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From the archive: In conversation with Eddy Merckx

20 Mar 2020

Words: James Spender Photography: Juan Juan Trujillo Andrades

Pele lifted the World Cup three times, AP McCoy rode to 20 Champion Jockey titles, Muhammad Ali won three undisputed World Heavyweight titles and Michael Schumacher took seven World Drivers’ Championships.

But arguably none were so dominant in their sport as Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx. And it’s not just the number of races won, it’s the sheer quality, depth and breadth of his wins that sets him apart: 11 Grand Tours, 28 Classics victories, three World Championships, 17 six-day races, an Hour record that stood for 28 years.

He spent a total of 96 days in the yellow jersey, took 34 stage victories in the Tour de France, winning every jersey along the way including the maillot jaune five times, his first by a margin of 17mins 54secs.

He entered some 1,800 races during his career, winning 80 as an amateur and 445 as a professional. As fellow Belgian rider Noël Van Tyghem once remarked, ‘Between us, I and Eddy Merckx have won everything that can be won. I won Paris-Tours, he won all the rest.’

As a young man Merckx was noted for his Elvis Presley looks – a shock of jet black, coiffured hair and sideburns – offset by dark, brooding eyes, a shy personality and the aura of a fragile winner. While there are many archive photographs of Merckx being held aloft, a bouquet in one hand and a wide grin across his face, there are more of the man aboard his machine, mouth slightly open, eyes transfixed on the road a few metres ahead, his expression a beguiling mixture of concentration and indifference.

To say, as many of his peers did, that Merckx was difficult to read was an understatement. He would probably have made just as successful a poker player.

As I wait nervously in the foyer of the Eddy Merckx Cycles factory on the outskirts of Brussels, it’s this face that I’m expecting.

Merckx rarely grants interviews, and I’m convinced that he’s not going to be an easy customer. Yet as the door finally opens and Merckx strides through, the stoic, slightly unimpressed look on his face vanishes into a warm, almost cheeky smile. ‘Hello Mr Merckx,’ I say, proffering a hand. ‘Just call me Eddy,’ he replies.

Now and then

Eddy Merckx

Although now in his 70s, thicker set and with greying hair, Merckx still cuts an instantly recognisable figure. With him is his grandson Luca, a professional field hockey player in Belgium who bears an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather. When I point this out Luca laughs. ‘Sometimes I see photographs of my grandpa when he was my age, and it’s like looking in a mirror!’

‘But I was better looking than him, no?’ Merckx retorts with a machine-gun chuckle, which, surprisingly for a man dubbed ‘The Cannibal’, quickly becomes a trademark of his conversation. But between such quips is the same calculated, slightly disarming expression Merckx used to wear on his bike, like he’s analysing and scrutinising not just every word I’m saying, but every thought I’m thinking.

In his more contemplative moments he appears more psychologist than former bicycle racer, like he knows something you don’t. It’s a trait that he’s happy to admit to turning to his advantage.

‘I think the hardest race for me was the 1972 Giro d’Italia. I was racing against [José Manuel] Fuente, who had just come from the Vuelta [in those days held before the Tour, and which Fuente had won]. He was a great climber. At the time the Giro was not so fast – not like the Tour de France was – and so the climbers arrived at the feet of the mountains not having suffered that much. He was a better climber than me, so to beat him I had to make him make errors. I had to make him nervous. Psychology is important in racing. He never beat me.’

It’s true, that year Merckx won the Giro. Although Fuente led for four stages, Merckx slowly clawed back time despite Fuente’s fine climbing performances, eventually beating the Spaniard into second by 5mins 30secs.

As Graeme Fife recounts in his book, Inside The Peloton, a journalist took a bike and joined the riders on Stage 6 to conduct some impromptu interviews. Italian rider Guerrino Tosello grabbed the microphone and rode up to Merckx – who although safely in the Maglia Rosa was still attacking relentlessly – and asked him why he couldn’t follow the unwritten code of cycling etiquette and give the other riders a chance of stage victories.

Merckx replied, ‘You can say what you like… I’m indifferent.’ So what drove Merckx to these lengths to be dominant, time and again? Because cycling is a passion. Since I was a kid I always dreamed of being a cyclist – in the school holidays I would play Tour de France outside. Why? No one in my family was a cyclist. Why do some people become priests?

‘I always rode my bike but as a kid I never rode big distances, and when I started racing I did not train that much. I was doing lots of other sports as well, mostly basketball because there was a club near where I lived. And swimming, football and tennis, but it is very expensive playing tennis – I could not pay! I just wanted to be a cyclist, and why I didn’t know. It was a passion.’

‘Passion’ is a familiar word amongst cyclists, but it drove Merckx to extraordinary lengths. Perhaps most famous was his breakaway in the 1969 Tour de France. Already leading Frenchman Roger Pingeon by 8mins 21secs, Merckx went into Stage 17 from Luchon to Mourenx knowing all he’d have to do was to ride conservatively to defend the lead. However, he did anything but.

