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Merckx Imperious: Eddy’s 1969 Tour de France

In-depth
10 Jul 2019
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This article is taken from issue 90 August 2019 of Cyclist which is on sale next Wednesday, 17th July 2019. To get every issue sooner, subscribe here: cyclistmag.co.uk

It was the year of the first flight by a Jumbo Jet and a test flight for another new plane called Concorde. The Beatles gave their last public performance and Led Zeppelin released their first album.

It was also the year that Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail solo and non-stop around the world. Charles de Gaulle stepped down as president of France. Scooby-Doo appeared on television for the first time, as did Sesame Street and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

And a man walked on the Moon. On 16th July Apollo 11 lifted off and four days later landed, with Neil Armstrong emerging from the spacecraft to take one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

As far as the sport of cycling is concerned, that year – 1969 – means only one thing: Eddy Merckx. It is why this year’s Tour de France started in Brussels and spent two days there, and why Merckx, a couple of weeks after his 74th birthday, was guest of honour. He remains cycling’s equivalent of The Beatles – beyond most reasonable debate, the greatest of all time.

On the same day as Armstrong’s Moon walk, Merckx sealed his first Tour win by claiming his sixth stage, the final one of the race, a time-trial into Paris. The rider in second place, Roger Pingeon, ended up 17 minutes and 54 seconds behind the great Belgian.

Merckx also won the points, King of the Mountains, combined and combativity classifications – a collection of jerseys no one has matched in the Tour’s long history.

He gave new meaning to the word domination and earned a nickname that would stick: The Cannibal. For the record, the nickname actually came a few days later, and from an unlikely source. On the day of the final time-trial, a former teammate, Christian Raymond, was visited by his young daughter, Brigitte.

‘My daughter asked me why Merckx always had to win, and I tried to explain that it was normal, because he was the best rider,’ says Raymond. ‘She went quiet for a minute, then looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, then, he’s a real cannibal.”

‘I liked that name “The Cannibal” straight away, and later that day I mentioned it to a couple of journalists. They evidently liked it too.’

Peak performance

Merckx’s giant leap had come in the Pyrenees five days before Armstrong’s small step on the surface of the Moon. The 24-year-old was riding his first Tour in controversial circumstances after being thrown off the Giro d’Italia for a positive drugs test. He was already in the yellow jersey when, on Stage 17 in the Pyrenees, he produced arguably his greatest-ever performance.

It was a twist on the classic Pyrenean stage: Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque, over 214km. Merckx’s loyal teammate Martin Van Den Bossche led on the upper slopes of the Tourmalet when Merkcx exploded out of the chasing group. He passed Van Den Bossche with barely a backward glance, crossed the summit first and then plummeted down the descent.

What was he playing at? In the valley after the descent his Faema team car pulled alongside and asked exactly that. There was, after all, 130km still to ride. He should wait. He had nothing to gain – he already led the Tour by eight minutes – and everything to lose. Merckx nodded in agreement when he was advised by his directeur sportif, Lomme Driessens, to ease off.

Then Driessens’ car broke down, leaving Merckx alone with his thoughts.

‘At that point,’ Merckx said later, ‘for the first time I thought it might be worth attempting an exploit in the context of such a beautiful mountain stage. I pressed on and dug deeper than ever before.’

Jacques Goddet, who was the Tour director at the time, had another theory: ‘He felt how ridiculous waiting would be, what a loss of dignity. He began riding hard so that at the very least there would be no stain on this Tour de France. The others would surely catch him but at least it would feel like a race.’

By the Aubisque, Merckx’s lead was more than five minutes. He increased his advantage to the line, arriving in Mourenx seven minutes and 56 seconds in front of his pursuers. For this astonishing exploit over 145km and four hours, Goddet invented a new word in his column in L’Equipe the next day: ‘Merckxissimo’.

It was ‘a gratuitous act’, wrote Goddet, although of course it was more than that, since it ‘reduced all around him to rubble, including the minds of the opposition and the very concept of competition’.

In Mourenx, after the stage, Van Den Bossche, the teammate left behind on the Tourmalet, was annoyed and perplexed.

‘Today a small rider expected a big gesture from you,’ said Van Den Bossche, to which Merckx said nothing. ‘We never spoke about such things,’ Van Den Bossche said later. ‘Eddy himself didn’t talk much.’

Driven by fear

Merckx was full of contradictions. He was a big, powerful rider who famously gobbled up wins. He looked robust, the very opposite of fragile, yet beneath the skin his confidence was surprisingly brittle.

He wasn’t like Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault or Lance Armstrong, the multiple Tour winners whose successes seemed to stem from supreme self-confidence or arrogance. Merckx was always battling himself, his neuroses and insecurities. He didn’t need victories to feed his ego but rather to quell his doubts and insecurities. And only until the next race.

When I interviewed Merckx a few years ago I asked him to select the greatest performance from his 525 professional wins. Luchon to Mourenx – Stage 17 of the 1969 Tour – was the one he picked first. ‘I think also 1968 to Tre Cime di Lavaredo [Stage 12 of the Giro]. And Paris-Roubaix in 1970.

‘There are a lot,’ he conceded, with just the smallest hint of a smirk.

It’s telling, though, that two of these wins came before his crash at the velodrome in Blois later in 1969, in which his motorcycle pacer died. So bad were Merckx’s injuries there that he remains convinced he never fully recovered.

‘Absolutely. Absolutely. After 1969 I was no longer the same, for sure.’ It didn’t stop him winning four more Tours, four more Giros, one Vuelta a España, four Milan-San Remos, two Paris-Roubaixs, four Liège-Bastogne-Lièges, one Tour of Flanders, two Tour of Lombardys. And lots more.

Nevertheless, Merckx’s conviction that he was never the same after 1969 means that his performance in that year’s Tour is all the more worth dwelling on.

Consider the time gaps. The 10th placed rider was Jan Janssen, not just any rider but the previous year’s winner. He was 52 minutes and 56 seconds down on Merckx. By way of comparison, Nairo Quintana was 10th last year, 14 minutes, 18 seconds down on Geraint Thomas.

But there were other possible reasons for Merckx’s incredible form at the 1969 Tour. The context is what happened at the Giro, which he had won in 1968. Twelve months later he was well placed to win again.

In the first two weeks he won four stages and led Felice Gimondi by one minute 41 seconds. But in Savona on the morning of the 16th stage the Giro director, Vincenzo Torriani, accompanied by a TV crew and two journalists, knocked on Merckx’s door and informed him he had tested positive for a stimulant, fecamfamine.

The news hit Merckx like a sledgehammer and there remains, to this day, much intrigue and many a conspiracy theory about exactly what happened. Merckx was convinced he was set up. The test had been conducted by a new mobile lab, introduced to avoid a repeat of the previous year, when the news of 10 riders (including Gimondi) testing positive wasn’t known until after the race.

Under the rules at the time, Merckx should have been suspended for a month, which would have seen him miss the Tour. But at an extraordinary meeting of the governing body, the FICP, he was cleared on the dubious basis of ‘benefit of the doubt’.

Return from exile

Merckx didn’t take any of this well, from his expulsion from the Giro to the ambiguous language used by the FICP in their verdict. Despite being clear again to race, he didn’t know if he wanted to, and threatened to walk away from the sport altogether.

For a fortnight he hardly left home. Then he threw himself back into training, doing double sessions and 200km behind a motorbike. After a 16-day break he returned to racing at a criterium in Caen.

Yet the explanation for his extraordinary form in July lies in this break after the Giro, argues one of his biographers, William Fotheringham: ‘He raced only five times in the 26 days before the Tour started.’

This made his build up very similar to that of a modern rider tapering before a big race. ‘For once in his career, Merckx was actually rested at the start of a major Tour,’ says Fotheringham. ‘The result was to be a display of pure strength, in a register that cycling had never seen before and has not seen since.’

