In Belgium they say that cycling is a religion. If that’s the case then there’s only one man who can be called God: Eddy Merckx.
Perhaps that’s why, if you walk down the northern aisle of the Paterskerk church in the Flemish town of Roeselare, you’ll find a portrait of the country’s cycling deity with his characteristic nonchalant gaze pointed into the sky. His icon is surrounded by angels and below him, on an altar, rests one of his unforgettable orange and blue bikes.
Before you scream ‘blasphemy!’ the Paterskerk is not actually a church any more. Desanctified, it is now home to an exhibition of priceless cycling memorabilia under the name of “Koers is Religie”: racing is religion.
The building, tall and cavernous with light streaming through the stained glass explores cycling’s relationship with religion which, since we’re in Belgium, means the Christian (and specifically Catholic) faith.
Whether through traditional kermis races that would take place on Sunday afternoons once the congregation had been to church, or through its role in supporting riders’ trade unions, the church has never been far from racing in this little country. It’s no coincidence that the Tour of Flanders takes places on or around Holy Week.
“The exhibition is also very metaphoric,” explains curator Thomas Amere. “So we compare the agony of cycling to the way of the cross, and the life of a cyclist to the life of a monk.”
Most exhibits come from the town’s main cycling museum, which is currently closed for renovations. Frank Vandenbroucke’s trophy from 1999 Liege-Bastogne-Liege is now housed inside an ornate tabernacle. A giant steel cross has been made from old bikes. Two enormous sets of shelves are stacked full of trophies and cups like the cave of the Holy Grail in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
And if Merckx is God, there can only be one anti-Christ, one fallen angel, one Beelzebub. Here, the devil wears Livestrong.
Yet in Belgium, with its catholic tradition, you’ll find his exhibit in a confession booth. Take a step inside, under the Livestrong ‘28’ jersey Lance was banned from wearing on the final stage of his final Tour in 2010, and you’ll find the man himself making his own confession to Sister Oprah on a rolling video loop.
Yet most poignant of all in this fascinating collection is the crucifix that used to belong to Belgian world champion Jean-Pierre Monseré.
On the morning of March 15, 1971 the Roeselare native handed the small gold cross to a priest in the town of Retie when he got changed into his racing kit inside his house, asking the clergyman to keep it safe and return it to his family should anything happen.
Wearing the rainbow stripes he earned in Leicester in 1970, ‘Jempi’ collided with a car driven onto the race course and died instantly. He was 22 years old.
Complete with the priests handwritten letter, the cross is now housed next to the shattered hub, bent rim and mangled handlebars of Monseré’s last racing bike.
Along with the collection of scapulars and rosaries from riders past and present, religion, belief and fate is never far from professional cycling.
Rouleur visited Belgium courtesy of Sports Tours International, which offers tours around Roeselare and Belgium.