Tuesday, December 18, 2012

More Merckx

There can not be too many books on Eddie Merckx, or so thinks the publishing world, and me too.  Dozens were written during his heyday in the '70s and they don't stop coming.  Three more have been offered up this year to the English reading public.  I have read two of them and will gladly read the third as soon as I can get my hands on it.

The many exploits of his record-setting career make for an exhilarating read, no matter how familiar they may be.  Not only was he the greatest cyclist of all time, but one of the greatest athletes, finishing second to Michael Jordan in one poll selecting the greatest athlete of the past century.

We in America can only be dimly aware of what a phenomenon he was and how much he captured the interest of Belgium and the rest of the European cycling world, so much so that the King of Belgium made him a baron and the French anointed him a Commander in their Legion of Honor.  When he tested positive for drugs in the 1968 Giro d'Italia under very mysterious circumstances it caused such a furor in Belgium that the only bigger story during the decade was the assassination of President Kennedy.  When he was involved in a near fatal accident racing on a velodrome in Blois in 1969  after winning his first Tour de France, the King of Belgium sent a Pembroke military plane to have him brought home.

Daniel Friebe in "Eddie Merckx, the Cannibal" cites all these anecdotes and more to portray what a monumental figure Merckx was, many, many more  than did William Fotheringham in "Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike,"  which I read and reviewed last month.  Both expertly chronicle Merckx's career, Freibe with just a bit more passion and flair.

Friebe's book reads like the intimate memories of an ardent fan who lived  during the Merckx era, though he is in fact a 30-year old English journalist who simply thoroughly researched his subject, interviewing many of Merckx's teammates and rivals, more than did Fotheringham.  Neither though gained a sit-down with Merckx, as he aligned himself with the other of this trio of recent books, "Merckx 525," named for the number of his career victories, a book Merckx says is the first he has authorized and the "first truly complete record of my accomplishments."  Besides the abundance of interviews, Friebe's research also included "painstakingly poring over dozens of volumes written about and with him," books he regularly mentions.  Despite his scholarly thoroughness, the book lacks an index, which Fotheringham's doesn't.

During the '70s, when he was three times voted the greatest athlete of the year over Pele and all others, journalists from all manner of periodicals, even those who knew little of cycling, wrote profiles of him trying to understand what made him tick.  So insatiable was the public's  desire to read about Merckx, almost as insatiable as his desire to win, a Flemish newspaper sent thirteen journalists one year to cover his exploits in The Tour de France.

Merckx's wife Claudine could come up with no better explanation to explain her husband's greatness than that he must have been vaccinated with a spoke. Friebe's verdict is that cycling was his calling, that he was preordained to greatness as a cyclist, blessed with abilities and a drive never before seen, just as Mozart was to be a musician and Michelangelo a painter and Napoleon a general.

If the measure of how deeply a biographer probes his subject's psyche is the number of times he mentions tears, Friebe's book is three times as deep as Fotheringham's, citing nearly thirty examples.  Friebe describes not only the tears of Merckx, but also those of rivals and teammates and fans and sportswriters and his mother and a few others.

Merckx's most famous crying episode came when he sobbed uncontrollably in his hotel room in Savano, Italy after being informed that he had tested positive for drugs while leading the 1969 Giro.  A  photographer was present and the picture was plastered on front pages all over Europe.  Friebe says the crying did not end there.  When Merckx fled to Milan after being ejected from the race, he was still intermittently crying between threats to quit the sport.

All the world had been looking forward to Merckx's debut in the Tour de France less than a month away.  The president of the International Cycling Federation flew in from Switzerland to console Merckx and to try to resolve the issue so the sport wouldn't lose its greatest star.  He put his arm around Merckx and brought him to tears once again.  His penalty was a one-month suspension.  There was consideration of delaying the start of The Tour by three days so Merckx could ride.  That wasn't necessary.  The charge was dropped as there had been too many suspicions regarding the test.

One of Merckx's rivals at the time, Jan Janssen, a Dutch rider who won the 1968 Tour, looking back on the episode told Friebe that Merckx, "cried like a baby so they let him off."  Janssen wasn't so sympathetic, as he had tested positive for drugs himself three times between 1967, when testing was first instituted, and 1972, and was never let off.  Merckx himself tested positive two more times during his career.  It is a subject that Friebe tackles more head on than did Fotheringham, who doesn't even mention Merckx's third positive test towards the end of his career at the 1977 Flech Wallone.  Years later Merckx acknowledged that "riders who weren't caught that year were lucky," as they were surprised by a new test.  Merckx felt no guilt as the drug they were using, Stimul, he said was "no magic potion."

Merckx cried not only out of despair, but of pride, of having accomplished something that meant so much to him and that he had invested so much effort and emotion to achieve.  When he presented the King of Belgium with one of his Yellow Jerseys from the 1969 Tour de France there were tears in his eyes.

He could cry to in sympathy for others, crying when he learned his team manager Cinzenzo Giacotto had died during the 1970 Tour.  He cried too when he let down his teammate Davide Boifava in a two-man time trial, not being able to ride as hard as him, as he hadn't fully recovered from his horrific crash on the velodrome in Blois a month before.   Boifava came to be known as "the man who made Eddie Merckx cry."

Merckx made his mother cry on occasion for his struggles in school.  In 1961 at the age of sixteen he decided racing was for him and not school.  He failed every subject that year and had to repeat the year, inducing tears from his mother. He brought her to tears too on his seventh or eighth birthday when he asked the barber to shave his head so he could look like the convicts he'd seen on work detail in his town.

Friebe acknowledges, as did Fotheringham, that Merckx did not cry when he announced his retirement on May 18, early in the 1978 season, at a Brussels hotel, when it was clear to him that he was no longer competitive.  The only ones to cry were those in the audience.  And he's still capable of bringing fans to tears over his exemplary achievements.

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