insight - Eddy Merckx
Written by Andy McGrath
Occupation - Professional cyclist
With his insatiable hunger for victory and prodigious physical talent, Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist the Tour de France has ever seen.
‘The Cannibal’. That was Eddy Merckx’s nickname, stemming from his voracious appetite for winning bicycle races. For a dozen years from the mid-1960s, his rivals were left feeding off crumbs.
A champion at his most greedy and prolific can discourage fans. But Merckx in his heyday was a joy to behold. He raced with such panache and poise that he made the suffering inherent to his success appear beautiful. A unique physical talent underpinned Eddy’s results. Matched with a fierce will to win and great diligence in training, from the moment he turned professional in 1965, he heralded a new era in the sport.
The Tour de France, which now welcomes Qatar Airways as the official airline, starts its three-week, 3,430km journey this month. But over 40 years since this Belgian’s first victory, the Tour still hasn’t seen anyone quite like Eddy Merckx.
As a teenager, Merckx was a junior boxing champion in a middle-class Brussels suburb, honing the killer instinct that would see him later knock seven bells out of rivals on the bike. He soon switched to two wheels. “I raced everywhere, the locals nicknamed me ‘Tour de France’,” he recalls. “I was an outdoor kid, always exploring and in trouble. The bike gave me more freedom, it widened my horizons.” He refers to cycling as “a calling”.
Calculated on the fastest overall time, the Tour is perennially decided in the Alpine and Pyrenean mountain stages, where the unrelenting terrain renders it easiest to make gains.
It was there that Merckx, all lithe power and taut muscle, disposed of his rivals. He wore an inscrutable mask on his face, as if brooding over some existential matter. The truth was a lot simpler.
He recalls: “Racing was where I felt confident, where I was Eddy Merckx. In races, it was just me, the bike, and the race. There, I had no controversies to confront, no journalists asking questions. I could just express myself.”
And what expression. For me, his most memorable performance came at the end of his first Tour de France win in 1969. Clad in the yellow jersey and already leading the race comfortably, he gained iconic status by going away alone for 130km over two Pyrenean mountains.
Cycling is a sport decided by slender advantages – seconds rather than minutes. Energy conservation is everything, with teammates employed to protect their leaders for as long as possible.
But here was a prodigy. Intensity blazed in his eyes, his gaunt, fresh face sucked in air as he stretched his lead over his helpless rivals. He beat them by eight minutes that day. It was as captivating as it was reckless. That dominant performance typified his career-long style of racing. Merckx wasn’t happy to simply beat his rivals, he had to crush them. “Some people tell me I do too much, but if the race is hard, then it’s hard for my rivals,” he said back then. Now 66, the great champion has mellowed, but his brown eyes still fix with a stare as intense and direct as his modus operandi on the bike.
Where did this drive to succeed come from? “The biggest pressure to perform came from within me. No one could have put more pressure on me to win than I did myself,” Merckx says.
Time and time again, he demolished the field with this quiet internal motivation. Once off the bike, there was no sense of anger or Muhammad Ali-esque arrogance. His personality was at odds with the violence and excitement of his groundbreaking exploits.
“The pressure of popularity often made me retreat within myself. Only on a bicycle did I really feel at ease,” Merckx once said. Merckx won the 1969 Tour by 18 minutes, starting a love affair with what he calls “the most beautiful race in the world”.
He would go on to win cycling’s biggest event four more times (in 1970, 1971, 1972 & 1974) but it would never be so crushingly easy again. Months after that first triumph, a crash on a French track knocked him out, and displaced his pelvis. “After that day cycling became suffering,” he says. “Before then, I could never say I suffered in a race. I just pressed on the pedals when I wanted to, that was all I had to do.”
Mark of a champion
Arguably the true mark of a champion is how he responds to setbacks, and Merckx’s results were barely dented. He won two world championships, four more Tours of Italy, and claimed 13 of cycling’s prestigious one-day Classics, despite enduring back pain that would sometimes reduce him to tears while racing.
Merckx’s dominance displeased some, but honour and victory went hand in hand for him. In 1971, on the way to his second title, Merckx declined to wear the leader’s yellow jersey after Luis Ocaña, who was wearing it the day before, crashed on the col de Mente in the Pyrenees.
Even now, he is perplexed by the contemporary idea of offering cursory gifts to weaker rivals. “A race has to have a winner. How can you be criticised for doing what is the object of your chosen work? I chose to race, so I chose to win. A doctor works to cure, surely a sportsman works to win, doesn’t he?”
Moving from the bike to business in 1977, he remained a success, putting his name and support to a lucrative bicycle manufacturing company and backing burgeoning races, such as the Tour of Qatar. While defending champion Alberto Contador and rival Andy Schleck lead the fight for the Tour’s yellow jersey this July, they will surely find it impossible to eclipse Eddy.
He was unique, a man at one with his machine.
“People often told me that after my career, I’d at last be able to enjoy life. They were wrong. I can say today that I wasn’t missing anything when I was riding. I was perfectly happy.”
Tour of Qatar
The Tour de France organisers, Amaury Sport Organisation, are also behind the Tour of Qatar.
The prestigious February race, part of the UCI Asia Tour, is at the vanguard of cycling’s push for globalisation, with Merckx behind the team who created it – in fact, it’s just the kind of event he would have relished in his career.
Traditionally finishing in the capital of Doha, the Tour of Qatar serves as a key warm-up race for the series of one-day races (called the Classics’) that take place over the jagged cobbles of northern France and Belgium.
The deciding factor is often the wind, whipping across the desert and splitting the bunch of cyclists into select groups. The flat nature of the terrain during the six-stage race lends itself to domination by the sprinters.
Tour de France stars Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen have both won the race in previous years, with the current holder Australia’s Mark Renshaw, who rides alongside Mark Cavendish and Tony Martin for team HTC-Highroad, who are currently ranked ‹1 team in the world.
Maillot jaune Overall winner. This is for the person who completes the total race distance in the least overall time. The winner need not have come first on any individual stage at all, as Alberto Contador showed in 2010.
Maillot à pois rouges ‘King of the Mountains’. Awarded to the best climber in mountain stages. It has sat on the shoulders of France’s Richard Virenque no less than seven times.
Maillot vert Points leader. This jersey is awarded to the rider who holds the most points, usually the fastest sprinter of the tour.
Maillot blanc Best young rider (under 26). The 2010 Tour saw Andy Schleck almost take honours as both overall winner and young rider.
Lanterne rouge The person to finish last on the Tour de France carries the title lanterne rouge (red lantern), named after the light that is hung on the caboose of a train.