This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!
Thursday, July 08, 1971
Grenoble to Orcieres-Merlette
134 km/83 mi high mountains
Monday, July 19, 1971
Orcieres-Merlette to Marseille
251 km/156 mi flat
Monday, July 12, 1971
Revel to Luchon
214.5 km/133.3 mi mountains
To speak of stage 11 or 12 of the 1971 Tour de France in isolation would be like talking about only one-half of a great soccer match. To then ignore stage 14 would be like not mentioning extra time in a World Cup final.
One of the two protagonists is Eddy Merckx, “the Cannibal,” the greatest bike racer ever. He gobbled up races, devoured opponents, yet the cu- rious thing is that he did not win any of these three stages, and, naturally, excludes them from his list of personal favorites. It didn’t stop Jacques Goddet, the Tour director, describing one of these losing performances as the most “moving” of Merckx’s career, while Merckx’s own teammate, Rini Wagtmans, described the second as “the greatest stage in Tour de France history.”
I meet Eddy Merckx in Doha, where he can be found most Februarys, in his role as ambassador at the Tour of Qatar. In the mornings, he rides his bike with the Belgian friends who work on the race in a variety of roles— clearly being a friend of Big Eddy has its advantages. In the afternoons, after returning and clack-clacking across the hotel’s polished marble floors in cleated cycling shoes and Lycra that struggles to contain his fuller figure, Merckx heads back into the desert to supervise the stage finishes. In the evenings, he wines and dines in one of the expensive rooftop restaurants. And throughout, Merckx wears an impassive expression, revealing nothing.
Merckx is not merely a retired cyclist. He is his sport’s GOAT: Greatest Of All Time. In cycling terms, he is Ali, Pelé, and Jordan rolled into one. Yet the Merckx mystique is difficult to measure. Perhaps it is his ubiquity, which is due to his regular presence at the major races, or the impassivity that is his trademark. He often looks bored. His face—doe eyes, eyebrows like dark caterpillars, high cheekbones, downturned lips—appears to convey deep sadness, or boredom, or vacancy, as the journalist Odélie Grand observed when she interviewed him for L’Aurore in the 1970s. Grand noted that most of her male interviewees betrayed some sense that she was a woman, even some interest, “But in front of Eddy Merckx, nothing! His gaze gets lost somewhere over your shoulder and erases you from the picture. It’s a blackout. You no longer exist. He replies with a yes or a no, but he’s thousands of kilometers away, on his own inaccessible planet.” (Never mind failing to acknowledge the fact she was a woman, there is almost the sense that Merckx didn’t even register that Grand was a person.)
The paradox, of course, is that Merckx’s impassivity is so at odds with his engagement with—or immersion in—his sport. Merckx’s behavior— his attention to every detail relating to body and bike, his semipermanent state of high anxiety, his crises of confidence, his failure to ever be satisfied, his need to win every race he rode—was obsessive-compulsive before the term became fashionable.
You cannot appreciate Merckx, and what he did, by sitting and talking to him in the opulent lobby of the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Qatar, or from watching the bloated figure clack-clacking across the marble floors; you must go back to the lean, sculpted, and sideburned cyclist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who came upon the scene like a hurricane and was capable of deeds so extraordinary that the language of the sport seemed inadequate to describe them.
The trouble with Merckx is that there are so many deeds to choose from. The pick for many is 1969 and his Tour de France début, specifically the stage that tackled the “Circle of Death” in the Pyrenees—Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, and Col d’Aubisque. Merckx attacked over the top of the Tourmalet, then rode alone for 140 km—about 87 miles—to win in Mourenx. That performance prompted the Tour director, Jacques Goddet, to coin a new word, Merckxissimo.
And indeed, when I ask Merckx to select his greatest-ever performance, this is his initial choice. “Sixty-nine, Luchon to Mourenx?” Merckx suggests. “I think also ’68 to Tre Cime di Lavaredo [stage 12 of the Giro d’Italia, on his way to his first Grand Tour victory]. And Paris–Roubaix in 1970.”
Merckx chuckles. “There are a lot.”
But in 1971 there appeared to be a chink in Merckx’s armor.
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