The manager of Eddy Merckx (pronounced mayrks) was putting away a platter of raw ground meat (Filet Americain on the menu) with a side of tomato and watercress. He had chosen the table for privacy, deep in the bowels of the hotel restaurant, which was near the Ghent railroad station. A crowd had been building out front since midafternoon. Cycling fans loitered in the lobby and in the restaurant over bottles of genever, pollinating the night air with eve-of-the-race hearsay and spilling into the street to circle the parked cars that carried the bicycles. These were pinned to the roofs of the cars like so many brightly lacquered lures on a fisherman's hat and lent the only color to the rain-waxed square. A rumpled gray relic of a town, Ghent hunches up from the Belgian flatlands, dominating plains traversed for many centuries by armies marching to and from Paris. Ghent does not swing, it flinches.
An American sitting at the table with the manager and an interpreter-chauffeur the American had hired in Brussels said if it were another time, he might be waiting to see Charlemagne or Napoleon or Hitler, who had also passed that way, instead of Eddy Merckx.
"What?" said the interpreter. "Pardon? I—you must forgive, sir. It is the first time I am so short with a champion."
"Short?" said the American.
July 23, 1972
"There," he nodded toward a table where a group of young men were having what would be called in South Bend a team meal. "Eddy Merckx."
"Oh, close. You have never been so close."
"Yes. That is it." He was beaming. The object of his admiration sat quietly in the midst of his fellow diners. He had the lean look of a fencer and appeared more Latin than Flemish: olive skin, coarse black hair low on the forehead, heavy-lidded eyes.
His group, the 17-man team called "Molteni" after the Italian salami king who sponsors it, had passed from hors d'oeuvres to steaming bowls of vegetables and meat and was, by the volume of conversation, in high spirits. There were bottles of red wine on the table. Tomorrow they would ride bicycles for six hours without stopping, and they were in the final fueling process. Now and again grown people and children lingered at a respectful distance to stare at the lean young man in the middle. One small boy wore a cyclist's cap with EDDY MERCKX embroidered on the bottom and an image of the man at the table sewn on the peak.
"He is an idol," said the manager, gesturing with his fork. "There has never been one like him, never in the history of cycling. Not Anquetil. Not Poulidor. No one."
"He has been shotting with the king," said the interpreter. "He is a friend of the king. He shot the deer."
The manager nodded. He told a story for the interpreter to pass on: "The king has one of the bicycles. It is sent to him by Eddy Merckx. One that is used by Eddy Merckx as he wins the 1969 Tour de France. In 1969 he is the first Belgian in 30 years to win the Tour de France, and he is invited to the palace. He wins again in 1970 and again in 1971. When the dignitaries and photographers come to see the king he takes them to his special closet and pulls back the curtain and, Voil√†!—The Bicycle. It is white, with Eddy's name and picture on it. The official Eddy Merckx model. We have a contract to make 50,000 to sell in America."
"On Sunday," said the interpreter, "King Baudouin takes the bicycle out and rides on the palace grounds at Lack-en. He also has one of Eddy's yellow shirts from the Tour in 1969."
The interpreter said the king sometimes puts on ordinary street clothes and gets into his Mercedes and sneaks out for a drive alone, and nobody recognizes him. "Eddy Merckx could not do this," he said. "He would cause a mob. The people know Eddy better than they do the king."
"Why is it yellow?" asked the American. His listeners seem confused. "The shirt, I mean."
The manager clucked his tongue reproachfully. His name was Jean Van Buggenhout. Years before he had been a cyclist, too, but now in middle age he had grown gray and portly.
"The yellow shirt, the maillot jaune, is worn by the leader of the Tour as identification," he said. "You do not know about the bicycles, I see."
"I have lived a sheltered life," said the American.
"Then you cannot understand how the people feel," said the interpreter. "Cycling is the, ah, how do you say—"
"—passion of the people."
"Tomorrow you will ride in the car with me," said the manager. "You will see for yourself. Eddy is an idol because the people know he must labor. When the racing car wins at Le Mans the mechanics win. But Eddy—he must labor. Do you understand?"
