The cyclist who united a nation
We’ve heard of life imitating art, owners imitating their pets and politics imitating satire, but what about a family name imitating a passion? There’s a fitting mechanical quality to the name ‘Merckx’; the ‘ckx’ almost resembles a bike chain, the kind that were tinkered with in their thousands by the greatest cyclist in history, Baron Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx. The ‘Baron’ came in 1996, bestowed by King Albert II of Belgium on his kingdom’s most successful athlete as a reward for a career of incomparable success, while ‘Edouard Louis Joseph’ was stripped to simply Eddy. Eddy Merckx: a name that is, like so many of the man’s races, finished almost as quickly as it’s begun.
The man nicknamed The Cannibal was not simply a monumental sportsman, but also (in stark contrast to his rather grim moniker) a kind and friendly human being. That gentle spirit did not, however, extend to the race course, as Daniel Friebe makes clear in his fast and furious account of Merck’s career. “You give gifts at Christmas and birthdays,” said Merck, “not at bike races.” For those fond of such races this will be an enthralling read. The book’s one drawback is of Merck’s, not Friebe’s making: Merckx won 525 races in his 12 years as a professional cyclist, including five Tour de France titles. Trying to capture even a handful of the best in 345 pages inevitably leads to a touch of repetition. Indeed, the inevitability of a Merckx victory made many a competitor and race organiser despair.
Meanwhile, those hoping for some revelations on Merckx the human being will be disappointed. It’s not that Friebe omits them, but rather, as he points out, what made Merckx great was that he did little else apart from train, race and sleep; he was as robotic in his pursuit of glory as the gears and chains over which he so obsessed. He did find time to marry and have two children, but though his wife was vital to his success, she and their two children are as common in the book as Merckx’s notable racing defeats.
Raised by Flemish parents in a predominantly French-speaking commune of Brussels, Merckx admits that because of his half-and-half upbringing he has “gaping” holes in both his French and Flemish (Dutch) vocabulary. Even when he knew the words, though, he didn’t always utter them; he was rarely forthcoming with journalists, especially close to a big race. Nevertheless, he remains beloved throughout bilingual Belgium: several years ago when separate French and Flemish TV stations asked the public to vote for the 100 greatest Belgians, Merckx, in a rare example of national concurrence, came third in Wallonia and fourth in Flanders. Rather fittingly, his modest home is in Crainhem, a town on the language frontier between Brussels and Brabant-Flamand.
No, this book is about little else except Merckx’s greatness as a cyclist. How great was he? The superlatives and accolades appear in every chapter (in one poll Merckx was voted as the second greatest athlete of the 20th century, behind Michael Jordan), even when Friebe examines the delicate issue of Merckx’s three positive drugs tests. In a roundabout way he expresses the status quo opinion, shared even by those who resented Merckx: the tests were apparitions: sabotage, accidents or ignorance. Or all three. They cannot taint Merckx’s image as a cyclist of superhuman capability and unparalleled achievement.