My Saturday in Hell: Meeting Julien

 

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A new symptom—coughing—was developing. I coughed a bit during the night, but after I woke up, it got worse. My throat was on fire and I had to blow my nose almost constantly. Breakfast went as usual. I ate as much as I could and downed all the orange juice and chopped fruit salad in the hope that a boost of vitamin C might cure me of my ills. 

I was to meet André Delagrense early at his home in Gent. André had sole me my Juline Stevens frame, as well as various other vintage parts. From there, we’d drive to Julien Stevens’ home and visit with him for a short time before he left to go to the Brabantse Pijl race. I had no clue what André had in store for me after that. I figured if we finished early, I’d come home and go for a ride, or, as seemed more likely, take a nap. If I felt okay, but not well enough to ride, I might visit another cycling museum or go to the In Vrede Café and abbey for what is considered the best beer in the world, Trappist Westvleteren. 

It was still overcast and grey and it was spitting rain. The drive to Gent was easy, but getting to André’s house was an interesting experiment in European urban driving. I had driven in Gent before, but apparently in a completely different area. It had been simple and traffic was light. André, however, lives in what I’d call downtown. The narrow roads followed zig-zagging routes probably established 500 or more years ago when donkeys were the favored form of transportation. At every turn, Apple Maps led me down a road that was smaller than the last. I followed a descending Fibonacci sequence of spirals deep into one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, ultimately finding myself in a single-lane alley with a dead end. 

André’s house was the fourth or fifth one in. Luckily, there was a spot where I could temporarily park in front of his garage door. Almost as soon as I got out my car, he stepped into the alley to greet me. He said we should go right away and asked if I wanted to drive or if he should. I offered and as soon as I finished using his bathroom, we were on our way. Getting out of his neighborhood was a lot easier with him as my navigator. 

Julien Stevens lives in a small town some 30 or so minutes from Gent. Like all the neighborhoods I’d seen in Flanders, his was quiet and well kept. Steven lives in a small brick home perched on a perfectly manicured lawn, typical of Flanders. 

We parked in the driveway and knocked on his side door. When he appeared at the door he looked as if he’d been napping. His hair was mussed and a he had a groggy hue over his face. He was wearing a black fleece jacket embroidered with the Continental Tires logos and faded blue jeans. Sensible, black, leather shoes finished his ensemble. 

I recognized him immediately. I had, of course, seen many photos of him as a racer, but also more recent images of him online. He has several very distinct features. His severely curved nose, that I can only assume was broken when he was young, looks as if it was painted on by Picasso—it’s almost in profile when you look him straight on. And he has an slant to the left side of his face, making it look as though the features there had dropped a centimeter or so over the years. 

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Julien Stevens and our Dreher/Brooklyn Gios.

He and I are about the same height—5’8″—which makes sense as his bike is an excellent fit for me, although these days I think I like a slightly higher top tube (in other words, a longer seat tube and taller head tube). His large, beefy hands were surprising.

Stevens is well known in Belgium among cycling fans, but not so well known elsewhere. If he were racing today, however, with the wide range of cycling media worldwide and 24-hour coverage of cycling, his palmares would certainly make him know to fans around the world. A strong sprinter and track racer, his role throughout much of his 14-year career he raced on legendary teams such as Faema, Molteni, Dreher and Brooklyn where he often rode for Belgian greats like Eddy Merckx, Patrick Sercu and Roger De Vlaeminck. 

Among his palmares, Stevens placed second at the 1968 UCI professional road World Championships in Zolder, losing by less than a centimeter to Dutchman Harm Ottenbrus, he said. He was also the Belgian national road champion that year. He wore the race leader’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 1969 after he won the second stage into Maastricht. He finished as high as 20th at Paris-Roubiax, 4 minutes, 40 seconds behind Dreher teammate Roger De Vlaeminck in 1972—the first year he raced on Gilard-built frames, one of which was mine. He also won a number of Six Days and held a number of national championship titles on the track.  

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Julien Stevens wore the race leader’s yellow jersey at the Tour de France in 1969 after he won the second stage into Maastricht.

I have met and talked to Merckx a couple times and I’ve met other legends from Stevens’ era—Fiorenzo Magni, Vittorio Adorni, Felice Gimondi, Francesco Moser, Giovanni Battaglin and others. I also did a sit-down interview with Greg LeMond once. But for some reason, I was extra excited to meet Stevens. It had been years since I met a pro from his era and many of those meetings were in group settings at a press event or a factory tour. My excitement over meeting Stevens was due to the fact that he was the only racer with whom I had a connection—a bike I ride regularly and the bike I had just ridden at the Paris-Roubaix Challenge. We also were meeting one-on-one at his home, which I found particularly interesting. 

