Cycle Heroes March 27, 2010

International Cycling Heroes - Eddy Merckx

Edouard Louis Joseph Baron Merckx, born on June 17th 1945, has achieved far more in his life than just have a brilliant name. Cycling Hall of Fame’s number one and “greatest rider of all time” won a smorgasbord of races before retiring at 32 after thirteen seasons in the saddle.

Somewhat understandably, the Belgian came to be known as just Eddy, although that was only when he wasn’t being referred to as “The Cannibal”, a nickname thrust upon him not because of a controversial incident in his private life, but due to his voracious appetite for winning.

Merckx was not known as “The Cannibal” when he was running around with his younger brother and sister, who were twins, in Sint-Peters-Woluwe during a childhood Merckx himself describes as “beautiful”. Nor when, thanks to an idolisation of Stan Ockers, a cyclist who tragically died in an Antwerp fall in 1956, he obtained his first racing bike aged 8. Fellow Belgian Ockers was worshipped for his achievements in the Tour de France, finishing twice in the runner-up spot in the early fifties whilst a young Merckx followed his achievements on the news.

Not a big admirer of school, Merckx left at the earliest opportunity, and was riding for the for the Evere Kerkhoek Sportif club by July 1961, winning for the first time at his thirteenth attempt in the October. Assisted in his training by Félicien Vervaecke, le Tour’s King of the Mountains twice in the 1930’s, and Guillaume Michiels, Eddy graduated from the youth to the senior amateur class two months ahead of turning eighteen, a regulation-defying move at the time.

By 1964 Merckx was an Olympian, competing in the road race at the 1964 Olympics, and then chalked up the World Amateur Championships later in the year, breaking away to win by such a margin that the second placed rider thought he had won when he crossed the line some half a minute after Eddy. However, the Belgian regarded these achievements amongst his eighty amateur wins as mere milestones, and was totally focussed on his ultimate goal: winning the Tour de France.

April 1965 saw “The Cannibal” turn professional, joining the Solo-Superia Team under the stewardship of a chap named Rik van Looy, where a fellow rider named Jean van Buggenhout became his manager. Perhaps because he felt these two gentlemen were adversaries in the battle for the name most hilarious to your author, although probably not, Eddy didn’t last long at Solo. However, before departing for the Peugeot team, he had amassed nine victories and been picked by national team for the World Championship, where he finished behind Peugeot’s somewhat less exquisitely monikered rider Tom Simpson.

He kicked off life at Peugeot with the first of what would eventually be seven victories in the Milan-San Remo race in 1966, and retained his title the following year, during which he competed in his first Grand Tour, the Giro d'Italia, notching up a brace of stages and coming in ninth. He completed a rather successful 1967 by sprinting home to become World Professional Champion at Heerlen in the Netherlands, in doing so picking up the amateur and professional “set” inside three years. That was enough of Peugeot though, and in 1968, Merckx was off to join the Italian Faema team who were amongst the most professional outfits in the sport at the time. Faema weren’t all that fussed about the Tour de France but this suited Merckx at the time, believing himself not yet strong enough for the Giro d’Italia, which was the apple of Faema’s eye.

Merckx’s appreciation of his own strength was swiftly proved to be cobblers as he immediately won the 1968 Giro, followed by 1969’s Paris-Nice, where he metaphorically invited the best time triallist of the time, Jacques Anquetil, to eat his dust, and collected another Milan-San Remo later that year. Of course, just when you’re thinking our Eddy is the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry, he promptly got booted out of the 1969 Giro for using drugs. The incident was not without controversy; the results of the sample, taken after a stage Merckx described as “easy”, were released to the press before Merckx and his team, who alleged there was no counter-analysis and the whole process was flawed. Thereafter, there was a bit of a hoo-ha with Government ministers from both Belgium and Italy demonstrating an exquisite line in meddling, before the Union Cycliste Internationale quashed his sentence and cleared him to ride in the Tour de France despite accepting the evidence of the Italians and praising their evidence. Eddy, of course, maintained his innocence throughout.

