APRIL 28, 2011
The life of a Flemish-American cycling champion
By Robert Fossez
Nestor Gernay is an interesting guy. When you meet him for the first time you realize immediately that you don’t have to do with the average immigrant, but with someone who has devoted his entire life to maintaining the ties between Flemish and U.S. cycling and promoting everything else to do with Belgium and Flanders in this country. Now sixty-eight and very healthy, with a generous smile and deep blue eyes, when he begins to tell anecdotes, there is no stopping. It is soon clear that his heart still lies in Tielt, West Flanders, from where he and his parents moved to this country in 1954.
We went to find Nestor on a cool autumn afternoon at his spacious country house in the hills of the tranquil village of Saluda in the state of North Carolina. His house is on top of a hill and from its deck, Nestor has a magnificent view over the valley. While we enjoyed his story over a pint, the autumn sun went down over the surrounding mountain range. He had already pedaled a few miles through the hills on his racing bike that morning.
But first I want to tell you how I discovered Nestor and his Shangri-la. As we are wont to do, my wife Katleen and I were driving in the Smoky Mountains last summer, admiring the scenery, when I suddenly came around a bend and saw on top of a hill a villa where a Belgian flag, a Flemish Lion and an American flag proudly hung side by side. I was so startled I almost landed in a ditch. The region is simply not known as a Belgian settlement like Detroit or Moline. Since I am always looking for other Flemings in America, I immediately wanted to go and see who lived there. Unfortunately no one was home. Nevertheless, we took note of the address and, once back home in Greenville we found, after some detective work, Nestor’s address in Tybee Island, Savannah, Georgia. And as they say here, “the rest is history …”
Nestor was born on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1942 in Marialoop, a hamlet near Tielt. His father had a bakery and his mother stood by his side day and night to make the establishment a success, which was not always easy during the dark war years. As soon as he was tall enough to reach the dough trough he began to help his father, even though he was soon sent to bed was sent as baking is a nocturnal job and Nestor had to be fresh in the morning to attend Catholic school. His childhood in Marialoop was that of a normal West-Flemish kid and Nestor felt, even during the war, happy and safe in the family circle. However, by the end of 1940 business went downhill and in 1950 the family moved to nearby Meulebeke. Nevertheless, it came as a shock to Gernay when his father gathered the family around the kitchen table on a winter evening in 1954 and announced that father and mother had decided to move to America.
His mother had an aunt who had moved years ago to Dunellen, New Jersey. She had now invited the family to cross the ocean and seek and their fortune in America. The first years were difficult years in New Jersey for the family and especially for Nestor. You can imagine how lonely and abandoned he felt when he, as an eleven-year boy who spoke no English, landed in an area where he knew nobody. Nestor still gets emotional when he tells me about a tough period. The winters in the northeastern U.S. start early and last long, and the family was often stuck indoors, so they did not start making friends immediately. Even when Nestor started eighth grade he could not understand a word of the lessons in any subject, it might as well have been Chinese.
Shortly after their arrival his father found work in a bakery and his mother cleaned houses five days a week in the neighborhood. Although Nestor had already harbored dreams of becoming a bicycle racer in his early youth in Flanders, his interest in cycling began in earnest in the summer when he rode to work every day by bicycle. He had been hired by a local nursery to pull weeds eight hours a day for 25 cents per hour, which even in 1954 was a miserable wage, but Nestor did not mind because he could commute by bike. For four years he held that job and so he gained good training for his hobby. After much saving Nestor’s father could again open a bakery of his own in 1960. Nestor now had to help his father at night to prepare the dough and do the baking, but he was not happy to toil for 12 hours long in all that dust and oppressive heat. Anyone who ever worked in a bakery knows it is hard work! A year later, in 1961, Nestor had had his fill and he decided, at age 18, to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. Anything to get away from the hard labor of the bakery. In December of that year he became an American citizen and three days later he arrived for his “boot camp” at a base in Texas. During his four years in the Air Force, including three on a military base in Albany, Georgia, he began serious training on the racing bike. In 1964 he trained for the Olympics and in that context, he found an opportunity to return to his beloved Flanders for a while. He requested to be sent to Belgium for two months as official representative of the U.S. Air Force at the Olympics. Again one of his dreams was fulfilled.
An event during his tour of duty in the Air Force that would have an impact on the rest of his life was the friendship he struck up with Jim Bell, a cycling fan from Charleston, South Carolina. Meanwhile, Cupid’s arrow had found our friend Nestor and in 1963 he got married, as a result of which he would soon be blessed with two charming daughters. After his contract ended, Nestor went back to Dunellen. However, he had not forgotten Jim’s invitation and he was ready to leave industrial New Jersey with its cold winters behind him and seek brighter horizons in the south of the US. Taking along his bride and all their belongings, he moved to historic Charleston to work with Jim in construction. They were both tough guys and trained many hours on the racing bike under the palm trees and plane trees in and around Charleston. Not long afterwards Nestor was asked to come to Savannah on the Georgia coast to manage a bike shop, and this was the beginning of his complete devotion to cycling. When the film “The Last of the Belles” was filmed in Savannah, the producers asked Nestor if he could manufacture some old-style bicycles to be used in the film. He immediately agreed, and was offered a cameo role in the film. Because of that role he befriended the star of the film, the English actress Jane Seymour. They had many long conversations about all kinds of things “between takes,” as they say in the film industry.