Speaking in Flemish (Dutch) André introduced me to Stevens, telling him I was from the United States and owned one of his old bikes from the Brooklyn team. He was listening with his head down and eyes looking at nothing in particular on the ground. I saw his eyebrows raise slightly when André told him I had just ridden the Paris-Roubaix course on his old bike. He chuckled, looked up at me and said in English, “Crazy. You’re crazy.”

He stepped outside and André showed him my bike, which I had brought along. The two men continued to speak in their native tongue as I tried to glean what I could from their conversation using my beginner’s level Dutch. As Stevens looked at my bike, I heard him say the name “Lupo,” the nickname of Umberto Mascheroni, the Dreher and Brooklyn mechanic who commissioned Luigi Gilardi to build the frame, followed by a phrase or two I couldn’t make out. Then, I heard him say, “That was a good bike,” as he studied my build. The look on his face made me believe a rush of fond memories filled his head. He then pointed out that I ran my brakes backward, with the front controlled by the right lever. 

The two seventy-something men continued to talk. I could make out some of it, but very little. At times, André would translate something Stevens said for me or parle one of my questions. Other times I could tell they were talking about something else, like his plans to watch Brabantse Pijl later on. 

Through André, Stevens asked me if I rode the full Paris-Roubaix route. I told him the route I did was 109 miles/175 kilometers, but covered all 29 sectors. He told me that when he raced Paris Roubaix in the 1960s, the start was still in Paris, making it some 280 kilometers long. He said back then there were more cobbled sections and they were longer. One section, he said, was 18 kilometers long. I can’t even imagine how painful bouncing over a cobbled road for some 30 minutes (at my pace) would be. 

A neighbor and friend of Stevens’ stopped by on his bike while we chatted. While the three men conversed, I made a futile effort to listen in. Occasionally, André would tell me what they were talking about or ask me a question. When the neighbor left, I took a few photos of Stevens with my bike and André took some with me. At one point, Stevens signaled to me to wait as he went into his house to get something for me. He returned with a plastic bag and in it, a number of old Record brake pads and pre-CPSC brake pad holders. He handed me the bag and said I could have them. 

André explained to me that Stevens had been race team mechanic after he retired from racing. He said he had a garage full of old parts and tools, but when he moved to his current house, he took it all to the dump for recycling. It was a story I would hear several more times before I left Belgium. I couldn’t help but wonder if he he still had a collection of trophies and jerseys. I had hoped we’d be invited into his home and I’d see the odd dust-covered trophy or other mementos from his career. 

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We stayed for about 30 minutes total. It was a real pleasure to meet Stevens and show him his old bike. I hope he also enjoyed it. 

On the drive back to Gent, André asked me if I’d like to see the Gent Velodrome. I assumed he meant the place where the six days were held, and eagerly said yes. When we pulled into the parking lot, André explained to me that the velodrome was new and well funded and was not the home of the old six day track. We went inside and walked around. He showed me where he sometimes works as a volunteer mechanic and we looked at the track itself. On the infield were a a variety of courts for other sports like handball, some of which were in use. 

As we left the beautiful facility, André said we could go to the six day track, which was closed, but if we got lucky we might be able to get us inside. I thought it was a risk worth taking, so we headed that way. 

The Kuipke velodrome is part of Citadelpark and is housed in a building opened in 1965 after the original 1927 building burned down in 1962. André instructed me to park the car behind the building. We checked a couple of locked doors before walking to the main entrance. The doors also were locked, but we could see a workman inside. André knocked on the door and motioned to the man when he looked up at us. He cracked the door and the two men spoke. I heard André drop a name, to which the man said something that led me to believe the man was on the premises. The workman held the door open for us and we went in. 

André was intimately familiar with the building. He pointed out things of interest, while I was trying to get a look at the famous track through the open doors we were passing as we walked through the building. Eventually, we went inside the arena. 

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The Kuipke velodrome’s tight track with its steeply banked turns has hosted many great Six Day races, including one won by Julien Stevens and Patrick Sercu in 1972.

Although the track was mostly covered with black curtains, I was able to get a good feel for it. Its steeply banked walls were mind blowing. And at only 167 meters in length, the track was ridiculously tiny. I tried to imagine Merckx and Sercu, even Stevens who won the Gent Six Day with Sercu in 1972, ripping around the track while fans ate dinner and drank on the infield of the track. 

I snapped a few photos while André spoke with the man he had asked about at the front door. He was general manager of the place and was overseeing some new construction. After a short visit, we went on our way, André continuing to fill me in on Kuipke trivia and the building’s history. A connected building was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, he told me. Its arching steel roof and support system were easily recognized as a relative to the famous Parisian tower name after the French engineer.

