Last weekend I followed the Tour of Flanders as the ever powerful Fabian Cancellara taught the new upstart Peter Sagan a lesson in how to win a Monument Classic, and while I watched in admiration as the big man blew the opposition away to win by a mighty 1min 27secs, I couldn’t help but think about what I had recently read about Merckx achieving in the same race 44 years before.
‘Half Man, Half Bike’ by William Fotheringham is the second biography of Merckx that I’ve read in the last five months, though I’m not yet finished Fotheringham’s effort. The first was ‘Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal’ by Daniel Daniel Friebe and if you’re a cycling fan you really should read at least one of these two biographies. Merckx was after all to cycling what Pele was to football, what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey, what Muhammad Ali was to Boxing, and Michael Jordan to basketball. He was in a league of his own during his prime and his story is truly fascinating when look back from the twenty-first century to such a by-gone era. Merckx didn’t just dominate the Grand Tours but he also dominated the spring classics, won World Championships and decimated the hour record. He rode and raced relentlessly all season, every season until his body finally gave up much younger than it might have had he been riding in the last twenty years where the riders are more specialized with their race programmes carefully selected. It’s for that reason that we perhaps don’t see such exploits, but then again sometimes such talents only come along once in a life time.
And that time was 1969, and what a twenty-four year old Eddy Merckx did to the sport on his home turf in Belgium, at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. All eyes were on the huge young talent who had already amassed a Giro d’Italia GC victory, a World Championship, three Milan-San Remo’s and a Paris-Roubaix on his palmares, desperate to see if he could win their big one.
It was raining heavily in Ghent that day, but this was entirely in the order of things. The Tour of Flanders is not always rained on but it is an event that needs wet and cold to be truly epic and so it was for Merckx’s first victory in de Ronde.
The rain poured, a wind howled out of the west. The race remains legendary. The day’s events hinged on a change in the course direction after a hundred kilometers, when the race reached Torhout after heading west from Ghent: there the gale changed from a headwind into a crosswind, favouring action at the head of the bunch.
The hostilities were started by Frans Verbeeck, who epitomised the Flandrian professionals who lived for and through the April Classics. Merckx then took charge and the bunch split to bits with over 160 kilometers still to race. Only twenty-three riders survived the wind-lashed selection to make it into the front group, including four Italians — Gimondi, Franco Bitossi, Dancelli and Marino Basso.
Merckx made his first move on the Oude Kwaremont, a narrow strip of windswept cobbles running through the fields above the town of Kluisbergen, up a hill that ran parallel with the newer main road. A puncture held him up, but he attacked again on the Kapelmuur — a one-in-four brute out of the town of Geraardsbergen to a hilltop chapel — where Gimondi and his countrymen kept him on the leash. He kept on attacking and with about seventy kilometers remaining — before the race returned into the wind to finish in Gentbrugge, close to the start — he got clear, simply be pressing a little harder on the pedals.
Rather than making an intentional, dramatic attack, he ratcheted up the pressure. The journalist Théo Mathy described the scene: ‘Going through the villate of Tollembeek, after doing his turn at the front of the group, he gained a few bike lengths on the others. He moved across to the side of the road, turned round and assessed the situation. Then he went on. There were 70km left to the finish. It was raining and the gusts of wind were bending the trees. No matter.’
Merckx’s thinking was simple but typical of him: riding back to the finish into the headwind, it would be far easier for the other riders to hang on in his slipstream. That meant they had to be eliminated beforehand. In this version of the course — which has changed several times since then — there were no major climbs in the run-in to the finish. If the lead group remained together, it was by no means certain that he could beat Basso, who was particularly rapid in a sprint.
During the slog to Gentbrugge, the time gaps stretched out to a ridiculous extent. Gimondi came in second, five minutes thirty-six seconds behind. The lead group was eight minutes back. Van Looy, now definitely yesterday’s Emperor, was a quarter of an hour off the pace.
Merckx’s status had changed since his world title and his Giro d’Italia win. he was now expected to win everywhere he raced but the paper that sponsored the Tour of Flanders, het Niewsblad, had speculated that maybe Merckx lacked that little something special it takes to win their race. There has always been a strong element of nostalgia to Flemish cycling, best expressed in the fact that ‘the Last of the Flandrians’ is an honorary title that has been bestowed several times, notably on Schotte, and Museeuw.
With this implicit concern about how the present matches up to the past, the question was clear: could the new, Bruxellois, champion match the Flandrian legends of yesteryear? Merckx said to Guillaume Michiels that he could answer his critics if the weather cooperated, and so he did, leaving the strongest cyclists of his generation floundering in his wake.
— Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham
It was a master stroke and despite the glory had had achieved before then, it was this one that seems to have cemented his control over the sport. Nobody was in any doubt anymore and no race was safe. A few weeks after that Tour of Flanders win Merckx would add Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his Monument win-list; an achievement of which winning the pair in the same year has not been done by anyone else since (he would do it again in 1975). A few months later he would enter the Tour de France for the first time and win it…by a mere 17mins 54secs!
Merckx would win a staggering 525 professional victories in his career including 54 in one season; he won 34 stages of the Tour de France, spent 96 days in the Yellow jersey, won the general classification, the points classification and the mountains classification in the same Tour (1969), won 28 classics including 7 Milan-San Remo’s and 11 Grand Tours in all including the Giro-Tour double three times. In 1972 alone, at perhaps the peak of his powers, Merckx would finish only 7th at Flanders and in Roubaix, but would otherwise win Milan-San Remo, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Flèche Wallonne, the Giro di Lombardia, the Hour record (at 49.431km), the Giro d’Italia pink jersey (plus 4 stages), and the Tour de France yellow and green jerseys (plus 6 stages).
And yet for many, it’s that ride in Flanders ’69 that stands out in his glittering career. (It and stage 17 of the Tour that same year, from Luchon to Mourenx in which Merckx attacked over the top of the Tourmalet with 130km still remaining, built a lead of 7mins by the top of the Aubisque and finished the day almost 8mins ahead of 2nd place).
It was moments like this that highlighted the incredible talent of Merckx, but he also had an incredible dedication to his craft that he maximized to the fullest. The kind of work ethic that separates the greats from the good, or even the very good. This extract from the same book reveals it perfectly, allowing his monumental feats to become the legends they are today:
Patrick Sercu tells a story which he believes shows the level of Merckx’s obsession.
‘Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a race which didn’t have a course that suited me, so I rarely rode it. One year I had a call the day before from the team manager, Franco Cribiori, to say that Roger De Vlaeminck, the star of the Brooklyn team, was ill and wouldn’t start. That meant I had to race as I was the No. 2 in the team.
I left Ghent on the Saturday afternoon with my father to drive down: a slow drive as there was no motorway. We were driving down the main road from Brussels to Liège, it was raining and snowing together, the worst possible conditions for riding a bike.
A long way up ahead we spotted a cyclist on the road: we couldn’t work out who would be riding in such weather. It was so bad that there was no one else outside. When we passed the bike rider we saw it was Merckx: he was riding the hundred kilometres from Brussels to Liège, all alone, because he had not won Fleche Wallonne during the week.
He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège the next day five minutes ahead of the second rider: I climbed off after forty kilometres.’
— Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham