The Quick and The Dead: Part One
Crazy tales, tigers, police chiefs and fast cars: fellow Danes Morten Okbo and Jakob Kristian Sørensen get more than they bargained for in a Belgian road trip through Brian Holm's old haunts.
“In many ways Belgium was the easiest place to ride. I know it sounds strange because, well, look at the roads. Here, we’re driving on normal asphalt, right. But here comes the cement, the old Nazi road. And then we’ll turn left: cobbles for the next 200 metres, and what, three or four metres wide this section? And back. Now asphalt again. Also, in the middle of this particular road we have Death Valley, as the Americans call it.
“Trams run across the country and they have these light rails, like a single track rail, which fits the front wheel of a bike like a glove. Get into one of these bastards and you’ll go flying across the handlebars. Ask anybody. So in the beginning when we raced here, this was back in 1986, I felt like I was in a dryer. You get thrown around.
“But once you break the code it gets easier. And after a couple of years you know where to position yourself in the peloton. You know where you can save energy, and more importantly, you know when to move to the front.
“All those races – Het Volk, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, Wevelgem – once you get it down you can always make a result. Make it into the top ten to 15 which is good for morale. You know, to leave some of the big guns behind on this wet, slippery tarmac. That is highly satisfying for a young rider.
“Rolf Sørensen calls Belgium the technical and tactical university of professional cycling. It’s so accurate, I think. Riders get dropped like this if they don’t pay attention on these roads.”
Brian Holm, December 2011
We drive onwards. Towards Geel, a small town located in the province of Antwerp, northern Belgium. Villages on endless backroads are passing us by, mainly because Brian is getting lost over and over. He says that old familiar routes have changed over the years or been replaced by buildings, street signs are gone, but his comments are more those of puzzlement than of actual frustration.
He does not mind getting lost. After all, the whole country is classic terrain for anybody interested in cycling and Brian is a super fan as much as he is a super directeur sportif. With him doing most of the talking, our circular journey becomes a tour of the ex-riders who seem to live on every street corner.
“You remember Ludo Dierckxens? An ugly motherfucker. Big nose. Bald head. He rode with a bandana which was only popular in Belgium at that time. ‘Il Pirata’ hadn’t even been born, I think. Ludo won a Tour stage for Lampre but got busted for something. Anyway, he lives down there.”
Following the disbandment of HTC-Highroad, Brian Holm has joined Omega Pharma – Quick-Step. You know; you’ve read the papers. In other words he has exchanged sunny California for gloomy Belgium. Outside of cycling that decision would raise more than a few eyebrows. Tell someone that you’ve been travelling in this rainy little Western European country – let alone that you’re moving to it – and the reply is always the name of the country delivered back to you in an incredulous tone: “Belgium?!”
But in cycling it’s a choice which makes perfect sense: back to The Motherland, as Brian explains more than once. Bob Stapleton left the building. Europe – with its long traditions and watchwords such as Honour, Loyalty, Bravery and Sacrifice – were ultimately perhaps too old school for the American entrepreneur, often quoted as wanting to revolutionise the entire business.
Whatever the story was, and there are plenty of them circulating, he took his money and ran. The plug got pulled and everyone jumped ship – Brian Holm is back where it all began.
“I moved down here with a couple of national records. The 10 kilometre. Other records. But after two years in Belgium I got confused. I was a sprinter but now I never sprint. I’m not a climber. My time trial isn’t that good, so what am I going to do to survive in this business? Well, cobblestones and rain. Because most riders hate this terrain. They fear crashes. They are out of shape this early in the season. It can ruin later goals in the season, you know. It might ruin the Tour which is so important for many. So gradually that became my thing: cobbles and rain. Charming, huh!
“Walter Godefroot, our legendary directeur sportif at Telekom, he would say before a race: ‘Listen up! We are in Belgium. It’s cold and it’s raining. Half of the peloton won’t make it today. They have no morale. They are scared. And the other half are out of shape this early in the season. Chances are good. Go out there and make me a result, boys.’
