Monday, December 22, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt ten)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

‘Fuente would always attack when you were least expecting it, he didn’t have the calculating spirit that says “I’m going to go for it here”,’ recalled his teammate Txomin Perurena. ‘He just went for it without thinking whether Merckx was in good shape or looking bad. He would just feel like attacking. There was no doubt he was affected by the moon. I can’t remember whether it was when the moon was waxing or waning but he would suddenly flip and it wouldn’t matter whether he had Merckx in front of him or not, he would go haywire.’



Sunday, December 21, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt nine)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

‘Merckx and I were the same age, twenty-four,’ wrote Ocaña, ‘but he had had a happy childhood and adolescence, not market at all by the same privations that I had suffered, and life continued to smile on him’ Ocaña was from the village of Viejo in Castile, where his father worked in a textile mill carding wool, but the family had trouble scratching a living in the years after the Spanish civil war. ‘Meat was a luxury, so too our sweets at Christmas,’ wrote Ocaña. They moved several times as his father sought work, ending up in the Landes of southwest France, close to the town of Mont-de-Marsan. There he began racing only at the age of sixteen, because his family could not afford a bike for him (he ‘borrowed’ his first one, without asking the owner). By 1968, after his father’s premature death, he was supporting his wife and child and his mother and four siblings. He was a near neighbor of the legendary rugby player Guy Boniface, to whom he was related by marriage. Ocaña was as much French as Spanish, and might well have had a French professional licence had he not been offered a contract with the Fagor team in 1967. These were all connections that endeared him to the French public and press.

Ocaña could climb almost as well as his fellow Spaniard José Manuel Fuente, the supreme mountain specialist of the early 1970s, but he had more all-round talent. He was a stylish cyclist when in perfect health—which was not as often as it should have been—a supreme time triallist on his day, twice a winner of the Grand Prix des Nations, the longest and toughest time trial on the calendar. He was more talented than the best cyclist Spain had produced until then, Federico Bahamontes. ‘The Eagle of Toledo’ had set the mercurial standard for Spanish cyclists with a series of spectacular mountain victories and dramatic—occasionally petulant—abandons during the 1950s and early 1960s. Both Fuente and Ocaña burned brightly but briefly. Their careers lasted seven and ten years respectively, their retirements were premature and their deaths tragically early, Fuente at fifty from kidney disease, Ocaña taking his own life at forty-nine.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt eight)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

There was a talented cyclist who happened to be born at the same time as Eddy Merckx. Like so many others, the cyclist spent the best years of his career trying to beat Merckx but was constantly frustrated. Time and again he knew he was in perfect form, time and again The Cannibal defeated him. When he died, the pro went to Heaven and was greeted by St Peter. The saint put him on the start line of a race on the smoothest velodrome he had ever seen, on the finest handbuilt Italian frame.

All the greats who had predeceased him were on the start line: Fausto Coppi, Maurice Garin, Ottavio Bottecchia and so on, but, even so, our cyclist knew he could win. He rode the perfect race, timed his effort just right, and had victory in the bag on the final lap. As the line approached, however, he sensed a wheel coming past, glanced to the side and saw the face of The Cannibal.

Afterwards, in a state of some distress, the cyclist went up to St Peter and said, ‘Eddy isn’t dead yet, what’s he doing here?’ St Peter replied gravely: ‘That wasn’t Merckx. It was God. He likes to pretend he’s Merckx.’



Friday, December 19, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt seven)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

The king of cycling was certainly not mechanical or robotic in his diet and lifestyle. He did not follow the lines drawn up by Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, who were legendarily strict in their diets and lifestyles. He was not an ascetic semimonk like Gimondi. He was fond of a beer. Smoking was actually recommended by some team doctors to wind down after a race; the Faema doctor advised Merckx to have the odd one so he would occasionally nip into Roger Swerts’s room to get a cigarette, Swerts being the team’s smoker. If anything, he veered more towards the bon vivant lifestyle of Jacques Anquetil, although without excess of Master Jacques, said Van Buggenhout. Vittorio Adorni came across Merckx and his teammates knocking back beers in his hotel room one evening during the 1968 Giro.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt six)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

