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Happy Birthday, Eddy!

  • By VeloNews.com
  • Published Jun. 17, 2005

Merckx turns 60

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Photo: Charles Chamberlin/Cor Vos/Runaway Technology

Editor’s Note: In January 2000 VeloNews devoted its first issue of the new century to the man who had so dominated the last. Today, on the occasion of Merckx’s 60th birthday, we thought we’d offer Ted Costantino’s personal profile of cycling’s greatest hero, along with Charles Chamberlin’s cover tribute, a photo mosaic that we’ve seen all over the world since its original publication.Eddy Merckx: To Win Them All
An interstellar phenomenon, we may not see his like again for another 100 years
By Ted Costantino

Here is Eddy Merckx at yet another public event. This time, it’s a store opening in Stockholm, and he’s flown in from his home in Belgium as a favor to his friends, Håkan and Anders, who sell his bikes. It’s February, and the day outside is dark and cold, and wet and dreary.

In the store there is a crush of people, a staggering number that despite all the comings and goings and shufflings all day has not changed: hundreds of damp, blue-eyed Swedes in parkas, high-necked pullovers, long yellow scarves and rubber boots, shifting from foot to foot and waiting patiently in a ceaseless line, clutching pens and scraps of paper in hands made bright red by the cold, snuffling and murmuring in this low, this incomprehensible — what are they saying? — this North Germanic, Indo-European offshoot, a Gothic tongue of palatal stops and fricatives they’re speaking, this odd hurdy-gurdy of noise.

As they reach the front, they shift smoothly to English, or French, or — a few try it — Italian, one of the other languages, besides Flemish, that Merckx speaks. Bashfully, they glance upward at Merckx, who stands tall, a shade above 6 feet; they give their name, and Merckx bends to the paper and in his strong script he writes: to Lars, to Erika, to Stefan, to Mogens, to Ole (the line, getting longer, starts to snake out the door), to Marta, to Sixten, to Sven, to Elisabeth. Best wishes, Eddy Merckx.

Merckx at 60 (2005)

Photo: AFP

His signature, bold and clear, is lavishly stylized in the tradition of great sports autographs. It starts with a big, swashbuckling “E” full of loops, followed by a surprisingly readable “Merckx,” racing across the page at a sharp angle and punctuated by that unutterably cool terminal “x.” Merckx adds a flourish, a streaking line that starts at the “k,” kisses the top of the “x” and then swoops out and cuts back in a comet’s path to end under the gaudy looping “E.” He signs it again and again, always with the same clarity and force. EMerckx, comet, EMerckx, comet, EMerckx, comet.

Travel with Eddy Merckx for any appreciable amount of time and you discover that this is one of the things he does every day of his life. In Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands; in Japan, Brazil, Argentina, it is nearly impossible to negotiate even the briefest journey without interruption. “Eddy, an autograph, please? For my son.” “For my daughter.” “For me.”

At bicycle shows, now nearly a quarter-century after the end of his pro career, he’s stopped for autographs in the aisles, in the queues for food, in the parking lots. Twenty-two years after he finally climbed off his bike on March 19, 1978, finishing 12th at a nothing race in St. Niklaas, Belgium, his appearances must be doled out carefully. “Eddy Merckx will be signing autographs from 1 to 2 p.m.” the announcement comes over the p.a., and the hordes descend.

Some come just to look, to stand on the fringes, slack-jawed, gulping, Adam’s apples bobbing. They come and they stare at the phenomenon as they would stare at any wonder of the world — the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Pyramids, the Elvis, the Eddy Merckx. In my lifetime, they can say later, in my lifetime I saw — I met — Eddy Merckx.

They are there, first of all, for the victories. Five Tours de France. Five Giri d’Italia. Three world pro road championships. (In 1974, the year he entered only 140 races — hah! — and won only 38 of them for a 27-percent winning average, he took the hat-trick and won all three of these majors.) Seven Milan-San Remos. Two Tours of Flanders. Three Paris-Roubaix. Five Liège-Bastogne-Lièges. Two Amstel Gold Races. The hour record, in 1972 — a year in which he also won the Tour and the Giro, along with five major classics and 43 other races. His trophy shelf groans with iron from three Ghent-Wevelgems, three Flèche Wallonnes, three Paris-Nices, three Baracchi Trophies, six Montjuich Hill Climbs. Among others.

His strength and endurance are legendary, but Merckx had no weaknesses as a sprinter, climber or time trialist, either. He holds the record for the most days in the Giro leader’s pink jersey, at 78, and the Tour’s yellow jersey, at 96. He’s the only rider to have won the Tour-Giro double three times. He won six Giro time trials. He won the Tour both overall and on points — the yellow jersey and the green jersey — three times, in 1969, ’71 and ’72. He holds the record for most stage wins in a single Tour, eight, and he did that twice, in ’70 and ’74 (and he won six stages in ’69 and again in ’72). Just to round out the collection, Merckx also won the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey in ’69 and ’70.

He did all this in epic battles against great riders, some of whom rank among the greatest athletes the sport has produced. Against Jacques Anquetil, against Felice Gimondi, against Luis Ocaña, Raymond Poulidor, Bernard Thévenet, Rik Van Looy, Joop Zoetemelk, Merckx battled and won — not just won, but decimated them, broke their will, crushed them totally and left them pedaling feebly in the thin vapor of his trail.

“In those days, the big names didn’t ride to win,” says Zoetemelk. “First there was Merckx, and then another classification began behind him.”

