The 100th edition of the Tour de France just got over last week, and the rise of our colonial cousins in the world of sports has continued with an Englishman winning the coveted yellow jersey for the second year in a row. But the man we are going to talk about here, the man who dominated the domain of cycling no other, the man who has repeatedly been hailed as the greatest professional cyclist to ever walk this planet was a Belgian of humble of origins: Eddy Merckx.
Like we said, Eddy made a modest entry into this world in the summer of 1945, in a middle-class family residing in Meensel-Kiezegem, Belgium. But he never let his family’s monetary shortcomings come in the way of his cycling ambitions. He got his hands on a second-hand racing bike at the raw age of eight and his journey to the pinnacle of cycling began.
He started as an amateur with Evere Kerkhoek Sportif club in 1961 and remained with them for the entirety of his amateur career till he shifted to the professional level in 1965. His initial days in this sports were nothing to write home about. He won his first race in his 13th attempt at Petit-Enghien. Who could have imagined then that this same lanky lad was going to rule over the cycling world a couple of years hence.
Eddy reached the zenith of his amateur career when he became the World Amateur Road Champion in 1964 when he was still a teenager. Encouraged by his recent wins at the amateur level, Eddy decided to turn pro. He started his professional career with Solo-Superia in 1965, but after a brief stint with Solo, Eddy decided to shift his loyalty to the Peugeot-BP team the following year. Peugeot turned out to be lucky for Eddy as he won the first of his record 19 “Monument” races at Milan-San Remo in 1966.
It was in the year 1967 that Eddy finally declared his arrival at the world cycling stage with back to back wins at Milan-San Remo and La Flèche Wallonne. He also went on to win the first of his three World Cycling Championships at the professional level, a record he shares with three other cyclists till date. But his tryst with the three Grand Tours of cycling began only the year after as Eddy won the Giro d’Italia riding for the Italian team Faema. He also won the “Monument” race of Paris–Roubaix for the first time that year. The era of the indomitable Eddy Merckx had finally begun.
The year 1969 brought mixed fortunes for Eddy. On one hand he competed and won his maiden Tour de France that year and on the other hand, he was disqualified from the Giro d’Italia for doping, something unheard of in those times. Drug tests had been introduced in cycling for the first time at Giro d’Italia in 1968 following the fatal death of the British star cyclist, Tom Simpson, during the 1967 Tour de France. Although Eddy vehemently denies taking any banned substance on that tour even today, he was disqualified from the Giro d’Italia all the same. Unperturbed, Eddy went on to win three “Monument” races that year and also won the stage-race of Paris-Nice for the first time.
Eddy’s was the only name that could be heard in cycling circles all through the early 70s. He won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia as well as the Paris-Nice stage race and the “Monument” race of Paris-Robaix in 1970. The following year, he won the Tour de France again and the Paris-Nice race for the third consecutive time. He also won the Milan San-Remo and the Giro di Lombardia, the latter win making him one of the only three riders (all Belgian) to have ever won all the five classic “Monument” races. The year 1971 also brought Eddy the 2nd of his World Cycling Championships stamping his dominance over the sports of cycling. He won the Tour de France once again in 1972 as well as the Giro d’Italia, besides winning three more “Monument” races that year.
Eddy was unofficially barred from racing in the Tour de France in 1973 due to the increasing anger and anxiety amongst the French masses that he would go on to break the five Tour de France win record of the iconic Frenchman, Jacques Anquetil. This is the reason that Eddy today has to share the honours of winning the Tour de France a record five times (he won the subsequent 1974 edition) with Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. But while the ban to race at the Tour de France prevented him from ending up with a possible record haul of 6 Tour de France wins, it also enabled Eddy to participate in the last of the three Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España, the only tour race that was missing from his kitty. He went on to win both the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia that year, and in the process became one of the five cyclists to have won all the three Grand Tours in their lifetime.