BRUSSELS (VN) – There is a growing appreciation for what Eddy Merckx achieved among a new generation in cycling.
And the fillip has not just been this year’s Tour de France celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first of five victories.
Helping to boost his popularity is the ongoing speculation over whether one of his remaining records can be beaten; that being his 34 stage wins for which British sprinter Mark Cavendish is the nearest threat with 30 victories in the race.
Before Sunday’s stage two team time trial in Brussels, discussion continued over Cavendish’s omission from Dimension Data’s Tour team, especially over who was behind it. Was it the ‘team,’ as Dimension Date principal Doug Ryder explained, or Ryder, as sports director Rolf Aldag claimed on Saturday, saying he had wanted Cavendish in the Tour team?
His absence also firms the prospect of him falling agonizingly shy of reaching Merckx’s score of Tour stage wins, especially at age 34 when sprinters generally lose that winning edge.
The scenario also reminds why records are so hard to beat, and adds weight to the enormity of his feats, and many others in a professional career that ran from 1965 to 1978.
Merckx, a.k.a ‘The Cannibal’ for his ferocious appetite to win, is the centerpiece of celebrations for the Tour’s Grand Depart, with it starting in the Belgian capital of Brussels and held 50 years after the first of his five Tour victories in 1969.
In a Tour where he has been everywhere in Grand Depart festivities, and where Merckx posters and memorabilia such as Merckx T-shirts are everywhere, the ‘live’ attention on the record of stage wins alone is giving a younger population a contemporary understanding of the significance of his feats.
Every day in the final build-up to the Tour – and since it started on Saturday – they have seen Merckx on podiums. They have seen and heard him on television, listened to him on radio and among many issues, have learned more about a current British star on course for one of his prized records.
Hugo Coorevits, senior cycling editor for the Belgian newspaper, Het Nieuswblad, said “Eddy has much respect” for Cavendish. He also credits Cavendish, a.k.a ‘the Manx Missile’ for: “bringing back the times of Eddy Merckx” to an audience that only knew of Merckx by name, by challenging the Belgian legend as he has by winning so many stages.
“For the younger generation, Eddy is a living dinosaur because he is from another world. But now they read about it. Many people who have never seen Eddy racing because they were too young are shouting, ‘Eddy, Eddy Eddy …’ He is taken aback by everybody in the world still recognizing him.”
Merckx set so many records in so many domains in cycling, from the road to the track. Aside from his record of Tour stage wins, other that still hold include his 525 career wins, 96 days in the Tour yellow jersey and being the only rider to have won all five one day ‘Monuments’ twice or more.
They may be records set in a bygone era of cycling, but a new wave of people are starting to understand their meaning, according to former professional cyclist, Scott Sunderland, now general race director at Flanders Classics. “People are just comprehending what Merckx actually did,” he said.
Increasing the value of Merckx’s feats is that they came in an era when sports science and cycling technology was so unlike the advanced level that it is today. It could be argued that dominating ‘a la Merckx’ today is far harder because of the broad reach to such technology and science creating a broader depth of quality in the peloton. For that reason, Sunderland, believes that: “And as the years go by, I think Merckx’ records are becoming less and less attainable.”
However, Merckx’s career also reflects his towering measure as a stand-alone competitor among his peers at the time.
“The depth and the breadth of the teams, the knowledge, the science, the high-performance aspects of all the teams is across all of them,” said Sunderland, comparing today’s peloton to that of Merckx when he raced professionally.
“Even the smallest team, is ‘miles’ in advance to what the sport was at five or six years ago. Merckx was also a man ahead of his time. Also, when he raced he always had four or five teammates by his side throughout his whole career.
“He was ‘avant garde’ with what he ate, how he trained, how he looked at things, how he perceived his competition.
“What Merckx did, he was years ahead of everyone else.”
As for Cavendish’s absence and how it may impact his chances of bettering Merckx’s stage win record, Sunderland reminds that Merckx faced his own ‘what if’ moments.
“That is part of life. Talk to Merckx,” Sunderland said.
“He won five Tours, but that year  when Bernard Thevenet beat him … [when] he got hit in the ribs and the liver … a lot of bad luck and that cost him sixth Tour victory.
“That’s the beauty about sport, but particularly cycling where there are so many dynamics that affect great results. The ‘what ifs’ … Hey, we have more than a bucket load here.”
Meanwhile, Sunderland believes it was the right decision by Dimension Data to not bring Cavendish on the 106th Tour.
“‘Cav’ at 98 per cent of his old self would be great, but even with a 95 per cent Cav … it is hard to make an impression,” he said. “It’s really hard to say, because everyone has so much admiration for him.”
Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White says it was a “tough” call on Cavendish, but rates him as the best Tour sprinter of all time with or without bettering Merckx’ record.
“Look at what Eddy did, a lot of his wins were in time trials as well. So, Cav, for me, has been the most successful sprinter ever at the Tour de France,” White said. “He has struggled to find the form due to [Epstein Barr] virus, to get back to his level. At the end of the day the team had to make a decision. “It was a tough decision for the team and tough for Cav.”
Will missing the Tour cost Cavendish the stage win record? “Most sprinters don’t go late into their 30s as a general rule – winning into their late 30s, White said. “Everyone who saw four [Tour] stage wins in 2016 thought he would have the record in a year or two. Now it’s going to be a lot harder.”