Some useless statistics for you about Paris-Nice: though it is often used as a warm-up for Milan-Sanremo, only four men have doubled la course au soleil and la primaverain the same season 1; only four men have followed success in the race to the sun with a win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen 2; only five have doubled it with Liège-Bastogne-Liège 3; and only five men have taken the victory salute at the end of Paris-Nice and again at the end of the Tour de France 4. In all, only twelve men have pulled off even one of those doubles. And only one man has managed all four. That man is Eddy Merckx and 1969 was the year he did it.
By the time the 1969 season opened Merckx was already a two-time world champion (amateur and professional road race) and had won the Giro d’Italia, along with Milan-Sanremo (twice) and Paris-Roubaix. Add in a couple of Belgian Classics (Ghent-Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne) and a couple of Italian semi-Classics (the Tre Vali Varesine and the GP di Lugano) and he was clearly the man to watch for the coming season.
Merckx went into the 1969 Paris-Nice with three stage wins and overall victory in the now defunct Vuelta a Levante in Spain and came out with the same, three stage wins and the overall victory. Merckx also came out of the 1969 race to the sun with the scalp of the declining champion, Jacques Anquetil. One of the innovations of that year’s course au soleil was the introduction of the final day Col d’Éze time trial. Maître Jacques started the climb a minute and a half ahead of Merckx. Inside the final kilometre of the climb, with an estimated 50,000 fans lining the ten kilometres of road from Nice to the summit of the climb they call d’Éze, Merckx passed the fading star to seal his victory with a touch of panache and the symbolic passing of the baton from one era to the next.
Merckx followed Paris-Nice with monumental victories in la primavera, de ronde and la doyenne. In Milan-Sanremo he turned a ten-metre advantage at the top of the Poggio into a thirty-second lead as he crossed the finish line on the Via Roma, sprinting through the corners of the Poggio’s descent at such speed that even the TV motorbike couldn’t keep up. In the Ronde van Vlaanderen he simply rode away from the peloton in proper Flandrian weather – rain and wind – with still seventy kilometres to race and all the major climbing done. By the time he reached the finish in Gentbrugge he was five-and-a-half minutes clear of his closest rival, Felice Gimondi. In Liège-Bastogne-Liège Merckx sent a couple of teammates up the road after the turn at Bastogne and then, with a hundred kilometres to go, himself popped off the front of the peloton on the Stockeau before joining them. Only his Vic van Schil could hold Merckx’s pace and the pair of Faema riders did a two-up time trial back to the Rocourt vélodrome in Liège, the third rider home – Barry Hoban (Mercier) – more than eight minutes adrift.
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Another useless Paris-Nice statistic for you: Only one man has victories in both Paris-Nice and the Giro d’Italia on his palmarès for the same season. Yes, that man is Eddy Merckx. But no, 1969 was not the year he did it. He did come close – a cat’s whisker close – but in 1969 Eddy Merckx was turfed off the corsa rosa a week out from home, with four stage wins under his wheels and the maglia rosa on his back. Cycling’s fickle attempts to clean itself up brought him low and he was found to be a doping cheat. Then he was given the benefit of the doubt: not declared innocent, merely let off the last two weeks of the suspension he should have served for having tested positive at the Giro. That benefit of the doubt – and Félix Lévitan’s role as co-director of the Tour and chairman of the UCI’s professional arm, the FICP – enabled Merckx to finally make his début at the Tour de France.
The Tour organisers – Jacques Goddet and Félix Lévitan – had wanted Merckx to make his Tour début the previous year. As had others. But Merckx – who would have been barely a week past his twenty-third birthday at the start of the 1968 race – demurred. To help guarantee his appearance in 1969 the Tour route visited the Brussels suburb of Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, a morning road race and an afternoon time trial would give the Belgian ample opportunity to don the maillot jaune in front of his friends and family.