"I understand that he rides bicycles very fast. And often. And I have read that he makes $400,000 a year doing it, and that The New York Times runs an annual story from Paris describing Eddy Merckx' victory in the Tour de France, and that the story compares him with Beethoven and Cassius Clay. 'C'est Cassius Clay. C'est Beethoven.' "
The manager sighed. "Do you know of Mrs. Ethel Kennedy? Do you know of the Gillette razor blade?"
"Yes, I know of those two."
The manager produced a clipping from his portfolio. It showed the results of a poll that had been taken by the Spanish magazine El Mundo in 1970. Ethel Kennedy, American housewife, had been voted the world's most popular (admired) figure. Second was Eddy Merckx, Belgian cyclist. There were two other clippings, from 1971, of Merckx being chosen Athlete of the Year by a) the International Sports Correspondents (with Mark Spitz third, Jackie Stewart sixth, Joe Frazier seventh) and b) the UPI (with Stewart second, Lee Trevino ninth).
Furthermore, he said, Eddy was now appearing on television, shaving with a Gillette razor, and he also endorsed Ariel soap powder, Adidas shoes and Vittel Perrier mineral water. He fished again into his portfolio and produced a small poster of Eddy, smiling appealingly and wearing a red turtleneck and holding up an oversized package of Clark's Tendermint gum. Merckx was not identified on the poster save for his signature, which was indecipherable. Gum-chewers will know the face.
"We have invested in land and in buildings, but we must turn down many opportunities," said the manager. "We must be discreet." That very day, he said, he had refused to allow Eddy's name on an inferior package of macaroni, and there was an unacceptable hat Eddy would not be endorsing (or wearing) and the grand opening of a pharmacy he would, with regrets, have to pass up.
"He is a millionaire at 27 years of age," said the interpreter.
The manager nodded, apparently in agreement, though the interpreter's English sometimes confounded him.
A tall man came to the table and was introduced as Theo Van Griethuysen, editor of Les Sports, the sports newspaper of Belgium. In fluent English Theo identified himself as an old and faithful Merckxist. Van Griethuysen said he had a son attending college in Louisiana and was therefore familiar with the American ignorance about bicycle racing.
"I understand Eddy will not race in the Tour de France this year," said the American, attempting to recoup. "What a pity."
Theo threw back his head and laughed. "Mere gossip," he said. He repeated the rumor in French for the manager, who shook his head from side to side on hearing a sad but familiar calumny.
"But I read it in—"
"Does the crown prince not go to his coronation?" Van Griethuysen said. "It is a story for the French journalists to cluck over. Each would like to be the first to say Eddy is finished. They cannot wait to say it. Last time in the Jura, racing between Belfort and Divonne-les-Bains, he straightened up on his bicycle. He rode for 30 yards that way, with his back straight, to rest or to get out a kink, whatever. Robert Chapatte of Radio Europe announced to the world, 'Merckx is in trouble! Eddy Merckx is finished!' It is wishful thinking. Eddy wins by a bicycle length. It is true that Eddy races harder than anyone and too often, I think, but he will be champion for another five years."
The four men all turned to look appreciatively at Merckx. He had been laughing at something that had been said at the Molteni table and now appeared to be into a story of his own.
"I thought that he was supposed to be very shy and retiring," said the American.
"He is happy when he is with his team," said Van Griethuysen. "Then he laughs. Then he tells jokes. With others he is shy."
"He is not an excited man," said the manager. "He talks with his feet. That is his expression. When he is on the bicycle he has a great temper. When he is off he has no temper."
The editor told of an incident in the Li√®ge-Bastogne-Li√®ge race in 1970, of which his newspaper was the sponsor and he the principal official. The cyclists—Eddy Merckx leading them—had come near the finish, turning onto a narrow dirt road along an incline. One of them, Eric de Vlaeminck of Belgium, hidden from view of the judges, "reached out and grabbed Eddy's shirt, disturbing his equilibrium and allowing his brother Roger de Vlaeminck to win the race. Eddy was furious, but he did not protest. He did not come to blows with the man. That is not his mentality. He knew he would get him next time.
