Merckx, Eddy

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Eddy Merckx

Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx (born 1945) dominated the sport of professional cycling during a 13-year career that ended with his retirement in 1978. Many observers of the sport consider him the greatest cyclist who ever lived.

Merckx has had a competitor for that title: American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who won cycling's premier race seven times to Merckx's five. But the two athletes are difficult to compare. Armstrong, especially after his bout with cancer, restricted his racing mostly to the Tour de France. Merckx, by contrast, competed in hundreds of races, entering a full season of competitions during the European cycling season of February 1 through October 1 every year. Merckx won a staggering total of 476 races over his professional career, 54 of them in 1971 alone. He once raced for 54 days in a row and sometimes entered two races in a single day. He entered multi-day endurance tests, single-day races, mountain bike races, and short track races with equal enthusiasm. Never considered the strongest or most technically gifted cyclist on the European circuit, Merckx amassed his impressive record partly through a sheer competitive drive that led his opponents to bestow upon him the nickname “the Cannibal.”

Began Riding at Four

Edouard Louis Joseph Merckx was born on June 17, 1945, in the small town of Meenzel-Kiezegem, Belgium, to Jules and Jenny (Pittomvils) Merckx. The following year, the family moved to Sint-Pieters-Woluwe, a suburb of the Belgian capital of Brussels, where they lived above a small grocery store they operated. Merckx's father served as an example when it came to the virtues of a competitive spirit.

“His life consisted of work, work and more work,” Merckx was quoted as saying by Amy Reynolds Alexander in Investor's Business Daily. “The shop was open every day, even all day Saturday and Sunday morning.” Merckx got his first bicycle at age four, and was soon a familiar sight riding around the neighborhood. To the questions of passers-by as to whether he intended to ride in the Tour de France someday, he confidently answered that he did.

As a child, Merckx became more or less obsessed with cycling. He hated school, and he was determined to pursue the sport at a competitive level despite an unpromising pudgy build. When he was about ten a friend ridiculed him aims, predicting that in five years he would be too fat to fit through the door of the family shop, but Merckx continued to respond to the questions of worried teachers about his career plans by saying that he wanted to be a cyclist. In 1962 he asked and received his parents' permission to drop out of school to pursue competitive cycling full-time.

It did not take Merckx long to justify his choice of career. As an amateur in 1962 he entered 55 races and won 23 of them, including Belgium's national championship. Curiously, that was his only career victory in that race, but he soon began to dominate cyclists in other European countries besides Belgium. In 1964 he won the Amateur World Championship Road Race, and the following year he turned professional. His first major victory came in 1966 at the Milan-San Remo cycle race in Italy, at which time he had not yet reached his twenty-first birthday.

From then until his retirement in 1978, Merckx dominated the sport of cycling “like no one else has before or since,” in the words of his entry on the Cycling Hall of Fame Web site. Between 1969 and 1975 he won about 35 percent of the races he entered&mdash, a staggering percentage in a sport where athletes push their bodies to the limit and generally need plenty of recovery time. Merckx's tolerance for pain was legendary, and experiments conducted at the Sports Academy of Cologne, Germany, showed that he had an unusual ability to maintain his pace even when his blood contained high levels of lactic acid, a normally painful byproduct of intense physical activity.

Accomplished Unique Feat at Tour de France

One joke reported in a BBC biography of Merckx illustrated the general attitude toward Merckx as an athlete: “Today,” it ran, “Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali [the strongest competitors in the Tour] were all fined by the cycling authorities. Coppi and Bartali were caught hanging onto the back of a truck and allowing it to pull them up a mountain. Merckx was pulling the truck.” Merckx's period of greatest dominance began around 1968, when he won the Paris-Roubaix Race. The following year he notched his first Tour de France victory, and in the process he accomplished an unprecedented and still-unmatched feat: in a grueling race marked by strategies of conceding in one area in order to gain strength in another, Merckx won the Yellow Jersey (for the overall victory in the race), the Green Jersey (for the winner on points), and the Polka-Dot Jersey (for fastest mountain climb).

The year 1969, however, also marked a low point in Merckx's career. Toward the end of the season, he agreed to participate in an exhibition race paced by a motorbike known as a derny. A crash involving the bicycle and derny in front of Merckx involved him in a chain reaction accident that killed Merckx's pacer and left Merckx himself unconscious and bleeding heavily from the head. He suffered a concussion, a cracked vertebra, and a twisted pelvis that for the remainder of his career made climbing hills even more painful than usual. Merckx recovered, however, and the majority of his triumphs were still ahead of him.

