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Friday, October 27, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Merckxissimo!

Who was the greatest Belgian of them all? As Eddy Merckx turns 60, Paul Stump has his mind made up

(from the Bulletin, 2.6.05)

It was Christian Raymond's daughter that started it. One day in 1969, the French cyclist was bemoaning the impossibility of beating Eddy Merckx. 'He's eating us all for breakfast.' 'Like a cannibal, daddy?' she replied.

The Cannibal. They called him other things; 'The Wild Man'; 'The Cycling Executioner'. But what they never called him was second best. Because Merckx was, unquestionably, the finest, fastest cyclist who ever lived. etween 1968 and 1975 he dominated cycling as totally as any European has ever dominated any major individual sport. He ate cycling alive.

Older Italians might assert that Fausto Coppi in his late-40s prime was Merckx's equal; there would be hesitant French advocacy for Bernard Hinault in his 1980s pomp. Neither claim really holds water. Lance Armstrong, despite his multiple Tour de France victories, isn't even in the ballpark, and even the burly Texan recognises that.

Merckx, born on June 17, 1945, in the rural Brussels suburb of Meenzel-Kezegem, grew up in Woluwe St-Pierre. His father Jules was a grocer, a driven, workaholic man of martinet temperament, although Merckx, despite describing one 'unbelievable beating', never speaks ill of his parents or childhood. Hyperactively energetic, single-minded, eccentric (he once asked a barber to shave all his hair off rather than be seen with the cut he had been given), Merckx was bright but had little scholastic aptitude and was certainly no city boy; only on a bike ion tjhe fields south-east of Brussels did he come into his own.

It wasn't assumed he'd make a cyclist. The young Merckx put on weight easily. He loved football and showed promise as a boxer, but was too reserved to make a success of it. But on the bike he broke through as an amateur and , after his mother had moved heaven and earth to persuade the Belgian Cycling Federation to reconsider the medical reports about her son's heart condition that initially had him sidelined from the World amateur championships at Sallanches in 1964, Merckx stunned everyone by winning the event.

By 1966, at just 20 years old, he was winning the classic spring race Milan-San Remo. the following year he won the World Professional Championships. Merckx was very much the coming man. The Italian Faema team spotted his potential and snapped him up.

"In this new environment," Merckx later explained to the author Rik Van Walleghem (whose book Eddy Merckx is still the best biography of the cyclist), "I learned an awful lot aboiut care, preparation and feeding." He also learned about the sharp practises of pushing and doping endemic in Italy. But the transfer worked; it made Merckx the finished article and he thanked the Italians by winning the Giro d'Italia in 1968. He preferred not to ride that year's Tour de France most judges agree that he would have won it if he had).

The Italians were mortified by what they'd helped create. In the late spring of 1969 Merckx tested positive for the stimulant Reactivan at Savona while running away with another Giro d'Italia. Nobody outside Italy doubted Merckx's innocence, or that his sample had been tampered with by local officials jealous of the foreign youngster's brilliance. Merckx was pictured, weeping inconsolably, in his htel room that day. Consumed by anger and bitterness, he would eat revenge hot; in the next years, he would make cycling pay dearly for this unwarranted ignominy.

Perceptive critics made much of his chances for the 1969 Tour later that summer. Older hands like France's Raymond Poulidor and Italy's Felice Gimondi airily announced that they could handle the self-possessed young Belgian prodigy and would teach him a lesson.

They couldn't; they didn't. Merckx burst clear on the slopes of the Ballon d'Alsace in the Vosges to grab the leader's yellow jersey and spread consternation in the trailing field. But it was his ride on the imporbably tough 214km mountain stage from Luchon to Morcenx in the high Pyrenees that made the Merckx legend.

With 130km and four giant mountain passes to go he serenely cycled away from the field and shed anyone who tried to stay with him. Dutch rider and reigning Tour laureate Jan Janssen: "we knew we couldn't get back to him. We didn't even want to any more." By the the day's end Merckx's lead was an almost inconceivable 16 minutes. Merckx won every honour at that Tour (including seven stage wins) - an unprecedented and probably unrepeatable feat. Big Barry Hoban, the bluff, tough English sprinter joked, "have you heard? Poulidor and Gimondi got fined for taking a tow from a lorry. Merckx? Oh, he was fined too - he was towing the lorry."

Such was the scale of his achievement, he became not only an icon of cycling but of european sport per se. The Belgian mass media - relatively unformed as it then was - was beside itself at this backyard gift. Merckx was already fairly well-known in his homeland, but now he was a world sporting great springing fully-formed from the cobbles of a Brussels suburban street.