"This was, of course, an unusual circumstance. These things do not happen so often today because the races are closely scrutinized, even with helicopters. The days of bashing the riders with sticks and strewing tacks and nails in their paths are over."
"It is Eddy's desire to always be the best whatever he is doing," said the manager. "Boxing. Soccer. Tennis. They had the baskets match on television. A benefit exhibition, that is all. N'importe. But Eddy, he practices for two weeks to be ready. He must look good. His team wins by 25 points. Eddy is very good."
"What of his teammates?" asked the American. "He is a star. He makes all the money. They live in his shadow. How do they accept this?"
"They are there to serve him," said the editor. "That is their function. Domestiques. He never asks for special attention, but he is the boss. Not Molteni. Not the coach. Eddy. He can be very hard with them, but it is for the discipline of the team. When he does well, they do well. They make money. They are very good domestiques. Some are good to lead in the mountains. Grimpeurs. Others are very good on the flats. Eddy, of course, is good everywhere."
"But they are there to run his interference, to pace him, to block for him, to do whatever is necessary?"
"And away from his bike he makes no waves."
"Oh, he has been known to have a glass of champagne and once, in Paris, he won a beer-drinking contest from Jacques Anquetil, who had to be carried out. He must win, you see. But he can overdo it when he is away from Claudine."
"His wife. A lovely young lady. She is very strong. She knows what she wants."
The team meal had broken up and Eddy Merckx came over to his manager's table. Standing now, he seemed taller—he is a shade under 6 feet—and thinner, except for his hands, which are huge and do not fit the body. He sat and responded politely through the translator. Yes, he would race in the Tour de France despite the talk; yes, he was feeling fit; yes, he was a slow starter, but the season was young, etc. etc., but, sorry, it was past his bedtime. He would be up at 4:30 to prepare for the race. With a promise to meet again, he rose to leave.
The manager produced another poster, this one smaller, a portrait for Eddy to autograph for the American. It showed Eddy leaning on his orange bicycle in a shirt with five bars of color—blue, red, black, yellow, green—and MOLTENI written above the bars. "Only one driver is allowed to wear such a shirt," said the manager. "The champion of the world. All the colors of the rainbow. All the countries of the world." He turned the poster over and printed FAEMA on the back.
Before Molteni, he explained, Eddy's team sponsor had been Faema, a brand of Italian coffee. (Because of the expense, Belgian firms do not sponsor top cycling teams.) He held the posters up and recited a popular Merckxist slogan taken from the letters of the name: "Faites attention, Eddy Merckx arrive!—Be careful, Eddy Merckx is coming!"
The smell of Nupercainal was heavy in the cramped rooms on the second floor of the hotel at Ghent. Eddy Merckx smelled of the liniment. His legs, long and ropy rather than thick with the consolidated muscle one might expect in a cyclist, were shaved and rubbed down; novocain had been shot into his back where he had twisted several vertebrae in an accident in the Pyrenees in March. It had happened halfway between Paris and Nice, at St. Etienne, when the Dutchman, Gerben Carsten, fell in front of him at 35 mph. Eddy plowed into him and was flipped into the air like a tiddledywink. He landed on his back.
"It could have killed him," said Van Buggenhout, as Eddy dressed. "He got up and tried to continue, but he could not. It is better now."
The Molteni trainer was drying his hands. Around his stained table were the bottles and tubes of odorous balms that the flesh must have to keep the mind from dwelling on its weakness. The administration of drugs (most especially amphetamines) is not unusual in cycling, but there are rules. Once, in the middle of the 1969 Tour d'Italie (Giro), which Merckx has won three times, he was accused of taking a tranquilizer. This is legal in Belgium but outlawed in Italy. A urine specimen was taken; the lab report was positive. "It was sabotage," said the manager. "You cannot be sure of the Italians. They are tricky." It was never proved that the urine sample was actually Merckx'. When he was exonerated, it was too late to rejoin the race. In the Tour de France that year Merckx demanded to be given a urine test after each race day.
