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.

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