Monday, December 31, 2012

2012's Third Merckx

Not to be outdone by a pair of rival English publishers, who each put out an Eddie Merckx biography in 2012, VeloPress, America's premier publisher of cycling books, issued one of its own, "Merckx 525," the translation of a 2010 Belgian book.

It would make a fine companion to either of the two equally worthwhile English offerings, "Merckx, the Cannibal" and "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike," as it is largely a book of photographs.  It also includes year-by-year tables, unlike the other books, listing every one of Merckx's 525 wins beginning in 1961 when he was sixteen.  Every chart is given its own page in this chronological documentation of Merckx's career.  There is some text, but it is very much secondary to the sterling photos in this coffee table-sized book with some of the photos spread across two pages.

Merckx provides an introduction to the book, authenticating it with his approval, in contrast to the other two books, which he had no hand in, not even agreeing to interviews with their authors.  "Merckx 525" doesn't have the breadth or depth to be considered the definitive Merckx biography, but it can certainly be said to be the final word on certain events in his career.

When he is quoted as saying that finishing fourth at the 1973 World Championships, losing in a huge upset in the sprint to Felice Gimondi, Freddie Maertens and Luis Ocana, was the most crushing defeat of his career, so it must be.  When he is quoted as saying that the most difficult day of his career was at the 1977 Tour de France, his last, when he finished 20th on L'Alpe d'Huez, 13 minutes and 51 seconds behind Hennie Kuiper, so it must be.

Both these traumatic occasions brought Merckx to tears.  Twice the book describes Merckx as "going to pieces"--after that World Championship loss and also when he is informed that he tested positive for drugs in the 1968 Giro, one of the most famous crying episodes in the history of cycling, captured as it was by photographers who happened to be in his hotel room when he was given the news.  The book includes a different photo than what traditionally accompanies that incident, an effort the editors made with many of the book's photos.

Merckx is not bashful at all about admitting to crying.  In his introduction he wrote that when he had to leave his family to race it was "often with tears in my eyes and pain in my heart."  After his near fatal accident on the velodrome in Blois after his first Tour de France victory in 1969 he never felt the same on his bike and was often in pain.  Sometimes it was so unbearable, he said, "I sat crying on my bicycle."

Although this book doesn't recount Merckx's career with the same detail as the two other biographies, partially in recognition that its Belgian readers probably know it by heart anyway, it does offer specifics that the other books don't, heightening the impact of the novelistic prose of Frederik Backelandt.  It gives the exact minute (10:22 a.m.) when Merckx was informed of his Giro drug positive as he sat in his hotel bed.  It also gives the precise distance from the finish line when he was punched in the kidney by a spectator on Puy de Dome in the 1975 Tour--150 meters.  It also gives the exact date of his first win--October 1, 1961 in Petit-Enghien, the fourteenth race he took part it.

If one appreciates detail, there is much to be discerned in the large, mostly black-and-white, photographs that are the book's shining glory.  Merckx's raw thrilled emotion as he crosses the finish line in many photographs is matched by the ecstasy of fans cheering their hearts out as he passes them along the road.   The expressions of unfettered glee of the fans, especially women and children, truly capture the essence of the sport.  The explosion of jubilation of racers as they win and fans getting a close glimpse of their heroes is unlike that of any other sport.  A photograph of a huge plaza jammed with adoring fans celebrating Merckx standing on a balcony puts his popularity on a par with any hero.

There are also highly telling photographs of a more relaxed Merckx lolling on the ground with rivals, walking his Dalmatian with his wife, posing with the King and Queen of Belgium, meeting the Pope.   There is a photograph of his wedding as he and his wife walk under a canopy of bicycle wheels held up by friends outside the church.  No mention is made though that they made their vows in French, upsetting the Flemish half of Belgium.  There is also a photograph of Merckx being pushed by a pair of teammates, though not explaining that they are providing him locomotion while he answers nature's call.

Photograph after photograph is worthy of hanging, penetrating to the core of cycling's most monumental figure. They are fully absorbing, stirring the emotions and making it hard to turn to the next page. This collection full does justice to the man and his career.

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