Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike

As you can imagine, I read quite a few cycling books, particularly biographies of racing superstars. Back in March I got a very pleasant surprise one morning when a package arrived from The Guardian newspaper containing a new biography of Eddy Merckx , by British cycling journalist William Fotheringham.

I couldn’t remember ordering it, so I assumed it was a gift, but there was no message. Turns out it was a gift, from an old friend Annie Bayley, who hadn’t heard of Eddy Merckx but thought that I might have.

Might have heard of Eddy Merckx!?! The greatest cyclist that ever lived? I never tire of reading about Eddy, it’s always a reminder of just how thoroughly he dominated every aspect of cycling throughout the late 60s and early 70s.

Briefly, I’m writing to say ‘Read “Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike”, it’s great’. In fact, read anything about Eddy, you won’t regret it.

I’m fascinated by the idea of sports performance that goes beyond ‘Elite’. If a sport is lucky enough, they have one person they can point to who graced their sport like no other.

Ice hockey has Wayne Gretzky, the only man ever to score more than 200 points in a season, which he did 4 times. He also holds just about every goal-scoring record, and is known to hockey fans and Canadians simply as ‘The Great One’.

Basketball has Michael Jordan, although he is neither the highest all-time scorer (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) nor the highest scorer for a single season (Wilt Chamberlain). But not many people argue they were as good as Jordan.

Cricket has Don Bradman, the Australian batsman. Only 4 batsmen have averaged over 60 in Test cricket. Three of those didn’t break the 61.0 mark, but Bradman averaged 99.94. He was 50% better than the 2nd best batsman ever!

Football is lucky, we had Pele, Maradona, Puskas, and now Messi. And as amazing as Hinault, Coppi, Anquetil and Armstrong were (the rest of the ‘Top 5 Ever’ on ), Cycling had Eddy Merckx.

Naturally he’s won more Tour de France stages than anyone else. These days you often read that riders who compete in May’s Giro d’Italia struggle to compete in July’s Tour de France. Merckx won the Giro and Tour in the same season three times, in 1970, 1972 and 1974.

In 1968 he won all three main jerseys in the Giro – the Overall, the Points jersey and the Climber’s jersey. In the 1969 Tour de France he repeated the feat, claiming Yellow, Green and Polka Dot jerseys.

He won more Grand Tours (The 3-week tours of France, Italy and Spain) than anybody else, and he won more 1-day races than anybody else, including 7 editions of the Milan – San Remo. He won more than 1 in 3 of every race he ever entered as a professional.

I won’t bore you with everything that Merckx won, but rather relate a comment from a contemporary, and a joke from the early 70s.

In Fotheringham’s biography, one racing contemporary talks of how every single day of the race calendar was spent watching Eddy Merckx. Whether it was a mountain stage in the Tour de France, the Paris – Roubaix, a post-Tour criterium, a time trial or a sprinter’s stage in a week-long pre-Tour warm-up, everybody watched Merckx. Every break in every bike race for 10 years depended on Merckx. Riders never got a day off from watching Merckx for 10 years.

A cycling insiders joke at the time talked of a recently deceased world-class track cyclist. As part of his ‘induction’ into heaven he was invited to ride in a Heavenly track meet, against many legendary (deceased) riders from road and track. “You’ll win easy, these guys are past their best”, he was told.

Approaching the finish line comfortably ahead of Anquetil, Coppi et al, our hero was pipped to the line by none other than Eddy Merckx.

“What happened there? I didn’t think Eddy was even dead yet?”

“That wasn’t Eddy Merckx. That was God – sometimes he likes to pretend he’s Eddy Merckx.”

Read any biography of Eddy you can find, you won’t regret it.

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