In 1585 races as a pro, Merckx won 445 — almost one out of three. In 1969, in fact, he won exactly 33.3 percent of the races he entered. In 1970, he won almost 38 percent. In 1971, 45 percent: 54 victories in 120 races. That’s almost half.

How can you begin to put this massive record in perspective?

In terms of sheer physical effort, Merckx’s achievements defy calculation. A single stage of the Tour de France, it’s been said, is the energy equivalent of running a marathon. The Tour averaged 21 stages when Merckx raced, and he rode seven Tours, won five. He also holds the record for the most career stage wins in the Tour: 35.

In 1975, Merckx entered 151 races (and won 38). Besides the Tour de France, where he finished second, he raced Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de Suisse, Milan-San Remo and all the other spring classics — over 200 days of racing in all, including six-day track races in Grenoble, Antwerp and Ghent.

Put it all together and you find that Merckx raced beyond the moon. He estimates, probably conservatively, that he rode 35,000km a year. Counting his years as an amateur, his total exceeds 500,000km, or about 310,000 miles. It’s only 239,000 miles to the moon. See you on Mars, Eddy.

His statistics dwarf his contemporaries, and indeed the records of all the cycling greats. To take the true measure of the man, you have to cast a wider net. Cycling alone can’t hold him.

Ask Merckx for his list of greats and he ticks them off without hesitation: Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pelé, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens. Not surprisingly for a man of his fame and achievement, he has met most of them, usually sharing a stage at an honors event.

As Merckx is the first to admit, “It’s hard to compare across sports, because they are so different. Team sports and individual sports are completely different for tactics and approach,” he says.

Still, Merckx can see a unifying thread. “They’re all winners,” he says simply. “By that I mean they all have the true athlete’s mentality, in that they look at not one race, not one game; they look at every race, every game, and every season, and you race to win them all.”

You race to win them all
Carve that in a block of granite and put it over Eddy’s door. It might as well be his personal motto. Like every top athlete in the world, he raced to win them all. Unlike them, he nearly did.

And he knows it. Let’s get one thing straight: Merckx may be the most approachable of heroes, the least pretentious, untouched by vanity or greed, the most deferential. Unlike some athletes who understandably resent sharing their personal lives as public property — Charles Barkley comes to mind — Merckx is willing to accept the burden of role model. But he harbors no false modesty about where he ranks: No. 1.

“Look at the record,” Merckx shrugs. Why say anything more?

Not even Jordan gets the nod for the top slot on Merckx’s honor list, and Merckx — a skilled basketball player in his youth and an avid follower of the nba and ncaa today by satellite — is a Jordan fan through and through. In the world of basketball, “he’s No. 1,” says Merckx. “He made the difference on the court, always, because he was so fast, and so much a winner.” But do Jordan’s numbers compare to Merckx’s? No way.

Indeed, the most telling measure of Merckx’s greatness may be that he so solely occupies his place in sports history that his record, unlike that of most other major sports figures, lives beyond comparison.

Look at the names that turned up repeatedly on sports lists as the 20th century lurched to a close: Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Pelé, Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky. Unlike Merckx, you can argue about all of them. Was Ruth really the greatest baseball player of the century? Or is his ranking due in part to his outsized personality, and his single-handed revival of a game that nearly died after the Black Sox betting scandal in 1919? Ted Williams was probably a better pure hitter. Willie Mays was certainly the greatest all-round player ever, in terms of sheer skill. So Ruth, who no longer has hegemony over every important batting record, is a consensus choice.

And so it is for Jordan, whose numbers must give way to Wilt Chamberlin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell in some categories; and Pelé, whose 12 World Cup goals place him behind Gerd Müller and Just Fontaine; or Ali — the fabulous, the beautiful Ali — whose pro record is nonetheless bettered by George Foreman, and whose lifetime totals barely register on the lists of all-time knockout leaders and total bouts.

Of the great champions, only Merckx and Gretzky stand as undisputed leaders across all numerical categories. Tellingly, neither suffered the indignity of comparison with contemporaries. The Great Gretzky’s only statistical challengers are Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, players in earlier eras.

Were Merckx to have an equal in cycling, it would be Fausto Coppi. But Coppi, like Williams in baseball, lost critical years to World War II, and even if we extrapolate his record to compensate, il campionissimo falls short.

Merckx’s numbers are so far out there that they would seem unassailable. Surprisingly, Merckx disagrees. Could anyone today do what he did? “Yes, I think so,” he says. “The reason they don’t might be because the person who could break my records might be doing other sports. When I was growing up, there were only three popular sports: Football [soccer], cycling and tennis. Now many more sports are popular, so the pool of talent is dispersed.”

And what of the races today? “The Tour then was just as difficult,” Merckx says. “I think all the races were just as hard, and some of them were even harder. So that’s not an issue, and anyone racing today would be doing so under similar conditions.

“What is an issue is the prominence of the Tour de France,” Merckx continues. “I think the focus today on the Tour is bad for cycling — so much television, radio, magazines.

For sure the Tour is the most important race, but the other races are important, too, especially the Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Nice, Ghent-Wevelgem and the other classics. There’s not only one race in cycling.”

And if you want to challenge Merckx’s record, you have to race to win them all.

“I was lucky,” says Merckx, “that my hobby was my passion. I played basketball and tennis, but I was always thinking about cycling.”

He made the sport his own, and in doing so he became the greatest.

Eddy Merckx. Comet.

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