"You must be made ready," said Van Buggenhout, "or you will get the cramps. Eddy got the cramps last year in the Li√®ge-Bastogne-Li√®ge. His stomach had been bad for three days, and he did not train enough, and it was a very heavy race. He is alone, four minutes ahead, on the last hill at Cottes des Forges when he gets the cramps. Georges Pin-tons of Antwerp catches him two kilometers from the finish, and they are head-to-head in the sprint onto the track. There Eddy loses the cramps, and he wins the race by this much—" The manager opened his arms wide.
Eddy had put on his Adidas shoes and had donned black briefs and a black-and-white T shirt with MOLTENI on the chest. He postured, matador fashion, before a cracked full-length mirror, adjusting his helmet. The padding crisscrossed the top of his head like strips of crust on apple pie. It is minimal protection. At Blois in 1969, on the indoor track, the pacing motorbike fell into the lead cyclist, who was directly in front of Merckx. Merckx caromed off the pile of ruptured metal and fell onto the balustrade. He was unconscious for two or three minutes. The pacemaker was killed.
"It is a very dangerous sport," said the manager. "People are killed, people are injured. Eddy has fallen many times, but it is good fortune that he had only the one bad injury to his back."
Eddy Merckx smiled a good morning at his visitors.
"Before a race he is very nervous. He paces, he goes to his mechanics again and again to check. When he is like that, something is going to happen."
"And today?" asked the American.
The manager shrugged.
The attendants of the Molteni team had been up since four a.m., preparing packets of food—cheese and meat sandwiches, bananas, rice pies, containers of tea—and, on the sidewalks out front, the mechanics ran expert hands over the glistening sprockets and gears and the spinning tires of the bicycles and brushed the chains with lubricants. The food packets—musettes—would be relayed to the cyclists at checkpoints en route. In this race, the Tour de Flandres, there would be 150 racers. They would start on the northeast side of Ghent, head toward the North Sea to Eeklo, then west to Torhout, south to Kortrijk, east to Geraardsbergen and then back to Ghent, finishing at the depot. It would take six hours plus for the winner to cover the 160 miles. The Tour de Flandres is called a "classic," one of eight or so races thus designated, and is 60 years old. It is not as demanding nor as laden with consequence as a true "tour," such as the Tour de France, which goes on for 23 days and covers 2,400 miles, and the Tour d'Italie, 22 days (including a day of rest) and 2,250 miles. The classics and the tours are the economic lifeblood of the competing teams (Molteni; Ferretti, the furniture manufacturer; Sonolor, the television company; Watneys, the English brewery; Novy, Dubble-Bubble, bicycles and bubble gum). First prize in such a race may run as high as $10,000, but the purses are divided among the domestiques. The star (Eddy Merckx, who has an annual salary of $60,000) will make his big money appearing in 60 to 80 "exhibitions" a year, short races of 60 to 100 miles, requiring as little as two hours of his time, for which he earns no less than $2,000 and as much as $4,000 a race.
First prize at Ghent would be $3,000. The bicycle, the one Eddy Merckx would start out on, was in an anteroom downstairs being watched over by his mechanic. The manager introduced the American to the bicycle, orange and shimmering and as delicate as a water spider, weighing no more than 21 pounds. At other races, in sprints against the clock, for example, the bike would appear to be the same, but it would weigh as little as 18 pounds. There would be duplicate models of the bike on the roof of the trailing Molteni car, to substitute in case of a breakdown. In a tour Merckx generally uses three bikes (he went through 12 in the 1968 Giro), but today he would probably get by with one or two. There were also extra clamp-on wheels in case of a flat tire, a near certainty on the rough Belgian-block roads and the twisting rutted paths.
It had begun to rain, and the odor from an oil refinery on the far side of town came in on a strengthening wind that raised goose bumps and the skirts of the girls circling the bicycles on the street.
"It is good, the rain," said Van Buggenhout. "Eddy likes the rain. He is strong, stronger than most. But the wind. Ah, I do not like the wind. The wind can do things. It is a one-day race. Anyone has a chance. On a tour no one can say, 'I can make it alone against Eddy.' No one. But in a one-day race anything can happen."
The manager and the American went back into the restaurant for coffee and there joined Claudine Merckx and the wife of the team's first assistant coach, Robert Lelangue. Passersby stared and whispered at the sight of Claudine, much as they had upon seeing her husband. She was a trim young woman in a flashy leopard coat, with lustrous hair and intense brown eyes.