After, and perhaps because of, all that excitement, Merckx very nearly missed out his summer of ‘69 after a doctor found abnormalities in his heart rate, but he was cleared to compete and promptly swept the board, taking the lead after stage six and never relinquishing it, becoming the first Belgian to win the Tour de France in thirty years. He added victory in the points classification and the mountains classification to his triumph in the general classification, an achievement unparalleled in the event and only by only two men in any grand tour and, in winning by nearly eighteen minutes from Roger Pingeon in second place, Merckx crossed the line with a margin of victory which has not been matched since. The Cannibal became a Belgian national hero.

After such a phenomenal effort, Merckx might have been forgiven for taking it a bit easier next time round, but instead he won le Tour again, equalling the record of eight stage wins, winning the mountain classification and letting everybody down by coming second in the sprint standings. The winning margin was a mere twelve minutes and forty-one seconds. He also managed to get through the Giro d’Italia without being disqualified, and inevitably won that event as well. At the time, Merckx was simply untouchable.

After two outstanding performances, the backlash at Merckx’s dominance of le Tour had begun by the time of the 1971 event. Fortunately for these unappreciative types, they had a poster boy in Spaniard Luis Ocaña, who went after Eddy and built up a cushion of almost nine minutes. With Merckx not on a huge number of his fellow competitiors’ Christmas card lists, and the media not helping much either, the Belgian set off after Ocaña and the leading pack without support in all senses of the word. On the Orcières-Merlette to Marseille stage, a 300km stage predominantly along a valley, Merckx went nuclear, dragging the peloton across the south of France with such velocity that a mere one thousand spectators were at the finish early enough. They did not include one Gaston Deferre, the Mayor of Marseille who intended to cast his mayoral spell over proceedings but actually arrived with the riders having departed for the showers and the officials to their hotels. He responded as most rational people would have done by banning the race from Marseilles for the remainder of his mayoring career. Despite this monumental and politician-irking effort, Merckx had made few inroads into his deficit but during a storm in the Pyrenees, fate intervened in a more significant manner than the Belgian’s brute force could ever have done. Merckx had been unable to lose Ocaña, still some seven minutes ahead, on the way up the mountain, but as the weather worsened on the descent, Merckx’s desperation to lose his rival had dramatic consequences. The Cannibal missed a bend and collided with a low wall, leaving him in a heap on the tarmac. He was on his feet immediately but in the meantime, two spectators with ambitions of samaritanism had bounded into the road to help the apparently stricken rider. Help they did, but only by providing a handy obstruction for the unfortunate Ocaña, who collided with the intruders before being walloped by the cycles of three pursuing riders. The Spaniard was out of the race and though Merckx refused to wear the yellow jersey out of respect for his unlucky rival, he had been handed a third consecutive title on a plate, the eventual margin nearly ten minutes. He would also win 1971’s World Championship, and kicked off 1972 with another Giro d’Italia title.

All eyes, however, were on the Tour de France, and the rematch between Ocaña and Merckx. The mind games were out in force beforehand, with Ocaña insisting it was only his unfortunate crash that allowed Merckx victory the previous year. Merckx retorted in style: "Ocaña talks too much. I've won the Tour three times. He's never taken the yellow jersey to Paris. I've done the sums: in three rides, he's dropped out twice. With a record like that he should keep his voice down." With the pre-race handbags won, the Belgian set about winning the real thing for the fourth consecutive occasion, taking over the yellow jersey from Cyrille Guimard on the eighth stage and never relinquishing it, claiming the sprint title and second place in the mountains as well as completing a quartet of overall titles. Ocaña endured a torrid time, coming a cropper in the Pyrenees again before eventually dropping out with a lung infection and probably wishing he’d had less to say beforehand.

The French had responded in eloquent style to Merckx’s most recent victory, which brought him in sight of Jacques Anquetil’s record of five victories, by whistling his stage victories, and the increasing hostility led the organisers to ask the Belgian to sit out the 1973 event. Merckx duly took a breather, instead notching up another Giro d’Italia and toddling over to Spain to beat Ocaña in his own back yard, notching up victory in the Vuelta a Espana. You suspect that Ocaña didn’t mind as much as he might have done, as he took advantage of Merckx’s absence to take his Tour de France crown. The French were nice enough to let him return the following year and, whilst Merckx claimed the “wear and tear” of sustained competition was beginning to affect him, in the space of eight weeks he won another Giro title, the Tour de Suisse and his fifth Tour de France. His old friend Ocaña made a bit of a Horlicks of defending his title and, contracting bronchitis and eventually failing to compete at all.

