My Saturday in Hell: Leo’s Place

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Steven, the AirBnB owner, made me a special breakfast of ham and eggs my last day there. His wife, who normally made breakfast, was out of town with their daughter, so he took over the duties. He said Charlotte is the one responsible for the healthy foods like fruits, yogurt and muesli. He is the one who bought the good stuff—the pastries, meats and cheeses and eggs. For my last meal at his beautiful home, he made me scrambled eggs with ham and made a trip to the local bakery to get a fresh supply of delicious pastries. 

Unfortunately, I was really sick and had no appetite. I made an effort, however, and focused on the food I knew he cooked special. I ate about half the eggs and ham, and downed one pastry. 

As was his usual thing, he stopped in to see if I was enjoying my stay. Then, he asked me about my loud music the previous night. (See previous post.) I told him I thought it was him. I recounted my experience trying to locate the source and how I figured out I could turn it off with Sonos. He was as confused as I was by how it got turned on in the first place. He though maybe he had “butt dialed” the app. 

Our conversation then turned to my obvious illness. He asked if I wanted to see a doctor. I did, but I was in a foreign country and was unsure how that worked. I knew the healthcare system in Belgium (and the rest of the world) was very different from here in the U.S., but I had no idea how to access it. He volunteered to find me a doctor and left the room to call around. 

He returned about 5 minutes later and told me I had an appointment in about an hour and half with his doctor, who was located two blocks down the street. He then left me to finish my meal. 

I loaded my car for the trip east to the Netherlands and took a seat in the backyard where I enjoyed the warm sunshine and the birds. It was another beautiful day. Perfect, I’d say. And it was going to be that way all weekend. I was bummed though, because I had serious doubts I’d  be able to ride the Amstel Gold Xperience. Perfect riding weather. But imperfect health. 

I walked to the doctor’s office. The office was nondescript and looked as much like a house as a healthcare provider. If I were to guess, the building was both—his house with the office in front. I went in and took a seat in the waiting room. There was no receptionist or check-in desk like I was used to in the U.S. After about five minutes, the door to the “surgery” opened, a patient walked out and left the office followed by the doctor who invited me back to the exam room. 

In the brightly lit room were the doctor’s large desk, bookcases, cabinets stocked with the usual medical supplies, an examination table, a stool—in other words, it was very familiar and, with the exception fo the desk, exactly like what I’d see in the U.S. The doctor spoke perfect English and greeted me as any doctor would. I took a seat in the chair in front of his desk. He asked me what was wrong and we went through he normal list of questions before he asked to take a seat on the exam table, which he proudly pointed out was made in the U.S.

He listened to my heart and lungs. Took my temperature. Looked in my ears. And concluded that I had a virus of some sort, just as I expected. He said he’d give a prescription and asked if I was familiar with a couple of different drugs. I wasn’t. We returned to his desk where he wrote up the prescription before typing some notes into his computer.

I had been stressing about what this was going to cost. After all, I didn’t have any insurance in Belgium. When the doctor told me it would be 25 euros, I chuckled. He then told me that Steven pays 6 euros,. He explained that since Steven had had cancer (now in remission), he paid a lower rate for healthcare. Why? Because as a cancer survivor it was likely he would need ongoing care in the future. “We have very good social medicine here,” he said. 

I was floored. In the U.S., health insurance companies do the opposite—they punish you for getting sick and jack up your rates and reduce your coverage. 

Steven kindly took my prescription to the pharmacy to get it filled. He retuned with two drugs and told me how to use them. He was very familiar with both. Apparently, they were quite common. He and I chatted about the differences between the U.S. and Belgian healthcare systems—we agreed Belgium’s is better—and how best to get to the highway that would take me across Belgium to the Netherlands.

He walked me to my rental car and continued to tell me which roads to take to the highway. He asked if the car had GPS. I told him it didn’t, but I had been getting by with my malfunctioning TomTom and iPhone. It was then that I looked at the dashboard of the Opel wagon and noticed something new. I pressed a button and up popped a map on the touch screen. Seriously? I had  GPS the whole time? I plugged in the address of the restaurant where I was going to meet Luc and was on my way.

I needed gas, so I stopped the station not far from the AirBnB. Getting gas in Europe is another thing that stresses me out. Why? Because nearly every time I’ve had to do it, I’ve had issues with my credit card. I’ve always mamboed to work it out, but I retain a fear of being on empty and unable to buy gas. Also, I stress a little about accidentally putting diesel into a gasoline car or visa-versa.