The manager said Claudine was pregnant with her second child. Their daughter Sabrina was now two. They had met, Claudine and Eddy, eight years before when Merckx was still an amateur and he had come to her house to see her father, the Belgian national coach. He came again to see her father, Claudine said, and then again. After a while her father ascertained it was not him that Merckx was coming to see.
She had been speaking in English, somewhat gropingly but with great animation, then suddenly, in conversation with the manager, she switched to French. She seemed angry. The American remembered having been told that Merckx' first coach had been relieved after a run-in with Claudine.
"What is it?" the American asked the interpreter.
"It is private," said the interpreter.
"Yes, but what is she saying?"
"It is very private," said the interpreter, shaking his head and smiling.
"But she seems petulant. She is petulant."
"It is the way of the Brussels girls," said the interpreter.
Merckx appeared in the lobby, dressed and ready for the race. The Molteni cycling hat, brim up to reveal the sponsor's name, obscured the padding on his head, MOLTENI showed in five places on the hat and was on the front, the back and both sleeves of his shirt. Molteni was getting its money's worth. Eddy went to Claudine, kissed her lightly, handed her his wallet and left.
Claudine and the manager waited at the table. Women were not allowed in the official cars that follow on the course, said the manager, and that was not the way to watch the race, anyway. They would drive to a place farther on, see how it was going there as the cyclists passed and then speed ahead to other vantage points.
The manager ushered the men outside to his Peugeot; Claudine Merckx glided through the crowd to her husband's silver 3½-liter Mercedes. The two cars moved off.
"Did Eddy break many hearts when he married Claudine?" asked the American.
"Ah, yes, many," said the manager.
"He must have been very romantic."
"Oh, no, not at all. He was romantic only with his bicycle. Claudine was the first girl. Claudine is very good for Eddy. Eddy has to worry only about the bicycles."
"The coach, is he important?"
"Not for Eddy," said the fourth person in the car, a wrinkled little man with bad teeth who was a friend of Van Buggenhout. "He is his own coach. Eddy is a, ah, nature—"
"Natural. Le Grand Merckx. The natural."
"What is it that separates him? Why is he so much better?"
"He has no weakness. He is not a real climber, but he climbs. He is not the strongest in the sprint, but he is very strong. Downhill, ah, a terrible déscendeur."
"Fantastic. He is like a calculator. Once he was timed at 80 kilos an hour. That is 50 mph. What a discipline! The others do not know how to handle him. They try everything. They try to be naughty, to shut the door on him, and still he comes. They stay behind, make him set all the pace, and when he goes, they go. But when he goes, they are liable never to see him again.
"It is a matter of temperament. The people still speak of what he did in the Tour de France of 1969. For 70 or 80 kilos, over three very nasty peaks of the Pyrenees, he goes. Solo. Nobody would think to do such a crazy thing. They would die, and never make the finish. But at the finish Eddy is the only one in sight."
"And he does this more than once?"
"Oh, many times," said the manager. "He was on the cover of Paris Match. HIS HEART, HIS LUNGS AND HIS PASSION FOR WINNING MAKE HIM THE CHAMPION. The doctors have measured his heartbeat. It is only 40 to 48 beats a minute. Even when he has been riding, it is only 60 or so. They have measured his lung capacity. It is six to seven kilos. The average is no more than five. From a medical point of view, he is not normal."
"It is said that he races too much, that he will burn out," said the American.
"He trains hard, 250, 300 days a year. Twenty thousand miles. He competes maybe 120 times. But also he wins more than anyone has ever won. He recuperates quickly. Recuperation, that is the word you must remember about Eddy Merckx."
The rain had stopped by the time the two cars reached the first vantage point at Maldegem. Claudine Merckx had stayed hard on the manager's rear bumper throughout.
"She drives like a maniac," said the American.
"Yes," said the manager.
