Daniel Friebe answers some questions about his biography of the greatest cyclist our sport has known: Eddy Merckx – The Cannibal. Along the way we meet some true characters, consider the truth behind Savona, and take a trip back in time to the 1971 Tour de France.
Cyclismas: Let’s begin with two things Merckx has recently commented upon. Contrary to the impression he’s given in a recent interview, he declined to be interviewed for The Cannibal. Do you think that freed you up to some extent, allowed you to paint a broader picture of the man and his era?
Daniel Friebe: It did free me up. It also allowed me to preserve, or rebuild, a mystique which Merckx increasingly seems to be dismantling himself, with the interviews he does and particularly what he says in them. He reminds me a bit of Pelé, with his Viagra adverts and nonsense about Lionel Messi not being the greatest footballer in the world. Somehow to me it made most sense if it was all or nothing: do it with Merckx’s total and unreserved collaboration or without any input.
One thing I’ve also emphasized to a lot to people is that I didn’t want to humanize him too much. I wanted to keep a little bit back. I wanted to talk about the aura almost more than about the man. That’s why I loved some of the analogies and metaphors that my interviewees came up with – Giancarlo Ferretti likening him to a “one-man forest fire” and Dino Zandegù talking about him “pawing the ground like a big tiger.”
For all that, some of the time, he could seem like just another normal bloke to his contemporaries, on his bike, in their eyes, he morphed into something that wasn’t at all human; it was supernatural or animalesque, but it definitely wasn’t human. It therefore didn’t make sense to me to describe him pottering about his house, and talk about how many sugars he puts in his coffee. When I talk about the ’69 Liège in the book, I say that, to one rider, Barry Hoban, it felt like a haunting; that, really, was the essence of a lot of guys’ experience at the time, and what I wanted to convey.
Cyclismas: Merckx’s dodgy heart. You add some new detail to that tale but it is one I’ve read a few times before, most recently in Herbie Sykes’ Maglia Rosa. Were you surprised by the way the cycling media internationally picked up that aspect of The Cannibal and ran with it, one of them in Belgium even getting a comment from the man himself?
Daniel Friebe: To be honest, I alerted a Belgian journalist to this story a few days before the book’s publication, having noticed in the course of my research that it had never been covered in Belgium. From there, the friend put something in his paper and it all went a bit crazy.
But, yes, it did bemuse me that it was so widely publicised, as the story has been written before. All I added was the interview with the Italian cardiologist, whom I managed to track down very shortly before the manuscript went to press. Herbie’s (brilliant) book was the initial spur for me hunting him down.
Merckx’s reaction a few days after the story spread was quite odd; having at first said that, yes, he remembered taking the cardiogram, he then denied that it had ever happened.
Cyclismas: The very silly question: Doctor Who turns up in his Tardis and offers to whisk you back in time to one day in Merckx’s career, twenty-four hours when you can live and breathe Merckx’s world, witness firsthand stories you’ve read about, been told about, or watched on film. What day would you choose?
Daniel Friebe: If you could stretch the twenty-four to forty-eight or maybe even a bit more, it would be his crushing defeat to Luis Ocaña at Orcières-Merlette in the 1971 Tour, the rest-day which came next, then the stage to Marseille the following day, which Rini Wagtmans described as “the greatest Tour de France stage in history.”
There you saw such a concentrated, vivid snapshot; Merckx’s most emphatic defeat, his courage in adversity, his fragility, his daring and imagination on the bike, Ocaña’s brilliance and propensity for self-sabotage, plus some fabulous little vignettes like Raymond Riotte’s about Merckx warming up on the morning of the Marseille stage, ready to unleash hell.
Those three days were, in my mind, the fulcrum or apotheosis of Merckx’s reign. The 1971 Tour in general threw up so many intriguing questions; by highlighting precisely why Ocaña would probably never scale the heights his talents warranted, by default, everything that happened in that Tour underlined why Merckx was able to dominate like he did.
Ocaña’s is an incredible story. I’d set up an interview with his widow, was going to do a big piece on her in the book, but she got cold feet at the last minute. I’d actually have liked to do a book solely on that 1971 Tour (a French writer, François Terbeen, sort of did one: Merckx et Ocaña: Duel au Sommet), similar to what Richard Moore did with 1986 [Slaying the Badger]. The problem with Merckx was that there was too much to cover in 350 pages. It was hard to really zoom in on certain incidents.
