieces here thanks to international mediation by both men themselves,” she says. “On the other hand, a large number of medals, shirts and cups were found at their homes. It’s unbelievable but true: Merckx’s five Tour de France trophies all lay hidden in his attic. His most famous shirts were in the cupboard.”

Van Daame says that such seemingly prized possessions being hidden away “shows something of the dualism in the mind of a sports hero. They will hesitate to boast about victories, no matter how grand. But they’d rather keep hold of the cups themselves than give them away to collectors. Hence the attic.”

Experience the game

It would be an injustice to say this exhibition is only for sports fans. Not only do we follow the course of the two local heroes’ lives, we also relive the recent history of design, media and photography. Moreover, in side rooms visitors can experience the sounds and adrenaline rushes of real championships.

“You’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to race against Merckx or walk into a vintage F1 pit stop,” Van Damme says. Other rooms feature a 1969 supporters’ cafe – a dip into the smoky atmosphere of long-gone Flanders – and a three-screen video that puts you in the cockpit of a car while speeding and swerving to the tunes of Flemish electro band Goose.

It’s a sketch of two grand personalities, with their similarities and differences

- KRISTIEN VAN DAMME

But the most impressive side room is also the simplest. On a lit pedestal under dim lighting, the “helmet of Jarama” is displayed. “It’s one of our most exclusive pieces,” says Van Damme. “In part melted, the front broken, it’s the one Ickx almost died in after a crash in 1970.”

A small screen shows the accident and an interview from the archives, while luminous walls around the pedestal carry the names of all motorsport casualties since 1964. “Thousands,” Van Damme estimates. “Especially during Ickx’s time: On average one man per race was killed.”

The exhibition ends with a scoop: Renowned Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren has made his first two short films especially for this exhibition. “He crawls into the minds of both men,” says Platteau, “and depicts the one thing that most awes them, the thing that influenced them most.” Merckx describes the unforgivingly steep climb up the Tre Cime mountains in the Dolomites. Ickx guides us through the enchanting Mali desert, where he now spends six months a year.

“What you get is much more than just a sports exhibition,” says Van Damme. “It’s a sketch of two grand personalities, with their similarities and differences. Ickx lives in the desert and regards his career as something from the past. He has started a new life. Merckx is different. By manufacturing and selling his own line of bikes after his career until very recently, he remained closely connected to that world.

“Ickx is the francophone charmer. Merckx is the Flemish cobblestone. I spent eight months researching their lives, and I can tell you: Faced with the extreme vigour they share, you’re inspired to get the maximum out of whatever you’re doing.”

Until 21 June, Trade Mart, Atomiumsquare 1, Brussels

Photos courtesy Uitgeverij Kannibaal; Flanders Today

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Exhibition in Bussels celebrates Eddy Merckx and Jacky Ickx, giants of Flemish sport.