This time, in fact, the self-service pumps rejected both my cards. For one, it required a PIN code I had never set, so I had no clue what it was. The other, which had worked previously, was simply rejected. The pumps were located in a lot in front of a restaurant. I went inside to see if I could pay there. The sound man working the counter told me the pumps had nothing to do with his place of employ. He said I had to pay at the pump.

As I was nearly out of gas and was unsure when I’d find another gas station, I gave it another shop. When the pump asked for my PIN, I guessed and tried one I had used years ago. It worked. Hallelujah.

The drive across Belgium, as usual, went smoothly. I hit a little traffic near Brussels, but nothing to complain about. I love driving in Europe where people stay to the right and only use the left lanes to pass. 

When I got to the restaurant—a small sandwich shop—I texted Luc and let him know I was there. He suggested I get something to eat and he’d be there soon. I ordered a tuna melt and a Coke. This was my third Coke in a week and more than I’d consumed over the past two years. 

Luc offered to drive the five miles or so to Leo’s. On the way, he told me Leo wouldn’t be there because that morning he received an invitation from Deceuninck-Quick-Step team CEO Patrick Lefevere to have breakfast in Maastricht, an annual pre-Amstel Gold Race tradition. Leo has had a long relationship with Lefevere and the team as the supplier of roof racks. The relationship has been a boon for Leo’s collection.

Luc said Leo’s wife would be there to let us in and because he and Leo are good friends, he would be allowed to show me around the collection.  

On the way, Luc told me a bit about the local cycling history pointing out buildings that once housed bike factories or a famous pharmacy where riders would visit to collect their “vitamins.” He also filled me in on Leo’s history as a  bike collector. I had heard he got his bikes as payment for supplying roof racks to major bike teams. This was true, in part, but his collecting began before that. And many of his bikes pre-date his rack-making days. 

According to Luc, Leo had been a successful antiques dealer and refinisher with solid fabricating chops. When he saw the roof racks on the team cars he thought he could do a better job and started producing them, offering to trade them for team bikes and jerseys and other memorabilia. Tight on cash and fat with extra bikes, several teams jumped at the chance. It’s well known that many teams sell off surplus new and used components and bikes to supplement their budgets and to pay mechanic’s salaries. Trading bikes for racks is an extension of this tradition.   

Leo also is friends with many of Belgium’s former and current champions, many of whom have gifted him bikes and jerseys. His collection is stuffed with bike ridden by legends dating back the other 1960s. And each year, his collection grows at he adds the bikes of today’s champions, riders such as Tom Boonen, Cadel Evans, Tom Dumoulin, Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, Marianne Vos and many others.

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Leo’s Bike Collection is located in a building adjacent to his home. The building is purpose-built to house his collection. His wife, who like me was suffering with the flu, met us at the side door of their home. She is small in stature with a bright and bubbly demeanor, even when sick. She explained to Luc that Leo was out and she would be our guide. 

Inside, I was struck with the extreme level of professionalism of the private collection. Leo’s is a true museum and incredibly well executed. The level of curation easily rivals, if not surpasses, those of the Flanders and Koers museums I visited earlier in the week. Upon entering the building, visitors stop at a reception desk where a requested donation of 5 euros is collected. From the desk, visitors are given a taste of what they will see inside.

The collection begins in the lobby adjacent to the desk with one of Eddy Merckx’s Ugo De Rosa-built, 1973, Molteni Team bikes. The ubiquitous orange machine is flanked to the right by one each of Merckx’s world champion jerseys and maglia rosa from the Giro d’Italia. Perfectly lit with spot lights, the bike sits in one of Leo’s custom-made bike stands at eye level in front of a slightly bigger-than-life-size image of Merckx at the Tour de France. As with almost all the bikes in the collection, it includes a matching, vintage, Molteni water bottle and race number. 

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In the center of the lobby is a sitting space with two facing leather sofas and a coffee table. I assume this is where the friends and spouses of cycling fans sit and wait when they’re tired or  have had enough of old bikes. An old juke box sits nearby. When I was there, it was silent, but I assume it is used to provide background ambiance during special events. 

The collection is housed out of sight in a connected room off the back of the lobby. The gallery is divided into three sections and is well-lit and entirely white. Dozens of bikes, organized by the decade they were used, sit on the floor behind ropes. Others hang on the walls between old race photos and jerseys. A few head forms wearing helmets and mannequins dressed head-to-toe in vintage team kits break up the bikes. A staircase leading down indicates there is more to the museum than what you see. 