“So you had already beaten the Italian and Spanish riders before the race began. I learned to read these races really well. For example: at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne until Kwaremont you can pretty much relax. The peloton will then break on top of the hill, between 18 and 35 riders are left. Now, the speed 25 kilometres before the finish is insane so if there is a breakaway it’s caught. They seldom make it here.
“And that elite group of men at the end will race for the win in Kuurne. But only six to eight of them have any real chance. And I just knew it before the start. So I felt I had an advantage. Then in the final you could either try to escape the lot or wait until the sprint and maybe you’d win or become second or number ten. Bottom line: I was always there in the end, TV was transmitting, the sponsors were happy and you felt you’d done a good day’s work. Consequently, in the big stage races later in the season, I felt okay to be a domestique. I had already done my results in the spring.”
Brian is a really, really, good driver. It’s never mentioned anywhere, and why should it be, but most if not all the directeur sportifs are great behind the wheel. This guy can talk, laugh, explain, comment, discuss, object and fuss about everything and nothing at all at the same time. Completely at ease.
We float through Belgium in the brand new Volvo rental. And if it wasn’t for the car everything would be sheer bliss. You wouldn’t expect a man who spends 150 days a year in a car, following races across Europe, to be foxed by a key system. But the Volvo has a card rather than a key, and the central locks go ‘klock!’ whenever Brian inserts said card. Also: you have to open the door twice to get out. The first time you press the handle it does not react.
“Child safety for adults?” Brian suggests. We work out a plan: we must all enter the car at the same time, and get out on his count. “Swedes…” he sighs. “And their riders are worth shit, too.” His opinion isn’t changed when the Volvo cuts out each time we have to wait for a green light. Of course, we appreciate our fellow Scandinavian's concern for the environment; we share it.
We agree they should be developing energy-saving gizmos and thrusting them on their cars. But the fact is the Volvo won’t start. Behind us people are honking their horns. Hands and fingers are out of their windows.
“There isn’t much Chuck Norris going on here!” Brian bangs the steering wheel. An alarm goes off. For our road trip he has brought Thin Lizzy – Greatest Hits. The Boys Are Back In Town plays over and over again.
“Yes, if you would actually take us into town!” he yells at the car until it momentarily agrees to cooperate and we can continue.
Brian is standing in front of the 16th century church in Geel. When we arrived at Brussels Airport earlier this morning he immediately suggested we drive up here and take a look. When he lived here this particular church became a very integral part of his life.
“Well. It began like this. The local police officer Commandant Paulus brought us in to his office because rumour had gotten around that some Danish punks had drifted into town. He didn’t like riders, he said. The last one he had met had shot the wife and hanged himself. So, he didn’t want riders roaming around in his village. My friend Jesper Skibby and I looked at each other. What is this man capable of doing, we thought?
"Like I said earlier, we had only just arrived, you know? Young. Ready for a new adventure. So when we got arrested the first time, I was worried as hell.
"We lived by this little town square and we had broken into the church to try and steal the bells in the tower, or at least stop them from ringing. It was insane. Every 15 minutes the bells went off and it drove everybody nuts so something had to be done. We agreed on this early.
"But now we are sitting in Commandant Paulus’ office. But Jesper Skibby had said to me: ‘No, no. Don’t worry. I bet he thinks we were trying to do everyone a favour. With those bells banging away all the bloody time!’ Well, the truth was that Commandant Paulus did fall in love with us. The way a father thinks his about his sons although they fuck up now and again. And that was exactly what we did. It was a crazy time.”
As we slowly circle the old town square, the bells do ring every 15 minutes, much to Brian’s amusement. He reminisces; points toward various buildings, shows us where they lived, what cafés or local pubs were frequented most often and so forth.
An old man walks by wearing a cycling cap, one of those where you can pull the back down to reveal warm earflaps to offer protection against the cold. Brian – fashion buff that he is – looks at the guy in awe. He says that a cap like that would go for £150 pounds in London. Easily. Rural-smart overrules city-smart, he says deadpan.
Then Brian shifts direction. Apparently not all his memories are so fond. “I remember an image. She’s in the car, crying. All her things are in the boot. This was my first girlfriend. She had come to live with me, I had asked her to come down here, but after a while I changed my mind.
