Belgian Italian Americans
He shouted it as I passed, a hipster in dreads and a hoodie interrupting the rhythm of his slouchy strut to punch a fist skyward as the word left his mouth: “Brooklyn!” A few pedal strokes later, a man with the black box of a camera obscuring half his face, a tourist or maybe an art student, was leaning back against the rail of the bridge and clicking off pictures so fast it sounded like a pack shifting into a sprint.
The shooter swiveled to keep me in his lens, a bike racer pedaling across the Brooklyn Bridge to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, wearing the legendary red, white and blue Brooklyn jersey. It was an iconic shot, but not at all in the way he imagined.
In 1946, two brothers, Ambrogio and Egidio Perfetti, began making chewing gum in Lainate, Italy. With the end of World War Two just past, the brothers thought an American-sounding name would be popular. They were right: The Brooklyn Chewing Gum company became Italy’s top-selling brand.
In 1973, the company began a five-year sponsorship of a cycling team that became defined by Roger De Vlaeminck, Mr. Paris-Roubaix, so-called for his four wins in the Hell of the North. I prefer his original nickname, the Gypsy, which for me evokes a kind of furious joy and a jaunty disregard for stricture that made De Vlaeminck one of the few riders of that era who refused to meekly roll aside and wait for the race for second place to begin whenever Eddy Merckx attacked.
From 1973 to 1977, wearing the brilliantly simple Brooklyn jersey and riding a brilliant blue Gios Torino, De Vlaeminck claimed three of his Roubaix titles, one of his three Milan-San Remo wins, the Tour of Flanders, two Tours of Lombardy, the Tour de Suisse, four of his six Tirreno-Adriatico victories, two points jerseys in the Giro d’Italia, and a cyclocross world championship.
Those are amazing palmares, but it’s at the edges of legend where my affinities lie as the Brooklyn jersey is transmuted from venerable to holy. Why? Because De Vlaeminck never flatted at Paris-Roubaix while wearing it, and after the team disbanded he finished second there three times and crashed out once.
Because, according to some stories, the team skipped the Tour one season because the money for the trip was used to pay ransom for a corporate officer who had been kidnapped. Because not even many cycling fans know that the quintessential American jersey adorned an Italian team made famous by a Belgian who dominated a French race that wasn’t the Tour de France, the only race most US citizens have ever heard of.
I love the fact that almost no-one knows there actually was a gum company in Brooklyn years ago and that it was Topps, the confectionary behemoth that a decade or so after its founding in 1938 would go on to create Bazooka Bubble Gum, the best-selling chewy of all time.
I cherish the knowledge that Ambrogio and Egidio’s company survives to this day as Perfetti S.p.A, that its $1billion in yearly revenue comes from Mentos and Chupa Chups as well as from Brooklyn gum (which you can still buy in Italy, and which is terrible, by the way), and that its US office is located in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
From its founding to its heyday atop De Vlaeminck to its contemporary reputation, the Brooklyn jersey has embodied chaos, cultural collapse, mercenary marketing, misplaced nostalgia and ignorance of history – yet, also, somehow, victory, tenacity and beauty. It’s the perfect American jersey.
Belgian Italian Americans