He was photogenic too; cycling historian Les Woodland memorably writes of Merckx's "Betty Boop eyelashes and matinee-idol looks". Microphones toted by hacks trailing misquotes like leaves followed Merckx wherever he went. Both the French and Flemish wanted pieces of him, particularly the latter. There was a minor scandal in Brussels' Diutch-speaking press when Merckx conducted the vows at his 1967 wedding to Claudine Acou in French; on the flimsiest of pretexts, Het Laatste Nieuws reported in 1973 that Merckx was bringing up his daughter Sabrina to speak Dutch.

Merckx, always a retiring type, offered them nothing. He was courteous but guarded and unforthcoming, selling himself and his secrets dearly. After Savona, he had retreated even further into himself. But then reality intruded enough to remind him that a place among the angels in cyclihng is earned only by unimaginable suffering. To a degree that he began to find talking aboiut his chosen profession all but impossible.

At Blois, shortly after the 1969 Tour triumph, in a time-trial where the riders were paced by Derny motorcycles, Merckx's pilot rider Fernand Wambst crashed and was killed. Merckx came down in the wreckage and never again rode without guilt or pain. In 1974 he described the agony and depradations of the Tour in stomach-churning terms; so bad were his saddle sores that "the lining of my shorts was always soaked in blood".

"The human, normal Merckx," reflected the Spanish ace Luis Ocana, a deadly rival who later became a good friend, "was always pushed into the background by the athlete... because of his sport {...} he always kept a lid on his other self the entire time." Merckx didn't demur. "Nobody really knows me," he once said, gnomically and famously.

He had few friends in the peloton. Martin van de Bossche, a Merckx domestique (in cycling parlance, literally a servant rider), was one of many who came to resent racing permanently in the shadow of their superman boss. At Faema, everything revolved around Merckx; 'with Eddy, it was impossible to be your own individual," says van den Bossche, who quit Faema in 1969. "If he ordered a Trappist beer, everyone ordered a Trappist beer." This was hardly Merckx's fault, but ironically he himself had grumbled about identical treatment by Rik Van Looy, his predecessor as Belgian No.1, when he had ridden for the self-styled 'Emperor of Herentals' a few years before.

Merckx won the Tour again in 1970, although the following year's race brought the first whisper of a serious rivalry. On the Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette stage Luis Ocana left Merckx gasping with a pugnacious attack.

But days later, in torrential Pyrenean rain, the Spaniard careened into a pile-up of riders and was then run over himself by the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk; with Ocana out, a relieved Merckx won. the Belgian then dominated his rematch with Ocana twelve months later.

He was by now picking off wins in the Giro and the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) at will. There was also the small matter of shattering the World Hour Record. In mexico City in 1972, Merckx cycled nearly 50km in 60 minutes - even at altitude where air resistance is weaker, an unbelievable feat.

Merckx, to some, ceased to be human. friends, even some adversaires, defended him. Off the bike, he was reputed to be a thoroughly good egg once the carapace had been breahced. Onetime nemesis Ocana became a close chum. But Merckx was always the competitor; at cards, at football (he was a decent amateur player) and even at drinking. He later downplayed his bon viveur reputation but one friend recalls that one evening "Merckx even turned the drinking into a race... and he drank us all under the table."

As the writer Graeme Fife points out, Merckx won more major races than most modern racers ride in their entire careers. He couldn't just dominate tours - he routinely won classic one-day races, such as Belgium's Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Ghent-Wevelgem.

He dominated an era of superb riders - Zoetemelk, Ocana, Dutchman Hermann van Springel and the Belgian dangermen Roger De Vlaminck and Lucien Van Impe, all regarded as true greats of the sport. Proportinately, he won more races than anyone - only Hinault comes remotely close. Even given the advances in training, kit, diet and investment since Merckx's day, it seems improbable that any cyclist will ever match his extraordinary palmarès.

What's more, the tactical nature of modern road-racing means it is unlikely Merckx's relentless thirst for winning from the front and with panache will ever be equalled. Watching TV footage of Merckx now is, for cycling fans, like watchinng Jesus do his loaves-and-fishes number. You see it, but you don't quite believe it. Straight-backed and intent over the handlebars, Merckx's aerodynamic posture is all unbending attack mode, as passionate for a win as a callow schoolboy.