‘I attacked over the Tourmalet and coming down I had a one-minute lead. I said to my directeur sportif, “What shall I do, wait?” He said, “No no, go!” I always used to ride with a little bit in reserve, not full gas, but I just kept riding and the other riders at the back kept losing time, more and more and more. I arrived in Mourenx something like seven minutes 50 seconds ahead. It was a long break, hoo-ey,’ Merckx exhales theatrically. ‘And I was already in the yellow jersey. It was stupid!’

Eddy Merckx attacks at the 1969 Tour de France

Afterwards Merckx famously said to the gathered journalists, ‘I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner,’ which if that sounds like a barbed comment it’s because it was.

He was understandably bitter. At the Giro earlier that year he had tested positive for fencamfamine, a drug not on the banned list but one that had similar effects to amphetamines. He was promptly ejected by race director Vincenzo Torriani, despite wearing the maglia rosa, and suspended from racing for a month. The circumstances, thinks Merckx, were suspicious.

‘The hardest day of my career was Savona [Italy] at the 1969 Giro, for doping. I don’t have anything more I can say about that. Only two days before someone came to me with money to sell the Giro, but I said I’m not interested. They said, “Eddy, think about it, it is a lot of money.” But I said I don’t even want to know how much, so it doesn’t play in my head. It was the worst.’

Merckx looked set to miss that year’s Tour, but the ban was latterly overturned by cycling’s then governing body, the FICP (the Fédération Internationale de Cyclisme Professionnel). The inference from the Merckx camp was that he had somehow been sabotaged for refusing to throw the Giro, with the situation made doubly sore by the fact that Italian Felice Gimondi had tested positive for the same drug the year before but had been let off. Merckx went on to race the Tour, destroying allcomers and providing a highpoint to contrast the year’s early woes.

‘The 20th July 1969 is for me the best memory of my career. It was a dream come true – 30 years since a Belgian rider had won the Tour. I can always remember when I came into the velodrome [de Vincennes]…’ at this point Merckx trails off, and for a moment the dark eyes that have remained almost unblinking look to the ceiling before he closes them. ‘All these people, ooofff! “Eddy! Eddy! Eddy!” Riders say you cannot hear the noise of the crowds, and it’s true, you are so focused. But when you arrive in the velodrome and there are 25,000 people saying your name… I cannot remember much about the second and third Tours, but 1969 was the nicest memory of my career.’

Ride lots

Merckx rode as a professional for 13 years, from 1965 until he retired in 1978, aged 32. By today’s standards that might be considered quite young. Bradley Wiggins was 32 when he won the Tour de France, Cadel Evans was 34, and the likes of Jens Voigt and Chris Horner have ridden professionally into their forties. It’s a fact not lost on Merckx.

‘In 1975 I rode 195 races, big races, small races, and I think some years I rode even more. My generation, we rode all year. Now they focus only on the Tour de France because, OK it is the greatest race of the year, but there are other races. I liked to win the Classics, the stage races, the Tour of Italy, the World Championships. Now with the money involved the Tour de France is more important. But you know there is only one rider who can win it each year.’

Merckx does not, however, harbour any resentment towards the modern sport. Rather he is philosophical, and if anything is pleased at the way things are going. ‘You cannot compare then and now. We received more money than the generation before our generation: me, Gimondi, de Vlaeminck, Ocaña, Poulidor.

'After our generation, the generation of Hinault started to get more money, because we gave a lot to cycling by racing lots and making the sport very attractive to sponsors. It was also the beginning of TV.

Eddy Merckx portrait

‘In our time we were professionals with the hearts of amateurs, now they are professionals with the hearts of professionals. But I think it’s OK – cycling is the hardest sport in the world, so why shouldn’t riders earn similar money to football players? But you do sport because you like the sport. I don’t think you can be a good athlete if you do sport just for the money.’ Yet money has clearly weighed heavily on Merckx’s mind in the past, only it wasn’t necessarily himself he was thinking about.

Each year the big-name riders would get paid (and indeed, still do) to appear at criteriums, the greatest, most profitable of which would come after the Tour. Team leaders such as Merckx would give the winnings away to their teammates as a means of rewarding their often poorly paid help during the big races. Riding one such race – a derny-paced track event at the Blois outdoor velodrome in France – nearly cost Merckx not just his career, but his life.

‘My crash in Blois in 1969 was the worst. I woke up in hospital and they were cutting my head. I say, “Argh!” I have pain, my bone is broken [he had in fact ‘only’ twisted his pelvis and bruised his back]. I stayed in bed for six weeks because of concussion. But I tell you it would maybe have been better if I had broken my hips so it would have taken longer to recover and I could have started riding again rehabilitated. But there was not the education, the osteopaths, at the time. I went back to racing too early and I was never the same in the mountains after the crash.

