Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leuven, Belgium

Any day on the bike is a great day, but some days are greater than others.  When cycling in the US, a day with a Carnegie Library or two always stands above.  In Europe with virtually no Carnegies outside the UK, I end my days with a heightened exhilaration when it includes a cycling shrine or two.  Yesterday was another of those extra great days with a pair of such places.

The first was Florennes, a city of 10,000 inhabitants sixty miles south of Brussels.  It is the only city that is the birthplace of two Tour de France champions--Firmin Lambot, who won The Tours of 1919 and 1922, and Léon Scieur, the 1921 winner.  There was no sign at the city's entrance celebrating its famous sons, as there had been outside Jean Robic's home town in France.  Nor was  there anything in the town plaza nor on the town map posted there.  Nor was there any acknowledgement of them at the city hall.  The receptionist didn't even know what I was talking about when I asked if there were any plaque in the city to its Tour de France champions.  She at least took my question seriously enough to go and ask if anyone else knew.  

When she returned several minutes later she said that there were indeed plaques honoring them.  They could be found on their homes.  As she was writing down the addresses, she paused to remove her sweater and started vigorously fanning herself with a piece of paper.  It was early in the morning and still cool enough that I was wearing my vest, but the ordeal I was putting her through, having to deal with some cyclist who spoke a minimum of her language, had her sweating and so much so that the piece of paper she was fanning herself with was too flimsy for the job, so she put it down and used a magazine.  It was a bit stuffy, the air still heavy from the unseasonably warm eighty degree temperatures of the day before, but it wasn't even 70 yet.  She seemed to be anticipating the heat to come.  A male colleague, just arriving for work, greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, just one in contrast to the French style of a kiss on each cheek.  Then she was interrupted by a phone call.  It was someone with more information about the plaques.  

After she wrote down the addresses she tried to find the houses on a town map, but was struggling as it wasn't detailed enough.  As she peered at the map, a guy who spoke English came to her rescue.  He knew precisely where the houses were.  For one I had to turn right after the cathedral, go to the roundabout and make a left, then just beyond the Match supermarket I'd see the plaque on the left side of the road a couple houses down. The directions were perfect other than mentioning that the plaque was up high above a garage door, so I missed it and had to ask a veterinarian across the street if he knew where it was.  He could point it out to me from his office.

For the second plaque I had to turn left after the cathedral, go through a stop light and there it would be on the right hand side of the road just after the intersection.  I knew enough to look up and there it was, on a better maintained building than the first.

It was a tad disappointing that there were no statues nor streets nor plazas named for these early winners of The Tour, nor even their image inscribed on their plaques.  Nor would it have been out of place for their photos to be hanging in the city hall.  I didn't have to go to the Internet though to see what they looked like, as forty-five miles down the road in Huy, the Ville Arrivée for Stage Three, its tourist office had photos of all nine Belgians who have won The Tour, and there they were astride their bikes.

The tourist office was a mini-museum devoted to The Tour.  Its entry hall was plastered with articles on The Tour and the office itself was decorated with bikes and wheels and books and souvenirs.  I was given a yellow pen and a pin with a bike on it and "Huy Le Mur, Un Sommet, 19%," as the stage concludes with a kilometer climb of 19%, also the finish for Flèche Wallon, one of the premier races of the Spring.  The climb may be short but its steepness makes it one of the most legendary in cycling.  It began about a mile from the tourist office.  The peloton will turn at a roundabout just past the tourist office with a giant cube celebrating the climb.

The climb begins in earnest at a small plaza and winds up a narrow road through a residential neighborhood.  The road had been freshly painted with the town name.

Looking back one could see the twin cooling towers of a nuclear plant on the Meuse River.

I was joined on the climb by a string of about fifty English cyclists with a Tour de Force travel company, many wearing matching Tour de Force jerseys.  Some were zig-zagging back and forth across the road as I was doing.  My heart was pounding and I was gushing sweat.  Anything over ten per cent is a brute.  L'Alpe d'Huez and Mont Ventoux aren't even that.  I was gasping for air, but my legs were passing this final test, letting me know they were ready for The Tour.  A few of the cyclists stopped or returned from the summit to take photos of their mates on the climb, but careful not to include me on my loaded bike.  "You're putting us all to shame," one of them said. 

The summit was a plateau with a small cathedral and a park and a closed down gondola that once hoisted people up the climb.  And we were greeted by a sign congratulating us for making it up, the upper half identical to the pin I was given at the tourist office.

If I had gotten to Huy a couple hours earlier I could have made it to Leuven, forty-five miles away, before dark and topped off my day with the lone Carnegie Library in Belgium.  

Instead I arrived at this vibrant university and beer town (headquarters of Stella Artois) the next morning.  The library was built in the 1920s replacing the library destroyed during the war.  Funds were provided by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace rather than Carnegie's library program as it stopped funding libraries after Carnegie's death in 1919.  There were quite a few other donors as well, many of them libraries, so its not recognized as a Carnegie Library, similar to the University of Chicago library he helped fund.

Two librarians I consulted didn't even know that Carnegie money had helped build the library.  They had a list of donors, but he wasn't among them.  There was a bust of Herbert Hoover though and also a plaque acknowledging the American ambassador to Belgium at the time of the construction of the library that was designed  by an American architect in a Flemish style.  One had to be affiliated with the university to use the library or be given a guest pass as I was.  School was out so I had the huge place almost to my self.  I couldn't linger long as 120 miles remained between Leuven and Utrecht and I wanted to be there by the end of the next day, a day before the team presentations.  The terrain is now flat.  I hadn't used my small chain ring since climbing up from Huy and the Meuse River and it promised to be flat all across Holland.

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