"I just said no one day. I have to take this serious. After three years on a contract I had become lazy. She was baking cakes, you know. I had slippers in the hallway. Man, was she upset!
"‘What about our life together?’ she said. ‘What about the dog?’
‘Screw the dog!’ I yelled. I was a real bastard toward her, but it was the only way to do it. To cut loose. Of course, I regretted it instantly. Calling her over and over: ‘Oh baby, please’, you know. But it did help my career. I won some important races after she left.
“But we had all sorts of problems in those days, me and Skibby. I remember one in particular. Her name was Maria Blower. She was a female rider from England so Jesper Skibby fell in love with her. Boom. He called her from our phone even though we couldn’t use the phone at the house where we lived. That was the only rule. Never, ever use the phone. Of course the bill was ridiculous but so was Jesper. He was ridiculously mad about her.
"Anyway, she later married Russian rider Jaanus Kuum who defected when we rode against their team in Copenhagen. And because he had defected the Russian team only consisted of three riders against our four. This was at the track and we beat them easily. He became a professional at Toshiba but later. Well. Later he tragically committed suicide. I can’t remember the exact story and it doesn’t matter now, really. But it is very sad.
“Also, and I don’t know why it got me thinking about it, but doping was another thing. This was in the beginning of the ’90s. I was at Tulip and I didn’t like the team. And those fucking doctors, what were they talking about? Everyone was confused. It makes me mad now to think about it. Even though I did it myself. But what was I supposed to do, what was anybody supposed to do? You could either stop racing or get on with it.
"So you start to make up your own world, like, I bet I don’t take as much as the other riders. Shit like that. Phew. I get exhausted just talking about it now…”
It’s getting dark. We start heading for the car. Brian takes a long look around the square. Then he suddenly insists that we walk back to the entrance door of the church again. Has it not been moved since he was last here? He thinks it has. So we turn around and take a closer look.
“Yes, I’m sure of it. They’ve moved the entrance,” he whispers, looking at me. What do I think? I take a look at the door again. It’s an absurd argument. Talking to Brian Holm can be like running potential plots by a TV comedy writer. The smallest of details gets thrown up in the air and turned into new ideas, weird escapades, or long rants.
It is really marvellous to be involved in. And here we have a case in point: he is now absolutely certain that the entrance door was at the other end of the church. I, of course, am taking the expected part of the stooge; setting him up for his next outburst by eventually suggesting he is crazy.
“Crazy, huh? Back then Geel was the crazy town. Naturally a guy like Jesper Skibby would become king of this place. With all his cars. He managed to buy 53 different cars when we lived here. And watches. Always a new watch. Anyway, I didn’t have a thing for cars. Actually, I did buy one off a local dealer, because I fell in love with his daughter. So I get the car, right. And I drive up to her place to invite her out. Brand new car.
"But she just sends me away. No was all she said. Maybe I should have done it the other way around, huh? Asked the girl first. Then, if I had gotten lucky with her, I could have bought the stupid car.”
Perfect. He is back on form. Then, for dramatic effect, he coughs into his armpit and, I swear, counts to five and gives me a look like a pet dog waiting for the next stick to be thrown. There’s more?
“So of course, Jesper lost his driving licence. When we were out training all the car salesmen would always wave at us as we rode past. I’m not kidding. They got up and walked out of the store and shouted at us.
"So now Jesper loses his licence, right. He drove so fast all the time and one day he hit a guy walking the street with his dog. Now: everyone knows Jesper is driving like a maniac. It was bound to happen. I reckon all the parents in the town are hoping for jail time. And Commandant Paulus has to react. But the car salesmen are getting nervous ‘cause Jesper was no ordinary… you know, er, customer in this community.
"So they’re putting the pressure on Paulus. And what happens? Skibby got his licence back the same day! Paulus gave him a reminder that, although it was wrong what he’d done, at least he picked a guy that Paulus himself never liked too much! That was Belgium in the ’80s. And Jesper was King of the Town. Everyone loved him, you know. Perhaps except the guy he ran over.”