Tragically Merckx’s derny-pacer, Fernand Wambst, was killed in the accident, dying from head injuries before paramedics could get him to hospital. Merckx admits this was a harrowing experience, so it’s testament to his mental resolve as much as physical toughness that he was back racing a month later. It wouldn’t be the last time his irrepressible spirit and passion to cycle would come back to bite him.

‘The big mistake in my life was finishing the Tour de France in 1975. I crashed and broke my cheekbone [on Stage 17] but I carried on because I wanted to give the money I earned to my teammates. And then the week after I couldn’t ride criteriums – I felt so bad for my teammates. Still, I should have retired and come back fresher in 1976 [Merckx finished second, just 2mins 47secs behind Bernard Thevenet]. If I have one regret in my life that is it. Sometimes you can have too much courage. I was stupid. But that’s me, I can’t stop.’ 

Not pulling punches

Today Merckx is still involved in cycling, both in the internal machinations of the sport as well as the enthusiast side.

‘I am on the board of Ettix–Quick-Step, and advise for the Tour of Qatar and Oman. I’m also involved in charity rides – like this Sunday I’m going to ride for an MS charity, which I have been doing for the last 15 years. I also did a granfondo in Italy in June and I will do another in Austria in September. I watched the Tour de France and it was good. Froome was very present in the Pyrenees, then towards the end he was suffering a bit, but then Quintana was not so good in the beginning. He did not have enough racing before the Tour de France, which is not the best way to start. You can never train like you race in competition. He got better by the end, but it was too late.’

Eddy Merckx holds all three jerseys at the 1969 Tour de France

So what did Merckx make of the treatment of Team Sky/Ineos by the French press? Or indeed Richie Porte being punched by a spectator on Stage 10? After all, like Porte, Merckx was punched by a French spectator on his way up the Puy-de-Dôme during Stage 14 of the 1975 Tour. (According to cycling journalist Richard Moore in an article on the website Bicycling, once Merckx finished the stage, in third, he went back down the mountain with the local gendarme to identify his assailant, a man named Nello Breton. Merckx pressed charges and the French courts ordered Breton to pay a symbolic one franc in damages.)

‘You know the French, they are strange people!’ Merckx says, chuckling ruefully. ‘You hope that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, and that they can take that guy and put him in jail for a few months. But what can you do? There are stupid people.’ And the press?

‘Oi yoi yoi,’ he replies, puffing out his cheeks in exasperation. ‘They think they are better than everybody. They have what we say I think translates as “a big neck” – not modest. So they don’t like it when Froome is winning – they always prefer a Frenchman.

They’ve always been like that. When Ocaña won he was French. When he lost he was from Spain!’ At this remark Merckx is momentarily beside himself, his face creasing up in that mischievous grin again, the room reverberating to his barrel laugh. I get the impression it’s a longstanding joke, perhaps one he’s shared with Ocaña, a man who ran Merckx close on a number of occasions.

The most notable of such was in the 1971 Tour, where Ocaña, 7mins 23secs ahead in the general classification, crashed while descending the Col de Menté on Stage 14 and was forced to retire. It speaks as much of Merckx’s sense of justice as it does of Ocaña’s talent that Merckx refused to wear the yellow jersey the next day out of respect.

End on a high note

Eddy Merckx laughing

It’s a tough thing to wind the interview to a close. There is a genuine warmth to Merckx, who for so long in so many accounts and old black and white pictures is portrayed as aloof, somewhat anxious, but with a mechanical spirit that helped him crush his competitors. Yet in real life he is different – a gregarious gentleman with an endearingly mischievous side.

I’m reminded of this just before I leave. As he poses for one last round of pictures, I casually ask if he might sign something for me. ‘No problem,’ Merckx replies, cracking a laconic smile. ‘But do you know how many autographs I have to do? This is why I do not go to many races. Too many interviews, too many people, too many autographs. That’s for the young guys, that’s not me.’

I’m slightly taken aback, worried that I’ve offended him at the last moment. All I can think to say is that I once heard that Mick Jagger had laid eyes on more people, through his years of gigs, than any other human in the history of mankind. ‘Perhaps you’ve signed more autographs than anyone else in the world?’ I tender. I’m not sure Merckx has quite understood the question, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

‘Yeah, yeah! They’re great, the Rolling Stones, they’re unbelievable. Still!’ Merckx enthuses. I ask if he listens to them. He replies yes, and The Beatles, and Elvis Presley and Little Richard. ‘What’s your favourite Beatles song?’ I say. At this, Merckx turns away from the camera and his eyes light up. ‘Michelle!’ he says emphatically, and starts to sing and sway like he’s slow dancing. ‘Michelle, ma belle, sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble. Tres bien ensemble...’ It’s the last thing that I expected to happen, but then again, it’s Eddy Merckx. He can do what he wants.