By the time the Tour had left Brussels Merckx was wearing the yellow jersey. He quickly surrendered it to a teammate, Julien Stevens, who held on to it for a few days before losing it in the Vosges. Then, on the Ballon d’Alsace, Merckx seized it back with an early show of force, catching his rivals napping and putting time into them early. Through the Alps he only added insult to injury and by the time the race reached the Pyrénées it was all over bar the celebrating: Merckx was leading by more than eight minutes over Roger Pingeon (Peugeot), the 1967 winner, and more than nine over Felice Gimondi (Salvarani), the 1965 winner (and the man who had added a second Giro d’Italia to his palmarès following Merckx’s dismissal from the 1969 corsa rosa).
And then came that legendary stage, out of Luchon and over the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet, the Soulor and the Aubisque before tootling into newly-built town of Mourenx.
You already know the major notches on Merckx’s palmarès at this stage in his riding career: the Grand Tour in Italy, the six wins in the Monuments, the amateur and professional rainbow jerseys, the Classics and the semi-Classics and the dozens of lesser victories he’d already notched up. But on that July Tuesday in 1969, that day after Bastille Day when the French added an aspirin to their morning espressos, the Belgian was just four weeks past his twenty-fourth birthday. The impetuosity of youth had been tempered somewhat by the wisdom caringly passed to him by his elders – most notably Vittorio Adorni who, in Merckx’s first season at Faema, had tried to teach him to be tranquillo – but he was still callow youth, was still a kid who could park practical thinking in the pursuit of happiness on his bike. And on that legendary stage in the Pyrénées in the 1969 Tour Merckx was – he himself insists – just a boy wanting to have fun.
The race was already blowing apart early into the stage on the Peyresourde, riders attacking all over the place. As they closed on the summit of the Tourmalet the maillot jaune was in a select group of nine riders. And then, just metres from the summit, Merckx exploded past his Faema team-mate Martin Van Den Bossche, pinched the king of the mountain points and barrelled down the descent, putting forty-five seconds into the rest by the bottom of the Tourmalet.
That should have been the end of it and Merckx did settle in to the wait for the rest to come back up to him. This was, after all, the time to be cautious, to think tactically, to control his own impetuosity. He had won two of the time trials, showed his strength on the Tour’s first mountain and won a stage in the Alps. That was the way of Anquetil – one of Merckx’s childhood heroes – and remains the way modern Tours are won. All Merckx now had to do was to stay upright for six more days, his eight-minute lead over Roger Pingeon more than cushion enough. So Merckx waited, rolled on at a casual pace, refilled the tank with fuel taken on at the feed zone in Angelès-Gazost. But still the pursuers hadn’t closed on him. The gap had actually opened a little. By the time Merckx hit the foot of the Soulor he was a minute clear of the men who were supposed to be pursuing him.
At which point Merckx thought to himself: the day was too beautiful; the stage was too large; the opportunity too much to turn down. This was a day for an exploit. A day for the fans. A day for the record books. You also have to wonder, though, if maybe Merckx hadn’t also thought of that day just six weeks earlier on the Ligurian coast. That day when he’d collapsed on his bed in the Hotel Excelsior in Savona and cried. That day when he was expelled from the Giro d’Italia.
Whatever Merckx was thinking about thought quickly became deed. By the summit of the Soulor he’d added four minutes to his lead. By the summit of the Aubisque, sixty kilometres after jumping clear on the Tourmalet, Merckx’s lead over his pursuers was eight minutes. He had still more than seventy kilometres to go and Merckx just kept on going, grinding out the miles. By the time he rolled into Mourenx he was eight minutes up on the next rider home, Michelle Dancelli (Molteni), his lead over Pingeon doubled to a shocking sixteen minutes.
As the Tour has grown in importance – as other races have surrendered their own significance – we’ve grown used to tactical, defensive riding, a three-week race boiling down to the final ten kilometres of sprint stages, the last men to leave in a couple of time trials and one or two keys days in the mountains when the race will come alive on the last climb. Exploits are the domain of riders out of contention, usually reserved for transition stages. We’ve grown used to seeing the yellow jersey surrounded by his key rivals, only ever pulling clear when it’s time for the mise à mort. What Merckx gave the Tour that day in the Pyrénées wasn’t just a mammoth solo ride, it was a mammoth solo ride by the man wearing the maillot jaune, a mammoth solo ride that threw all caution to the wind, a mammoth solo ride that gambled an existing eight minute advantage on a spin of the wheel.