Thank you. You’ve been wonderful. Goodnight!
Anybody who knows Brian Holm will tell you he has stories like this by the dozen. Within half an hour of us hooking up at Brussels Airport, he is hurling tales of ex-riders, drugs, prostitutes and handguns at us as if we were old war buddies. Not implying that he is remotely part of any of it, only that he knows a guy. Who knows a guy. For 8am, the level of intensity is just remarkable. And he does it all with an elegant ease, a nonchalance, which makes it even more compelling and almost annoyingly clever. So whether or not he is trying to impress the young men accompanying him, he certainly does the job.
Our days together become a grotesque performance theatre filled with his almost childish and adorable punchlines. Yes. He is quite an act.
We stop for lunch at De Oude Egyptische, a roadside bistro where he used to eat in the ’90s. After taking a look around, he returns to the table and comments, not without satisfaction, that nothing has changed. He used to break off training and eat spaghetti bolognese here. So why not? The waitress takes the order. The photographer disappears. Meanwhile Brian stares at a TV on the wall. An old western is showing.
“At one point we started going to the movies. But the Belgians didn’t understand that. They got a little nervous, you know. ‘The movies?’ they said. ‘Why would anybody want to go to the movies?’ If you had time off as a professional rider you either went to get a massage or relaxed at your house. The movies was a waste of time. So, once again, we were the crazy Danes going to the movies.
"We saw Ghostbusters, you know, and Beverly Hills Cop. And the biggest star back then in Hollywood was Eddie Murphy. But the Belgians already had an Eddie. They had Eddy Merckx! And he was the baddest motherfucker they’d ever known!”
We set off for the town of Leuven, the idea being to visit old friends and the host family with which Brian lived for the better part of seven years. He talks with great affection of a man that for now he only refers to as Vic. We will learn much more about him later.
Back on the road it’s more rain. Rain and wind. And various shades of brownish light, very Belgium-like. We pass the great Albert Canal which runs through the country. Brian knows its long history and generally talks about it like it is his own private property.
“Down there I sometimes used to train. I followed the canal. Yes. It was the happiest time of my life. No. It was more like carefree. Now I have children so
I won’t compare those two things. Carefree is a better word. I didn’t have a worry on my mind. I had a bed, a chair, a small TV. I sat on the bed and read cycling magazines, you know. Vic and Juliette took care of us. Of me. All I did was to think about the next race.
"Getting ready is a big part of being a pro. Mentally you have to be focused. Also when you don’t train. And that was it. That was the life. I never went home to Denmark. We didn’t fly too much back then. It was by car and it just took too long. And there was always an upcoming race. I was maybe back in Denmark once a year in those days.
“So I did my races and sometimes I won. The only concern was my 200 kilometres a day which I was happy to do. I was with friends. Most days we met in the morning, had a coffee and went out on the road. And Vic will tell you, I trained hard. Always. Even after a long day, we would do the derny. That is what it’s all about.
"People ask us all the time. They want some kind of magic answer but there isn’t any, you know. They forget we just love to ride our bikes. It’s simple. I still ride my bike. Maybe not in the rain so much but still.
“There was a hill around here where I did intervals. I always did ten laps, you know. I had ten small rocks in my pocket. Something I learned from ex-rider Leif Mortensen. You throw one rock out for each climb. So it gets lighter. It’s impossible to count to ten when you do intervals. You just throw a rock and it gets lighter. Mentally, it’s smart. It’s like at the Tour de France. When we arrive we get a book containing all the stages, all cities, all mountains and all other info you can imagine – parking, restaurants, whatever.
"So every night I tear out the stage we just finished. It’s a way of getting though it all. That Tour book is just about the scariest thing of the year. It’s the size of a phonebook! It’s so heavy. Incomprehensible. We all look at it like: ‘How are we ever getting through this?’”
As we reach downtown Leuven, Brian is again surprised to find things exactly as they were when he left. Even the old Hotel Industrie, where he and Bjarne Riis shared an apartment, is still there.
