Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike"

One can often gain a fairly full understanding of the mentality and career of a racing cyclist based on the  various crying episodes his biography mentions.  So it is in the recently published "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike," by the English author William Fotheringham.

One might not expect too many tears from the cyclist known as "The Cannibal," a man universally considered the greatest cyclist of all time, winning 525 races, nearly a third of all those he started, but tears do mark some of the significant events in his career.

His first Tour de France conquest in 1969 was a display of unparalleled dominance never before seen nor likely ever to be rivalled. For the only time in The Race's history he not only won the Yellow Jersey but also the mountain and points competitions.  Even while wearing the Yellow Jersey with an invincible lead he took off on Stage 17 on the Tourmalet and rode 81 miles alone to further pad his lead by eight minutes, one of the most audacious feats in Tour history.

Merckx rode The Race like a man possessed, incensed that he had been ejected for a drug offense in the Giro d'Italia the month before after the 16th stage when he was on the verge of winning it for the second year in a row.  He insisted that he had been set up, as the Italians wanted one of their own to win their race.  A couple of days before his positive test he had been offered a huge sum of money to let up.  He refused.

The photo of the devastated Merckx in his hotel room in tears upon learning the news of his ejection probably ranks number two on the list of the Top Ten photos of cyclists in tears behind Rene Vietto perched on a stone wall in the 1934 Tour after having given up his front wheel to his teammate Antonin Magne.  The Merckx episode has come to be known as the Savona Affair, named for the city where he learned of his expulsion.  It led to a diplomatic crisis between Italy and Belgium.  He was later cleared of the charge but it prevented him from becoming the only six time winner of the Giro.

It wasn't the only time in his career he tested positive.   Another was after winning the Tour of Lombardy, also in Italy, in 1973 after having won it the previous two years.  This charge he did not deny, rather saying he accidentally ingested the stimulant ephedrine in some cough medicine.  No tears reported this time.  Fotheringham does not mention a third drug positive in the final year of his career in 1977 at the Fleche Wallonne for pemoline, a stimulant that a test had just been discovered for, catching Merckx and a bunch of others.

As tough and single-minded as Merckx was throughout his career, as a youth he had a tender and sensitive temperament.  He cried when he learned from his younger twin brother and sister that Santa Claus did not exist,and he cried so uncontrollably on his first day of school, his teacher, who was a friend of his grocer parents, had to bring him home.

His parents were at odds over whether to allow him to quit school and  pursue a career as a racer.  His father wished to let him give it a try, saying if it didn't work out, "maybe he'll come back in tears."  His father understood tears.  Merckx recounted that he would be brought to tears by his early triumphs.

Early in his career he was so frustrated at losing the 1966 World Championship to Rudi Altig in his second year as a pro, due to all the riders ganging up on him as a young upstart, that he retreated to his hotel room and cried for two hours and didn't think he ever wanted to race again.  Sounds like Mark Cavendish at the Beijing Olympics, a man who wants to eclipse Merck's record of 34 Tour de France stage wins.  The book says he should have 35, as he finished third on a stage in 1977 that the first and second placed riders were disqualified for testing positive.  But since Merckx hadn't been given a drug test after the stage, he couldn't be awarded the victory.

Fotheringham records that Merckx broke into tears during the 1970 Tour when he learned that his manager Enrico Giacotto had succumbed to lung cancer.  He says nothing about tears though when Merckx attended Tommy Simpson's funeral in 1967, just that he was the only continental pro to attend.  They had been teammates.  Simpson was an established pro, eight years older than Merckx, when he began his career.

The book also mentions tears when Merckx set the hour record at Mexico City. It was such an emotional effort that Piero Molteni, the sponsor of the Italian team he rode for much of his career, who was at track side,  was crying.

Fotheringham offers one other instance of Merckx making an Italian cry--Felice Gimondi in the 1968 Giro when Merckx defeated him on a snowy stage.  Gimondi was the defending champion.  He apologized to his fans in tears for letting them down.  Merckx considers that stage win his greatest victory ever in the mountains of a major tour.  It was the first of his eleven Grand Tour victories, more than any other cyclist.

This is Fotheringham's sixth book on cycling.  He knows it well.  Two of his previous books, a biography of Fausto Coppi and a history of the English in The Tour de France also mention more than a few incidents of tears, about the same as in this book. He fully realizes they are a hidden code to understanding his subject and their sport.  He goes so far as to quote a L'Equipe reporter after Merckx struggled painfully on a mountain stage in the 1977 Tour, the final of his career, that there were "no tearful scenes," just acceptance, that it marked the end of the Merckx era.

I  have been reading so many books on cycling the past few years, I have come to develop a checklist for small but telling aspects of the sport  revealed in these books that may not seem so important, receiving just passing mention, but are indeed quite significant, almost the hidden backbone of the sport.  Tears is one of those items.  Others  somewhat less prominent that receive even slighter emphasis than tears are pay-offs between riders in a race arranging the outcome, fans pushing racers on climbs,  minor doping offenses,  the time limit rules being relaxed, broken collarbones, the use of tobacco.

All receive a check in this book.  Fotheringham manages to include rarely reported instances that all contribute to defining the Merckx story. Besides the alleged Giro payoff in 1969 he  mentions Merckx taking a wad of money to the 1964 Olympics to pay his teammates to work for him.  Unfortunately his wallet was stolen and he couldn't pay for their loyalty so they all raced for themselves, allowing an Italian to win. Later he says there is no evidence that Merckx was ever involved in race fixing, as is common, as he always raced to win and didn't need to pay to insure it nor would accept pay-offs not to win.

Even when Merckx raced in the '60s and '70s there were doctors who recommended smoking to wind down after a race.  Merckx would occasionally indulge.  One of his climbing nemeses, Jose Manuel Fuente, would light up at a stage start just to prove his individuality and would even smoke during a race.

As with all of Fotheringham's books, I was entertained as well as informed by all manner of minor and major detail.  He clearly loves his subject and loves the research.   I greatly look forward to his next.

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