Cycling has a habit of tugging romantic heartstrings; it’s a sport of legend, folklore and character, which gladly takes any excuse to glorify its heritage.
Few places command more honour from cyclists than Ghent, so it’s really no surprise that the Belgian city is home to one of the sport’s most hallowed enterprises, the bike shop Plum.
This discreetly situated shop, at a crossroads in central Ghent, was once an unofficial hub for pioneering British riders, including Tom Simpson, racing in Europe during the Fifties and Sixties. Part shop, part team base and part homestay, this modest establishment and the people behind it have played an influential part in many a rider’s career.
“The shop started in 1910 as PDS,” explains current owner Pierre Simoens, a reference to founder Pol Desnerck. “A few years later, Pol changed it to La Plume, French for feather.”
Desnerck’s business idea clearly had wings, and flourished in the cycling-crazed city of Ghent.
Its trademark frame, the Plume Vainqueur, was created before the firm moved to its current location, Nederkouter 141. Desnerck’s son Marcel, along with wife Rosa, inherited the reins during the Forties, and in a quintessentially Flandrian act, ditched the French name in favour of its Dutch equivalent, Plum. Even so, one element of qualité de France was deemed too precious to change — the Vainqueur name continued to decorate Plum frames till production stopped in the Seventies.
Simoens himself started working in the business under Marcel Desnerck in 1969, and has been at the helm since 1980. His chapter was highlighted by the accumulation of a remarkable fleet of historic bikes, many over a century old, which he’s amassed as a museum in the shop’s crowded basement.
The museum and the workshop are nestled in deep corners of the shop’s labyrinth layout, which exhibits everything from kid’s bikes and recumbents to high-end road bikes and Plum-branded apparel, with a Lance Armstrong Tour de France Trek thrown in for added intrigue.
However, the golden, post-War era of Plum — during which, while sponsoring various professional teams, the brand set up a chain of bike shops across Flanders and became a highly esteemed frame-builder — is over. Between 1949 and 1961, Plum backed a pro team every year, using either Plume Vainqueur or Plume Sport frames, naturally.
As well as running the shop, Marcel Desnerck was the on-off team manager too; one can almost imagine his riders eating pre-race steaks in the Plum workshop before rolling down to the start of, say, Ghent-Wevelgem — a race that Gilbert Van de Wiele won atop a Vainqueur frame in 1955.
A welcoming refuge
Gradually, Anglophone riders began to descend on Europe to forge their careers. With its abundance of accessible racing as well as its six-day scene, Ghent was a magnet.
“They all came to Ghent,” says Simoens — and they came to Plum. “If you talk with any of the old foreign riders, and speak of Rosa Desnerck, they will say, ‘Ah, Madame Rosa!’”
The Desnercks were known to house foreign racers staying in Ghent. In fact, the Desnerck rider house still stands, an underwhelming yet endearing building, no more than 200m up the road from Plum.
“Tom Simpson lived at Madame Rosa’s. Allan Peiper also, and Gary Wiggins,” Simoens explains. “In the basement, in the attic, in the shop, it was filled with bicycle riders.”
And although the dormancy of Madame Rosa’s house today may serve as a metaphorical salute to times gone by, the story of Plum is one that will not be forgotten. Just mutter ‘Vainqueur’ within earshot of Pierre Simoens and find out for yourself.