This is why Bernard Hinault’s suicidal attack in the 1986 Tour, on the equivalent stage to Merckx’s exploit – this time Pau to Superbagnères, summiting the Tourmalet, the Aspin and the Peyresourde – is still recalled fondly today. Like Merckx before him Hinault was in the maillot jaune. Like Merckx before him Hinault opened a gap on the descent of the Tourmalet, this time with still ninety kilometres to go before the sprint through Luchon and the slog up the final climb to the ski-station at Superbagnères. Like Merckx before him, Hinault put minutes into the peloton as he soloed toward the stage finish. If it had worked Hinault would have won not just the stage but new coinage, ‘Hinaultissimo,’ to go with the ‘Merckissimo’ Jacques Goddet coined to describe Merckx’s solo ride through the Pyrénées seventeen years earlier.
Hinault’s attack didn’t succeed, though, and le blaireau lost all bar forty seconds of the 5’25″ lead he had started the day with. He gambled all and he damn near lost all. But in so doing Hinault helped cast the legend of Eddy Merckx in a fresh light: it could have all gone so spectacularly wrong, and even the eight-minute lead Merckx had started the day with might not have been enough to save his skin if it had. Gambling on the bike is, I guess, a lot like spread-betting: you can lose a lot more than you stake.
And this is the even better part of the story of that day in the Pyrénées: things had gone wrong for Merckx. The Faema team car broke down and Merck’s directeur sportif, the legendary Lomme Driessens, had to hitch a lift in a press car, taking with him spare wheels in case Merckx needed them. Fifty kilometres out from home Merckx – like Hinault seventeen years later – fell victim to the dreaded fringale, bonked badly: in sixteen kilometres he shed two minutes of his advantage over the riders behind. Somehow Merckx clung on, took on food, regained his composure. Finally, four hours and 130 kilometres after soloing clear on the Tourmalet, a ragged and pain-racked Merckx rode into Mourenx, an industrialised new town in the Pyrénées that had paid handsomely for its slot on the Tour’s itinerary and been rewarded with an epic victory.
If the good burghers of Mourenx were smiling at the manner in which their investment in the Tour had been repaid, then Félix Lévitan’s smile must have lit up a darkened room: Heaven and Earth had been moved to get Merckx into the Tour and by God had it been worth the effort. This man Merckx was a godsend to a race that was going through a period of transition in the quest to balance the books financially. A couple of years of this sort of racing was just what the Tour needed. But, hopefully, not too many of them.
Over the following days Merckx further padded his advantage over Pingeon but the real racing was, by now, over; his rivals had accepted their fates. On the final day, as the grande boucle raced into Paris, the Cipale vélodrome in Vincennes was filled out with 25,000 fans cheering the riders home as they rolled in one by one, time trialling to the end of the Tour. Fittingly, the last home was the first to leave Roubaix 4,117 kilometres earlier, this time with the maillot jaune. As well as winning the last stage and the yellow jersey at that Tour, Merckx also left the grande boucle with five other stage wins and victory in the points, climbing, and combination competitions. In all it was ten new notches on his palmarès in just twenty-three days of racing (and it was twenty-three days of racing that year, the riders not given even a single jour de répos). Merckx also left the 1969 Tour de France with a new nickname: the Cannibal.
Merckx’s victory in that Tour will forever be associated with the solo ride through the Pyrénées but his overall win was no solo victory: this was truly a team victory. In all, Merckx’s Faema squad went home with ten stage wins and the overall team prize. A Faema rider wore the maillot jaune on all bar three days of racing, the team collecting twenty three of the race’s twenty-five yellow jerseys. At the end of the race the Faema petty-cash tin was bulging with IOUs for the lion’s share of the Tour’s 600,000 French franc prize fund. If all that isn’t enough of a show of team strength for you then consider this: not a single Faema rider – Italian sponsored but Belgians to a man – was among the forty six who failed to finish that Tour.
That Merckx had a brilliant future ahead of him was by then clear to one and all. Anquetil had symbolically passed the baton to him on the Col d’Éze four months earlier, and in the Tour the Cannibal had used it to pummel everyone else into submission. Nothing was going to stop the Belgian now. And then, one evening in September, in an innocuous little race on the post-Tour critérium circuit, the world was once again brought crashing down on Eddy Merckx and he was forced to confront his own mortality.
