Yellow Jersey Press, £18.99, 308pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, By William Fotheringham
With a few days left of the 1969 Tour de France, Stage 17 involved three tough mountains then a 75-kilometre ride to the town of Mourenx. Eddie Merckx, riding his first Tour, had an eight-minute overall lead. With victory all but assured, a procession to Paris beckoned. All he needed to do was stay on his bike and keep up with the pack.
That was not Merckx's style. Instead, he set out on a reckless solo escape and doubled his lead to 16 minutes. Completely unnecessary and utterly glorious, it was compared by one journalist to the actes gratuits of existential heroes. To understand Mourenx, says William Fotheringham, is probably to understand Merckx.
Merckx set out to win every single race he rode in, which in cycling terms is plain bonkers. We have become used to great champions like Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain winning multiple Tours de France by basing their entire season around the one event. Merckx wanted everything. His team would have two separate squads: one to stay with him for the season up until the Tour, and one riding a completely different programme because otherwise they'd be burnt out before the Tour began simply trying to keep up with him.
If Merckx went more than a week or two without a victory, he would pore over the cycling calendar and find a race to go and win. At the finish line of the last race of the best season in his career, 1972 – it was a tiny, meaningless event - he threw down his bike in disgust at losing.
Cycling generally favours a conservative approach tempered by judiciously timed heroic gestures. For Merckx it was different: if he felt good – and he usually did - he would go for the win. In the Tour de France, he didn't just want the yellow jersey of the leader, he wanted the polka dot jersey of the King of the Mountains and the green jersey of the points leader, too. He embodied the principle of "course en tete" – best translated as "leading from the front". His riding style wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing: as one journalist wrote, "He doesn't fight like a stylist but like a thug. It's the difference between a boxer sparring and a whirling Apache horde."
But as Fotheringham points out in this fascinating account of the man and his awe-inspiring career, what motivated Merckx wasn't so much hunger for success as fear of failure. He would establish larger-than-necessary leads as an insurance policy. He worried all the time about minuscule details. He carried an Allen key with him during races to make minute adjustments to his saddle; between races he was withdrawn and brooding.
The principal perception of him was as the robotised "half man, half bike" of the title: "a man with no shadow who can look straight into the sun without a quiver of his beautiful eyelids", one journalist wrote, while another observed that "Merckx is not a joyful champion. His look is dark, his face closed, his smile rare." Indeed, unlike many big-name contemporaries, he wasn't a "character". He was ordinary and modest; he has been married to the same woman for 44 years. When Fotheringham flew over to interview him, Merckx met him at the airport.
His domination became so complete that astonished admiration gave way in some quarters to outright hostility. And his give-everything approach took his toll. By the mid-1970s his body was rebelling, and, like a boxer, he probably went on a touch too long. His stated aim had been "to give my fans something new every season" – and that he did.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food