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Merckx dominated the sport through his 13-year spell in the peloton, winning 11 grand tours, three world championships, and dozens of monuments. And despite still being fit, healthy and riding his bike, he admits he is starting to feel his age.
“Do I have to take care of myself at my age? Yes, it’s not because you are Eddy Merckx that you can do more,” he said. “On the contrary. My body has given up and you have to pay attention.”
Speaking during a birthday interview with Sven Nys on Sporza, the “Cannibal” reflected back on his career and how the world of cycling has changed since his 1978 retirement.
“I liked to race. I also raced too much, but that was the only way to make money,” Merckx said. “I did 195 races in one year. The sponsors wanted that, too. Now you train more.
“The change was also caused by the impact of the Tour de France, which has become even greater than in the past,” he said. “If you see how many people are there now, a journalist used to be in the room, now that is out of the question.”
With riders now racing between 70-100 days in a typical season, all while receiving a solid base salary regardless of race appearances, times have changed significantly since Merckx’s heyday, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Ride in 1969 or 2020? 1969! Not now and not even in a year without a coronavirus,” he said. “I was a rider who liked to ride. If I couldn’t participate in a classic due to illness or something else, I would be unhappy.”
“I would not like to be a cyclist today,” Merckx said regarding the coronavirus season stop. “I would crawl up the walls if I can’t race for a year.”
Belgian cycling has found a new talisman in rising wunderkind Remco Evenepoel in recent seasons, and people have been quick to draw comparisons between Merckx and the do-it-all 20-year-old. Merckx isn’t rushing to any judgments on the Decuninck-Quick-Step superstar however.
“Evenepoel needs time,” he said. “You can’t compare what he has achieved to what Bernal has already accomplished.”
Evenepoel will test his legs at his debut grand tour this season, riding the Giro d’Italia in October. Merckx won’t be laying any bets on the youngster for the Italian race.
“I hope Remco is there this year,” he said. “He rides the Giro for three weeks, without ever having done that. And at that age, it could be easy, but it could also be disappointing. Of course, I do not hope for the latter. But you must first walk before you can run.”