"And today?" asked the American.
The manager shrugged.
The attendants of the Molteni team had been up since four a.m., preparing packets of food—cheese and meat sandwiches, bananas, rice pies, containers of tea—and, on the sidewalks out front, the mechanics ran expert hands over the glistening sprockets and gears and the spinning tires of the bicycles and brushed the chains with lubricants. The food packets—musettes—would be relayed to the cyclists at checkpoints en route. In this race, the Tour de Flandres, there would be 150 racers. They would start on the northeast side of Ghent, head toward the North Sea to Eeklo, then west to Torhout, south to Kortrijk, east to Geraardsbergen and then back to Ghent, finishing at the depot. It would take six hours plus for the winner to cover the 160 miles. The Tour de Flandres is called a "classic," one of eight or so races thus designated, and is 60 years old. It is not as demanding nor as laden with consequence as a true "tour," such as the Tour de France, which goes on for 23 days and covers 2,400 miles, and the Tour d'Italie, 22 days (including a day of rest) and 2,250 miles. The classics and the tours are the economic lifeblood of the competing teams (Molteni; Ferretti, the furniture manufacturer; Sonolor, the television company; Watneys, the English brewery; Novy, Dubble-Bubble, bicycles and bubble gum). First prize in such a race may run as high as $10,000, but the purses are divided among the domestiques. The star ( Eddy Merckx, who has an annual salary of $60,000) will make his big money appearing in 60 to 80 "exhibitions" a year, short races of 60 to 100 miles, requiring as little as two hours of his time, for which he earns no less than $2,000 and as much as $4,000 a race.
First prize at Ghent would be $3,000. The bicycle, the one Eddy Merckx would start out on, was in an anteroom downstairs being watched over by his mechanic. The manager introduced the American to the bicycle, orange and shimmering and as delicate as a water spider, weighing no more than 21 pounds. At other races, in sprints against the clock, for example, the bike would appear to be the same, but it would weigh as little as 18 pounds. There would be duplicate models of the bike on the roof of the trailing Molteni car, to substitute in case of a breakdown. In a tour Merckx generally uses three bikes (he went through 12 in the 1968 Giro), but today he would probably get by with one or two. There were also extra clamp-on wheels in case of a flat tire, a near certainty on the rough Belgian-block roads and the twisting rutted paths.
It had begun to rain, and the odor from an oil refinery on the far side of town came in on a strengthening wind that raised goose bumps and the skirts of the girls circling the bicycles on the street.
"It is good, the rain," said Van Buggenhout. "Eddy likes the rain. He is strong, stronger than most. But the wind. Ah, I do not like the wind. The wind can do things. It is a one-day race. Anyone has a chance. On a tour no one can say, 'I can make it alone against Eddy.' No one. But in a one-day race anything can happen."
The manager and the American went back into the restaurant for coffee and there joined Claudine Merckx and the wife of the team's first assistant coach, Robert Lelangue. Passersby stared and whispered at the sight of Claudine, much as they had upon seeing her husband. She was a trim young woman in a flashy leopard coat, with lustrous hair and intense brown eyes.
The manager said Claudine was pregnant with her second child. Their daughter Sabrina was now two. They had met, Claudine and Eddy, eight years before when Merckx was still an amateur and he had come to her house to see her father, the Belgian national coach. He came again to see her father, Claudine said, and then again. After a while her father ascertained it was not him that Merckx was coming to see.
She had been speaking in English, somewhat gropingly but with great animation, then suddenly, in conversation with the manager, she switched to French. She seemed angry. The American remembered having been told that Merckx' first coach had been relieved after a run-in with Claudine.
"What is it?" the American asked the interpreter.