Half Man, Half Bike
Yellow Jersey, 320pp, £16.99
A résumé: Eddy Merckx, Belgian racing cyclist hors pair of the late 1960s and early 1970s, collected victories in bike races as easily as stamps: the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia five times each, countless one-day classics (such as the Paris-Roubaix and the Milan-San Remo), world championships, the world one-hour track record. The palmarès goes on and on: 445 victories for the man known as “Cannibal” for the way he devoured one race after another.
William Fotheringham’s biography seeks to account for Merckx’s invincibility. The research is meticulous, the recapitulation of Merckx’s races sweet reminiscences for those who witnessed them and things of wonder for those who did not.
Every now and again the sporting world throws up a Hercules: Merckx was one such, a cyclist who could pull the peloton apart and then drop any riders who stayed with him one by one. To read about his feats is like reading of the labours of the Greek demi-god: the mountain-top finish in the Giro d’Italia at Lavaredo in the Dolomites, where Merckx decimated the peloton on the last climb and emerged alone, in short sleeves and cock-cap, powering through a snowstorm to the summit; the stage to Mourenx in the 1969 Tour de France, where he was leading by eight minutes and then attacked single-handedly for four hours in the Pyrenees to establish another eight-minute advantage; the near fatal crash in the Derny race in September 1969, where he displaced his pelvis – a handicap sustained in the first year of his domination which prevented him from fulfilling his potential.
It is estimated that Merckx had between 70 and 80 crashes in his career, half a dozen of which resulted in serious injuries: in the 1975 Tour, he rode the last six days with a double fracture of his cheekbone, unable to take more than fluids. He still attempted to bridge the gap between him and the wearer of the yellow jersey, Bernard Thévenet, who would later admit that the doubt sown by Merckx’s repeated attacks was such that he wasn’t convinced he could win the Tour until two laps from the finish on the Champs-Elysées.
It is marvellous to read of such Herculean feats. But Fotheringham’s principal interest is in the wherewithal: how could a man accomplish them? And here the book is weak. Why did Merckx tolerate such relentless suffering? Is there nobility in it? Is there beauty in its futility?
Fotheringham focuses on what he considers to be the salient characteristic: Merckx’s fear of failure. Merckx never considered his victories in the grands tours until the finishing line was crossed. That is why he attacked and attacked, even when nobody else doubted that he would win. But this hardly accounts for his invincibility: the point is that he had the capacity to inflict more suffering on his rivals, dans la tête, than he would suffer himself by doing so.
Any successful sportsman must endure a fear of failure. Suffering, and the moral dimension it offers, is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of racing cycling. This is the moral futility that the French find so ennobling. When Merckx speaks of his “passion” for cycling, Fotheringham underestimates the significance of the term. “Passion” has deep Christian resonances, and is almost synonymous with suffering. Did Merckx consider it ennobling to suffer as he did? Was it through such suffering that he became more than human – until, at the age of 30, his body could endure no more ?
It would be interesting to consider, given scientific progress in the intervening years, the genetic make-up that enabled Merckx to flourish and become the Hercules of the cycling world. What genetic fluke or stroke of moral luck enabled him to take all the jerseys – yellow, green, polka-dot – in the same Tour de France?
As with any sporting giant, such lavish success was resented. That resentment was manifested when a French spectator punched him in the liver as he neared the top of a summit in the 1975 Tour. The next day, the resulting bruising saw him fade with exhaustion as he tried to win time back on the yellow jersey. Hercules was undone by the resentment of Juno; Merckx’s enemies were all too human.