Cyclismas: You make a rather morbid – but nonetheless valid – point early in The Cannibal about how those who best know Merckx are getting close to their sell-by date, that soon Merckx’s story will slip into history. This reminded me of a comment Sam Abt made to Richard Moore when he was researching Slaying The Badger, that what he was doing was excavating history. Was something similar one of the reasons you wanted to tell a story about Merckx?
Daniel Friebe: I was reminded of what Sam had said to Richard, too. And, yes, it probably was one of the reasons I wanted to take this project on now. I certainly don’t think I’d have had much appetite for it if none of the protagonists were alive and accessible.
The interesting thing was finding out as I went along who was going to give me the best material; bear in mind that, before I started, I hadn’t even heard of some of these guys. It was purely pot luck with a lot of them. Some, I literally found in the phone book. With one or two of the more obscure characters, like Raymond Riotte and Dino Zandegù, I struck gold.
When that happened, I felt immensely privileged, mindful that if I hadn’t asked, only a handful of people would ever have heard some of their stories. In total, I only interviewed around fifty out of the hundreds and thousands who came into contact with Merckx, so there’s a lot I won’t have managed to “excavate” but I’m at least glad to have salvaged a small number of gems.
Cyclismas: Your interviewees, almost to a man, bring passion and joy to their stories about their era in the peloton. For all that Merckx dominated them, certainly now, they’re able to enjoy the memories. Ok, so Rik van Looy hung up the phone on you but the rest, generally they seem to be able to look back with good humour. Were you expecting that?
Daniel Friebe: Based on what I’d seen and heard in the past, I suspected there’d be a lot of nostalgia, and I was right. I knew that it would be hard to find people who were outright hostile towards Merckx. I think that’s because, if cycling is conservative now, it was even more so then, and the pack mentality dictated that the strongest riders were always likely to inspire a lot of deference.
One guy whom I regret not being able to interview is Cyrille Guimard; I’ve done quite a lot with him in the past but, for some reason, he never replied to my requests for an interview on this project. Guimard is always fascinating, and he’s also one of a very small number who, I sensed from what I read and heard, harboured genuine hostility towards Merckx.
The other issue is that a lot of these guys have realised over the past forty years how much they have to gain from basking in Merckx’s reflected glory; on the whole, they liked me asking them about Merckx because it gave them the chance to reminisce about what, for most of them, was the fullest and most gratifying period of their lives. Rik van Looy is probably the only exception to this; to him, any discussion of Merckx and his achievements is a tacit belittlement of his own palmarès.
Cyclismas: Dino Zandegù: is he the greatest cycling raconteur you’ve yet met?
Daniel Friebe: Zandegù was just magical. Trust me when I say that I couldn’t do him justice. The recordings of his interviews were almost inaudible above my gurgles of delight/amusement/disbelief. I didn’t mention this in the book, but a major publisher in Italy was so taken with him that they named their company Zandegù Editore.
I would have loved to include more from and about him, including stories I came across about his time as a directeur sportif, but I couldn’t stray too far away from Merckx. There’s a story about Zandegù and the 1964 Giro which he’s told many times before, and which was in the first draft of the book, which is utterly astounding and hysterical, but was too loosely related to the main subject matter. I’m keeping it back to hopefully dust off at a later date …
Again, though, I was just so lucky to come across someone like Zandegù; I knew that he was a character, but had no idea whether he’d have anything interesting to say about Merckx. In the event, as a journalist, with guys like him the only skill you need is the ability to listen.
Cyclismas: Let’s talk about a couple of the people who played – or claimed – a role in Merckx’s dominance of cycling. Lomme Driessens was his directeur sportif for a time. He was a strange one …
Daniel Friebe: Again, what a character. I originally intended to do much more on him, too, but just didn’t have the space. I’d urge anyone who enjoyed the passages about him in my book to read Freddy Maertens’ Fall From Grace, which is as much about Driessens as it is about Maertens.