Those triumphs included wins that made Merckx a superstar all over Europe, where competitive cycling enjoys a larger audience than in the United States. His wins included the Giro d'Italia in 1970, 1972, and 1974, and the Vuelta d'España in 1973—races that, together with the Tour de France, make up a so-called Grand Tour. Merckx remains one of just a few cyclists who has won all three races over the course of his career, and his 1974 triple victory in the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and World Championship Road Race is even rarer; the only other cyclist to accomplish it was Stephen Roche in 1987. One of Merckx's greatest accomplishments came in the difficult high-altitude environment of Mexico City in 1972, where he set a new record for the greatest distance traveled by a cyclist in one hour: 49.431 kilometers, or about 30.715 miles. That record stood for several years before finally being broken by cyclists riding bikes technically superior to the one Merckx had used; his record was restored when such bikes were banned, and no one using similar equipment exceeded Merckx's distance until Britain's Chris Boardman did it in 2000.

Part of Merckx's mastery could be credited to his inexhaustible attention to the small details of cycling. He was said to have a basement full of bicycle tires, and he would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to adjust his bicycle seat. Although he was “never afraid to have a beer or a cigarette,” as quoted by the London Guardian, Merckx was in every way a fierce competitor who hated to lose in any contest, even after he retired from professional cycling. He amassed his unprecedented win total mostly by entering every race he could and going all out for victory, while most of his competitors were making trade-offs among themselves and cutting deals to help each other. “He was called ‘The Cannibal’ by frustrated opponents because he would try to win every race, whatever the time and place,” noted the BBC. “This is not the way to win friends in cycling, where the handing out of a few favors to call back in later is an essential part of the competitors' armory.”

Punched by Spectator

Merckx's 1974 victories in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia were to be his last Grand Tour wins. In 1975, during one of the legendary climbing stages of the Tour de France, he was punched in the stomach by a spectator, and later in the race he fractured a cheekbone in a crash. In neither situation did he consider giving up, but he did lose the race to Bernard Thevenet by three minutes. Merckx turned 30 in 1976, and his victories became rarer and more restricted to smaller events. In 1978, plagued by back problems, he retired.

Merckx was an example of a single-minded athlete who found himself at loose ends after his competitive career came to and end. Used to eating 3,500-calorie breakfasts as a competitor on his way to annual training distances variously estimated at 30,000 kilometers and 30,000 miles, he was often described as rotund or even corpulent by the 1990s. Merckx snapped out of his malaise by throwing himself into bicycle manufacturing with the same energy that had consumed him as a racer. At first he concentrated on custom made bicycles for other racers, but by the early 1990s he had branched out into general sales of high-end bicycles, and Eddy Merckx bicycles were produced at a factory in Meise, Belgium, that Merckx himself oversaw.

Merckx was quick to befriend Lance Armstrong, the brilliant American cyclist who invaded the traditionally European sport of cycling. The two met after Armstrong chose a Merckx bicycle for competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Merckx encouraged Armstrong, telling him that he would be able to win the Tour de France if he lost weight, and when Armstrong was stricken with testicular cancer Merckx visited him in the hospital. Armstrong's dogged determination to fight his way back to the top after beating the cancer into remission appealed to Merckx, who said in an interview, as quoted by William Fotheringham in the London Observer, “[Armstrong] was determined to come back to what he had been and I was impressed. No one believed in him at the time. Even I would never have thought he was capable of coming back and winning the Tour de France.” Merckx's friendship with Armstrong was tested only when Armstrong competed against one specific cyclist—Merckx's son Axel, who began racing in the 1990s and won a stage of the Giro d'Italia in May of 2000.

Merckx, who continued to ride a bicycle a few days a week, remained a superstar in Belgium and much of the rest of Europe, widely recognized when he walked down the street as a result of television cycling commentary and the fame he had accumulated. Two decades after his retirement, he could still turn out a line of fans two hours long for an autograph session in Boulder, Colorado. “I have no regrets at all,” he explained to Bicycling magazine on that occasion. “With all the races I won, what regrets could I possibly have?” The year 2006 saw the release of a DVD biography, Eddy Merckx: Hunger for Glory.


Vanwallaghem, Rik, Eddy Merckx: The Greatest Cyclist of the 20th Century, translated by Steve Hawkins, Inside Communications, 2000.


Bicycling, May 26, 1997.

Guardian (London, England), January 3, 1997.

Independent on Sunday (London, England), July 24, 2005.

Investor's Business Daily, March 27, 2000.

New York Times, August 2, 1998; July 12, 2000.

Observer (London, England), July 7, 2002.


“Cannibal's Recipe for Success,” British Broadcasting Corporation, (December 27, 2007).

“Eddy Merckx,” Cycling Hall of Fame, (December 27, 2007).

“Eddy Merckx,” Milan–San Remo Title, (December 27, 2007).

“Eddy Merckx—The Cyclist,” British Broadcasting Corporation, (December 27, 2007).