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The motorbikes were puny little things, Dernys, barely capable of hitting seventy or eighty kilometres an hour. Little putt-putts compared to the monsters that the likes of Bobby Walthour raced behind. But, when things went wrong, they could be just as lethal. On the evening of September 9, 1969, the cycling world was reminded just how lethal that could be.
The track was the Pierre Tessier vélodrome in Blois, an outdoor cement oval, with a grass infield and stands around the outside. The race – a three-part Derny-paced omnium – was part of that Shadow Tour that followed the main event and where riders earned their crust, appearance fees padding out meagre salaries and winnings during the rest of the season. As well as having a voracious appetite for victory and an almost constant need to be racing, Merckx was managed by Jean van Buggenhout, the Belgian king of the crit circuit, one of the kings of continental cycling, opposite France’s Roger Piel and Daniel Dousset, super-agents whose control over the critérium circuit also gave them a degree of control over the rest of the racing calendar.
Already in the fifty days since the Tour ended Merckx had started three dozen crits, as well as riding races like Paris-Luxembourg and the World Championships. Only the previous day he had been in Châteaulin, 500 kilometres west of Blois, where he won a crit in the afternoon, spent the evening drinking Jacques Anquetil under the table, slept a little and then piled into a car for the drive to Blois. That was – and, to a lesser extent, remains – the way the crit circuit worked: half holiday, half hell.
It was when Merckx’s Derny pilot, Fernand Wambst, was providing some spectacle for the 3,000 fans in Blois that the accident happened. As Wambst – an experienced Derny pilot who knew what made the fans go ‘Ooh!’ – dragged Merckx to the front of the little group of cyclists filling the narrow track, Jiří Daler’s Derny pilot, Bruno Reverdy, lost a pedal and veered off up the concrete banking. Reverdy’s Derny screeched along the advertising hoardings and then descended toward the infield. No one knows why Wambst didn’t try to get above the descending Reverdy. Maybe he thought he had the speed to pass before the debris descended, maybe he thought the debris would descend faster and be gone before he reached it. No one knows what Wambst was thinking because he was killed when his Derny collided with the descending debris.
Merckx went down behind Wambst, colliding with the tangled debris of the two Dernys and crashing to the concrete surface of the track, knocking himself unconscious. After that night it’s said that Merckx was never that same rider again, that he rarely had a racing day when he didn’t feel pain from the injuries he sustained that night.
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Merckx was never the same rider again. That’s one of the big kickers in Eddy Merckx’s career for most people. Because what had come before was just the warm up. When Merckx hit his prime – 1970 to 1973 – he piled on more than fifty new wins a year. What would he have been like without the pain he suffered with after that crash in Blois? They say we’ll never see his likes again, but just imagine what a rider with the same raw talent and support, the same hunger for victory, could achieve in a career that wasn’t marred by injury or controversy. Never say never.