There were so many great anecdotes, but I loved the one I got from Rini Wagtmans about the Driessens handshake – shaking with his right hand, then reaching around the other fellow’s back with his left and lightly pinching their flesh, to see how fat they were.
No disrespect to the current breed of directeurs, who are probably a lot more competent and professional, but I think the decline or retreat of the really charismatic directeurs has been a bit of a regrettable trend over the last couple of decades. Giancarlo Ferretti and Manolo Saiz had their flaws – some awful ones – but they added a bit of colour to the racing scene. Jef Braeckevelt was another one from the recent past. Gianni Savio [Androni Giocattoli] and Luca Scinto [Farnese Vini-Selle Italia] are very different from Driessens, but they’re about the most flamboyant and unorthodox we currently have.
Cyclismas: Jean van Buggenhout was Merckx’s manager – his agent – the man who looked after the financial side of the story. Generally we don’t talk about the agents in cycling and the role they play, but they’re quite important when looking at cycling in Merckx’s era, when the critérium circuit was a key source of income for most riders. How important do you think ‘Van Bug’ was in shaping Merckx’s career?
Daniel Friebe: I think most people who knew Merckx pretty well were in agreement about this: Van Bug perhaps hastened Merckx’s decline by overextending him in his peak years, but then, ironically, that decline also accelerated when Van Bug died in 1974 and Merckx was suddenly overwhelmed by off-the-bike concerns. Merckx’s wife, Claudine, was certainly quite convinced of this.
Merckx’s twilight years in general fascinated me. One thing that, again, most people agree on is that he shortened his career by racing so intensively, but there’s actually not that much scientific literature on how this might have happened. You ask physiologists and even they tend to use pretty woolly terms like “burn-out” and “wear and tear,” without actually specifying how or where this occurs in the body.
My tentative, layman’s analysis is that Merckx had kept such a tight lid on everything when he was winning, almost to the point of neurosis, that he was never going to cope well the second he sensed that his powers were waning; even after his first defeat in the Tour, in 1975, there would have been ways for him to eke out another two or three more really good years, but he started flailing and floundering and trying to pretend that he was still the number one.
From what I’ve heard, had he still been alive, Van Bug would at least have been a calming influence and perhaps been able to confront him with a few necessary home truths in that period.
Cyclismas: Merckx and Lance Armstrong. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood the connection between the two – bearing in mind that it began before Armstrong commenced his own reign of terror on the Tour – but reading The Cannibal some new pieces seemed to click into place, particularly when you talked about the way Merckx structured his teams and the manner in which they policed the peloton. When you were talking about that aspect of the Merckx phenomenon were you conscious of the parallels with more recent history?
Daniel Friebe: Absolutely. Also, as someone who watched his first Tour de France in about 1996, the Armstrong years are one of my main reference points. There were definitely very clear parallels in the way that Merckx would pluck potentially threatening riders from other teams and turn them into domestiques, as he tried to do with Herman van Springel, and as Armstrong did with Roberto Heras.
What was a bit different, I think, was the style of racing; yes, towards the end of his best years, Merckx used Jos Bruyère as his mountain bulldozer in much the same way that Armstrong used Heras and a couple of others, but the role of some of his other teammates was a bit more ambiguous in the first few years of his career, when he was individually stronger and more prone to take matters into his own hands early in races.
Off the bike, Merckx was a much less imposing, intimidating figure than Armstrong became, but a lot of their privileges and influences were very similar by virtue of the position they held. I think their friendship now is based on a deep, even if perhaps unspoken, empathy with each other. They have experienced pressures and situations familiar to only a few other people on the planet.
Cyclismas: Let’s talk doping. Let’s talk Savona. Almost everyone who was there – and quite a few people who weren’t – seems to claim to know what really happened. And everyone who claims to know what really happened is keeping schtum when it comes to speaking about it. Savona is almost up there with the death of Ottavio Bottecchia for the number and variety and conflicting explanations. Do you think the truth can ever be known, or accepted?
Daniel Friebe: From what I can gather (but not print), the truth is probably quite banal. Whether anyone will ever spill the beans is another matter. I certainly don’t think Merckx will ever add anything substantial to the version(s) he’s been peddling for the past couple of decades.
