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Eddy Merckx

Edouard "Eddy" Louis Joseph Merckx (born June 17, 1945, Meensel-Kiezegem) is a Belgian professional cyclist among the most successful of all times. An icon of his sport, equal to the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan or Pelé, he setup up several as yet unsurpassed records of the cycling history.

Racing career

Successes in stage racing and single day races

Merckx started competing in 1961. Three years later he became world champion in the amateur category, before turning professional in 1965. In 1966 he won the first of seven editions of the race Milan-Sanremo. A year later he became world champion in the professional category in Heerlen, The Netherlands and would win this title twice more.

In 1968 Merckx started his domination of the Grand Tours by becoming the first Belgian to win the Giro d'Italia. He would repeat this four more times.

In his Tour de France debut in 1969, Merckx immediately won the yellow jersey (overall leader), the green jersey (best sprinter) and the red polka-dotted jersey ("King of the Mountains" - best climber in the mountain stages). No other cyclist has achieved this trifecta in the Tour de France, and only Laurent Jalabert has been able to match this feat at the Grand Tour level, in the 1995 Vuelta. If the young riders' white jersey (for best rider in the Tour that is under 25 years of age) had existed at that time, Merckx would have won that one as well, as he had only just turned 24. It was also the first time a Belgian won the Tour de France since Sylvère Maes thirty years earlier, and because of this Merckx became a national hero. Like the Giro, he would win this contest also four more times: in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974, equalling Frenchman Jacques Anquetil. Over the next 25 years, only Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain were able to equal the five victories. Then Lance Armstrong broke the record and went on winning the Tour for a sixth (2004) and even seventh (2005) time. Merckx still holds the records for stage wins (34) and number of days in the Yellow Jersey (96).

When Armstrong was about to break his Tour victory-record, Merckx admitted that, in retrospect, he regretted his decision to not participate in the 1973 edition[citation needed] (Merckx rode in the Vuelta instead and won the general classification). At the time, he had responded to Tour-organizer Goddet's public announcement that they would rather see someone else win for a change. In his absence, Spaniard Luis Ocaña, who had crashed out while wearing the yellow jersey in a previous edition, won the Tour. However, Merckx also argued that the race didn't have quite the same impact as today, and that his decision had to be considered in that light. Few people doubt that he could have won a few more Tours if he hadn't stopped after just seven starts.

In addition to these well-known Grand Tour successes, Merckx also has an impressive list of victories in one-day races (for a comprehensive list, see lower down). Among the highlights are a record of seven victories in the race Milan-Sanremo, which to this day hasn't been equalled, five times Liège-Bastogne-Liège and three wins in Paris-Roubaix, the Hell of the North. He also won the World Road Racing Championship a record three times in 1967, 1971 and 1974, and every single one of the Classic cycle races, except Paris-Tours. Finally, he was also victorious in no less than 17 six-day track races on the velodrome, often with his partner Patrick Sercu.

Merckx retired from racing in 1978, at the age of 33. According to his own words, his body was still up to it but the psychological pressure had exhausted him.[citation needed]

Setbacks and lesser days

The blackest day in Merckx's career dates from 1969, when he crashed in a derny race towards the end of the season. A pacer and a cyclist fell in front of Merckx's pacer, Fernand Wambst, and caused both him and Merckx to crash. His pacer was killed instantly, and Merckx suffered a bad concussion and fell unconscious. This accident cracked a vertebra and twisted his pelvis. He admitted in interviews that, because of his injuries, his riding was never the same. He would keep adjusting his saddle while riding to make sure it had the right position, and would always be in pain, especially while climbing.

That same year, during the Giro d'Italia, he was confronted with accusations of drug use. Because of this, he was forced to leave the contest. Merckx cried in front of the press and to this day keeps repeating people cheated with the doping test. He claims that there were no counter-experts nor counter-analysis available and that some foreign supporters hated him. Further, he claimed that the stage during which he was allegedly using drugs was an easy one for everybody, so there was no need to use any drugs. The Belgian prince sent a plane to bring him back to Belgium. This incident was one of the reasons why Merckx would consider his first Tour de France victory, later that year, as his best ever.

The end of his great Tour-career came in 1975. At that year's Tour de France, he attempted to win his sixth, but became a victim of violence. Many Frenchmen were upset that a Belgian might beat the record of five wins set by Frenchman Jacques Anquetil. Merckx held the yellow jersey for eight days of the race, which raised his record to 96 total days, but during stage 14 a French spectator leapt from the crowd and punched him in the liver area. On top of this, a collision with Danish rider Ole Ritter resulted in a broken jaw at a later stage. Despite the fact that he could not eat solid food, and was barely able to talk, Merckx did not retire from the race. During the very last stage, he even attacked leader Bernard Thevenet (but was caught by the peloton). Later, Merckx would consider his refusal to quit after the injury as the biggest mistake in his career, since it permanently undermined his physical strength.