The Cannibal’s fifth le Tour title would be his last. By 1975, his domination was over, and he was reduced to the role of a mere mortal, as he finished second to Bernard Thévenet in the overall standings, and was runner-up in the sprint and mountain classifications to complete a disappointing set. Our Gallic cousins provided an aggressive atmosphere; the attitude toward Merckx was openly hostile, the spectators happy to spit at Merckx as he cycled past and the event organisers praying for anyone but him to win. This culminated in an astonishing incident on the Puy de Dôme where, with Merckx in sight of the finish line, a man wandered out of the crowd who despised him, and landed a vicious punch into the Belgian’s kidney. Suffering from back pain as a consequence, Eddy squandered the yellow jersey and never recovered it.

Merckx missed the 1976 Tour, not to avoid being assaulted by the French public as you might imagine, but due to saddle sores, and by 1977 Merckx’s body was beginning to fail him. He finished sixth, and won seventeen races in the year, but “deep down [he] knew it was gone." There was futile talk of a further attempt in 1978, but this was to be Merckx’s swansong and a further challenge never materialised. His final victory occurred in July 1977 and his final race followed in March 1978. Announcing his retirement in May 1978, The Cannibal declared “I am living the most difficult day of my life.”

Merckx, known as a quiet and modest individual, opened a bike factory in retirement, which seems obligatory for most retired cyclists, and has also dabbled in television commentary, coaching of the Belgian national cycling team, and forming part of the Belgian Olympic Committee. He acquired the title of Baron from King Albert II of Belgium in 1996, and in 2000 was named as Belgian "Sports Figure of the Century" and ducked in to see the Pope. Perhaps most impressively, he had his own Brussels Metro station named in his honour in 2003 where the bike on which he broke the hour record is on display. Merckx had taken the hour record in October 1972, a further demonstration of his incredible powers of endurance in itself, but more so when you consider this came at the end of a full season during which he had won le Tour, the Giro and four other races. In Mexico City, at high altitude, Merckx claimed the record of Ole Ritter, covering 49.431km and obliterating Ritter’s effort to the extent that after just 5km the only question was the margin by which Eddy would improve on the record. His standard remained unbeaten for twelve years, until Francesco Moser used a specially designed bicycle set a new landmark.

So, where does Merckx stand in the grand scheme of things? In addition to the hour record, Merckx held or holds all of these other records: most career victories by a professional cyclist, most victories in one season, most stage victories in the Tour de France, most stage victories in one Tour de France, most days with the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, the only cyclist to have won the yellow, green and red polka-dotted jersey in the same Tour de France, most victories in classics, most victories in one single classic (seven in the Milan-San Remo), and most Grand Tour Victories. The manner of his dominance of his sport between 1969 and 1974 was enough to really upset the French, and he demonstrated incredible skill, endurance and power with the guts to back it up.

Regrettably, Merckx’s record was tarnished by testing positive for banned substances, not just during the 1969 Giro, but on further occasions as well. The Belgian was also busted after his victory in the Giro di Lombardia in 1973, testing positive for Mucantil (Iodinated glycerol). Again there were grounds for protest, Eddy claiming he had taken syrup “which had been taken off the list of forbidden products”, prescribed to him by a doctor. However, it was not until 2004 that this product was removed from the list, and Mercx’s observations did not come until 2007, when he requested that the UCI give him back his victory. Nasty doctors were again to blame when he was ensnared by the authorities after taking Stimul in the 1975 Flèche Wallonne: "That, I can't deny. I was positive along with around 15 others. I was wrong to trust a doctor."  This was followed by a positive sample for for pémoline, an amphetamine-like drug in 1977.

Despite these apparent transgressions, French magazine Vélo called him "the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known." and American publication, VeloNews, “the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time”. The Cycling Hall of Fame put him at number one in their top twenty-five and refers to him as “simply the greatest rider of all time”. Such accolades are not awarded lightly and perhaps only Lance Armstrong can have claimed to have dominated the sport so completely over a sustained period. In all that I have seen written about Merckx, there is a universal respect for perhaps the sports’ finest competitor. It is hard to disagree.



Cycling Hall of Fame

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