Merckx – Half Man, Half Bike

No matter what the field, science, art, literature, sport etc individuals come along that stand so head and shoulders above all that have come before or since they shine like the brightest of lights displaying an Icarus effect on all those who try to emulate them.  In the world of road cycling one man shone brightest of all – Eddy Merckx who between 1966 and 1976 was so good that the records he set will never be surpassed and his relentless desire for victory earned him the nickname of The Cannibal.  He must have been good as when I started to get interested in cycling I would profess to my dad my admiration for whoever was the top dog at the time which got the simple retort, “yes but he’s not as good as Merckx” which from an early age instilled in me an admiration for this seemingly mythical god of two wheels, so much so that one of my first objects of material desire was to own an orange Eddy Merckx bike.

In William Fotheringham’s fantastic study of Merckx he looks to find out what made him tick and drove him to such lengths to be the best and to earn him that moniker.  Who was the man behind the nickname and was he as fearsome off the bike as he clearly was on it?  I’m always interested in reading about astonishing individuals written by people who have a passion and knowledge of the subject they are writing about and this is absolutely the case with this book backed up with painstaking research into the main people, events, rivals and confidants in Merckx’s career.

For me what became clear was that Merckx is and was clearly a quite, anxious, and humble man and I’m reminded how often this is actually the case, warriors on the pitch are often quietly spoken off it, perhaps not needing that big personality as they have already shown the world what they are capable of and need no other outlet for their expression.

Merckx was born a Flandrian but moved at an early age to Brussells so spoke both French and Flemmish, although as Fotheringham explains he was not as comfortable in either of them as he was in his Bruxellois dialect, mostly French with some Flemmish mixed in.  These linguistic differences matter in Belgium to such an extent that it became a national issue there what language his wedding vows were in and when he met the King not what they said but what language they said it in.  I found the whole issue and explanation of Flandrian culture in the book really fascinating perhaps because of where I’m originally from as explained thus:

One parallel for Flanders’ place in cycling would be rugby and South Wales. In both sports and regions … a people who feel themselves exploited and outsmarted have come to use sport as a means of demanding recognition of their worth and separate identity

picture credit: velorunner

Merckx announced himself to the world as a 20 year old in 1966 by winning the classic Milan-San Remo one day race with less that a year’s professional racing behind him, a race he would go on to win a further 6 times in the next 10 years as part of his collection of over 30 Classics victories.  It is incredibly difficult to compare sportspeople from different eras as tactics, teamwork, sports science, training methods etc all make comparisons difficult but it is unlikely that we will ever see such a complete rider as this again.  He was not a pure sprinter but won sprint finishes, not a pure climber but won on the mountain tops making him the complete all rounder.  What really set him (and still sets him) apart was his remorseless desire to attack which he would do seemingly against all better judgement and in almost every circumstance imaginable.  His approach became clear when asked by a TV journalist after one attacking victory:

Did you have it in mind to go for the win today? His answer

Why do you ask me that ? Why do you think I’m here ? To watch the others win ?

For Merckx it was clear that he aimed to go for the win every time he raced.  This of course gave his rivals severe problems and effectively left them racing for second place.  His main early rival the Italian Gimondi was one of the youngest winners of the 3 Grand Tours as well as winning Paris Roubaix and Giro di Lomardia but was left helpless by the emergence of Merckx and between 1968 and 1972 did not win a single head to head confrontation in a major race which left him to reflect:

I had had a vertiginous rise and suddenly I had to be happy winning far less. I can’t say that I hated him.  It was tough.  I had trouble adapting to the problem he set me because all he wanted to do was win.  That was all.  I had to change my mindset.  There were a couple of years when it was very hard to get used to .  I had to begin again from nothing, take the initiative less in a race because when he was there it was hard to get a grip on things.

Cycling is a sport in which your ability to live with pain and suffering will to some extent differentiate between those who are successful and those who aren’t and Merckx was someone who could suffer more than most as Fotheringham painfully details throughout the book with several wince inducing examples.  His style as well was not one for the purists but was based on power:

He wobbles his shoulders, grapples with the bars, stands on the pedals, moves his hips like a madman…  He doesn’t fight like a stylist but like a thug.  It’s like the difference between a boxer sparring and a whirling Apache horde.

picture credit: velorunner

Yet despite this insatiable appetite for the battle and victory a clear sense of honour and the right way do do things comes across in the book.  In the 1971 tour Merckx was a long way behind his bitter rival at the time Ocana and was seemingly going to be beaten.  Ocana crashed severely and was out of the race effectively handing the victory to Merckx who felt that his win was devalued claiming he didn’t win it by fighting for it claiming he would “rather finish second than win in this way”.  A few years later while he was badly injured he refused to pull out so as to ensure that Bernard Thevenet’s victory could never be doubted.  Despite the bitter rivalry between the two they became good friends after finding themselves sat next to each other on a flight.  Ocana asks Merckx “are we going to glare at each other for all our lives” and they proceed to have a long drinking session together and after Ocana’s retirement it is Merckx who helps him find buyers for his business venture.

Like all the brightest of stars however they eventually burn themselves out and this is clearly what happened to Merckx who from the moment he turned pro and adopted an almost manical intensity to his training and racing schedule with one estimate that he trained for 15,000 miles a year, raced about 30,000 and travelled another 80,000 and did this consistently every year competing in 1,413 races between 1967-77.  With such a prodigious workload it is inevitable that as strong and tough as Merckx was it would take it’s toll.  I found the last few years of his career sympathetically and heartfelt in their description but also painful to read of this great man stepping down from the temples of the gods and becoming mortal.  Even at the end though it was carried out with dignity, he could have carried on for 5 years picking up paycheques for appearance fees but that was clearly not his style, he had to be the best and when he could no longer be that then he no longer wanted to compete.

This book is a truly fascinating read, not just for cycling fans, but for all those fascinated by those who burn brightest and in winning over 400 races including the hour record, world championships, one day classics and grand tours Merckx shone the brightest of them all.  What marks the book though is not simply the record of these achievements but the look into the man himself and what made him The Cannibal.  In doing so Fotheringham has produced a gem that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Picture: by Ricardo Guasco