“I guess Riis never fitted in here. It was smart of him to move to Luxembourg. He took a lot of shit in the beginning not knowing or understanding the system, you know, with the local races and all the deals we had to do to survive. And all these characters living here. One was Leo Wouters. He was the local police commandant in Antwerp. And he was also part time directeur sportif. We handed him our speeding tickets, you know. There was a lot of trading going on. You had to know the right people. In cycling but also in real life.
“In the mid-’80s these gangs were roaming the country. The police were involved. Politicians. Judges. Everybody knew about it. It felt like Africa. I remember one guy, maybe he was a lawyer or an editor at a newspaper, he stood up and expressed his concern about the whole thing. A week later he was shot dead.
"When you look back at it now, it was just crazy. The Wild West. Sergio Leone-like. Forget the horses. Just bikes. And it was all about riding fast, getting your arse with you! But coming out of the rough section of Copenhagen, I fitted right in.”
Leuven is buzzing on a Saturday night. Young men chase younger women who are all dressed in miniskirts that they keep pulling down. Happily drunk, they stumble around in the high heels they’ll be carrying in their hands a couple of hours from now. None of this gets Brian’s attention; he seems to be in his own world now. Silence has finally settled upon the Volvo as we cruise around. And then…
“Oh yeah. The hotel owner at Industrie? There’s another character. He had his own zoo at the foot of La Redoute, you know, the famous climb in Liège-Bastogne-Liège? So one day he convinced Skibby and me to buy some pets off him. We figured, yeah sure, we could always give it back, you know.
"Maybe it was a bad decision, it was something like €1,000 and listen, I was making perhaps €10,000 a year, so it wasn’t no small thing! Still, we liked the idea, you know. What the hell. So we a bought a couple of tigers.”
Not much is being said at breakfast this morning. Last night at the Hotel Malpertuus in Riemst, Brian caught up with the Italian Valerio Piva, a former colleague at HTC who has now signed as directeur sportif for Katusha. Things escalated, one glass following another, with the two of them swapping road trip memories. Piva, a former domestique, lived at this hotel for almost 20 years. It’s another of cycling’s great hidden stories.
He stayed here one night as a rider, fell in love with the daughter of the owner – Yvo Molenaers, naturally a former professional rider; everything, and I mean everything, breathes cycling here – then came back, married the daughter, and moved in at the hotel when his career ended in 1992. He and his family had their own wing for years and only recently moved to their beautiful new house just up the road. We take our morning coffee at Piva’s kitchen table and he and Brian continue where they left off last night.
Brian: “A couple of years ago we were here with the team. Remember? Now. In the ’80s I had a girlfriend and I started thinking about what she did today, where she lived. Anyway, her father had a company near Zolder, so between races I drove up there. I left my phone number and she called and that night she came to the hotel to say hello.
"I remember how proud I was to know her then – she was such a stunner. And you know, we were having dinner with the riders at the hotel and I had told them: ‘All right, boys. Let me show you how we did it in the old days.’
Piva: “And then she turns up and… Argh!”
Brian: “Well. She was still beautiful but perhaps a little… older than I imagined her. I forgot we had aged.
"And the whole team, all those young guns, were looking at me trying not to explode. Anyway, she said: ‘Remember how you always listened to Thin Lizzy in the car?’ Well, 20 years down the road, I guess it’s the same.”
Valerio Piva and his wife have been together for a long time, an achievement that isn’t lost on Brian. When we are back on the road, he talks of how many of his friends in cycling – how he personally – found the transition from being a professional rider with up to 250 days on the road to living ‘normal life’, at home, almost impossible.
“Look at Piva. His family. It’s just great to see how they’ve stuck together. I always told my wife: I’m a cyclist. Now we live my life. When I quit cycling we can live your life. And so I quit and I say, we can stay here in Belgium, I’ll get a great job in business so I can provide for us both.
"But she wanted to go home. I say, no, no, baby. This is home. Let’s stay. But she hated it in Belgium. All the way. But what was I going to do in Denmark? I had lived my whole adult life in Belgium and there was nothing for me to go back to. No friends, no network. Nothing. But for her it was everything.
“Naturally we got divorced.”
To read Part Two of The Quick and The Dead, click here.