Most cycling aficionados can reel off at least a couple of Eddy Merckx’s major career accomplishments:
The (jointly held) record for Tour de France General Classification titles (5); the record for Tour de France stage wins (34); the record for overall Grand Tour victories (11); the record for Monuments victories (19 across all five Monuments); winner of three World Championship road titles; holder of the Hour record from 1972 to 1994; winner of all but two of the classics over the course of his career.
Yet neither numbers nor victories are enough to define a legend. Statistics cannot tell an entire story nor paint a complete picture of Merckx’s impact on professional cycling. For that you need to know how he did it.
Eight pivotal moments that shaped the career of a born winner
The Emperor and the Cannibal – Debut season, 1965
When Eddy Merckx turned professional, his reputation as amateur world champion counted for little. He was green to the rigours of his new career.
He failed to finish his first race in April 1965, the Flèche Wallonne. The speed was higher, the races more intense and, most significantly, there were hierarchies to overcome.
Within his scarlet-clad team Solo-Superia, Belgium cycling and the sport in general, Rik Van Looy ruled. The prolific champion was nicknamed “the Emperor of Herentals”; as far as he was concerned, it was a dictatorship.
He did not take to Merckx when he joined, regularly taunting him. Van Looy and his crew of loyal team-mates – “the Red Guard” – nicknamed the youngster Jack Palance after the Hollywood actor renowned for playing villains.
With Merckx serving military service, the pair raced together infrequently; on the few occasions they did, he had no advice or protection from fellow team-mates. After one season, Merckx had seen enough. The team wasn’t big enough for the both of them. If he wanted to be a champion, he would have to move elsewhere.
Merckx transferred to French team Peugeot and then Faema. In the late ’60s, as Van Looy moved into his twilight years and Merckx hit his heyday, the rivalry grew more toxic; the old champion would doggedly follow the pretender in circuit races.
Although Merckx is a people pleaser at heart who tries to avoid criticising anyone, he is still irked at his treatment by Van Looy, more than 50 years on.
Thunderstruck – Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Giro d’Italia, 1 June 1968
It was the halfway mark of the 1968 Giro d’Italia. Merckx had already won two stages in contrasting fashion, attacking off the front on day one for an unlikely solo win, then seeing off his rivals in the mountains at Blockhaus.
But the full scope of his talent hadn’t yet been realised. With his two successes at the prestigious Milan-Sanremo one-day classic in mind, some saw Merckx as lacking the stamina to challenge in the biggest stage races. Twelve months earlier, the Gazzetta dello Sport headline read “Belgian sprinter wins in the mountains” following Merckx’s win at Blockhaus.
It was at the breach of a fresh month and a fresh mountain range for the race that a new primacy began.
The Giro peloton headed from the Italian border town of Gorizia to Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites, a mountain marked out by its three spearhead-like spires of rock. It would be the toughest mountain of Merckx’s nascent career.
Conditions worsened as the day went on, with rain turning into snow on the final mountain. Undaunted, Merckx took off in pursuit of a breakaway and picked them off one by one. Even then, he had been held back by experienced Faema team-mate Italo Zilioli, who had helped to channel the proto-champion’s impetuosity into patience over the course of the race.
Merckx won. Only Giancarlo Polidori and Zilioli finished within a minute that day. Behind, the finest champions in cycling were put to the sword. It wasn’t only the emphatic and ruthless manner with which Merckx slayed the established order that stood out, but his determination in such appalling conditions. Shivering in the mountain-top refuge where finishers congregated, he uttered one word: “Terrible…”
It was far worse for the vanquished. Felice Gimondi, the defending champion, lost seven minutes and wept as he also huddled in the refuge in search of shelter. His rival Gianni Motta put an arm round him.
They were powerless, thunderstruck, united in bewilderment. Psychologically, it was the bedrock in a towering mental block for Merckx’s rivals.
The rawness of shock at Merckx’s power would rarely be repeated, but his adversaries would be asking themselves similar questions again for the next seven years: How did he do that? And what on earth can we do about it?
That day on Tre Cime di Lavaredo was the Cannibal’s first banquet. Merckx rode to Giro victory ten days later, his maiden Grand Tour. Some Belgian sprinter indeed.
Merckxissimo – Mourenx, Tour de France, 15 July 1969
The riders were nearing the end of the Pyrenees and the Tour de France was in Eddy Merckx’s pocket; his advantage, eight minutes.
Yet when he rolled into Mourenx, the fledgling champion had achieved something extraordinary.