Claudine swung her Mercedes around to facilitate a quick exit, and the group got out to stand beneath a Chiquita Banana sign to wait with the gathering crowd. Traffic was already immobilized. A helicopter could be seen in the distance. Claudine complained about something to the manager. The interpreter said it had to do with an insufficient number of spare tires on the Molteni car. He raised his eyebrows.
Suddenly there was the blast of a siren, and a motorcycle policeman hoved into view—the advance man clearing the way. At that speed, however, if the way had not already been cleared, he would have done it spectacularly.
What followed was an anarchy of sight and sound. Sirens and incessant horns. More motorcycle policemen. A comic cavalcade of advertisers' cars, some done up in the shape of their products (a beer bottle, a lemon), their riders flinging vinyl toys, bubble gum and cigarettes to the crowd, their loudspeakers blaring music and slogans. Then the official cars with the press (how could they report on and photograph what was going on behind them?) at alarming speed. Next, after an interval, the flag car, and then the cyclists: a massive whirligig of metal, the riders with their rumps up and heads down, legs driving, chains clicking, looking like the inner workings of a giant clock whose lid had been lifted for the occasion. After them came the mechanics in their cars, noses pressed to the windshields, spare wheels on the roofs spinning slowly backward. Then, abruptly, silence. The lid closed. They were gone.
"Did you see Eddy?" shouted the manager. "He was fifth."
"Yes!" said the American. "No. I—it was so quick. They all looked alike."
"Come, we go," said the manager.
They drove, hard, to Lichtervelde, once more in time for the full concert of sirens, horns and slogans. When the cyclists came the American counted the time he was able to keep the leaders in view: six seconds. "Eddy is third," announced the manager. "He is in good position. Did you see?"
"Yes, I think so," said the American. "He had his mouth open. But then.... Well, there is no distinction of style. I mean, nobody plays like Pelé, so you know it's Pelé. When you see Muhammad Ali, he is distinctive, and he is right there. They all ride alike."
The interpreter did not bother to interpret.
"Eddy has a style," said the wrinkled little man. "Very powerful. They say if any other racer tried it he would fall off his bicycle."
At Deerlijk they parked on a side street. Rain began to fall before the cyclists arrived. A chant had started, "Ed-dy, Ed-dy, Ed-dy," not loud but steady and atonal, like an incantation, more statement than cheer. The manager received word by radio that Eddy had had problems (had he fallen?) and was forced to change bicycles. He was fifth as they passed, speckled with mud. They were stretched out in bunches now, the mechanics' cars interspersed between them.
After the fourth stop the American accepted Claudine's invitation to switch to her Mercedes to get to the finish line in Ghent. The manager had decided to head for the hotel. Claudine said she especially wanted to be there to commiserate with her husband. She tried to explain why Eddy would have a hard time winning now; that at this point there were others who would beat him in the sprint. "How can I explain what is happening if you do not know anything?" she said. As she talked she waved one hand but still manipulated the car beautifully, with a kind of controlled frenzy. She reached the station 20 minutes ahead of the caravan.
The long homestretch was hedged on both sides with people. Taverns along the way were open and jammed, the patrons sipping beer and staring at television sets showing the race. Claudine ordered a lemon drink. When it was announced that the cyclists were near, she hurried outside and down the line to a point where she could intercept Eddy when he slowed down. The American got up on a photographer's platform to try to see the finish. He was asked if he had enjoyed the race. The American said yes, "but it is impossible to see."
"If it is not in your blood," he was told, "it cannot be put there."
Eddy Merckx came in seventh, muddied beyond recognition save for a couple of MOLTENIS: Claudine kissed him when he paused where she stood and then, head down, he rode on in the rain to the hotel.
Merckx! Encore et toujours Merckx!
There is a book retailing in Brussels and Paris whose first chapter begins that way. There is another, Mes Cornels de Route 1971, Eddy Merckx' diary of his season, whose last chapter is entitled Mission Accomplie. No cyclist ever had a season like it: of the 120 races he entered Merckx won 53 (think of it as Henry Aaron hitting .442), including his third consecutive Tour de France. This month he is going for No. 4, a feat equaled only by France's Jacques Anquetil in 1961-64. Halfway through the race he is in first place and is the overwhelming favorite to win. The French, who reason, after all, that it is their party and who invited him, anyway?, have not taken the spread of Merckxism cheerfully. Their writers pout ("He takes the fun out of cycling") and complain that the Tour is "losing its passion." Their racers, it has been written, "would not recognize Eddy Merckx on the street because they have seen him only from the rear."