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Leo’s bikes are all displayed on his custom bike stands, which expertly support each bike without obscuring any details or drawing attention away from the machine. The stands, which also feature wheels for easy relocation, are the envy of every bike collector. 

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Leo’s bikes are all displayed on his custom bike stands, which expertly support each bike without obscuring any details or drawing attention away from the machine. The stands, which have wheels for easy relocation, are the envy of every bike collector.

Leo’s attention to detail is something to marvel at. Most of the bikes, the older ones in particular, include bottle cages, bottles, spare tires under the saddle, race numbers and, of course, toe clips and straps. Many of these elements are vintage and accurate to the era of the bike. Luc told me Leo admits to being an obsessive perfectionist. 

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The main criticism of Leo’s collection that I have read is his obsession with making the bike “perfect” or “like-new.” He often highly polishes components—more than they would have been when they were new—and refinishes his frames. For those who prefer original finishes and natural patina, his shiny bikes can be a turnoff. But even these snobs have to admit, his pristine bikes are beautiful and offer much to be appreciated. 

Luc and I started the tour with the steel bikes from the 1950s and 1960s to the right of the entrance and walked down the rows, passing through the decades until we got to the 1980s at the far wall. With each bike I was more amazed at what I was looking at. The brands—Plum, Groene Leeuw, Libertas, Flandria, Mercier, Colnago, Pinarello, Rossin, Bianchi—teams—Mann, Solo-Superia, Flandria, Panasonic-Raleigh, Buckler, Telekom—and riders—Roger Swerts, Georges Claes, Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eric Vanderaerden, Bjarne Riis—represented in rolling steel a who’s-who of post-war professional road cycling through the end of the last century. 

One of the coolest things in Leo’s collection is the gold cobble stone trophy given to Eric Vanderaerden after his mind-boggling 1987 victory at Paris-Roubaix. The trophy consist of a small, gold cube on a gold, stair-stepped platform. It’s displayed inside its original blue velvet-lined, black-leather box. Three doors, one that opens at the top and two that swing in opposite directions in the front, are held closed by two ridiculously large clasps, the kind you find on old suitcases. 

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I also took some time to look at the few jerseys hung on the walls and the fully dressed mannequins. I mentioned to Luc that I was surprised the Roger De Vlaeminck Brooklyn jersey he wore when he won Milano-San Remo in 1973 wasn’t on display. I told him it was one of the things I most had hoped to see. 

On the opposite side of the room, is a spectacular collection of modern and contemporary bikes 

Luc took me downstairs where we were greeted by some of the coolest time trial and pursuit bikes ever used in cycling, among them bikes used by Chris Boardman, Peter Winnen and  Dirk De Wolf. In another area were a handful of cyclocross and track bikes, including a 1979 De Vlaeminck Benotto track bike and a Gios Tornio cyclocross machine ridden by R. Liboton in 1982. These and some of the other odd-ball bikes in the basement were some of my favorites in the collection. 

Back up stairs, we relooked at the bikes and I noticed some I had somehow missed the first time through. One, a beautiful red, yellow and blue Rossin with Campagnolo C-Record identical to one of my dream bikes. We also took some time to admire the Fons De Wolf Gios Torino he raced to victory at the 1981 Milano-San Remo.

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Leo’s wife popped in while we were admiring the pristine blue bike and Luc explained to me that De Wolf is friends with Leo and often visits the museum. I’m not sure what she said to us, but heard Luc mention the De Vlaeminck jersey. Based on her body language, I thought maybe she was going to bring it out for us. Luc didn’t tell me what they talked about. 

We slowly made our way back to the entrance of the museum, discussing the amazing variety of Quick-Step and BMC team bikes and those ridden by Rigoberto Uran, Mark Cavnedish, Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire, Heinrich Hausler and others.  Leo’s collection is impressive and there is something for every fan of road cycling to marvel at. 

Back in the lobby, Leo’s wife was waiting for us. I got the feeling she was ready for us to be on our way. Then, while speaking to Luc, she opened one door on a bank of cabinets on the wall behind the reception desk. Inside were stacked plastic tubs labeled with dates like 1973 and 1975. I was unsure what each contained until she pulled one, labeled 1976, from the shelf and sat in on the desk in front of me. This was Leo’s jersey collection. On the top of the tub was a jersey housed inside a plastic bag and labeled R.DEVAMINK [SIC]  76. Whoa…

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She sat a second then a third tub on the desk in front of me. One was labeled 1974, the other 1972.  She asked Luc what year the jersey I wanted to see was used. Before he could ask me, I answered, “1973.” He relayed the information as he opened the 1972 tub. Luc handed me a Molteni jersey labeled E. Merckx 72. My heart was racing. 