Shortly thereafter, some friends of Nestor’s wanted to invite the world famous Belgian riders Eddy Merckx and Patrick Sercu to America and Nestor was appointed their chaperone and minder during their two-week stay in the States. Nestor flew to Kennedy Airport in New York to receive them and drove the two riders to the Trexlertown Velodrome in Pennsylvania. According to Nestor, the next two weeks the best of his life and he’ll never forget them. The three of them had a lot of fun together and like true Flemings they went for drinks every evening, sampling all the bars and lounges of the area. They were young and life was good.
They say the apple does not fall far from the tree and that is certainly the case with Nestor’s daughter, Colette. At the age of fourteen, she already showed an interest in her father’s cycling. In 1977, at age eighteen, Colette became American Champion in the Major Taylor Velodrome in Indianapolis, Indiana. Before the race, Eddy Merckx had once again visited America to open a dealership for his bicycle brand in Chicago and he’d promised Colette she could to come live and train with him in Belgium if she made national champion.
So, shortly afterwards she went and spent six weeks at Eddy’s place in Meise near Tervuren. In 1978, Colette won the second place in the Championship of America for Juniors on the road in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and came second in Seattle. Nestor himself took third place with the veterans in Milwaukee in 1981 and third place in Pensacola, Florida. These were national competitions. Together, Nestor and his daughter Colette conquered several silver and bronze medals over the years. The reputation of the Gernay duo traveled all the way to Flanders and the mayor of Meulebeke decided to honor his famous former citizens. The town of Meulebeke wanted to celebrate the return of its famous expatriate and put on a fabulous party.
As mentioned earlier Nestor has another daughter, who has worked for 19 years at Disney World in Florida and of whom he is equally proud.
Circa 1972 Nestor opened his own bike shop in Savannah under the name, “Nestor Cyclery” which he ran until 1994. During that time he founded the cycling club, “The Savannah Wheelmen,” riding under the colors (yes, you guessed right) black, yellow and red like the Belgian flag. Nestor spent a full month in Belgium in 1976 as the manager of the American Junior team for the World Championship in Gooik near Geraardsbergen. In the same year he was racing in the “Jean-Pierre Monseré Evening Criterium” in Roeselare. “Jempi” had died in 1971 after a tragic accident. The race consisted of 75 rounds and the 50 top amateur riders from Belgium competed. Thanks to one of his Belgian uncles, Nestor was able to participate at age 39. He rode in the lead with nine other riders for several rounds but in the end he had to give up because of a flat tire.
A few years later, Nestor started the first triathlon in America. These days there are thriathlons all over the world but how many people know that a Flemish immigrant from Tielt was the inventor of this concept in competitive cycling? Although I did not always follow cycling in America closely over the years, even I had heard of the Nestor Nestor Cup. In 1982 he founded the Nestor Cup in Savannah with the participation of, among others, Ferdy Vanden Houtte, who was champion of Belgium, spokesman and teacher at the Flemish Cycling School. The Consul General of Belgium in Atlanta, also showed up in person to encourage the Nestor Cup riders.
Apart from cycling, Nestor was always willing to help if the event had anything to do with his former homeland. For example, when the Royal Ballet of Flanders came to Savannah for a 20-city tour of America, it was Nestor who, unasked, organized a reception committee and gave them a generous welcome. But the biggest event that Nestor will remember with pleasure was a visit to Savannah by the Belgian warship “Westdiep” and the public relations fiasco it entailed. Nestor had heard that a flotilla of NATO ships was expected at the Port of Savannah, including the Westdiep. Naturally, he wanted to go there and see all that. The first thing he noticed was that each NATO country was represented by a diplomatic delegation, but when the Belgian ship witcame into view, there was not a soul from Belgium, except our Nestor, on the quay. He was again the unofficial welcoming committee! The captain and crew, after they got over their surprise and embarrassment, were delighted to find at least Nestor there and and invited him on board for a glass of champagne to toast the distant homeland and the nearby Savannah.
During the week that the Westdiep was docked in the port of Savannah, the washing machine on the ship broke down. A friend of Nestor’s took a truckload full of dirty clothes to the laundry and delivered them two days later, washed and neatly folded, to the ship. And if that was not enough, Nestor invited the captain and his seven officers to his home to eat steak and frites, with Belgian beer. After that generous welcome the captain wanted to do something in return. Normally under maritime law, no civilians are allowed on the bridge of a ship, but the captain wanted to make an exception. From the quay to the point where the ship was entering the open ocean, Nestor stood on the bridge with the officers. After disembarking, he stood on the quay while all officers and sailors stood in a row on deck and saluted him and blew their brass bugles. Undoubtedly a very moving moment for our man from Tielt. And to top it all, the captain of the Westdiep later wrote a letter to the Embassy of Belgium in Washington to recommended Nestor as the best man for the job if ever Belgium was planning to open a consulate in Savannah. We could certainly agree with that.