Hour record

In addition to his achievements in regular professional cycling, Merckx also set the bicycle hour speed record in 1972. On October 25, he covered 49.431 km at high altitude in Mexico City. The record would remain untouched until 1984, when Francesco Moser broke it using a specially designed bicycle and meticulously studied improvements in streamlining. Over the next 15 years, various racers would keep improving the record, up to more than 56 km (Chris Boardman). However, because of the increasingly exotic design of the bikes and position of the rider, these performances were no longer reasonably comparable to Merckx's achievement. In response to this, the UCI went back to basics and introduced the UCI Hour Record in 2000, requiring a "traditional" bike to be used. When Boardman subsequently had another go at Merckx's reinstated record 28 years later, he bested it by slightly more than 10 meters.

The greatest cyclist of all time?

Assigning someone the title of the greatest cyclist of all time will always be an intrinsically controversial issue. On one hand, career statistics (in which Merckx clearly dominates) can be considered an objective measurement. On the other hand, they should not be separated from their context —the times, the training methods, and the opponents have changed.

For several years Daniel Marszalek has kept an internationally acknowledged weighed ranking to determine the best cyclists since 1892.[1] The ranking takes the (fluctuating) relative importance of races into account to get a balanced result. In the "overall ranking", 2005 edition, Merckx had almost twice as many points as the second (5.844,80 points vs 3.312,80 points for Bernard Hinault, with 16 other racers totaling more than 2000 pts). He has similar margins in separate classifications for Classic races and Tours, best 5-season and best 10-season rankings, and best individual season overall (including the 6 best individual seasons ever, and seven out of the top ten). As a comparison, Lance Armstrong was ranked 15th with 2090,70 points at the end of his career in 2005.

After retirement

Having retired from competitive cycling, Eddy Merckx has now a bicycle factory and is a race commentator. He also was coach of the Belgian national cycling team during the mid-90's, and was part of the Belgian Olympic Committee. Merckx is still asked frequently to comment as an authority on various topics in the field of cycling. As such, he has also figured as special advisor for the recent UCI addition "Tour of Qatar" since 2002.

In May 2004, he underwent an esophagus operation to cure the constant stomach ache which he suffered since he was still a young man. He lost almost 30 kilograms in the process, and took up (recreational) cycling again with more regularity after the operation.

Personal life and temper

In 1967 Merckx married Claudine Acou. They had two children: a daughter (Sabrina) and a son (Axel, who also became a professional cyclist). Merckx's mother had asked the priest to celebrate the entire ceremony in French, a choice that ended up being a contentious issue in Belgium.

Despite this early incident, Merckx may be considered a perfect ambassador to Belgium (i.e. not leaning towards Flanders or Wallonia, but supporting the unity of the country). This, together with his achievements in sports, pushed him to high rankings in both the Flemish (3rd) and Walloon (4th) editions of the "Greatest Belgian" contest, held in 2005.

In 1996 the Belgian king gave him the lifelong title of baron. In 2000 he was chosen Belgian "Sports Figure of the Century".

Merckx is known as a quiet and modest person, a man of actions instead of big words. Many of his former helpers got a job in his bicycle factory and still regularly join him during recreational bike tours.

Merckx has strongly condemned doping (he tested positive for illegal substances twice in his career), a hot topic in the world of professional cycling. At the same time he has been quick to point out that cycling is often unfairly treated when compared to other sports. In the 90's, he became a good personal friend of Lance Armstrong, and supported him when he was accused of drug use, often stating that he rather "believed what Lance told him than what appeared in newspapers".

Other records and achievements

  • Eddy Merckx is five-time champion of the two most important races in professional cycling, the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia and one of only four cyclists to have won all three of the Grand Tours

  • He is the one of only two men to have won the Triple Crown of Cycling (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, and the World Cycling Championship) in the same year.

  • In addition, he is one of only three riders (all Belgian) to have won all five “Monument” one-day classic races at least once during his career, and won the season-long Super Prestige Pernod International competition a record seven consecutive times.

  • Overall, Merckx entered 1582 road races in his 13 year professional career, and won 525 of them —this implies a winning rate above 33% (approx. one-third).[2]

  • He dominated both single-day and stage races during his career, a rarity in recent cycling.

Trivia and cultural references

  • Merckx was nicknamed "the cannibal" because he refused to ride tactically. He preferred to go flat out at all times, and wanted to win every single race he participated in, never "arranging" a race with another competitor. One result was that many foreign cycling fans hated Merckx for winning so much and, as mentioned above, it made him skip at least one Tour de France. Other nicknames were "the Einstein of the two-wheelers", and, courtesy of Jacques Goddet, "Le Géant" (The Giant).

  • Despite his spectacular career, Merckx never won the classic race Paris-Tours. Cyclist Noël Van Tyghem, who did win this race, was once quoted saying "Together with Merckx, I won all classics that can be won. I won Paris-Tours, Merckx all the rest…"[citation needed]

  • Eddy Merckx is also known as multiple Belgian Champion in three cushion billiards.

  • During his peak years as a racer he is said to have cycled over 35,000 km a year.[citation needed]

  • Merckx could push his limits like no other. While climbing the steep, severe Mont Ventoux in 1970 to a stage win, he rode so strongly and pushed himself so hard that after he finished oxygen had to be administered.

