A certain few athletes dominate their sport so fully that they stand apart from their competitors, and serve as a benchmark for future generations of athletes.
Football has Pele, boxing has Muhammad Ali, and cycling has Eddy Merckx; considered by many to be the greatest cyclist of all time.
In the 10 years between 1965 and 1975 Merckx was utterly dominant – an unstoppable racer who won again and again. His sporting record is unparalleled.
But who is Eddy Merckx? In this article, we’ll be covering:
- Eddy Merckx’s Early Cycling Career
- The Eddy Merckx “Cheat Sheet”
- Eddy Merckx From 1965-1978
- Eddy Merckx Post-Retirement
Let’s dive in!
Early Cycling Career Of Eddy Merckx
Born in 1945 in Flemish Belgium, Merckx was an active child, playing basketball, football, tennis, and table tennis, as well as boxing.
From the age of four he knew he wanted to be a cyclist, he recalled in 2013; crashing his bike was his earliest memory and his idol was Stan Ockers, a professional racer from Antwerp.
After his first race win aged 16, Merckx began training with the Belgian professional cyclist Félicien Vervaecke at the local velodrome. Vervaecke was to become Merckx’s first manager.
In 1962 under Vervaecke, Eddy Marckx competed in 55 races, finishing the season with 23 wins. At 17, he was one of the most promising young cyclists in Europe.
Merckx was selected to ride the men’s road race at the 1965 Summer Olympics and placed 7th, and later in the season he won the Amateur Road Race at the UCI Road World Championships.
1965 was to be Merckx’s final year as an amateur racer, having already won 80 races before turning pro.
The Eddy Merckx “Cheat Sheet”
Entering 1965 is where the real story of Eddy Merckx begins. In this period the young racer found quick success and would become the greatest cyclist of all time.
So before we get into the story behind the wins, we’ve put together a quick cheat sheet of Merckx’ successes because, frankly, the numbers speak for themselves:
- Holder of the Triple Crown of Cycling for winning the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and UCI Road World Championships Road Race in 1974.
- Most career wins by any professional cyclist in history with 525.
- Most Grand Tour wins ever with 11, most Grand Tour stage wins ever with 64.
- Most Tour de France wins with 5, and the most Tour de France stage wins with 34 (both records shared).
- Most days in the yellow jersey with 96.
- Most Giro d’Italia wins with 5, and the most days in the pink jersey with 78.
- The only General, Points, and Mountains classifications winner in the Giro in 1968 and the Tour in 1969.
- One of few to win all five Monuments, the only winner of three in one year (which he did four times), and the most Monument wins with 19.
- Most wins in the Classics with 28, including 7 at Milan-San Remo.
- UCI World Hour Record in 1972 with 49.431 km (31.715 miles).
With a record like that, you hardly need to crunch the numbers to know he was the best of his time.
Eddy Merckx From 1965-1978
But Eddy Merckx is more than just numbers and figures; so let’s dive into the story of the man behind his eye-watering wins and records.
Merckx went professional when he signed with Rik Van Looy’s Belgian team Solo-Superia early in 1965, but moved to the French Peugeot-BP-Michelin for the following 1966 season.
In 1966 the young rider became a Monument winner at Milan-San Remo after an aggressive attack on the Poggio climb and a final sprint finish. He also won his first stage race at the Tour of Morbihan.
Merckx’s career began to really take off in 1967, among 29 professional wins to date he defended his Milan-San Remo win and became the UCI Road Race World Champion, claiming the Rainbow Jersey.
In 1968 Merckx made history when a stunning performance in the Giro d’Italia saw him take the General, Points, and Mountain Classifications, which no other cyclist has ever done.
Within three years of his professional debut, Merckx was an international star.
The Savona Affair & The 1969 Tour
Up to this point, Merckx had gone from strength to strength, but he ran into trouble with cheating allegations in 1969 in the so-called “Savona Affair.”
He was midway through the Giro d’Italia at the time, and anticipating his first entry into the Tour de France later that year, when he was informed had been disqualified for using the stimulant Ritalin.
The truth of Savona Affair remains shrouded in mystery. Merckx’s suspension was quickly overturned and in an interview with Eurosport he describes a politically motivated takedown by the race organizers.
Whatever the truth, Merckx was barred from finishing the 1969 Giro, but he was able to enter the Tour later in the season. The Savona Affair had muddied Merckx’s name, and he had something to prove.
In the Tour’s seventeenth stage Merckx whipped himself into a punishing attack, driving his body into hypoglycemia, seemingly to make a point: He told the press, “I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner.”
By the 1969 Tour’s end, he took the General, Points, Mountains, and Combination Classifications, as well as the Most Combative Rider award, again making history.
Later, 1971 was a remarkable year for Merckx winning 14 events, a stunning 41% of the total he entered, including that year’s Tour and UCI Rainbow Jersey.
The Triple Crown Of Cycling & Later Years
In 1974, after three previous doubles, Merckx won the first-ever Triple Crown of Cycling: the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and World Championships in a single season. This was perhaps the high point of his glittering career.
Some riders and fans resented the era of Merckx’s dominance. Going into the 1975 season, riders had long been collaborating against the seemingly unstoppable Merckx.
The 1975 Tour was punishing to Merckx even by usual standards: in a bizarre and unfortunate moment in cycling history, Merckx was punched by a spectator, which caused damage to his liver. He also fractured his cheekbone in a crash later in the race.
On the 14th of July 1975 – Bastille Day – an exhausted Merckx was overtaken by French rider Bernard Thévenet in the race’s final moments. Merckx was unable to make up the time and came second: a spectator held up a sign reading “Merckx is beaten. The Bastille has fallen.”
Beginning the 1976 season, Merckx won a record-breaking seventh Milan-San Remo. However, battling injuries, he failed to take further wins for the remainder of the season.
In 1977 Merckx didn’t win any of the Spring Classics and placed sixth in the Tour, and his sponsorship with Fiat France was ended. He raced with another team in 1978 but soon announced his retirement.
Merckx’s final race was the Belgian Omloop Het Volk in March 1978. He didn’t finish, and on the 18th of May 1978, Eddy Merckx announced his retirement from cycling, citing doctors’ advice.
Eddy Merckx Off Of The Bike
Post-retirement, Merckx remained an active personality within the world of professional cycling.
He founded Eddy Merckx Cycles in 1980, which manufactures racing bikes. Despite early financial troubles, the company’s bikes were used by several top teams in the 1980s and 90s. Merckx sold his shares and left the company in 2008.
Merckx managed the Belgian national World Championship team between 1986 and 1996, and was involved in organizing (and occasionally co-founding) several high-profile races, most notably playing a key role in founding the Tour of Qatar in 2002.
Despite his nickname, “The Cannibal” – given by a teammate’s daughter because he didn’t allow anyone else to win – Merckx was publicly shy, often deferring press responsibilities to his wife Claudine Acou.
After retiring Merckx was given the title Baron by the King of Belgium, honored with the French Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, the highest French state honor, and was even blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Eddy Merckx’ position as the world’s greatest rider during the height of his career is undisputed. His records speak for themselves, and many cite him as the greatest of all time.
A rider who was enormously gifted and fiercely determined, he said “the day when I start a race without intending to win it, I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.” Winning was part of him.