Along with Muhammad Ali, there is arguably just one sportsperson whose name not only transcends their sport, but also remains the greatest within their chosen field.
Édouard Louis Joseph Baron Merckx – or Eddy Merckx as he is more commonly known – is the greatest cyclist to have ever lived and it is unlikely that in this age of specialism the Belgian will ever be matched. Little wonder, then, that when the Tour de France organisers designed the route for this year’s race, which gets under way in Brussels on Saturday, they decided to pay homage to the 74 year-old.
Half a century after receiving his first maillot jaune on the streets of Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, the race returns to the Brussels suburb where Merckx grew up to pay tribute to the man who won practically every race that matters in cycling – on both track and road.
After winning the world amateur title in 1964, Merckx turned professional before winning the first of seven Milan-Sanremo titles the following season aged 20. In 1967 he repeated his Milan-Sanremo triumph while adding Flèche Wallonne to his palmarès in the months ahead of his grand tour debut at the 50th edition of the Giro d’Italia. Two stage wins along with a top-10 finish in Italy were followed by the first of Merckx’s three world champions’ rainbow jerseys. He was 22.
In 1968 Merckx won Paris-Roubaix before going on to dominate the Giro when he became the first Belgian to win the three-week race while also topping the points and mountains classifications.
Five Giri d’Italia, one Vuelta a España, three world road titles and 19 monuments – Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia – is a staggering palmarès, but it does not stop there. Merckx also set the world hour record in Mexico in 1972 with a distance of 49.431km while the Belgian also claimed the highest number of first-class race victories in a career that spanned from 1965 to 1978. But in July, it will be his Tour exploits that will be reflected on.
Despite Merckx’s brilliance, it is fair to say that his riding style had little in common with cycling’s other greats such as Fausto Coppi or Jacques Anquetil. It has been said that Merckx’s own domestiques struggled to keep up with their team leader as he thrashed away on the pedals, pounding his way towards another podium, towards another win.
“With Merckx there were no clever tactics, no camouflage, tactical feints,” wrote French journalist Jean-Paul Ollivier. “From the first kilometres, often, other riders just knew what was about to happen.”
Despite lacking the souplesse of Anquetil, Merckx’s appetite for winning was legendary. When Christian Raymond, a rider in the 1960s, explained to his daughter how a race had unravelled, she responded: “That Belgian, he doesn’t even leave you the crumbs . . . he’s a cannibal.”
The nickname stuck and ‘The Cannibal’ made his Tour debut in 1969. After finishing the opening prologue in Roubaix seven seconds behind Germany’s Rudi Altig, Merckx’s Faema outfit won the team time trial in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe to put him into the leader’s yellow jersey, his first of many. After losing the jersey to team-mate Julien Stevens the following day, Merckx regained the lead following four further stages with the first of his 34 stage wins, a record that stands to this day.
Another three stage victories – two time trials and a day in the mountains – helped Merckx build up a lead of eight minutes ahead of a classic Pyrenean stage that included the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulour and Aubisque. Around 200m from the summit of the Tourmalet, Merckx attacked before dropping Roger Pingeon and Raymond Poulidor. What followed was extraordinary: riding over the Soulor and Aubisque alone, Merckx went on a 140-kilometre solo breakaway which concluded with him winning the stage with a massive eight-minute margin, doubling his overall lead to 16mins. “I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner,” he reportedly said at the finish. His wish was soon granted.
“Merckxisimo” ran the headline in L’Equipe, a reference to Fausto ‘Il Campionissimo‘ Coppi who, himself, was no stranger to the lone breakaway. Not only had Merckx won his debut Tour, but also scooped up six stages along with the points, mountains, combination and combativity classifications. The quiet, often shy, Belgian had crushed all before him. The die had been cast for his domination.
Merckx successfully defended his title in 1970 while equalling Charles Pélissier’s record from 1930 of eight stage wins in a single Tour. Again he won the mountains, combination and combativity competitions.
Luis Ocaña, who had made his Tour debut in 1970, returned to the race in 1971 alongside fellow contenders Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien Van Impe with the Spaniard, Dutchman and Belgian hoping to find a chink in Merckx’s seemingly impenetrable armour.
Following a strong start from Merckx, Ocaña and Zoetemelk escaped on the ascent of the Puy de Dôme before the Spaniard took the stage. Days later, on the short mountain stage from Grenoble to Orcières, Merckx was once again dropped before Ocaña took a second stage to take the maillot jaune. During the following day’s transition stage Merckx produced a fearsome ride, but remained in Ocaña’s shadow.
Disaster, though, struck for the Spaniard during a rain-soaked 14th stage in the Pyrenees. Merckx had attacked on the ascent of the Col de Menté. Ocaña gave chase on the descent before crashing on a hairpin. As the Spaniard got to his feet Zoetemelk swerved into the maillot jaune who soon left the race, battered and distraught, in a helicopter. Merckx later regained the leader’s jersey though refused to wear it the following day out of respect for the luckless Ocaña. Following his brief wobble, Merckx retained the Tour. He returned the following year in the world champions’ jersey to claim a fourth title.
The rematch between Merckx and Ocaña, sadly, never materialised after the Belgian missed the 1973 race which was won by the Spaniard.
Merckx’s fifth and final Tour de France triumph came in 1974 after, considering his high standards, he had endured a disappointing season having not won a single spring classic. He had, though, just won a fifth Giro to equal Alfredo Binda and Coppi as the most successful riders in the race. Despite later admitting that “the wear and tear was beginning to show”, Merckx won an incredible seven stages in the 61st edition of the Tour before beating Raymond Poulidor to the top spot in Paris.
Merckx returned the following year when, despite winning two stages – both time trials – his dominance was ended when, on the steep slopes of the Puy de Dôme, a roadside spectator punched him in the stomach. The five-time Tour winner later said the punch caused him to spasm during the following day’s stage. It was on this stage when the unthinkable also happened: Merckx asked Italian rival Felice Gimondi to slow down. It was the beginning of the end for the man who had for a decade devoured his rivals. For the first time in his career, Merckx had the settle for second spot behind Bernard Thévenet.
After sitting out the 1976 edition, a sixth-placed finish in 1977 marked the end of Merckx’s Tour career. On Sunday, though, the race will return to Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, the home of the greatest of them all: Édouard Louis Joseph Baron Merckx; Eddy Merckx; the Cannibal.