Merckx’s anxieties and insecurities only deepened following his experience at the Giro. At the 1969 Tour his hotel room was out of bounds. Only one rider was designated to get him bottles from the team car. He would only drink from bottles with his initials engraved on them.

It is hard to reconcile the nervous, worried Merckx with the rider who, according to Gimondi, ‘never rode on tactics – it was all power and instinct’. It can be equally hard to reconcile both versions of Merckx the bike rider – whether crippled by anxiety or crushing opponents – with the relaxed, sometimes rotund figure who appears these days at races. There are still contradictions. He has the air of royalty while also appearing relaxed and approachable.

‘When he arrives at a race it becomes quiet,’ says Philippe Maertens, who worked for Belgian TV for many years. ‘He fills the room. Everybody watches him. But on the other hand he will talk to anybody, and his main weakness is that he can never say no to anybody.

‘He was a big worrier as a rider and he was meticulous with his equipment and everything. He was crazy. It wasn’t a question of a millimetre but a tenth of a millimetre. I think that’s part of the job. The champions of 2019 have the same mentality. You have to be like that.’

Maertens says Merckx lost that hang-up when he retired. Like a snake shedding its skin, he simply discarded the aspect of his personality that had been such an essential part of his success:  ‘Since he stopped he has liked to enjoy life. Everything just seems not so important any more.’

Renaat Schotte, a TV reporter with Sporza, says that in Belgium Merckx is not just a sports personality but a major cultural figure. Schotte has always been struck by the contradictions.

‘He’s a friendly giant, reserved and very cautious but also open,’ he says. ‘There was a very big difference between Eddy the champion and Eddy the human being. On the bike he was a gentle person transformed into a ruthless champion. I can’t explain it, and I don’t think he can.’

Modern Merckx

Merckx has spent more than 50 years having to try to explain it. If he sometimes looks bored when he’s asked to reminisce, it’s maybe because he is (although one journalist got a smile out of him a couple of years ago when he asked a question Merckx had never previously been asked: ‘Who is the second-greatest cyclist of all time?’).

‘He likes to talk about other things,’ says Schotte. ‘You couldn’t do him a bigger favour than to talk about his son [Axel] when he was racing in the 1990s. It is the same now with his granddaughter, Axana, who is a champion swimmer. That’s when you see the twinkle in his eye, the sheer pride he feels. He doesn’t show that when he’s asked about his own career.’

‘I rode with him quite a lot about 10 years ago,’ says Maertens. ‘And the funny thing was, he still rode with his former teammates – and they were still helping him. It was so interesting to see. They were still the domestiques of Eddy – slaves, really. Getting him bottles, keeping him sheltered, leading him out in sprints. And Eddy accepted it.’

The Tour pays homage

This year’s Tour de France kicked off in the home of its greatest protagonist on the anniversary of his finest victory

The Brussels Grand Départ of the 2019 Tour de France was effectively a two-day tribute to Eddy Merckx, 50 years after his first, and arguably best, victory.

The Stage 2 team time-trial took the riders through his old backyard: the neighbourhood of Woluwe, where he was brought up, where he attended school and where he played in the local parks.

Renaat Schotte, a TV reporter with Belgian channel Sporza, says that in the lead-up to the Tour, interest has been growing, with yet more Merckx books, television programmes and ‘lots of activities to celebrate someone who is God, basically’, and around whom there is a mini industry.

‘They named the square in Woluwe, where the Merckx family home was, after Eddy,’ says Schotte. ‘But there was a problem: you can’t name a place in Belgium after a person unless that person is dead or a member of the royal family.

‘So their solution was to rename just part of the square after Eddy – the bit in the centre. He does have a title from the King – he’s a baron – but that’s where they made a mistake. They should have just made him a member of the royal family.’

This article is taken from issue 90 August 2019 of Cyclist which is on sale next Wednesday, 17th July 2019. To get every issue sooner, subscribe here: cyclistmag.co.uk