Going Going Bike

Oct 172014


Belgium. Famous for chocolate, waffles, waffles with chocolate on top and… not much else really. Cycling perhaps isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when most people think of Belgium, but perhaps it should be. Belgium, after all, produced the greatest cyclist of all time.

Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx, Eddy to his mates, was born in June 1945 in Meensel-Kiezegem (we’ve never heard of it either, it’s sort of near Brussels). After acquiring his first bike at the age of eight, Merckx subsequently showed that he was destined for greatness by beating all comers in local amateur races. His phenomenal will to win, no doubt fuelled by a healthy diet of chocolate waffles, was clearly apparent even in these early races.

At the age of 19, while most of his friends were still battling with acne and the mystery of the opposite sex, Merckx announced himself on a global stage by winning the world amateur title in France. Eddy turned professional just a year later in 1965 and won his first Milan-San Remo after a typically frantic sprint finish. He would go on to win the tough one-day classic an unprecedented seven times throughout his career.

Most young professional riders have modest expectations when riding their first grand tour. Completing the race with all limbs and vital organs still in working order is generally seen as a success. Other more daring youngsters may aim to get themselves into a breakaway to show off their sponsor’s logo to the television cameras. Our Eddy however has never been the type to settle for merely finishing a race. Not only did he win two stages of his debut grand tour at the 1967 Giro d’Italia, he also finished ninth in the general classification. A decent debut whichever way you cut it.

The next year Merckx returned to the Giro and proceeded to win his first grand tour. The highlight of the race came on stage 12. The weather was brutal and the route even more so with a series of tough climbs on the Dolomites. While other riders struggled to battle through the wintry conditions Merckx won the stage, later proclaiming it to be his greatest ever victory in the mountains. He won two other stages on the way to taking a clean sweep of victories in the general, mountains and points classifications.

The world’s greatest bike race, le Tour de France, had to wait until 1969 for its first date with Merckx. It would not be the last. The man they called the Cannibal (we are assured this was in reference to his hunger to win rather than any questionable dietary choices) won arguably the most impressive grand tour in history. Already wearing the yellow jersey on stage 17, Merckx won a definitive stage in his career. He attacked near the summit of the col du Tourmalet while there was still around 140km to race. His opponents did not see him again. He rode like a man possessed and won with a gap of nearly eight minutes. He became the only rider in Tour de France history to win the yellow jersey along with the points and mountains classifications. Nobody is ever likely to match this achievement.

The Eddy Merckx era was well and truly underway. He won the next four tours before surprisingly deciding not to attempt to match Jacque Anquetil’s record of winning five in a row. Instead he chose to focus on the Giro and la Vuelta in 1973. He did inevitably win them both before returning to claim his fifth Tour win a year later.

Eddy’s remarkable period of grand tour dominance ended in 1975. In le Tour he battled on valiantly after suffering injuries thanks to being punched by a spectator. He finished second behind Bernard Thevenet and sadly never wore the yellow jersey again.

We will almost definitely never see such a complete bike rider as Eddy Merckx again. Capable of winning bunch sprints, mountain climbs and insane solo breakaways, the Cannibal was truly one of a kind.

Belgium. Famous for chocolate, waffles and Eddy Merckx.

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