  • In the mid seventies Merckx was criticized for making television commercials for cigarettes.

  • When the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Belgium in 2005 she wanted to meet a famous citizen of the country, which became Merckx.

  • A station on the Brussels metro is named in his honour, as is a cycling contest: "De Grote Prijs Eddy Merckx" (The Big Prize Eddy Merckx).

  • In the French comedy Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob (1973) with Louis De Funés, De Funés' character hears a conversation between a kidnapper and his victim, a revolutionary. When the revolutionary says: "A revolution is like a bike, it may fall or stand up", De Funés attributes the line to Eddy Merckx.

  • In the comic strip Asterix Merckx makes a cameo as a "fast runner" in the album Asterix in Belgium.

  • In 2000, the Belgian magazine Knack declared him to be "Belgian of the Century" and another four years later, the magazine Humo called him "the Greatest Belgian".

Significant victories by race

Grand Tours

  • 5× Tours de France, 34 stage wins

  • 5× Giro d'Italia, 24 stage wins

  • 1× Vuelta a España, 6 stage wins

Other tours

  • 1× Tour de Suisse

  • 2× Ronde van België/Tour de Belgique

  • 3× Paris-Nice

  • 1× Tour de Romandy

  • 1× Dauhpine Libere

  • 1× Midi Libre

  • 4× Tour of Sardinia

Classic cycle races

  • 7× Milan-Sanremo

  • 5× Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • 3× Paris-Roubaix

  • 2× Giro di Lombardia

  • 2× Tour of Flanders

  • 2× Amstel Gold Race

  • 3× Fleche Wallonne

  • 1× Paris-Brussels

  • 3× Gent-Wevelgem

World titles

  • 3× World Championships

  • 1× Amateur World Championships

Track races

  • 17 six-day races

  • 3× European Championships

  • 7× Belgian Madison Championships (with Patrick Sercu)

Significant victories by year

1964

  • World Amateur Road Race Champion

1966 (Team Peugeot-BP)

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Trofeo Angelo Baracchi, with Ferdi Bracke

  • Championship of Flanders

  • Tour de Morbihan

1967 (Team Peugeot-BP)

  • World Pro Road Race

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • La Flèche Wallonne

  • Gent-Wevelgem

  • Trofeo Angelo Baracchi, with Ferdi Bracke

  • 2 stages, Giro d'Italia

  • Critérium des As

1968 (Team Faema)

  • Giro d'Italia, including

    • KoM

    • Points Competition

    • 4 stages

  • Tour of Catalonia

  • Tour of Romandy

  • Paris-Roubaix

  • Tre Valli Varesine

  • Tour of Sardinia

  • G.P. Lugano

  • A travers Lausanne

1969 (Team Faema)

  • Tour de France, including

    • KoM

    • Points Competition

    • 5 stages

  • Paris-Luxembourg

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Tour of Flanders

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • Paris-Nice, including

    • 4 stages

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1970 (Team Faema-Faemino)

  • Tour de France, including

    • KoM

    • Points Competition

    • Climbers Competition

    • 8 stages

  • Giro d'Italia, including

    • 3 stages

  • Paris-Nice

  • Tour of Belgium

  • Paris-Roubaix

  • La Flèche Wallonne

  • Gent-Wevelgem

  • Critérium des As

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1971 (Team Molteni)

  • Tour de France, including

    • Points Competition

    • 4 stages

  • World Pro Road Race

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • Tour of Lombardy

  • Rund um den Henninger Turm

  • Omloop "Het Volk"

  • Paris-Nice

  • Dauphiné Libéré

  • GP du Midi Libre

  • Tour of Belgium

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1972 (Team Molteni)

  • Tour de France, including

    • Points Competition

    • 6 stages

  • Giro d'Italia, including

    • 4 stages

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • Tour of Lombardy

  • La Flèche Wallonne

  • Giro dell'Emilia

  • Giro del Piemonte

  • Grote Scheldeprijs

  • Trofeo Angelo Baracchi, with Roger Swerts

  • Hour Record - 49.431 km

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1973 (Team Molteni)

  • Giro d'Italia, including

    • Points Competition

    • 6 stages

  • Vuelta a España, including

    • Points Competition

    • 6 stages

  • Paris-Roubaix

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • Grand Prix des Nations

  • Amstel Gold Race

  • Gent-Wevelgem

  • Omloop "Het Volk"

  • Paris-Brussels

  • GP Fourmies

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1974 (Team Molteni)

  • Tour de France, including

    • 8 stages

  • Giro d'Italia, including

    • 2 stages

  • World Pro Road Race

  • Tour de Suisse, including

    • Points Competition

    • KoM

    • 3 stages

  • Critérium des As

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1975 (Team Molteni)

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Tour of Flanders

  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

  • Amstel Gold Race

  • Catalan Week

  • 2 stages, Tour de France

  • 1 stage, Tour de Suisse

  • Super Prestige Pernod Trophy

1976 (Team Molteni)

  • Milan-Sanremo

  • Catalan Week

1977 (Team Fiat)

  • 1 stage, Tour de Suisse

  • Mediterranean Tour


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