I guess, then, that here is one of those rare occasions that really calls for a look at a rider’s palmarès. So, having started with some stats, we close with some stats, the skeleton of any story about Eddy Merckx. His main victories:
|Palmarès d’Eddy Merckx (selected)|
|Tour de France||1969 (Overall + 6 stages + Points + KOM + Combination); 1970 (Overall + 8 stages + KOM + Combination); 1971 (Overall + 4 stages + Points + Combination); 1972 (Overall + 6 stages + Points + Combination); 1974 (Overall + 8 stages); 1975 (2 stages).|
|Giro d’Italia||1967 (2 stages); 1968 (Overall + 3 stages + Points + KOM); 1969 (4 stages); 1970 (Overall + 3 stages + Combination); 1972 (Overall + 4 stages + Combination); 1973 (Overall + 6 stages + Points + Combination); 1974 (Overall + 2 stages + Points).|
|Vuelta a España||1973 (Overall + 6 stages + Points + KOM + Combination).|
|Road Race (Amateur)||1964.|
|Road Race (Professional)||1967; 1971; 1974.|
|Milan-Sanremo||1966; 1967; 1969; 1971; 1972; 1975; 1976.|
|Ronde van Vlaanderen||1969; 1975.|
|Paris–Roubaix||1968; 1970; 1973.|
|Liège–Bastogne–Liège||1969; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1975.|
|Giro di Lombardia||1971; 1972.|
|Track – Madison||1966; 1967; 1973; 1975; 1976 (all w/ Patrick Sercu).|
|Super Prestige Pernod||1969; 1970; 1971; 1972; 1973; 1974; 1975.|
|Best of the rest: Amstel Gold Race: 1973; 1975. Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré: 1971 (Overall + 2 stages). Flèche Brabaçonne: 1972. Flèche Wallonne: 1967; 1970; 1972. Gent–Wevelgem: 1967; 1970; 1973. Giro del Piemonte: 1972. Giro dell’Emilia: 1972. Giro di Sardegna: 1967 (2 stages); 1968 (Overall + 2 stages); 1970 (2 stages); 1971 (Overall + 3 stages); 1973 (Overall + 1 stage); 1975 (Overall + 2 stages). GP des Nations (TT): 1973. GP di Lugano (TT): 1968. GP Midi Libre: 1966 (1 stage); 1971 (Overall + 2 stages). Grote Scheldeprijs: 1972. Henninger Turn: 1971. Het Volk: 1971; 1972; 1973. Paris–Brussels: 1973. Paris-Luxembourg: 1967 (1 stage); 1969 (Overall + 1 stage). Paris-Nice: 1967 (2 stages); 1969 (Overall + 3 stages); 1970 (Overall + 3 stages + Points + KOM + Combination); 1971 (Overall + 3 stages + Combination); 1972 (3 stages); 1973 (1 stage); 1974 (3 stages); 1975 (2 stages); 1977 (1 stage). Semaine Catalane: 1968 (1 stage); (1974 (Points + KOM); 1975 (Overall + 1 stage + Points + Combination); 1976 (Overall + 2 stages + Points + Combine). Six Days of Anvers; 1974; 1975; 1976 (all w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Berlin: 1977 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Charleroi: 1968 (w/ Ferdinand Bracke). Six Days of Dortmund: 1973 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Ghent: 1965; 1967; 1975; 1977 (all w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Grenoble; 1973: 1975 (all w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Maastricht: 1977 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Milan: 1971 (w/ Julien Stevens). Six Days of Munich: 1977 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Rotterdam: 1976 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Six Days of Zürich: 1977 (w/ Patrick Sercu). Tirreno-Adriatico: 1976 (1 stage + KOM). Tour de Romandie: 1968 (Overall + 1 stage); 1975 (2 stages); 1976 (1 stage). Tour de Suisse: 1974 (Overall + 3 stages + Points + KOM); 1975 (1 stage); 1977 (1 stage). Tour du Morbihan: 1966 (Overall + 2 stages). Tour Méditerranéen: 1977 (Overall). Tour of Belgium: 1968 (1 stage); 1970 (Overall + 2 stages + Points); 1971 (Overall + 3 stages + Points). Tre Valli Varesine: 1968. Trofeo Barrachi (TT): 1969; 1970 (both w/ Ferdinand Bracke); 1972 (w/ Roger Swerts). Trofeo Laigueglia: 1973; 1974. Volta a Catalunya: 1968 (Overall + 2 stages). Vuelta a Levante: 1969 (Overall + 3 stages + Points). Vuelta a Mallorca: 1969 (1 stage).|
|Source: Memoire du Cyclisme / Cycling Archives|
Previously: The Secret of Savona
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- Fred de Bruyne 1956; Eddy Merckx 1969, 1971; Sean Kelly 1986; Laurent Jalabert 1995. ↩
- Alfons Schepers 1933; Gaston Rebry 1934; Raymond Impanis 1954; Eddy Merckx 1969. ↩
- Fred de Bruyne 1956, 1958; Joespeh Planckaert 1962; Jacques Anquetil 1966; Eddy Merckx 1969, 1971; Sean Kelly 1984. ↩
- Roger Lapébie 1937; Jacques Anquetil 1957, 1961, 1963, Eddy Merckx 1969, 1970, 1971; Floyd Landis 2006; Alberto Contador 2007, 2010. ↩