He is, without doubt, the greatest cyclist of our generation, and will likely be the greatest cyclist of all time. Even from that sentence alone it’s clear that I’m talking about Merckx, the legendary cyclist who, in his best year, won nearly every second race he entered.
To kick off their 50th anniversary, Bicycling magazine invited Merckx to a private party in New York City’s chic Classic Car Club. Perhaps few people on earth could command more attention than a selection of fine Ferrari and Porsches, but Merckx can and did, captivating the audience for the discussion of his legendary career. While engaging and honest about his career, it has to be painful for Merckx to relive some of the events—it’s been more than forty years since he crashed in a derby race in Blois and his face twisted in obvious anguish as he described the moment he fell.
It’s clear the degree to which fans love him. While many took the opportunity to get his autograph (and Merckx obligingly and smilingly provides them) many stood back and simply watched as he moved through the crowd, chatting with fans and VIPs. As an early mentor in Lance Armstrong’s career it’s easy to see how Merckx’s place in the pantheon of cycling helped shape the American’s career—the same forcefield-of-reverence encircles Lance as well, while the Texan carries a more jocular attitude.
I’ve often wondered if it’s hard for Merckx to accept the accolades at these events, it seems like he was most comfortable on his bike, and that surrounded by adoring fans he’s slightly out of sorts. When I saw him at last year’s Interbike he was moving through the aisles and people were sliding out of his way as he passed them, whipping their heads around as they realized who had just brushed by. Merckx’s face was turned down slightly in what I read as humility or a slight embarrassment for causing a scene. That same sense of humility came up during his conversation at the Bicycling event, where he made it clear that his victories came from hard work, especially in the off season.
In one of the classic moments, Merckx relived the 1971 Tour where he and Luis Ocaña engaged in a fierce battle for the yellow jersey. At one point Ocaña had nearly nine minutes on Merckx, and in a long day’s stage Merckx rode so hard that he finished in Marseille a half-an-hour earlier than was expected, throwing the whole Tour into disarray. Spectators hadn’t even lined up yet at the finishing line. After pulling back a minute on Ocaña the two battled on the Pyrenees, and Ocaña crashed (and then was run over), which resulted in Merckx getting the yellow jersey and eventually the win over the (then) second placed rider. After a pause, Merckx (who likely would have lost to Ocaña without the crash) said it was a shame that his rival had gone down, as he would have “battled” the whole way to Paris.
Clearly, the victory in the Tour by virtue of a crash had devalued the win, Merckx would obviously have preferred to fight to the finish and lost than to have won due to a crash.
And that’s why he’s a legend.