Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, By William Fotheringham
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William Fotheringham wastes no time describing Eddy Merckx’s courage, recalling an incident from the 1975 Tour de France in the introduction to this excellent biography.
Despite experiencing a crash in the early part of a tough stage through Alpine passes as the peleton headed towards the finish at Avoriaz ski station, Merckx managed to close the gap on the race leader. There’s nothing necessarily unusual in that, except, as Fotheringham tells us, “for a man who had broken his jaw that morning the series of brutal accelerations and the miniscule time gain were truly remarkable.”
Following the race, X-rays revealed that Merckx had suffered a double fracture of his cheekbone and had a bone splinter floating near his sinuses. He could only take fluids and had no sensation on one side of his face. There were only six days of Le Tour remaining. Merckx could have retired to nurse his injuries. Instead, he chose to fight on, contesting the race right to the finish line, so ensuring the eventual winner, Bernard Thevenet, enjoyed a ‘total triumph’.
To describe Eddy Merckx as a hard-as-nails competitor is a little like saying Sir Alex Ferguson is a decent football manager. Between 1969 and 1974, he won the Tour de France five times and the equally difficult Giro d’Italia four times. He was crowned world cycling champion on three occasions and racked up more than 400 victories in other races, bludgeoning rivals into submission with his relentless, trademark attacks. Little wonder he was known as ‘The Cannibal’.
This could have been a book simply laden with statistical evidence of Merckx’s greatness, but while the records are remarkable, Fotheringham chooses to add another dimension by investigating the Belgian’s ultra- competitiveness:what one French journalist called his “absolute fury to win”.
On occasion, even when he was leading comfortably, Merckx could embark upon a ‘display of pure strength’ as he did on 15thJuly 1969 when he rode through the Pyrenees in what is often referred to as the greatest single stage ever seen on the Tour de France.
In the 1971 Tour, he was eight minutes behind the leader, but during the course of a single day turned that deficit around, finishing so swiftly that the television crews and the crowds were still at lunch when he crossed the line.
As Fotheringham shows in an early contender for sports book of the year, Merckx was an outstanding athlete who outshone his rivals in this most challenging of sports. Read it.
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Which cyclist currently wears the rainbow jersey of the world champion?