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‘Sagan is a complete rider, but I was more complete’: Eddy Merckx Q&A

James Spender
18 Feb 2019

The legendary rider discusses the 2018 season, stars of the future and why the only thing that really matters is the colour of your jersey

This feature was originally published in Issue 82 of Cyclist magazine

Cyclist: What have you made of this season? Which moments stood out?

Eddy Merckx: Nibali winning Milan-San Remo was a big moment [Vincenzo Nibali produced an impressive winning solo attack over the Poggio], and Peter Sagan at Paris-Roubaix was also very good.

It was also nice to see Chris Froome attack like he did on the Finestre in the Giro d’Italia.

Last year he won the Tour de France without winning a stage, but I think it is important for a champion to win a stage too, so seeing Froome do this at the Giro was very impressive.

It is good for cycling to see this. It was the first time in a long time a big break like this has been made in a major race.

Cyc: You’re no stranger to winning races with long solo attacks, and next year will mark 50 years since you won your first Tour de France, in which you rode one of the most outlandish breakaways in Tour history. Can you talk us through it?

EM: I started by 1969 winning the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Then I was cancelled at the Giro d’Italia [Merckx was ejected from the race over a doping accusation, which was later overturned].

This meant I started the Tour really wanting to win. I had the lead going into Stage 17, then I attacked on the Tourmalet. Then even though I was in yellow already and my team said I should wait, I didn’t.

I just went more and more and more.

Cyc: You were eight minutes and 21 seconds ahead in the general classification before the Tourmalet stage, so why did you attack? Were you unsure of your lead?

EM: There were no race radios back then, but the sports director was there with the car and a timing board, so I knew I had made a minute lead going over the Tourmalet.

But at a certain point as a rider you have to attack to show the difference between you and your competitors, so I kept going and I arrived in Mourenx nearly eight minutes ahead.

Cyc: You famously said to the journalists gathered at the finish, ‘I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner.’ Did you plan that moment?

EM: No, it was not like that. I was happy to be ahead, but I was also nervous – you only know you have won it when you pass the line in Paris, not before.

Anything can happen, you can have a crash, get ill.

But then that moment when I passed the finish line in Paris – that is the best memory of my career. I was always happy when I was winning, although the more you win the more pressure there is on you to win more.

Cyc: Was it pressure that got to Chris Froome at the Tour this year? Was Geraint Thomas lucky?

EM: There is no reason why Froome cannot win five Tours, but Geraint was not lucky, although I was surprised he won. He is a rouleur winning a stage race. But he proved himself, and he had such a strong team.

Next year I am sure we will see more from Nibali and Tom Dumoulin.

Cyc: What did you think of Team Sky’s treatment by the French fans and media this year?

EM: It was not good. Dave Brailsford said what he said, and he said the truth. He said what he sees. [Brailsford responded to French fans spitting on Team Sky riders by calling it a ‘French cultural thing’.]

Cyc: Is cycling a more dangerous sport now than in your day? There seem to be more crashes year on year in races.

EM: The problem is most riders are not training in pelotons.

They go to the mountains for one month, training alone, climbing alone, descending alone. But if you do this you come to races and you are afraid because you don’t have the experience of riding in a peloton.

I would race as much as I could for this reason. In 1975 I did 195 races. I think this is one way we can make the sport more exciting, as well. All the big-name riders need to go to all the big races.

Cyc: Who do you think is the most exciting rider at present?

EM: I am very impressed with Egan Bernal [Team Sky]. He is an unbelievable rider, he will get stronger and stronger. And Sagan.

Cyc: Commentators have likened Peter Sagan to you. Is that fair?

EM: Yes, because he attacks. But Sagan has never won the Tour de France! For me it was important to wear the yellow jersey, not the green. Sagan is a complete rider, but he is not the climber he needs to be to win Grand Tours.

I was more complete. Also a better time-triallist, no?

Cyc: Is that where you got your nickname ‘The Cannibal’ from?

EM: Well, not many people called me that during my career, but afterwards they started to use it more.

I think one of the only people who really called me that during my career was Christian Raymond [a Frenchman on the Peugeot-BP-Michelin team]. He told his daughter how I would ride and his daughter said I was like a cannibal.

Even then he’d say to me, ‘Hey Cannie, what are you doing?’ but not ‘Cannibal’.

Cyc: We met your old framebuilder Ugo De Rosa recently, who said he always respected the fact that you gave him champagne when you won, which the team managers often did not…

EM: I gave him grey hairs too! Ugo De Rosa was the best framebuilder and mechanic, especially for me, as I was very meticulous about my equipment.

Cyc: But people often quote you as saying, ‘Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.’ Is that something you really said?

EM: It is not really what I said, but it was what I meant. It is not the bike that makes the difference, it is the athlete.

Cycling is not Formula 1. The bike is a tool for work, no? But when I was racing I did spend more time in the garage than in my living room.

Palmarès

Eddy Merckx Age: 73
Nationality: Belgian
Major wins Tour de France: 1st, 1969-1972, 1974, 34 stage wins
Giro d’Italia: 1st, 1968, 1970-1972, 1974, 24 stage wins
Vuelta a España: 1st, 1973, 6 stage wins
Paris-Roubaix: 1st, 1968, 1970, 1973
Tour of Flanders: 1st, 1969, 1975
World Championships Road Race: 1st, 1967, 1971, 1974