Merckx's one weakness was when a race concluded in the manic argy-bargy of massed bunch sprint; some commentators suggest that his habit of attacking as hard and asoon as possible sprang from a desire to avoid the indignity of being decked in one of these churning, frantic, 60km dashes.

Merckx, for all his punishining dominance and occasional lack of grace - he would grimly track a rider who, by cycling custom, was allowed to lead a race through his home town - was never really hated by the riders he often made look silly. Envied yes, hated, no. He had humility and a sense of honour. When Ocana quit the 1971 tour, Merckx refused to wear the yellow jersey that was his by rights the next day. Other riders groused periodically about his refusal to help them - cycling's bizarre and byzantine ethical coce dictates that if you help a rider win a race, he will help you win another. "Merckx never gave you anything," Bernard Hinault groaned recently to Vélo magazine. But he also helped out old foes in difficulties outside the sport, especially Ocana and former team-mate Roger Swerts. He complained publicly about low wages; bur rather for his faithful domestiques than himself.

French cycling journalists, for all their chauvinism, were unable to conceal their hero-worship. The French public, though, thought otherwise. Resentment of Merckx's dominance of the Tour grew to hatred; in 1975, he was punched in the stomach by a spectator at Puy-de-Dome when in pursuit of a then-record sixth title. Merckx claimed to be unhurt and unperturbed (although he was rewarded, and accepted, a symbolic one franc in damages).

The next day was Bastille Day, and in shrivelling heat on the climb to Col d'Allos (2240m) he tried to go after a break by Frenchman Bernard Thévenét. But then all France exulted as Merckx visibly cracked and fell back. A girl in a bikini at the roadside waved a hastily-scriblled placard: 'Merckx is beaten! The Bastille has fallen!"

Thévenet won the Tour and Merckx, despite winning enough classics in the next two season to chasten any current rider, couldn't postpone the inevitable. On March 19, 1978, before a minor race in Antwerp, the Oml;oop de Waasland, Merckx turned to his physio and said, "Pierre [Dewit]) this is my last race." Merckx finished 12th. "There you are, you can stull do it," jollied Dewit. But Merckx meant it. The two men packed up the gear and ended an area. Merckx was 32.

For a while, the champion was rudderless. He had stacks of dough, Miró originals (a recurrent passion), worldwide renown; yet for all the irritants of fame that turning the pdeals had brought, Merckx missed the bike, or,more accurately, he missed winning. His weight, perhaps inevitably, ballooned. One unsuccessful business venture nearly ruined him. So he returned to his métier; bikes. He set up his own bike factory (what name could lend more prestige) and re-entered the sport by the side-door. He nurtured his son Axel's career (having firmly told his younger brother to forget the sport 30 years previously) and watched with pride as the younger man progressed, winning bronze for Belgium in the 2004 Athens Olympics road race.

How did Merckx do it? After all, cycling and doping have always been bedfellows. But Merckx only tested positive three times - dubiously at Savona, accidentally after an erroneous prescription in 1974 and marginally in 1977, near the end. He didn't need dope - tests conducted around Europe by scientists confirmed what most had known and feared - Merckx had a nigh-on perfect metabolism for road racing, and the abnormally high levels of lactic acid in his blood enabled him to push his body to unknwon limits. Had he been doping, it is almost certain that he could have driven his bosdy too far and killed himself, as happened with the British rider (and Merckx's friend) Tom Simpson, high on Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour De France.

Furthermore, Merckx was a notorious insomniac; Claudine reports her husband's constant small-hours visits to the garage in order to fiddle with bikes. He tried to eat healthily, but loved red meat. Merckx was no fibre-carbs-and-wholemeal pasta fanatic. All of these factors militated against success, and all begged for pharmaceutial redress. But none, it seems, was required. The cyclist simply had "a phenomenal constitution" according to one soigneur, once racing competitively 54 days - count 'em - in a row.

The photographer and cycling fan Stefan Vanfleteren told me recently: 'have you seen Eddy lately? He's in great shape." I turned on the telly. There he was, helping out at the Tour of Flanders, diplomatically hopping between Wallonian and Flemish studios. He looked content with life's bounty; like a man whose 60 years have already contained enough for five lifetimes (bloody shorts and all) and who was looking forward to the third age as much as he ever looked forwartd to a race when he was in his prime.

The fire may be burning lower now, but Eddy Merckx is still a contender. No longer for 'greatest cyclist in history', for that's surely a foregone conclusion. Surely, now, it's 'greatest Belgian in history.'


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