The manager of Eddy Merckx (pronounced mayrks) was putting away a platter of raw ground meat (Filet Americain on the menu) with a side of tomato and watercress. He had chosen the table for privacy, deep in the bowels of the hotel restaurant, which was near the Ghent railroad station. A crowd had been building out front since midafternoon. Cycling fans loitered in the lobby and in the restaurant over bottles of genever, pollinating the night air with eve-of-the-race hearsay and spilling into the street to circle the parked cars that carried the bicycles. These were pinned to the roofs of the cars like so many brightly lacquered lures on a fisherman's hat and lent the only color to the rain-waxed square. A rumpled gray relic of a town, Ghent hunches up from the Belgian flatlands, dominating plains traversed for many centuries by armies marching to and from Paris. Ghent does not swing, it flinches.
An American sitting at the table with the manager and an interpreter-chauffeur the American had hired in Brussels said if it were another time, he might be waiting to see Charlemagne or Napoleon or Hitler, who had also passed that way, instead of Eddy Merckx.
"What?" said the interpreter. "Pardon? I—you must forgive, sir. It is the first time I am so short with a champion."
"Short?" said the American.
"There," he nodded toward a table where a group of young men were having what would be called in South Bend a team meal. " Eddy Merckx."
"Oh, close. You have never been so close."
"Yes. That is it." He was beaming. The object of his admiration sat quietly in the midst of his fellow diners. He had the lean look of a fencer and appeared more Latin than Flemish: olive skin, coarse black hair low on the forehead, heavy-lidded eyes.
His group, the 17-man team called "Molteni" after the Italian salami king who sponsors it, had passed from hors d'oeuvres to steaming bowls of vegetables and meat and was, by the volume of conversation, in high spirits. There were bottles of red wine on the table. Tomorrow they would ride bicycles for six hours without stopping, and they were in the final fueling process. Now and again grown people and children lingered at a respectful distance to stare at the lean young man in the middle. One small boy wore a cyclist's cap with EDDY MERCKX embroidered on the bottom and an image of the man at the table sewn on the peak.
"He is an idol," said the manager, gesturing with his fork. "There has never been one like him, never in the history of cycling. Not Anquetil. Not Poulidor. No one."
"He has been shotting with the king," said the interpreter. "He is a friend of the king. He shot the deer."