Eddy Merckx had many wins in his storied career – 525 of them, in fact, including all the Monuments, 11 Grand Tour victories, three world championships, etcetera. However – as a dark dive through some photographic archives reveals – there were some losses, too. No, I’m not talking about a handful of doping positives no one ever seems to talk about – I’m talking about Merckx’s officially licensed sneaker range.
We can trace the genesis of these shoes back to mid-2011, a period when a post-racing Merckx was enthusiastically embracing the shift from ‘man’ to ‘business entity’. Merckx’s mysteriously named bike brand was being raced in the WorldTour – beneath and betwixt legs like Tom Boonen’s – and Merckx was rubbing shoulders with sultans as race director of the Tour of Oman and co-owner of the Tour of Qatar.
It was against this backdrop that Eddy Merckx Holdings – his corporate entity – decided what would really step things up a notch was a range of sneakers released in conjunction with a range of urban bikes; Eddy Merckx footwear to ride Eddy Merckx fixies in.
The forthcoming range was announced in August 2011, with an article from newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen (GVA) (titled “Eddy Merckx immortalized in sneaker”) providing two terse paragraphs about what was to come. The sneakers, they wrote, were the result of a partnership between USG Brands and Eddy Merckx Holdings. They would have the number 525 embroidered on them, a reference to his tally of wins. “The stitching will be done in the colours of his cycling outfit,” the intrepid reporter continued, and they would be for sale in “some stores in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.”
An article from De Standaard, a few months later, bumped ‘some stores’ up to ‘300 stores in Belgium’ and decided the less said about the other territories, the better.
If the announcement of Merckx sneakers got the cycling fanbase frothing at the mouth, I can find little evidence of it. There’s no apparent mention of Eddy Merckx’s kicks in any of the sneaker press, either – which is quite telling, seeing as that particular media niche seems to cover every colourway, collaboration, textile tweak, and fresh drop from any shoe brand you’ve heard of and some you haven’t.
Perhaps it’s because they didn’t look very good. I hear you; fashion is a fickle thing, and I’m conscious that looking at shoes from a decade ago through modern eyes is a fool’s errand. I’m feeling foolish, though.
Let’s take a look at what we’re dealing with, thanks to these photos I tracked down from the launch event.
Below is exhibit A. I hate it. It is neither charming enough to be retro, nor chic enough to retro-chic. There is the man’s name and logo on the side, a little tab of faux carbon fibre at the top lace-hole. It looks like a cross between a steering wheel and a bowling shoe. It also looks like something destined to be driven by dads in Audis:
Nonetheless, Eddy Merckx Holdings had more youthful aspirations than dad shoes, pitching this urban shoe range at an urban audience. And what would a launch event be without some cOoL mOvEs?
Observe: A Youth doing some parkour in a factory, wearing toothpaste-white shoes that are even more blandly clean-cut than the previous ones:
Was there just one man leaping around? There was not. Here is another one – who looks like the same guy, I’ll grant you, but has shorter hair and no Red Bull bracelet. You’ll never guess what’s under the Eddy Merckx tarpaulin (… it’s a bike):
You want to know more about the bike? Of course you do. It was 2011, in that heady period when the cycling industry was about as amped for cheap fixies as it is for gravel bikes today. Here’s Eddy’s offering, a Molteni-orange singlespeed, and this third mad legend is riding it through the factory in a brown pair of Eddy Merckx shoes:
The launch event reached for mainstream attention, summoning a smattering of musicians and minor celebrities to a warehouse to awkwardly hold boxes of shoes aloft:
Bent Van Looy seemed particularly chuffed to be there, despite having been handed the ugliest model in the range:
I’m not Belgian so I am a bit mystified by the attention on Van Looy, who is the key protagonist of the night’s photographic documentation.
Here he is, apparently fielding questions from the rabid media throng (not the role I would expect the singer of a band called Das Pop to take at Eddy Merckx’s sneaker launch):
Lifting a singlespeed aloft – a bike showcasing all the most annoying traits of an integrated seat post, without the integration – it is clear that the camera loves our guy, and our guy loves that he’s a part of it:
I’d like to talk about the enduring legacy of Eddy Merckx’s sneaker range … but I can’t, because there is none. Despite Bent Van Looy’s best efforts on launch day, the apparent total absence of Eddy Merckx himself hinted that the shoes were less passion-project and more cycling-adjacent cash-grab – an attempt to snatch a slice of a youthful market that probably wouldn’t be seen dead in them.
With the benefit of hindsight, the whole episode probably foreshadowed a greater illness. After touting the “long-term cooperation” that was planned between Eddy Merckx Holdings and USG Brands it seems like things fell apart fairly quickly. Even the cycling media in the sales territories they were targeted at couldn’t muster much enthusiasm – the Dutch website Racefietsblog damned them with faint praise, confessing that “after seeing the photos I am not immediately enthusiastic. But maybe they are much more beautiful in real life, who knows?”
I haven’t seen them in real life, but I am also A) not immediately enthusiastic and B) doubtful of their beauty, in any format. They’re long in the past now, anyway: USG Brands went spectacularly bankrupt in 2016, condemning 16 subsidiary companies to the same fate and leaving numerous Dutch and Belgian footwear retailers reeling. I don’t know if there were hundreds of boxes of dusty, licensed Merckx sneakers consigned to a pop-up store somewhere for bargain hunters to scrap over, or whether company administrators would’ve just written them off as a fleeting, failed flirtation and burned the warehouse down to recoup their losses.
What we’re left with is this: in 2011 and 2012, there were Eddy Merckx sneakers, and now there are not. I do not like how they looked. I am glad that our photographers were invited to their launch so that I could find out about them all these years later, happy to have brought them to your attention, and thrilled that I never need to think about them again.