Unable to find fault with Merckx' performance, they twit him for his lack of panache. Louis Bobet, who won three Tours de France in a row, says, "Merckx is almost too professional. My generation of cyclists felt that as vedettes [public figures] we owed something to our audiences. We were excited when we won, angry when we lost. Our entourages vibrated with our excitement. Merckx is interested only in cycling, and in winning."
Merckx, says Anquetil, "is as cold as any cyclist I have known. All cycling champions have sang-froid, and all of us like to win, but Merckx must win all the time. And not by a mere 20 or 30 seconds but by five or six minutes." But Anquetil is compelled to add that Eddy Merckx "is in a class by himself."
It is evident now, too, that Merckx has acquired an added dimension that often comes to those in sport who win as if it were foreordained. His impassivity, even if nothing more than shyness, gives him an inhuman quality, like that of those dire men who sleep on nails, and the many times he has come from behind to triumph have had their effect.
Consider two incidents in the 1971 Tour de France.
No. 1. Luis Ocana, the Basque from southern France who is considered the only threat to Merckx' primacy, had built up a lead of several minutes. That night reporters crowded around Merckx in the hotel at Oci√®res-Merlette, asking "What happened?" "Aren't you worried?" One observer recalls that Merckx' face was totally impassive. "He might as well have been asked if he preferred chocolate to vanilla." All he said in reply was, "There is a lot more of this race to go." The next day he rode like a demon, and made up two of his lost minutes. ("For all his majesty," says Anquetil, "Eddy Merckx enjoys a fight.")
No. 2. On the 17th day of the tour, in a rain-washed gully in the Pyrenees, Ocana, the leader now by 7:23 minutes, slipped and went down in the mud, and Merckx, in his wake, came tumbling after. But Merckx got up, looked to see if Ocana was all right and took off. Ocana sat there by his stricken bike, presumably waiting for a replacement. And as he waited, said a witness, you could see his morale drain. A third cyclist rammed into him, passing over his stomach.
While the French press went to work on the (gleeful) premise that Eddy Merckx, vulnerable at last, would never have won were it not for the luck of the accident and echoed Ocana's prediction that he would "beat Merckx next time," a curious thing happened. Merckx went on to win the world championship at Mendrisio. And Ocana went into eclipse. He did not win a tour or a classic in 1971. He did not compete at all early this year. "He is saving himself [for the Tour de France]," the French newspapers optimistically reported. "He is crazy," said the Belgians. "You cannot make a season on one race." Which remains to be seen. One thing is known. Everywhere that Merckx went Ocana was sure not to follow.
Journalists who know him best contend that there are two Eddy Merckxes. One is the cold, deadpan killer cyclist. The other, at home in his villa outside Brussels, is congenial, outgoing and something of a chatterbox.
The Merckxes live in a modern yellow glass-brick house with a gray roof on Avenue des Bescasses in the Brussels suburb of Kraainem. Its features include conical aluminum lights, paintings of Eddy by Maria Esmeralda, the daughter of ex-King Leopold and a devout Merckxist, and a huge picture window overlooking the backyard, which sweeps to a cluster of tall trees. The trees were already greening when the American came to visit last spring.
Eddy was at home in a turtleneck, Claudine in a long dress with a slit up past the knee. She served coffee and pastries. Van Griethuysen had brought the American there and was grousing about the French writers. Van Buggenhout said Claudine had been upset that morning by an article quoting a French cyclist's prediction that this was the year Ocana would win the tour. Claudine said she refused to show the article to Eddy.
"But it does not really matter," she said, "because when he loses, tomorrow is another day. And when he wins, tomorrow is another day. It is the same."
Eddy had been to the doctor; he had had no pain in his injured back after the Ghent race and there was no more need for shots. He was in good spirits. While the others had coffee he got himself a chocolate drink and lounged in a massive suede chair.
