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‘Merckx 525:’ A tribute to the Cannibal

Editor’s Note: To celebrate Eddy Merckx’s 70th birthday, this is an excerpt from the VeloPress book, “Merckx 525.”

“I only wanted to be one thing: a racing cyclist,” Merckx always said. “I couldn’t think of anything else. And if I hadn’t become a cyclist? Whatever I would have chosen would in any case have had something to do with sport. I would probably have got myself a degree in physical education, or something similar. But I am very pleased that I could fulfill my great dream and become a racing cyclist.”

Toward the end of the 1950s, the young Edouard Merckx took part in one of his first races in the village of his birth, Meensel-Kiezegem. The race was organized during the local fair. There were no strict regulations, and riders ranging in age from 12 to 19 took part. Merckx, a mere stripling, set off on the rough and sloping cobbled roads, and though he was soon left behind, he fought back. Moreover, in his race for 12th place, he contested his finish in a sprint, throwing his arms in the air as he crossed the line ahead of the anonymous number 13.

Merckx was over the moon. Racing was all he wanted to do.

Eddy Merckx was 16 when he first took part in an official cycling competition. In July 1961, after much nagging, his parents reluctantly gave him permission to enter a race during the holidays.

“I dreamed for a very long time of becoming a coureur, but my father wouldn’t allow me to race without a license in the unofficial circuit,” Merckx later recalled. “If anything happened I would not be insured, he said. When I finally turned 16, my father no longer objected. And so I could start with the novices.”

Those first races cannot be called an unqualified success. Merckx still had to find his way in the peloton. But the 14th race he took part in, in Petit-Enghien, he won. It was October 1, 1961. Thirty-five cyclists raced for the flowers. It was Edouard Merckx who was fastest by riding the 62.2 km in 1 hour and 40 minutes. Someone called W. Beerens was second.

But second doesn’t count, of course. The trophy, the flowers, and the kisses from Marianne, the flower girl, were for a beaming Edouard. His first win was in the books.

Perhaps no race exemplified Merckx’s dominance over the peloton as his 1969 Tour de France victory. On June 28, 1969, Eddy Merckx is at the start of his first Tour de France. He soon has the race in a stranglehold. On a sweltering hot 15th of July, for instance, before beginning the mountainous 17th stage between Bagnères-de-Luchon and Mourenx-Ville-Nouvelle in the Pyrenees, Merckx already has an 8:21 lead in the overall ranking on the Frenchman Roger Pingeon, the leader of Merckx’s former team, Peugeot. He has also compiled four stage wins. Victory in the Tour can hardly escape him. Merckx can make himself comfortable, if he chooses. He can tackle the very heavy stage across the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque peaks defensively as the wearer of the yellow jersey. But when the jersey answers to the name of Eddy Merckx, it is a different story. Merckx’s hunger has not yet been satisfied. On the Peyresourde and the Aspin, it is the keen Spaniard Joaquín Galera who stirs himself and is first over the top. Merckx, flanked and paced by his teammate Martin Van Den Bossche, is ready to move but does not show his hand yet. He does rather enjoy the thought that even here, on the smooth-running Aspin, riders — good riders — have to drop out. Herman Van Springel, second in the 1968 Tour, is one of the victims. Merckx is third at the top of the Aspin.

But his moment is still to come.

It is hot and steep on the slopes of the legendary Col du Tourmalet. Past La Mongie, the road narrows and winds its way to the top. Van Den Bossche keeps up a steady tempo. A very steady tempo. In the last few bends just before the top, Merckx squeezes a little sprint out of it. Without actually wanting it, he sees that he can start on his own on the descent to Luz-Saint-Sauveur. It’s still another 140 km to Mourenx. He carries on, not with the intention of making a solo trip of it, but “because it’s safer to go down on your own,” he says later. The Frenchmen Raymond Poulidor and Roger Pingeon, who are his most dangerous rivals in the ranking, can’t believe their eyes, but they let Merckx get on with it.

“We’re bound to catch him later,” they think. But no. Merckx runs out a lead on the descent. In the valley, he hesitates for a moment. To go on or wait for his pursuers? He opts for the first, because today he is just one chunk of Sturm und Drang. He challenges everything and everybody, himself and the others. He goes flat-out through the Vallée de Luz. It seems to be total madness, but it’s so wonderful.

In Argelès-Gazost, at the feed zone, Merckx looks like a bird pursued by a cat; the pursuers, who could organize themselves on the flat, follow at a bare 300 meters. But Merckx yields nothing. On the rather annoyingly rising road in the direction of Arrens-Marsous, at the foot of the Col du Soulor, Merckx gathers in two minutes. He takes it as a sign to abandon restraint completely.

The 7km-long Soulor is the no-man’s-land of the Aubisque. At the top of the Soulor, his lead on the stage has grown to a good five minutes. Ten kilometers further on, at the top of the Aubisque, his lead has increased to more than seven minutes. In Laruns, after the descent from the Aubisque, it is up to eight minutes. This he maintains all the way to Mourenx-Ville-Nouvelle. Michele Dancelli and six others, among them Pingeon and Poulidor, finish at 7:56 in arrears. A full quarter of an hour after Merckx, the former Tour winners Felice Gimondi and Jan Janssen trickle in. When Merckx crosses the line with both hands in the air, the French TV commentator chants, “Bravo Merckx! Merckx est un Seigneur.” Lord Merckx is all adrenaline. Just after his arrival he bumps shoulders with a man who is promptly treated to an angry look from the absolute ruler of the Tour. There is Merckx, and then there are the rest. Although he seems unmatchable, Merckx admits afterward that he had a very rough time in the last 20km of the stage. “I had to use all my willpower not to weaken. But however exhausted I am, I think I have done something that people will remember.” No one will deny that. At the start of stage 18, Pingeon is still placed second; he is, however, a quarter of an hour in arrears. In Paris, where Merckx also wins the final stage, his overall lead becomes 17:54. Everyone is impressed, including Tour chief Jacques Goddet, who later describes Merckx’s raid during Bagnères-de-Luchon–Mourenx-Ville-Nouvelle as the most impressive example of athletic superiority he had seen in his career of 60 years. Goddet even coins a new and thoroughly appropriate superlative:

“Merckxissimo.” The Merckx of Merckxes.

Thirty years after Sylvère Maes’ second victory in 1939, Belgium has a new Tour winner. Any blot on Merckx’s escutcheon caused by the doping affair in Savona has been wiped out. Merckx is hot; the opposition is in despair. Raymond Poulidor, third in the 1969 Tour, many years later puts it into words very succinctly. “Not until that ride to Mourenx did we begin to get to know the real Merckx. We didn’t know how to beat him.”

Merckx rode on to become the greatest cyclist ever and was arguably the most dominant athlete of the 20th century. Known as “the Cannibal” for his insatiable hunger to win, Merckx gobbled up 525 race victories, an unrivaled legacy captured in the book “Merckx 525,” the first book authorized by Merckx himself and the only book he says offers a truly complete record of his bike-racing career.

About “Merckx 525:” Presenting a dazzling trove of recently discovered photographs not yet seen outside of Europe, “Merckx 525” is an all-encompassing embrace of Merckx’s career from promising youth in Belgium, to fabulous darling of Europe, to mud-splotched, hardened veteran of the bike-racing wars. Revealing photographs from private collections, the Merckx family, and European newspaper archives, “Merckx 525” sheds new light on the greatest cyclist of all time.