We drove across Gent and back to André’s house, an apartment in a building built before the United States existed. There, he showed me some of his recent cycling purchases—a pile of Campagnolo wheels he got from a race team mechanic, a bike he hoped to sell soon, more wheels. We settled into his second-floor man cave where he had a beer or two and I drank a coffee. We talked bikes and bike racing for a half hour or so until his girlfriend called to remind him he was having lunch with her and her mother. 

Before I left, I bought a Campagnolo Nuovo Record headset still in the box and André gave me a few cycling gifts. I gave him one of my 1973 Milano-San Remo RDV T-shirts. 

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Escaping the city was easier than it had been to get in and I was back in Aarsele in short order. All day, I had been getting sicker. It was good to be back at the AirBnB where I could rest. I made a sandwich with leftovers from breakfast and watched Brabantse Pijl on television before dozing off for a nap. 

When I woke up, I felt a panic. “Fuck! I’m wasting my limited time here in Belgium!” I thought. “I need to get up and do something.” I considered about my options—The Koers Museum, the Abbey, go for a ride…

Not feeling up to doing anything too strenuous or complicated, I decided that casually wandering through a museum and looking at bikes and cycling ephemera was the best bet. A quick look at the Koers website told me I had about two hours to get there and through the museum. If I left right then, I should have about an hour, I guestimated, to view the exhibits. I got dressed, grabbed my backpack and hit the road. 

The drive was supposed to be 30 minutes, but took closer to 45. I had to circle the block three times before I spotted the museum—twice, I missed a right turn down a tiny street. I found parking about four blocks away, purchased a parking ticket and jogged to the museum. Inside, I found a stark, modern, echoey space with high ceilings. Two women were seated at the counters. Adjacent to them was a spartan gift shop consisting mostly of books and postcards. 

I purchased a ticket and the woman at the cash register let me know the museum would be closing in an hour. I told her I understood. She then gave me a detailed description of the museum’s various galleries and floors and handed me a map and brochure. I headed in.

I throughly enjoyed the museum and wished I’d had given myself a little more time there. Still, I was able to see all I had hoped and wasn’t too rushed. (See story about my museum visits here.) 

I exited the museum just before 5 p.m. and was feeling a little peckish. On my walk back to my car, I checked out several restaurants along the way where I thought I might grab a snack or even dinner, but everything was closed. This was becoming a regular thing. I decided I’d drive home, look for something along the way and, if I found nothing open or appealing, stop at Joke Frituur. 

At Joke, I was the first customer of the evening. The parking lot wasn’t striped and there were no indicators where to park, so I chose a spot near the front door and off to the side that I thought would give people plenty of space to park around me. Inside, I ordered the same meal as I had a few days prior, but went for the kids-size frites. Brabantse Pijl was on the television while I ate. I love Belgium, I thought.

After I ate, I found my car pinned in. In my mind, there were all sorts of other places to park that wouldn’t block me or the two cars that followed my lead and parked next to me. Apparently, the driver of the black wagon had a different opinion.

I panicked a little. Was I going to have to go inside and go form table to table asking all the customers if their car was the one blocking me? I’m not a fan of that sort of confrontation when it’s in my own language. Doing it in a foreign language would be a nightmare. Before I left, I noted that most of the new customers were waiting for to-go orders. I decided I’d just wait in the car until the car’s owner left, hopefully sooner than later. 

After ten minutes of waiting and two other customers leaving in different cars, I went inside. The owner saw me looking around the restaurant and somehow figured out why I was back. She asked a customer if it was his car and he, somewhat reluctantly, got up and went outside to move it. She then told me I should have parked in a different place. How I was supposed to know that, I’m not sure. I nodded and went to my car. 

Back at the house, I became very aware of just how sick I was getting. I had little in the way of medicines other than a few NyQuil capsules. I walked to a nearby pharmacy to see if they might have something to soothe my sore throat. The pharmacist on duty spoke English and was very helpful. She recommended some strong throat lozenges with lidocaine. At 15 euros they weren’t cheap, but I was desperate and needed something to ease the discomfort. Lidocaine sounded like it would work. I popped one into my mouth for the all back home. It was good. 

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Back in my room, I drank a large bottle of water and finished off a bottle of orange juice before I popped two NyQuil capsules, shot some Afrin up my nose and climbed into bed. I was tired, but found falling asleep difficult. I watched more cycling and then a run of bad American television shows and movies before I finally differ off to sleep around midnight. Congestion and coughing woke me around 3 a.m. From then on, unable to breath freely and violently coughing, I tossed and turned until my alarm went off at 7. 

I got up, took a hot bath and referred to Apple Maps to check the travel time to Serskamp, where my friend David Verbekem lives. He and I had arranged to meet and visit Jan Goeman at his shop in Everberg to look at his bike collection. I was really looking forward to meeting David and seeing Goeman’s private collection, which David told me included some Splendor bikes and at least one Claude Criquielion bike. As sick as I was, I was still excited about the day’s plan. 

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