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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: An extraordinary life

Few jobs can be as boring as that of manning a passport control booth at an airport. For hour after hour you open passports, look at the photo, match it with the person standing in front of you, and then date-stamp one of the blank pages. Next! About 20 years ago, I was in a short line at Madrid’s airport on a midweek morning. The Spanish passport control guy was a little overweight, chubby-faced and somewhat bleary-eyed (from a late-night party?). I could see him giving the passports a cursory glance and mechanically stamping them. It was as if he were in a trance. Then, with the

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By John Wilcockson

Photo: AFP

Few jobs can be as boring as that of manning a passport control booth at an airport. For hour after hour you open passports, look at the photo, match it with the person standing in front of you, and then date-stamp one of the blank pages. Next!

About 20 years ago, I was in a short line at Madrid’s airport on a midweek morning. The Spanish passport control guy was a little overweight, chubby-faced and somewhat bleary-eyed (from a late-night party?). I could see him giving the passports a cursory glance and mechanically stamping them. It was as if he were in a trance.

Then, with the black-haired man in front of me who was wearing a sober dark suit and a bored look on his 40-ish face, the passport guy turned to the photo, looked up, looked back to check the name, looked up again … and involuntarily formed the widest, warmest smile you’ll ever see. He didn’t say a word. Just slowly returned the passport to its owner and probably retained that beautiful smile for the rest of his shift (or maybe his whole life).

The name on the document was “Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx,” but the passport guy knew it was Eddy. How many other people in this world give as much pleasure to so many by just showing up? The Dalai Lama maybe, perhaps Muhammad Ali…. But Eddy is one of the select few.

Eddy Merckx is not the sort of guy who really likes to celebrate milestones. I can imagine him today, Friday, June 17, 2005, puffing his cheeks and letting out a stream of hot air between his thick puckered lips when someone reminds him it’s his 60th birthday. But that won’t stop the world marking this significant date with great retrospectives on Eddy the bike racer, Eddy the superstar, and Eddy the man.

Merckx on a 140km solo attack that put him eight minutes ahead in the '69 Tour

Merckx on a 140km solo attack that put him eight minutes ahead in the ’69 Tour

Photo: AFP

I was lucky enough to begin writing about cycling at the same time as Eddy made his first bold entrance onto the world scene at Sallanches, France, in September 1964. That was where, on a hilly circuit in the Alps, a 19-year-old Belgian came from nowhere to win the world amateur road race championship with a superb solo break on the final lap. He turned pro the following April and the most intense, most successful career this sport has ever seen was under way.

In 13 years as a pro, Eddy Merckx raced 1582 times on the road and won 445 victories. In 1975, besides competing in 151 road races, he took part in 59 track events, mostly six-day races, for an extraordinary 210 days of racing. But Eddy’s career was not just stats. It was the style of his victories (and defeats) that so endeared him to the millions of fans who followed his exploits through the late-1960s and 1970s.

It was in 1968 that I first saw Eddy compete. After a few years of freelance writing (while pursuing a career as a civil engineer), I began work as a full-time journalist (with a new British magazine called International Cycle Sport) in March that year. My first assignment was to take my bike, notebook and camera to the Continent and find some good stories.

I went to Belgium, France and Spain, and arrived by bike in Barcelona in late-March. The next day, I rode out to Sabadell to see the end of the third stage of the Setmana Catalan, which Eddy was riding as preparation for the following Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. It was a bunch finish along a wide cobbled street. Eddy, then 22, had no need to make a big effort as he was just there for training, but there he was charging down the middle of the street in his red-and-white Faema team uniform, elbows out, his long legs churning ferociously, as he led out his teammate Guido Reybrouck. Guido first, Eddy second.

The following day, Eddy won a time-trial stage from Tarrasa to Manresa in the morning, and took third in a road stage to Lerida in the afternoon. He didn’t ride the final stage, despite being the race leader, as he was on a plane back to Belgium for the Ronde van Vlaanderen. That TT success was his sixth win of the year, and he would win 26 more races in 1968.

That year, his first with an Italian team, was a significant one for Merckx. He attended his first-ever training camp; a better dietary regime saw his racing weight drop to 72 kilos (158 pounds); and his climbing ability (particularly in the high mountains) improved dramatically. That was the main reason why he won his first grand tour in 1968, taking the Giro by a wide margin; the most memorable moment was his solo stage win on the summit finish of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites.

At the end of that season, I made another long trip across the Continent by bike to see October’s Tour of Lombardy. I followed the Italian classic in a green Alfa Romeo driven by a chain-smoking Italian journalist, who had the organizer’s permission to drive right in front of the race when he wanted to. That’s how I saw Eddy close in on a chase by Jan Janssen and Herman Van Springel (the 1-2 from that year’s Tour de France), and then chase down a break made by defending champion Franco Bitossi and Eddy’s teammate Martin Vandenbossche.

Here’s how I described it: “I was still watching Bitossi and Vandenbossche rolling along when suddenly the other three burst into the scene as if they were in another race, such was their speed. Merckx was leading his companions at an extraordinary speed — they averaged over 30 mph to make up their two-minute deficit within six miles!”

A short while later, Eddy attacked on the final climb, the San Fermo della Battaglia, and only Van Springel and Bitossi managed to join him. It wasn’t the best of days for Eddy because Van Springel jumped away on the descent to win the race, while Bitossi outsprinted him on the old concrete velodrome in Como for second place.

Eddy never liked losing, but he quickly shrugged off defeats and would come back more determined than ever in his next races. “I always want to win,” he would say. “That’s what racing is all about.” No wonder they called him the Cannibal, the rider who was ravenous for victory.

Thinking back to his incomparable career, dozens of memories flood in: winning the 1968 Paris-Roubaix as if the pavé didn’t exist, taking his first Tour in a blaze of solo breakaways in 1969, earning his third rainbow jersey in an epic duel with Felice Gimondi at Mendrisio in 1971, struggling at the 1972 Tour and yet still winning (for the fourth straight year) … snatching Milan-San Remo for the seventh time in 1976. The list goes on and on, right up to Eddy’s career fizzling to an anonymous ending in early 1978.

Other names would soon fill the winning line at the classics and grand tours, but none of them can emulate the sheer concentration of success achieved by Eddy three decades ago. As Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx enters his 60s, he’s as popular as ever, celebrated wherever he goes, still the perfect gentleman, the most gentle of souls. Let’s hope he can keep those passport guys smiling for another few decades of an extraordinary life.

Happy birthday, Eddy.

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