Asked, he traced his ascent. How, as a schoolboy, he had had "the passion" for bicycling. He recalled that a teacher had asked his class to tell of its ambitions, and he had replied, "I want to be a champion bicycle racer." He said when the news came that Stan Ockers, the champion of Belgium, had been killed on the track at Antwerp, he ran sobbing to his room and would not come out for dinner.
"Ockers was the complete man," said Merckx. "A climber, a sprinter. He came from six minutes behind to win the world championship in Rome. It was unbelievable."
Merckx' father had a grocery store in the suburb of Woluwe St. Pierre. His mother did not want him to race bicycles. "She did not believe in the possibilities," he said. "She said, 'Go to school.' " She wanted him to be a professor of physical education. But in school he dreamed of spinning wheels. Especially he dreamt in French class. His grades were uniformly poor. His French was a disaster.
When his mother went to the seashore following a minor operation, Eddy "took profit to go in a race at a small fair. Sixty kilometers. I finished sixth." He was 16. On that same day (July 16, 1961) Jacques Anquetil won his first Tour de France.
Ultimately Mother Merckx relented. She agreed to let Eddy drop out of school to try cycling for a year while working in the store, delivering groceries. His first bike—a one-speed model for amateurs—was purchased from Felicien Vervaecke, a pre-World War II Belgian champion known as The King of the Mountains. Already Vervaecke could see that "Eddy had the temperament: race, race, race."
In 1964 Eddy won the world amateur championship at Sallanches, France. In 1965 he turned professional; in December 1967 he married Claudine. In 1969 he was driven through the streets of Brussels in an open car to a reception at the palace, the first Belgian winner of the Tour de France since 1939. "The people went completely crazy," said Van Griethuysen.
Eddy sipped his chocolate and reflected as the American speculated on what an insular, solitary thing riding a bicycle for distance must be; that it was the appetite of a loner, like swimming channels or photographing insects.
"I do not need to have company to be happy," said Eddy Merckx.
"What, then, is having a good time? I mean, apart from winning Tours de France?"
"He likes music," Claudine said. "Fats Domino. Louis Armstrong."
"He is happy when he is in the basement," said the manager.
"Come," said Claudine. She led the way down to a mare's nest of sprockets and gears and wrenches; a neat row of 100 wheels, the tires kept on them for as long as three years, curing (the older, the tougher) in the cool of the basement; an assortment of bicycles and a treadmill on which a bike could be ridden. There was a sauna and a large portable mirror Claudine said she held for Eddy so he could see himself as he pedaled on the treadmill. She said she would sit there by the hour, holding the mirror or watching Eddy tinker at his workbench, drilling holes, experimenting with his seats (on hills, he sits nearer the front of his bicycle; on the flats, nearer the middle; on a rough road, all the way back).
"A bicycle is not a toy," said Eddy Merckx. "It must make money. It must be at its maximum. I have a certain illness in my head about the angle of the seat. When I am racing I am sometimes not sure I am in a good position. So one time I changed the tilt. But it was wrong. I had to change it back. Eddy Merckx does not cause a revolution in bicycle design. Racing a bicycle, it is a feel. Knowing the weaknesses, the time to attack, the importance of strategy. From 1962 to 1964 I change much physically. My legs grow longer. They are still growing in 1966 and 1967, and much is made of this, but they are not longer than many others'." It is not a question of morphology but of feel. And, as always in sport, desire.
The American eased into the question. Was there, ah, perhaps, a point champions reach where the effort becomes too painful and the victories less gratifying? What could he possibly look forward to?
"I do not look forward," said Eddy Merckx. "I live day to day. If I thought about the future, it would be a negative thing. Now I do not have the time to think of the future."
In fact, he said, he would have to excuse himself now. He had to leave for an appointment to shave for a TV cameraman or to drink mineral water for a still photographer. Something like that.
When the American left, he turned to look back at Eddy Merckx' villa. He made a mental note that the millionaire's grass was badly in need of cutting. He wondered which French journalist he knew would see in that a comforting sign of decay. It pleased him that he would be keeping the knowledge to himself. Encore, Merckx. Et toujours.