by Old Bone Machine
Vacillating between the chills and the hot sweats, the sick-bed and the couch. Unable to ride for days, I started reading William Fotheringham’s biography, Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike.
Eddy Merckx is the most prominent mountain in the landscape. He is of course the greatest cyclist of all time, yet something within me had resisted the lure to know more about him. To climb the peak.
Fotheringham’s biography is the perfect introduction to the legend and I suspect the perfect biography for anyone with an insatiable hunger to know more about The Cannibal. The writing is precise, detailed, warm and almost tender. Fotheringham is clearly fond of his subject and of the 70s era of professional cycling.
Most interesting is the insight given on how Merckx was perceived in his time. The cult of Merckx.
The common feeling was that he was an implacable, almost inhuman, machine. The view began to circulate during 1969 and 1970 and would be prevalent until Merckx’s decline began during 1975 and 1976. The tone was set by the French writer Lucien Bodard in 1970, in this celebrated passage. “Merckx, a super-winner in unprecedented style, walks away, without a hint of fatigue, with nothing to say, just a hint of boredom. He has robotised himself. There are no aspirations, no sense of destiny, just an awareness that he is set apart, unique. So he transformed himself into a machine with the utmost meticulousness. He is half-man, half-bike.”
Another writer of the time described him as the “man with no shadow”, a supernatural vampire.
Yet Fotheringham’s biography, with details drawn from his childhood, his wife Claudine and others close to the legend, portrays Merckx as a more complex and frail personality. A man driven by the desire for perfection and the fear of failure.
He accepted that he needed to race the criteriums to earn a living but later wondered whether his career “would have been longer or better without that”. Claudine, however was not convinced that her husband truly regretted racing as much as his did. “When he wasn’t racing and was sitting in an armchair, he would be ill from not being on his bike.” He needed to compete, and he needed to race flat out; so he did.
“Never in my life have I met another man like him, a man who constantly wanted to be the best, wanted to be the first,” wrote Jean-Marie Leblanc, who encountered Merckx first as a fellow racer, then as a journalist, and later went on to run the Tour de France. “You may say: Hinault? But there were times when Hinault would let a break go, as all other cyclists do. When a move went and he was five minutes behind he would take a reasonable view. But Merckx never saw it in a reasonable light.”
The likes of Merckx will never be seen again.
Of Merckx, there is so much to know and understand.
I recommend every fan of cycling or of The Cannibal to read, Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike. The view from the mountain, I guarantee, will restore your health and rekindle your joy of cycling.