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He held up the jersey as I snapped a few photos. Luc then turned his attention to the 1974 box and pulled out another De Vlaeminck jersey. It was an unusual jersey with a design that combined elements of the second 1973 jersey with the well-known Brooklyn jersey the team used from May 1973-1977. It was dated 1974, however, which I found very confusing. 

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Leo’s wife spotted the 1973 box high up in the cabinet and asked Luc for help retrieving it. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I knew I’d soon be holding Roger’s Milan-San Remo jersey. Luc brought the tub down, set it on the desk and opened it. On top was, much to his and my surprise, was a Brooklyn jersey labeled Stevens Julien 73. What? I was shocked to find one of Julien’s Brooklyn jerseys in the collection. I’m not sure why I was shocked. He was, after all, one of the Belgium’s top sprinters and six-day riders in the 1960s and 1970s. 

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I didn’t ask to remove the jersey from the bag, although wanted to. Still in my head was the idea that Leo’s wife was ready for us to go. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome by asking to remove all these jerseys from their protective bags. I thought I’d save such a request for the RDV Milan-San Remo jersey. 

The Stevens jersey was another strange one. It is unlike any I had ever seen in photos. The Brooklyn logo is on a white field, but instead of it being chevron shaped, it is a rectangle. Below that are the words “La Gomme Del Ponte,” or, in English, “the gum of the bridge.” Most unusual about the jersey is that it is solid blue—there are no red and white vertical stripes. 

As I snapped more photos, Luc worked looked through the tub. He handed me a very cool Sonolor TV jersey labeled L. Van Impe 73. He continued to work his way through the tub until he found what we were looking for. I could feel a huge smile stretch across my face as he handed me the Milan-San Remo jersey. This was the new highlight of my trip. 

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I snapped a few photos of the jersey inside the bag, then summoned the courage to ask if I could take it out.

I was thinking we might have to don white cotton gloves to handle it, if she would even allow it. Leo’s wife snatched the bag from my hands, opened it, pulled out the jersey, grabbed it by the shoulders and gave it a good snap to shake out the creases. Clearly, I had higher regard for the jersey than she did, I thought as I let out a little chuckle. She walked to the sitting area and laid the jersey on the table. Luc and I followed her. 

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When I made the design for the 1973 jersey for 2Velo, I did so using the photos of this very jersey taken by Marco Gios when he visited the museum. I was able to get a reasonably good design that way, but I knew my dimensions were certainly not perfect. Now, I had the opportunity to correct my design. I took nearly two dozen photos, many with my tape measure stretched across the priceless jersey. I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hands. When I finished, I handed it back to Leo’s wife and said thanks. 

Outside, Luc and I looked at each other in disbelief over what had just happened. “I think you were lucky Leo wasn’t here today. I’m not sure he would have let you do that,” he said. I had been thinking the same thing. 

I was still smiling and my heart was still racing during the short drive back to my car as Luc and I recounted the wonderful visit to the museum. Before I left for the Netherlands, we talked more about Leo’s, our vintage bike collections and interests until his wife called to remind him they had a date that night. We said goodbye and I hit the road for Maastricht. 

To be continued. 

2 responses to “My Saturday in Hell: Leo’s Place

  1. When we go to the doctor we pay 25 EUR of which we get 22 EUR paid back. Th real cost for me is 3 EUR . When we break an arm or leg for example we pay around 150 EUR for the doctor of which the actual for us is around 30 EUR . ( not 1000’s of dollars !) When you have a real illness like cancer you are not bankrupt if you survive , plus you have a guarenteed income during the time you are not able to work . For this , i (and every Belgian) pay around 60EUR a year . This is the so feared ” communism” system by America

  2. I’m totally on board with “communist” healthcare. And education. And childcare. And safe and clean air, water and food. I’m ready to move to Europe.

    My wife and I currently pay about $1,000 per month!!! for healthcare. And it’s shite. Every time we see a doctor we pay. If it’s serious, we pay more. The sicker you get here, the more you pay. It’s driven by greed. And somehow, way too many American’s seem to think these companies deserve to profit from killing people and/or driving them into bankruptcy.

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