He says that there’s someone who “bows his head” or “should hide behind the nearest corner” when he sees him coming, intimating that it was sabotage. What prevents the world’s greatest ever cyclist, and one of the sport’s most influential people, from revealing the identity of an erstwhile team-mate or a soigneur or some other malfaiteur who might well now be dead, I have no idea.
It’s surely no wonder we have our doubts when he and everyone else who claims to “know” is so reluctant to shed any light.
Cyclismas: Merckx today strikes me as a man still with one foot stuck in the past when it comes to doping. Not so much in his strict adherence to the code of omertà but in his criticisms of what is being done today to clean the sport up. What’s your take on that side of him?
Daniel Friebe: On the one hand, I think he genuinely loves cycling and feels that it’s being victimized, which is a flawed but I suppose at least understandable viewpoint. So there’s that, plus the fact that, as was the case in his career, he’s not particularly gifted at or interested in elaborating on theoretical issues like this one. You can tell that from his interviews; often what he says about doping seems inconsistent, rambling, and informed exclusively by his own experience as a former rider.
Also, clearly, there’s a huge amount at stake for him: his past achievements, which will or won’t face greater scrutiny according to prevailing opinions about doping, plus the friendships and connections he has with people who are still or were immersed in cycling and its culture.
To rehash a quote I used in the book from the Belgian journalist Walter Pauli, but in a different context, “To be ordinary, Merckx would have had to be extraordinary.” In other words, we’re perhaps expecting too much of Merckx when we malign his reticence on the subject. There have been a few remarkable, courageous, ethically irreproachable, truly “extraordinary” individuals who have passed through cycling over the generations. But if there were a lot, not a few of them, they wouldn’t be extraordinary…
Cyclismas: Casting around today for the rider who is most like Merckx I plump for Marianne Vos, a woman for all seasons. Who would you pick?
Daniel Friebe: Johnny Hoogerland.
Cyclismas: Last year we had three books about the Giro all arriving within a few weeks of one and other, this year we get two Merckx books. I guess it must have been a bit of a surprise when you realised that William Fotheringham was also working on a Merckx biography.
Daniel Friebe: A surprise, yeah, you could call it that. I phoned William one day about a year ago, about something entirely unrelated, then asked him at the end of the conversation what he was working on. When he said it was a secret, I replied, “OK. As long as it’s not a book on Eddy Merckx.” For a few seconds, I thought the line had gone dead. He then asked me whether I was joking. I said that I wasn’t. He asked again. I said again that I wasn’t joking. Then the shattering reality dawned on both of us.
After that day, once our respective publishers had decided to plough on regardless, we didn’t really speak about the books. Once or twice at the Tour, William caught me with a Luis Ocaña biography in the pressroom, and made some sniggering remark, but otherwise it was all very respectful and very secretive. Then, a couple of days before Christmas, I was working in my local café in Queen’s Park, London, slogging through one of the last chapters, when a Fotheringham-sized and shaped apparition swept past the window. I did a double-take, genuinely thought for a moment that the late nights and anxieties and caffeine intoxication were catching up with me, then reached for my phone and dialled William’s number. “Will, you’re not in Queen’s Park, London, are you?” Sure enough, it was him. I had about thirty seconds to hide my stash of research materials before he was sitting down with me for a coffee.
In general, I hope he’s covered what I missed, and vice versa. I’ve heard they’re very different books. We’ve both admitted to each other that we can’t bring ourselves to read the other’s book yet. A project like this becomes so all-consuming for a few months that you become very sensitive.
Daniel Friebe: Well, Mountain High went down very well, so there may be more of the same or similar in future. I can’t say too much more about that at the moment, unfortunately. There are also another couple of book projects in the offing but, again, it’s all top-secret at the moment. You can never be too careful with cycling books….William and I know that now.
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Daniel Friebe is the author of Mountain High: Europe’s Greatest Cycle Climbs (in collaboration with the photographer Pete Goding) (Quercus, 2011) and collaborated with Mark Cavendish on his autobiography, Boy Racer (Ebury).
You can find Friebe on Twitter, @Friebos.
Our thanks to Daniel Friebe for taking the time to participate in this interview.