It was the essential paradox of any sporting great: Merckx was winning so often and so brilliantly that it was expected of him; it had become banal. As a result the press and fans looked intently for cracks in the carapace. As Blondin wrote: ‘May the best man lose, but not too often.’ Merckx’s defeats became a better story than his victories. Like other dominant figures since, Merckx did not understand and was hurt by that. Some of it was wishful thinking: journalists hoping for a Merckx defeat in the same way that writers like me would optimistically watch for Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong cracking in the 1990s and 2000s. For example, during the 1970 Tour one journalist recalled listening to commercial radio as the commentator excitedly proclaimed that Merckx was struggling. The dramatic news was eagerly picked up by the radio commentator’s colleague, the only problem being that, as he did so, the writer who related the story was watching Merckx stamping out his rhythm at the front of the bunch.

The year 1970 saw the first hints of hostility towards Merckx, which would become more marked throughout his reign and would culminate in the incident at the Puy-de-Dôme in 1975 when he was punched by a spectator. Spectators spat in his face as he ascended the Col de Porte and there were whistles at some of that year’s stage finishes. France-Soir explains: ‘There is more applause than there are whistles, but it’s true that Merckx’s apparent coldness and his haughty attitude do not make for a sympathetic reception. And the French feel uneasy about his dominance.’ Part of the lack of sympathy stemmed from the fact that Merckx himself was unable to play to the crowd. His mother had noted when he was a boy that he didn’t really manage to ‘sell himself’ to customers in their shop. Spontaneous public gestures of joy did not come naturally to him: he was too worried for that.

Publicly, Merckx was restrained in what he said and did. As Geoffrey Nicholson wrote: ‘Merckx is a good-looking man but he has the high-cheeked, graven features of a totem pole and they break into laughter about as often. So much so that it has become a kind of game with the press to record instances of him smiling.’ He was nicknamed il mostro—the monster—in Italy. According to Ocaña, many riders referred to him as ‘the crocodile’. Presumably this was for the same reason that he was given his most famous nickname, The Cannibal, because he devoured the opposition. But describing Merckx as sphinx, despot or vampire was simplistic. There was a resounding dissonance between the Belgian’s public and private personae. ‘Are you an introvert?’ asks one television interviewer. ‘I suppose so’ is the muttered answer, with a shrug.



Wednesday, December 17, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt five)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

Van Buggenhout describes Merckx’s preoccupation with the details of his bike (compared with Jacques Anquetil who would simply get on the machine and race) but his punctiliousness went further than worrying about his position. ‘Eddy thinks about the future a great deal and already, even though he isn’t yet twenty-five years old, he is concerned with what he will do after he has finished racing. He is continually asking himself the question: what will I do with my life after my sporting career?’ One Belgian paper asked Merckx if he was a worrier and if it was a weakness. He answered yes to both, adding that he had trouble sleeping before a race, as ‘I wouldn’t want to disappoint myself or the team or the supporters’. In his eyes, worrying was a virtue, because ‘in cycling, being sure of yourself is an almost inevitable guarantee of not winning’. Insecurity meant minding every detail and never understanding the opposition.

Merckx had, he said in other interviews, always been nervous, ‘almost irritable’. ‘I used to feel taken over by doubt, by fear. There were times when I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Sometimes my stomach wouldn’t keep my food down.’ It was a patronising parallel, but there was something in the assertion of a rival team manager who said Merckx was ‘like a little third category amateur who isn’t sure what the result will be’. The opposition might have been sure; he wasn’t.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

the last book I ever read (Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion, excerpt four)

from Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling's Greatest Champion by William Fotheringham:

The Eddy Merckx metro station lies on the outer reaches of the Brussels underground, the Bruxellois equivalent of Cockfosters or Alperton. Line five crosses the Belgian capital from east to west, a modern, airy mass-transit system. The Merckx station, penultimate stop on the south-western branch, is bizarrely understated given that it is named after the country’s leading sportsman. You can leave by the north exit without even noticing the tiny display that commemorates the great cyclist, although when you come back through the south exit you can’t miss it: the small glass case on the platform, with a track bike, a section of the wooden boards from a cycling track and a handful of photographs. And that’s it. Other than the Merckx display, there is a very fine Magritte-style surrealist mural—which holds the attention for far longer than the Merckx artefacts—and, outside, a large stand for supermarket trolleys.