It is somewhat late, but you know what they say: better late than… Acres of people were born in 1945. It was the end of the war and it required some kind of celebration. The world was getting ready for music, movies, sports, and business. All of the things they dreamed about for the long peace ahead of them (that seems to be more or less over, by the way). Many celeb-wannabe guys and gals were born the years that the Great War ended. Bob Marley. Good but brief. Eric Clapton. Still good. Goldie Hawn. Has-been. Currently just Kate Hudson’s mom. Franz Beckenbauer. Formerly great, now with some teeny tiny issues. Van Morrison, yeaaah! Cool. Lemmy. U-haaa! You know I love you, innocent bitch! Sorry… Steve Martin. You may laugh. So… lots of people. I also have somebody in this world that I would like to present.
This is a guy who took cycling and put it in the back pocket of his jersey. Some kind of Armstrong avant la lettre, when the world was still frail. They named him the Cannibal because he devoured his opponents though he was/is a Belgian – a space that has not quite provided ogres (except for the Wild Boar of Ardennes, the head of a small village of thieves during the Middle Ages). Eddy Merckx’s birthday was a couple of months ago, but I cannot wait until his next one. I first met him in one of the colourless magazines of the times when reading meant travelling. His hunched position on the bike and the face full of ambition – always suggesting a threat like “I’m the best and I’ll win over you all” – knocked me over. I read all of his adventures. Liège-Bastogne-Liège, when he almost starved to death, but in the end won “using his head”, which contradicts some folks who believe that this sport is all about muscles and injections. The moment of despair, when his friend Monseré died at 21 wearing his world champion jersey, hit by a car. And mostly that 1971Tour de France when the Spaniard Ocana wiped the floor with him – 9 minutes in one stage, which was unprecedented in those times. A Tour he was supposed to lose, but which he eventually won by making the opponent abandon. Ocana failed to keep up, during a storm, with the craziness of the one ready to fight until the last bit. Or at least that is what I read in those magazines I had.
However, let us not lose ourselves in the emotion-filled labyrinth of the past. Today’s question also applies to them retroactively: were they doping – Ocana, him, and the others? Such a thing would break the spell, just like a former convict is always reminded of his time in prison. And cycling has a thick rap sheet. Actually, deep down we all know the answer to this question. Eddy defended Lance until the end. He was caught himself, but he got away with it like it used to happen back then. There is a difference, however: as I have cunningly tried to suggest before, those were the times when people fought against people – better or worse, taking “stuff” or naive – not extraterrestrials against galactics. In his best year, Merckx seriously went through hell. He did not give up because, mostly back then, riders were some kind of mine workers, Stakhanovites with extra money. It was a war-like sport and you had to go all the way: you went on until you dropped dead, just like in the Foreign Legion. Merckx won over 500 races, but this is not the reason I remember him. I know him as a guy who wanted to beat everyone and anything, from a Belgian tour to the Tour of Italy, from an insignificant sprint to the World Championships. He was a finicky for whom nothing else mattered but the yellow T-shirt. This crazy hunger made him unlikeable. He was spit on; even worse, in 1975, while he was struggling to win a Tour that he eventually lost, he received a punch in the liver during a stage. Nowadays, such an incident would have become CNN breaking news, but back then it was only mentioned in an editorial of L’Equipe. Indeed, guys got sometimes punched and it was not the end of the world. They certainly knew why…
One time when he was climbing the Ventoux (the mountain that left you with no air), the great Eddy – escaped and in full effort – took his hat off while he passed near the funerary monument in the honour of Tom Simpson, who had died of fatigue and doping a few years prior, right on those slopes. Such a movement was also a marketing pose, like when Armstrong made a reverence to an almost-dead also on Ventoux, in 2000, when he let Pantani win right on top of the mountain. However, unlike him, his Great Majesty of a Liar, Mister Merckx fainted a little at the arrival, after taking a step on the podium. An oxygen mask was required to get him back to his senses. The only time Lance fainted he faked it, in order to fool Ulrich the “idiot”. Many died of laughter at that point. And they remained so.
I do not necessarily love Merckx. But I do love the times when sport managed to blush from time to time.
Written for Cycling Today by Radu Naum