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.