Words: Graeme Fife Photos: Gerard Brown
He greets us by the open door into the lower floor of his condominium (he also has the upstairs apartment) and shows us into a spacious, light-filled room, the end wall panelled in glossy maple wood, a flat-screen television, family photographs. A balcony overlooks the garden; at the other end of the room are shelves lined with trophies, a dining table. Photographer clicks his inbuilt light meter into action and sets off back to get the gear; Hasselblad will get the nod. I sit on an armchair, Sercu on the settee. He remembers me from Bremen, when we spoke in French, and from a brief encounter at Ghent when he was so busy he had no time to say much more than hello in any language. Now we speak in English.
Where to start?
Where Patrick Sercu started, here in Izegem, a few kilometres from where we sit, on the track built by Odile Defraye in 1912, the year he became the first Belgian to win the Tour de France. He’d bought a restaurant with his winnings and built the 166 metre cement track in the garden. By 1959, when Sercu was 15 and ready to start riding, the surface was cracked and pitted. Albert repaired it and, in the photograph which shows his son riding it for the first time, the patches and ribbons of new cement grouting show white on the grey surface. His father organised a programme of competitions on the track for local teenagers.
“Did he teach you?” I ask.
“He was my first trainer, my first promoter. I got on well with him. He’d finished racing, mostly on the road, but he did the Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels Sixes – I think he rode around sixteen altogether.”
Between 1964 and 1983, Sercu Junior rode 233 Sixes and won 88. But he also raced through the road season. His palmarès are quite simply dazzling. I ask how he managed a full winter programme as well as the long calendar of classics and stage races over what was an exceptionally long career.
He smiles. “I couldn’t stay at home. I felt a bicycle rider should always be in competition, on the track and the road. Maybe it was just how I was and I was lucky I could do it.” Moreover, by his own admission, he never took any more than two weeks off and even then only twice a year. The driving imperative for him at the time, as for everyone else, was money. The Six-Days might have paid well in the ‘blue train’ – that elite cadre of some sixteen riders who star on the bill – but otherwise track racing delivered only slim pickings. When riders were paid very little on contract, earnings had to come from prize and appearance money. Reputation fuelled pay rises. There was not the specialisation then as there is now. All riders faced a much longer season than today’s well paid pros.
As an amateur, Sercu routinely raced on the track on Sunday and then on the road on Wednesday; kermesses through the summer, the hard, tight-cornered, cobbled local circuits where the intensity of the crowd’s enthusiasm both reflects and spikes the fury of the competition. It must have been the experience of those short-lap town and village circuits which toughened him, early on, for the dizzy circling on the indoor wooden tracks.
Extract from Rouleur issue 28, coming soon