By Gary J. Boulanger,
Belgian road racer Eddy Merckx packed the athletic power of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Walter Payton into his 6’1”, 180-pound frame, demolishing his rivals consistently between 1965 and 1978, where many raced for second against the one they called ‘The Cannibal’.
Merckx, who first tasted victory as an amateur on October 1, 1961, continued his victorious ways throughout his professional career, eventually tallying 525 wins, for which a new book has been named.
Merckx 525, published by VeloPress (222 pages, $60), is a hefty book, befitting the hefty career the now 67-year-old Belgian. After all, he won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times, the world road championships three times, Milan-San Remo seven times, and Paris-Roubaix three times, and set the hour record in 1972, which stood for 12 years. His first Tour victory in 1969 included winning the general classification (yellow jersey), points classification (green ‘sprinter’s’ jersey) and the mountains classification (now polka dot).
Despite Merckx’s vise-like grip on the podium, his adversaries were formidable; many, including Joop Zoetemelk, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocana, Raymond Poulidor, and Roger De Vlaeminck, would’ve been ultra superstars if Merckx hadn’t lined up in their era. Many dared to go toe-to-toe with Merckx, and many beat him, but not regularly. Merckx 525 does an excellent job chronicling Merckx’s career in words and pictures, providing the wonderful minutiae and insight behind his greatest achievements.
Several books on Merckx have been published since his retirement, but Merckx 525 gives the reader an intimate view of the Belgian’s life on and off the bike during his prime years, sideburns and all. Vintage bicycle aficionados will appreciate the lugged steel bikes, leather saddles, wool shorts and jerseys, metal toe clips and leather shoes.
What I found most interesting was the quick metamorphosis of Merckx’s physical appearance on the bike as he won the Classics and Grand Tours; his round-cheeked face became more chiseled, as did his thighs and chest. He morphed into a machine of sorts, pounding out the RPMs like a metronome clarion as a reminder to his adversaries of who was in charge. The burden climaxed by March 19, 1978, Merckx’s final race. He came in 12th at the Tour of Waaland, which finished in Kemzeke, just 100km from his birthplace of Tielt-Winge, Belgium.
Merckx 525 captures the raw effort of bike racing, with the backdrop of Europe as Merckx’s canvas. His life, both private and professional, is laid out for the world to witness. I can picture a slight Flemish smirk creasing his face as he reads it, and a familiar frown of resignation on the faces of his adversaries, at least those who care to relive their glory years.