[CR] Merckx & Kessels

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Date: Wed, 14 Oct 2009 22:06:28 -0400
From: "Angel Garcia" <veronaman@gmail.com>
To: CLASSIC RENDEZVOUS <classicrendezvous@bikelist.org>
Subject: [CR] Merckx & Kessels


Brad,

Thanks for sharing a nice story!

Angel Garcia Long valley, NJ

Merckx/Kessels fans:

A while ago I posted a query about Kessels and last week I got a reply from Chris Protopapas of NYC. The message included a photo of a Merckx Kessels bike from the 1973 season that was displayed at the 1974 NY Bike Show. Having got permission from Chris to share with the rest of the list, I have reprised it below.

I'll be posting the photo to WoolJersey momentarily. (Momentarily on a geologic time scale, mind you.)

Brad Stockwell Palo Alto CA USA

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Here is what I know about Kessels from personal experience:

My first 10-speed bike was a St-Etienne, a sort of Gitane clone, in 1971. The next year my uncle in Belgium wrote me and said he could get a good deal on a racing bike from a friend of his, was I interested? It would cost about $125. I said sure, sounds interesting. So he brings this Eddy Merckx. First off, it's much too small for me. It has Simplex derailleurs, Weinmann sidepulls, and the frame, although it's made using Bocama lugs and has pretty tight geometry (for those days) is obviously common steel, with stamped dropouts. But it had Nisi rims and sew-ups, very exciting, although the hubs are Atoms with wingnuts. A bike for a beginner racer in Belgium, in other words. In terms of performance, it's light-years ahead of 99% of the bikes in town, but for an American teenager just getting into the Bike Boom, it's a bit disappointing. The quest for a longer seatpost is what led me to Thomas Avenia's old shop in Spanish Harlem, on 116th street. What a dungeon! He tells me there are two sizes of Campagnolo seat posts, 27.2 and 26.8. I take a guess at the larger size, which of course proves way too big. My father takes it on his next visit to a merchant ship and has the on-board machine-shop take it down on a lathe. That was a fun bike, got me used to tight racing gears and glueing on tubulars, and that Molteni orange sure stood out.

The next year, 1973, I went back to the Old Country, Belgium. My uncle promised to hook me up with his friend, mr. Kessels, who happened to be an old army buddy. The shop in Ostend was where the offices were, but also where bikes were assembled; the frames were built at another location, in a small village in the countryside (Gistel?). Kessels was the company name, but they had bought the rights to the names of several defunct racing marques, Alcyon and Main D'Or most notably, and sold their bikes under those names. They had been making bikes for Merckx since 1971, and they had recently secured the contract for Belgium and Holland, to sell bikes under the Eddy Merckx name. As was common in those days, the shop had no bikes for sale, just some floor models; you ordered the actual bike and it was made for you in a couple of weeks. My uncle took me to see his friend, who I believe was the younger bother of the founder. As a joke, I had brought a Schwinn catalog to show him. He was a bit puzzled by the Varsity, but his verdict on the Paramount was quick: "looks nice, but a bit old-fashioned, don't you think?" He showed me two frames: the basic semi-pro model, which had Reynolds 531 main tubes and Suntour dropouts, with solid but basic workmanship, and the top-of-the-line model, full Reynolds with Campy dropouts, cutout bottom bracket and very nice finish work, including a beautifully done semi-wrapover seat cluster. He was obviously very proud of it. He explained that his builder was inspired by the simple lines and tight geometry of the new Italian bikes, Masi, Colnago, Poghliaghi etc..

I explained to him that my budget was limited to $350. He said "No problem, I will put together something nice, a top frame with parts that are OK but that you can upgrade later. Come back in two weeks." In those two weeks another uncle managed to get me into the team car of a minor professional team for a "kermesse" race in the countryside, the coach was an army buddy as well (that's one of the benefits of universal, compulsory military service, you make a lot of connections) that was eye-opening. I decided that racing was not for me. Also, I visited another builder/retailer, in Ghent. Plum Vainqueur was the name, they sponsored one of the teams I had seen. They offered me a nice full-Reynolds all-Zeus equipped bike for $350. It was impressive, but very old-fashioned compared to the Kessels bikes, with fancy chromed lugs and Cinelli-style fork crown. At the end of two weeks, I went back to Kessels to take a look. My bike was in the back of a van; it had just come back from the test ride. Turns out that every racing bike they build gets a spin on the local track.

The Kessels company was fairly large for Belgium, not as large as Flandria but not a small boutique either. They sold the full range of bikes, from single-speed town bikes to racing, all made to order for the local market, although they obviously mass-produced stuff for export and especially for re-branding. In those days it was still the custom for bike shops to sell bikes under their name, a hold-over from the days not so long ago when they actually built them. In fact, the traditional name for bike shop in Flanders was "Velo-Maaker", bicycle builder. I remember seeing a stack of primed, unpainted frames in Kessels' truck, probably destined for the house brand market.

When I finally got a look at it, the frame was slightly different from either of the ones he had shown me. It had the great worksmanship of the top model, but the sticker said Reynolds main tubes (and fork) only. The Campy dropouts were chromed, with eyelets. The fork had reinforcing tangs on the inside (wheel side) of the blades, like the semi-pro model, but chromed Campy tips without eyelets. The frame had two large circular cutouts in he bottom bracket, and no braze-ons except for the rear derailleur cable stop. The inside of the right rear chainstay was chromed.

Per my request, he had used only European components. Kessels was quite a fan of Japanese components even back then, he thought the price/quality ratio was excellent. This made sense, because in Europe at the time it was not considered neccesary for every beginner racer to have a full-Campagnolo Colnago, unlike in the US at the time. Kids started racing on quite modest bikes, and concentrated on the craft and the training, not on the latest equipment. But this attitude towards the Japanese leads me to believe that he may have been using Tange or Ishiwata tubing on at least some of the semi-pro frames. Anyway, my bike had TA Professional cranks, Huret Jubilee derailleurs, Weinmann 500 sidepulls, Nisi rims and Tipo low flange hubs. Over the years I ended up replacing everything, but I noticed that the items that I never needed to replace (except by choice) were the ones where the bike came in contact with my body: Cinelli bars and stem, Cinelli saddle, Maillard pedals. It was a very comfortable bike from the beginning, even though it was also stiffer than anything else I'd ever ridden.

Kessels explained that he had given me the best frame possible, and judiciously economized on the components so as to meet my budget. I could always upgrade later. It was a beautiful bicycle, very elegant and modern-looking for its time. I still have it, much modified towards the touring side. The only thing that was disappointing was the paint job; it flaked and chipped very quickly, and I ended up having it repainted by a local frame-builder who also added braze-ons for levers and racks. I was tired of the Molteni orange, and chose blue, but got original decals from Belgium to finish it off. I still have the silver Kessels label somewhere, I never put it on the bike.

A year later, at the 1974 New York bike show, Falcon displayed a bike that had been ridden by Merckx in the 1973 Giro (he skipped the Tour that year). It looked authentic, being the right frame size and pretty beat up. The frame was identical to my Kessels in nearly every detail; the exceptions were these: no chrome or eyelets on the dropouts, and three circular holes in the bottom bracket instead of two. It was obviously a Kessels bike. The next year the bike they displayed was the World Championship bike, and I believe it was a De Rosa.

Chris Protopapas New York City

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