With 100 kilometres still to race, Merckx’s Faema team-mate Martin Van den Bossche accelerated near the top of the storied Col du Tourmalet, in pursuit of King of the Mountains points at its summit. Merckx matched him and flew past to attack the vertiginous descent.
In the valley, he saw nobody behind him, put his head down and started to thresh a ferocious tempo.
His lead ballooned. The rest chased in vain. Raymond Poulidor and eventual runner-up Roger Pingeon finished eight minutes down, with Gimondi at 15 minutes. It was a massacre; a Merckx-acre. One man had dissembled a whole peloton in unprecedented fashion for that era.
His spectacular ride upturned the idea that a leader – any rider – must race conservatively or be generous with the spoils once assured of victory, even to his own team-mates.
It was greedy, yet irresistible and spectacular. This coup de grâce came from hunger, but also anxiety: the race could turn at any point – as Savona had proven – so why take an easy win on points when you can poleaxe the opposition?
Tour organiser and L’Equipe journalist Jacques Goddet coined the word “Merckxissimo” to describe the bravura performance.
It is arguably the one for which Merckx is most remembered. Here was a 24-year-old at the peak of his physical prowess, piqued by the Savona incident, showing brawn and bravery.
All That Fall – Blois, 9 September 1969
No life, let alone sporting career, is straightforward. For every almighty triumph, a crushing nadir awaits around the corner.
This September evening was a track appearance like any of the umpteen Merckx had fulfilled previously. He was in the central French town of Blois, supplementing his income with appearance money paid for a derny-paced event, the riders – including five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil – each tucked in tight behind their own moped and its rider.
Early in the race, a rival pairing fell in front of Merckx and his derny pilot, Ferdnand Wambst. There was scant time to react. Tragically, Wambst was killed. Merckx hit a fallen body and was catapulted into the air. He came down hard on his head, bleeding heavily and knocked unconscious.
Merckx spent four days in hospital and recovered, but cycling was never the same again for him. His hips and back had been twisted out of alignment in the crash. Discomfort was a constant companion for the rest of his career; sometimes his leg would lock in pain during races.
The champion’s win-rate didn’t change dramatically in the following years, but his method altered subtly. After Blois, it could no longer be a case of force over faculties. Merckx had to sharpen his tactical edge and measure his efforts.
Inside, something fundamental shifted too. After Blois, he couldn’t take his talent for granted; perhaps he realised he couldn’t take his life for granted either.
Supernatural – Vélodrome André-Pétrieux, Roubaix, Paris-Roubaix, 12 April 1970
On a good day, Paris-Roubaix is brutal enough, taking the riders on a 260-kilometre route through northern France, encompassing some of the harshest cobbled roads in existence. It is one of the toughest and oldest one-day Classics in the sport.
Bad weather made the 1970 edition a true ‘Hell of the North’. Rain and mud slicked the pavé, while puddles filled the numerous treacherous potholes. Merckx made the front split, then punctured out of the group. No matter; he changed bikes, fought back and forced the issue till only Roger De Vlaeminck and Eric Leman were with him.
After De Vlaeminck suffered a flat tyre, Merckx raised the tempo on cobbles 25 kilometres from Roubaix and, racing in sodden wool jersey and shorts, opened up a remarkable advantage.
At the finish, he told the press: “I had to overcome the most terrible pavé that I’ve ever seen in my career, yet that was my easiest victory. I found myself in front almost without realising it, and afterwards everything came naturally.”
Natural to Merckx, supernatural to the rest. In a race sometimes decided by centimetres, Merckx won by five minutes and 21 seconds: a chasm which remains the biggest winning margin since World War Two. It was his second Paris-Roubaix title and the most clear-cut of his 19 Monument wins.
Merckx later reflected that it was a fleeting return to unfettered brilliance following the 1969 fall. “[After Blois], I was still able to dominate, but no longer in the same emphatic way,” Merckx said in De Mens achter de Kannibal. “The one exception was Paris-Roubaix when it felt like old times.”
Duel – Orcières-Merlette, Tour de France, 8 July 1971
Sporting greats need a rival who pushes them to their very limits: Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier; Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson; Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.
Merckx’s standing as the undisputed greatest cyclist did not go unchallenged. The likes of Felice Gimondi, Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk, Walter Godefroot and Roger De Vlaeminck made their bids for top-dog status, but without any great success.
The rival who came closest to well and truly toppling him in his heyday was a tricky, tempestuous climber called Luis Ocaña. The Spaniard had no intention of falling in line and accepting Merckx’s hegemony.
