28 Jul, 2016

The Cannibal

Considered the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx changed the face of cycling in the 1970s, dominating the sport for a decade and winning hundreds of major events, including the Tour de France five times, and setting records that still stand today. – BY ROXANNE MARTIN.
The 2016 Tour de France included some scintillating stage finishes, including four stage wins (up to the date of going to print) for long-time Tour sprinting powerhouse Mark Cavendish, the Brit riding for South Africa’s Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. That saw him climb to second on the list of all-time stage winners in the Tour on 30 wins – still four behind the living legend, Eddie Merckx.
The Belgian shares the record for most wins of the Tour, with five wins, and holds the record for most days in the leader’s yellow jersey, 96 stages. He remains the only rider ever to win all three major classifications in the Tour in the same year: Overall winner, Green Jersey and King of the Mountains winner, which he achieved in 1969 and in 1970. It is fair to say that Merckx is the all-time greatest rider the Tour has seen.
A Legend is Born
Merckx was born in June 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, in Brabant, Belgium, to parents who ran a grocery store, and it was a simple beginning for one of the greatest cycling legends of all time.
Getting his first bike around the age of four, Merckx soon developed a passion for the sport of cycling – and a desire to win. At the age of 16, he claimed his first victory, just the first of 80 wins he achieved as an amateur before deciding it was time to turn pro in 1965, shortly before his 20th birthday.
The following year, Merckx claimed his first major victory in the Milan-San Remo, the first Spring Classic of the season with a distance of 298km, the longest one-day professional race in modern day cycling. In 1968 he took his first Grand Tour victory, winning the Giro d’Italia, the first of his 11 Grand Tour wins – a record that still stands today – as he won both the Giro and the Tour five times each and added a win in the 1973 Vuelta a España.
Between 1970 and 1974, Merckx recorded a Grand Tour Double four times by winning two of the major tours in the same year, and in 1974, he went a step further when he also won the UCI World Championships title, making him the first rider ever to accomplish cycling’s Triple Crown. 
Nicknamed the Cannibal by the daughter of one of his teammates – a nickname that stuck when Merckx leaked the story to the media – he was a six-foot, 165-pound powerhouse who was lethal across all disciplines – whether he was climbing, sprinting or time-trialling.
Over his 13 years of racing, Merckx won an astonishing 525 races, including seven Milan-San Remos titles. He is one of only three riders to have won all five ‘Monuments of Cycling’ – Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia. (The only major title that Merckx didn’t win was Paris-Tours, with a best finish of sixth place in 1973.)
Also, Merckx was a world class rider on the track, where he broke the one hour world record in 1972, extending the record by almost 800 metres!
It Didn’t End There…
After possibly the most successful career in the sport, Merckx retired from competitive riding in May 1978. However, his involvement in the sport was far from over. In 1980 he established his own bicycle chain, Eddy Merckx Cycles, and his bikes were used by several professional teams in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Today many professional cyclists still use his bikes.
Merckx also gave back to the sport and his country of birth by coaching the Belgian National Cycling Team for 11 years, retiring in 1996. He was also instrumental in getting the Tour of Qatar started in 2002 and co-owns that event along with the Tour of Oman; both of which he still organises today.
There have been many cyclists who have come close to rivalling Eddy Merckx in specific events, classifications or records, but no rider to date has been able to repeat his dominance across all the disciplines of the sport and win as many titles as he did.
If Mark Cavendish eventually does claim the record for most Tour de France stage victories, he will be deservedly lauded for an incredible achievement, but it will still be nowhere near what Eddie Merckx achieved in his cycling career. Perhaps he was one of a kind.