Patrick Den Hert is a name that may not be known to many and this reserved collector may perhaps prefer to keep it that way. However, if you happen to be present at any major cycling event in Belgium, or catch the post-race interviews on television, you’ll probably see him in the background, in the presence of his idols.
His dedication to the sport of cycling and his collection of memorabilia is perhaps without equal. For this book I was offered an extremely rare chance to view and document his awe-inspiring collection.
My contact, Jasper De Deyne, had made no promises about the certainty of spending time with Patrick, and he warned me that Patrick could be somewhat “precious” about his vast collection. Within the first few moments of arriving at his home, I perfectly understood why…
In a modestly sized flat on an unassuming street in Antwerp lies a hidden jewel – not so much a collection, but rather a private museum cataloguing the history of cycling, all under the protection of its resident guardian.
Patrick’s limited command of English, along with my non-existent Flemish, meant that his friend and fellow collector Jasper would act as interpreter.
Upon arriving, I was greeted politely and then ushered straight into the living room, which incidentally was one of the few rooms in the house to have been declared a “cycling-free zone” by Patrick’s other half.
The atmosphere at first was a little tense as Patrick understandably wanted to know more about my aims before granting access to the jewel box.
The couple’s two small pet dogs were excited – interestingly referred to as “Merlot” and “Chablis” by his wife, but “Nibali” and “Contador” by Patrick.
Perhaps they sensed the anticipation and nervousness associated with a visitor about to enter the inner sanctum of the collection. As we discussed the project, the atmosphere eased. I had been given the okay and it was time to begin the tour.
Exiting the living room, I finally got the chance to begin to absorb the scale of the collection. Every inch of wall space throughout the home (except in the living room) is covered in jerseys that have been worn by legends such as Merckx, De Vlaeminck, Sercu, Maertens and Monseré to name but a few – the list is almost endless.
Aside from jerseys, both framed and also on mannequins (covered in protective plastic and religiously cleaned every 14 days), there are other items of all types – water bottles, bike parts, caps, medals, promotional items, fanions and posters.
If it has been made, Patrick probably has it.
As we enter the main display room I can hardly decide where to point the camera as he continues to point out various treasures.
Patrick’s collection began in the late 1980s with a humble water bottle and soon grew to include all manner of items. He tells me that his success has been down to forming strong links with the behind-the-scenes staff of the cycling teams, such as the mechanics and drivers, who would often give him access to items.
Patrick’s drive to collect memorabilia was born out of his own promising early career as a cyclist. As a teenager he was one of the best amateur cyclists in Belgium, winning over 90 races and tipped as a rising star.
At 22 years of age he was given the chance to ride professionally, but after much soul searching he made the decision to turn his back on the sport in favour of a career that offered more long-term prospects and financial security.
A decision, he admits, of the head rather than the heart.
Unlike other Belgian cycling stars of the same period (such as his contemporary William Tackaert), he did not come from a cycling background. With little family support for a career choice that would initially pay a minimum wage salary, he made the tough choice to give up
on his ambitions to cycle at the highest level.
After a break of some years he then rediscovered cycling as a pastime, reconnecting with the memories of his past dreams. It was at this point that his collection of items began.
There is definitely something of a sense of regret that he decided to turn his back on the sport – his wife mentions that his collecting will never stop because “he is trying to fill a gap that can never be filled.”
His collection stands as a testament to a lost chance, never to be regained. Regardless of his motives, it is clear that Patrick has assembled a world-class collection and as he continues to show me his items, his passion and enthusiasm is obvious and highly infectious.
Jasper tells me that he has chosen to spend time with us today even though there is cycling being broadcast on the television – we are extremely privileged.
I become aware of the sheer extent of the collection as Patrick keeps disappearing into the off-limits bedroom and appearing with more and more items. Not only items of quality, but also in substantial quantity.
A cardboard fruit pallet is full of cycling caps: “I have another 60 boxes of these,” he casually mentions; as well as original Tour de France posters and fanions, of which he says he has hundreds.
He admits that he has lost track of what he has and that the collection is now becoming too big for his home.
I sense that in accepting my invitation to bring his collection to a wider audience he is fostering the hope that one day he’ll be offered some sort of permanent exhibition space. His items could then be properly displayed in the manner they so richly deserve, to be enjoyed by generations of future cycling fans.
As the day progresses, I realize that what I have seen is not just the tip of the iceberg but, almost incomprehensibly, the tip of the tip of his collection. As we begin to wrap up the day’s enlightening visit, there is suddenly talk of “the basement”, which not even trusted friend Jasper has ever entered.
Beneath Patrick’s home lies a vast space that is filled floor-to-ceiling with the contents of over 30 years of collecting – the stuff of real legend for cycling memorabilia collectors.
It is no legend, it does exist; and one day soon its doors may well be opened…
This is an extract from: ‘The Cycling Jersey – Craftsmanship, Speed & Style’ by Oliver Knight