(BLOGGER’S NOTE: this is day 7 of a series of short essays designed for the lay fan to learn more about the Tour de France. I will be posting one of these for every day of the Tour. Today, we start looking at some legendary names in cycling.)
There’s an old joke in cycling circles about someone seeing God riding a bicycle and saying, “Look! He thinks He’s Eddy Merckx.” If you’re going to talk about the greatest cyclists of all time, the conversation starts (and some say it can end) with the legendary Belgian rider.
Merckx rose to prominence in the late 60’s, becoming World Champion at age 22. He would win his first Grand Tour by notching the first of five Giro d’Italia victories in 1968. This set the stage for Merckx’ first Tour de France victory in 1969. In possibly the most dominating performance in Tour history, Merckx justified his nickname, The Cannibal, by winning six stages, as well as the General Classification, the Points Classification, the Mountains Classification and the Most Combative Rider prize. (Had the Young Rider Classification existed at the time, Merckx would have taken that as well.)
For the next several years, Merckx would establish himself as one of the most dominant riders in the sport’s history. He would win four consecutive Tours from 1969 to 1972 before getting a fifth win in 1974. He would add victories in the Giro in 1970 and from 1972 to 1974. (He was only the third man every to win the Giro-Tour double and he would do it three times.) He added a Vuelta title in 1973, becoming the first man ever to win the Giro-Vuelta double. He would add a second World Championship in 1971 and break the one hour record in 1972. In 1974, he became the first man ever to win cycling’s Triple Crown by winning the Giro, the Tour and the World Championship in the same season. Beyond that, his epic rides, in which he would ride away from the peloton and spend most of a stage alone, have become the stuff of legend.
But the dominance did not come without some controversy. In 1973, Tour de France organizers asked Merckx not to ride the Tour, bowing to considerable negative feeling among French fans over the possibility a Belgian would become the first ever to win five consecutive Tours. The organizers were worried about fan interference possibly harming the Tour. Merckx agreed, though his dominance in the Giro and the Vuelta suggested he was in the kind of form that would have netted him a fifth straight Tour title. In 1975, Merckx was again in yellow when the nightmare scenario from 1973 occurred. A fan stepped out of the crowd and punched Merckx in the back as he sprinted toward the finish line. Merckx suffered an inflamed liver and experienced considerable pain for the rest of the Tour. It contributed mightily to his finishing in second place. Were it not for the “unfortunate” issue of Merckx being Belgian, he might have racked up seven Tour wins in a row (eat THAT, Lance Armstrong.)
Merckx would be largely ineffective over his last few years, finally retiring in 1978. But the numbers for his career are impressive indeed. His five Tour victories, five wins in the Giro and three World Championships make him one of the most successful riders in the history of those races. He is one of only six men to win all three Grand Tours in his career. He is one of only two to win cycling’s Triple Crown. He has won more Tour stages (34) than anyone in history. He won nearly every one-day classic on the calendar, including the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Paris-Roubaix. An amazing career.