A Sporting Life: Eddy Merckx

As with films, the sportsmen of past decades hold a special interest for me, more so than contemporary ones. Eddy Merckx is one of them. I wasn’t around during his career. I am from the generation that witnessed with unprecedented fervour the rivalry between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, until the doping scandals in cycling changed that sport and sport in general for ever and wiped out any trace of trust I had in professional sport for years to come. It rapidly turned into another impulse to look into earlier times, when sport was different, when cycling was different. Simpler, more fascinating, more liberating, cleaner. When talent, passion and hard work seemed to be most accountable for a cyclist’s accomplishments. Before the newest bikes, technology and medical research started to significantly influence the overall hierarchy.

I read the book Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal, by Daniel Friebe, inspired by my interview with Eliza Southwood. I was happy to discover not only the story of the career of arguably the best cyclist of all time, but also a valuable recount of an extraordinary era in cycling, the 1960s and 1970s. It gave me the feel of those times, of the bike races, of the sport.

Eddy Merckx is one of the heroes of one of the most beautiful sports. He was the rouleur, good on any surface, in any competition. He conquered everything in cycling. Because that’s what he knew how to do. Because he could. He won the Tour de France five times. He also won Giro d’Italia five times – by many, fans and riders alike, it is this one that is considered the most beautiful and difficult grand tour. He muscled all sense of competition out of each race he entered. He was described by his competitors as a force of nature. Everything was instinct. He gave everything when he was on the bike. He didn’t just win against his opponents, he won against himself. “I am truly happy only when I’m on the bike”, he said in 1970. A simple sport for a complicated mind, that’s how Merckx viewed cycling. It was more than talent, it was a vocation. Eddy Merckx had a relentless drive, a pure, liberating passion for cycling, just like an amateur – in love with the sport, not because of the money or fame. A childlike enthusiasm. For him, cycling meant meritocracy and a raison d’être. A valuable life lesson for everyone, regardless of one’s profession.

Eddy Merckx en route to winning his fourth Tour de France in 1972


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