The pair had a mutual dislike, partly cultivated by the press. They would sometimes feed one’s words to the other, there would be a reply in kind and the rivalry rumbled on.
Actions spoke louder than words in the Alps during the 1971 Tour de France; Ocaña was sublime. On the finish at Orcières Merlette, he routed allcomers. Closest challenger Van Impe was almost six minutes down; Merckx finished third, a whopping 8-42 behind, and handed over his yellow jersey to the Spaniard.
From this unprecedented humiliation, the defending champion sought revenge. On a seemingly innocuous stage to Marseille, he orchestrated his Molteni team-mates in a surprise early attack and reduced the deficit by two minutes.
Wherever Merckx could put his rival under pressure, he took the opportunity. Two days later, Ocaña crashed out of the race dramatically on a sodden Pyrenean descent.
Who knows whether Ocaña would have held on or whether things would have been different for Merckx? That experience at the 1971 Tour de France loosened the Belgian’s grip on the sport.
Cometh the Hour – Mexico City, October 25 1972
Merckx ended the 1972 season in richer form than he had been ever since the crash at Blois. After a year of over 120 days of racing, however, there was one more challenge: against the clock, racing to beat Ole Ritter’s Hour record of 48.653 kilometres.
It is one of sport’s purest tests: how far can a human ride in 60 minutes? Moreover, it served as a comparison to past champions like Anquetil and Coppi who had raised the bar before him.
Ernesto Colnago made the super-light track bike for the attempt. In preparation for his bid at altitude in Mexico, doctors and scientists turned Merckx’s Brussels garage into a sweltering bunker of rarified air to acclimatise him to the conditions.
Rather than gradually building up to record pace, Merckx set off like the clappers and attempted to hold his speed. It was blunt, but effective; it later materialised that he hadn’t even trained for a full hour’s effort beforehand.
The torment was mental too. Dutch journalist René Jacobs, who had helped to devise the strategy for the Hour, would ring a bell; if Merckx was ahead of schedule, it would toll after he had passed the line, but if he dropped behind, it’d be a clanging reminder to up the pace.
Merckx raised the record to 49.341km, but it came at a price: he claims, in line with anyone else who has attempted the record, it was the worst pain he ever experienced on a bicycle.
Beginning of the End – Pra-Loup, Tour de France, 13 July 1975
Merckx burned so brightly and attacked so many races voraciously that perhaps it’s no surprise that his downfall was equally dramatic.
The 1975 Tour de France: so far, so Merckx. He took the yellow jersey with an impressive time-trial win and extended his advantage with another win against the clock on the cusp of the Pyrenees. There was little hint of a stranglehold about to be prised open.
There were external factors at play. Near the finish of one stage, a spectator stepped out of the crowd near the top of the Puy-de-Dôme and walloped Merckx in the back. He visibly slowed and collapsed in pain after the finish. Not only was it a hinderance, it was an indication of the hostility felt towards the sport’s long-time dominator.
The next day was a stage from Nice to Pra-Loup over several Alps. Merckx attacked closest rival Bernard Thévenet over the Col d’Allos and extended his lead on the corkscrew descent.
The final climb of Pra-Loup became the scene of the star’s famous shutdown. Halfway up, Merckx began to slow dramatically; first, Felice Gimondi passed him, then Thévenet came roaring up.
The pretender and the king; the hunter and the cannibal. In a second, Thévenet is gone. Merckx’s spell is about to be broken.
“At that time, it was unthinkable – unimaginable – to be able to take a minute on Merckx in two kilometres. I said ‘maybe I can take 30 seconds, then I’ll be 20-odd down for the Izoard tomorrow,” Thévenet said.
He had underestimated his own ability and the extent of Merckx’s breakdown. The Belgian lost nearly two minutes in two kilometres. The lead belonged to the Frenchman and he went on to extend it the next day.
“When I opened my eyes next morning and saw the yellow jersey draped over a chair by my bed, I said to myself: What are you doing in Merckx’s bedroom?” said Thévenet, modestly.
Near the end of the race, Merckx crashed while riding to the start and broke his cheekbone. Barely able to eat and in pain, he was advised to quit.
The stubborn champion refused and even threw in a few attacks. Thévenet won the Tour de France and runner-up Merckx’s magnanimity and tenacity was acclaimed.
The champion had only just turned 30, but this was the beginning of the end. Within three years, he had bowed out of the sport.
“I was psychologically exhausted. I always wanted to win, I couldn’t anymore. I became aware that they were surrounding me like a wounded lion,” Merckx said.
The hunter had become the hunted.