Today, exactly 40 years ago, Eddy took the most difficult decision he had ever taken in his life. The Cannibal quit racing at age 32. 525 victories are the outcome of a life that was marked by cycling. Winning almost everything from the Tour de France and the Tour of Flanders to Milan-San Remo and the Word Hour Record. He said a final goodbye to the sport that belonged to him in a kermesse race in a small Flemish village called Kemzeke.
It was Sunday the nineteenth of March 1978, the Sunday after one of Merckx beloved races, Milan-San Remo. Eddy Merckx started the small kermesse race ‘The Tour of Waasland’. “Actually, it was a bad sign that he started in this race” said José De Cauwer who would finish 11th in that race, just before Merckx. “Eddy had to be in Milan-San Remo, not in Kemzeke”.
But Eddy wasn’t ready for the Via Roma, so he picked the number ‘4’ on his jersey and started at the Tour of Waasland. Nobody could ever imagine that this would be his last race. Eddy Merckx was no longer a super champion, but he was still Merckx and everyone expected his fighting spirit, even in this small race.
Looking back, you could say that this race was Merckx last big test to see if he could compete on the highest level in professional cycling. Some new stars where knocking on the door of cycling greatness such as Hinault, Raas, Saronni and Moser. It became more difficult for Merckx to recuperate after a race and to prepare his body to compete with these young wolves.
During his last race, Eddy attacked very early. Testing himself and pushing his body for the last time to its limits. After 70 kilometer a small group closed the gap with 2 of Merckx’ C&A teammates Planckaert and Dillen. It was René Dillen who placed an attack with 5 kilometer to go. He looked behind and saw who was taking the lead in the chasing group. Yes, it was Merckx. Closing the gap on his own teammate.
Until today, Dillen doesn’t think that Merckx didn’t want him to win, definitely not. “But that was how Eddy was: even if he was bad, he wanted to go to the limit and not let anyone think he was bad”. The gap on Dillen was closed and the group sprinted for victory. Eddy took the 12th spot in his last race ever. It wass the closure of one of the greatest chapters ever written in cycling. The final goodbye of someone who became greater than the sport itself.