Meet the cannibal
Édouard Louis Joseph (Eddy), the Baron Merckx (Meensel-Kiezegem, 17 June 1945) was a professional cyclist from 1961 to 1978. Cycling fans consider him to be the most successful cyclist in history, with 525 competitions to his name. In 2000, the French magazine Vélo called him the ‘greatest cyclist ever’ and many sports journalist refer to him as the cycling god. He won the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia five time each, has won all of the top events except for the Paris-Tours, has won the Vuelta a España, has won the world championship as both a professional and as an amateur, and has broken the world hour record.
As a child, Eddy Merckx really admired Stan Ockers. When Ockers died in an accident in 1956, Eddy was deeply shocked and saddened, along with many of his countrymen.
In 1961, Merckx began his cycling career. Three years later, he became world amateur champion at Sallanches (France). In 1966, he won the first of what would eventually become seven Milan-San Remo’, a record that has still not been equalled to this day. In Heerlen, the Netherlands, a year later, he became world champion for road cycling, a distinction that he would claim a further two times. In that same year, he married Claudine Acou.
In 1968, Merckx became the first Belgian in history to win the Tour of Italy (the Giro). He would go on to win the Giro a further four times. For Eddy’s teams – he rode for the Italian teams of Faema, Faemino and Molteni – the Giro was more important than the Tour de France.
Eddy won his fist Tour in 1969: he won six stages, the end classification (yellow jersey), the point aggregate (green jersey) and the climbing classification (polka-dot jersey). If the white jersey (best under-25) had been around then, Merckx would have won that, too. He became a national hero in that year, because it had been exactly 30 years since a Belgian - Sylvère Maes - had won the Tour de France. During the climb of the Tourmalet, no-one was able to keep up, leaving him to complete the remaining 140 km on the Soulor, the Aubisque and the kilometres-long level finale, completely alone. He won by eight minutes ahead of the nearest pursuers.
Merckx would go on to win the Tour de France another four times: in 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974. In 1973, Merckx rode in the Vuelta (the Tour of Spain), a race that he also won. Merckx won the Tour de France a total of five times, a record that had previously only been equalled by Jacques Anquetil and after Merckx would only be repeated by Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Merckx record in the Tour was broken by Lance Armstrong in 2004 when he won the Tour for a sixth and then in 2005 even for a seventh time.
Late in 1969, Merckx took a bad fall during a bicycle race in Blois. Afterward, cycling, which had been almost automatic for him up to that point, became more difficult and more taxing. He was constantly adjusting the position of his saddle. Even more remarkable is the fact the he continued to win many of the competitions that he took part in, in spite of his annoying injury. In 1971, he even won 54 of the 120 competitions that he took part in. Because he was the best and his hunger for victory led him to ‘eat up’ the competition, he was given the nickname, The Cannibal.
In 1972, he broke the world hour record in Mexico City; it would be 12 years before it was broken again, by Francesco Moser on a specially designed cycle. In 2000, the UCI decided that it would no longer recognise Moser’s record. Merckx’s record was restored and bettering it would only be recognised when the record was set on a cycle that was equivalent to Merckx’s bicycle in 1972.
Eddy Merckx rode his last official cycling race in Kemzeke: It was the Tour of the Waasland of 1978. On 18 May of that year, he withdrew from competitive cycling and founded a successful cycling company in Meise, where he also lives.
In 1996, the King raised him to a barony, and in 2005, Eddy Merckx was one of the 111 nominees for the title of “The Greatest Belgian”. In the Flemish voting, he came third and in the Walloon voting, fourth.
His son, Axel Merckx, has followed in his father’s treads and was a professional cyclist from 1993 to 2007.
Early in 2008, the former cyclist became the ambassador for the new campaign of the Damiaan fund. He was even able to visit the organisation’s work in the fight against leprosy and tuberculosis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo himself. On 28 April 2009, the new Eddy Merckx book – MERCKXISSIMO – was presented in the city hall of Brussels. Leading Belgian photographer Stephan Vanfleteren was responsible for the photographs. The book also contains 25 personal testimonies about the career of The Cannibal by 25 well-known guest contributors. The book has 51 chapters – a reflection of the start number 51 that Merckx wore when he won his first Tour de France.