Just one of the fantastic photos of Eddy Merckx from Merckx 69
There's under a month to go until the Tour de France rolls into action in Yorkshire, so with that in mind Brendan Gallagher's latest book review looks back on a book that features a classic edition of the world's greatest race.
There are considerably more smiles in 1969 than I ever recall in later photographs.
Merckx 69 includes the 1969 edition of the Tour, in a book that looks at the most significant year of Eddy Merckx's life.
Merckx 69 by Tonny Strouken and Jan Maes Published by Bloomsbury, £35 Review by Brendan Gallagher
MILLIONS upon millions of words have been written on Eddy Merckx over the decades and it will get to the point soon when there is nothing new to say, which is possibly why Bloomsbury came up with the interesting idea of revisiting a year in the life of cycling's nonpareil with a series of documentary type photographs. As all my snapper friends constantly remind me a great image is always worth a thousand words. Damn them, but they are right.
Not any old year mind and not any old photos. 1969 was an incredible career defining 12-months for Merckx while the project collaborators Tonny Strouton and Jan Maes boldy opt for a montage of huge black and white snaps when presumably there are plenty of fine colour shots available if desired. A great black and white image is worth 10,000 words in my opinion because they instantly convey and historical importance and almost timelessness which makes it easier to relive that moment.
Yes, 1969. It was some bloody year for Merckx. He charged to victory in Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and then - stung by a controversial disqualification in the Giro for a doping offence which he has always disputed - Merckx worked off his ire by winning every jersey on offer at the Tour de France. That was a tour de force which caused the Tour director Jacques Goddet, who coined the phrase Merckxissmo, to muse that "It is extraordinary that one can put so much brilliance into one vessel."
Among other things 1969 was also the last time we ever saw a fully fit Merckx on a bike, which is a sobering thought considering the avalanche of success that was yet to come. In September that year he was involved in a derny racing accident in France when his pacer was killed and he was left in intensive care with a horribly twisted spine and pelvis.
These were long term injuries that were to plague Merckx - and drive him on - forever and a day. He once told me that pain was the secret to his success. He started every subsequent day on a bike in pain with the injuries so when the racing reached its crux and everybody else started feeling pain he was already ahead of the game. What is beyond doubt is that his position on a bike in this book look more comfortable than when he was racing in in latter years and there are considerably more smiles in 1969 than I ever recall in later photographs.
I have always find Merckx an enigma. I have interviewed him at length just that once, one-to-one, and although polite and helpful he was totally devoid of charisma and x-factor, which wasn't what I was expecting at all. There was absolutely nothing to distinguish him from any 65+ Belgian male who enjoys their calorie laden cuisine and vast array of magnificent beers
I have also bumped into him at races, especially at the Tour de France, where again he plods around amiably enough and occasionally pulls over to give the Belgian press a few priceless words. A Belgian journo can successfully offer his sports editor a double spread off the back of six paragraphs of coherent Merckx quotes. The rest just writes itself.
But to these eyes he always looks tired and emotionless, washed out and vacant as if he poured a lifetime's worth of energy, effort and emotion into the six years (1969-75) in which he battered the world's best riders into submission on a weekly basis. He was voracious, insatiable, relentless almost manically out of control and in the end, having emptied the tanks before his time, he simply had nothing left to give. To a certain extent the rest of his life has been a gentle recovery ride.
The glory of Merckx 69 is that it his blazing personality and charisma is finally revealed again. This was the Merckx the sport still places atop of the pantheon. People rarely mention it but he was a sensationally good looking '60s bloke. Elvis on two wheels with southern Mediterranean looks, jet black hair, sunken eyes, trendy sideburns and a camera friendly smile. He was rock and roll and make no mistake. Cycling doesn't have too many matinee idols but Merckx was certainly one.
He was also hard core. He loved the Classics; the rain and wind, the muck mud and cobbles; he enjoyed mixing it with the sprinters, he could time-trial superbly, excelled in the mountains whether they be steep or gradual, warm or cold, thronging with half a million noisy fans or deserted and funereal. As he says in his short introduction: "I never really wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be first."
As a rule I am not normally won over by massive prestige coffee table books but Merckx 69 starts with the enormous advantage that everybody and anybody involved in cycling knows the basic Merckx story. And that means that as you sit and stare at the pages you can effectively provide your own picture captions although Maes and Strouken do offer up a brief running commentary as well.
There is one remarkable picture midway through the book when Merckx, leading the 1969 Giro and about to put on the maglia rosa on in his hotel bedroom for another day's racing, is told by his manager that a urine test form ten day earlier at Terracina had come back positive and that he had been disqualified. Talk about capturing the moment. Look at that picture and the whole story comes back and you instinctively search that unguarded face for a clue. Is that a look of guilt, incomprehension, disbelief or resignation? Make your own mind up.
Towards the end it is all pain and gore as Merckx is evacuated from the Derny race in Blois in France following the death of Fernand Wambst. Merckx himself was knocked unconscious and his body twisted forevermore. Again you look at the pictures in and fill in the gaps. It seems impossible that man left alive still had four Tour de France wins left in him.
Merckx 69 will stretch the budget but I suspect will prove irresistible for any serious collector of cycling books. Just as the man himself had to win every race - or at least try - Merckx fans tend to be 'completests' and their 'Merckx corner' of the bookshelf will look bare without this mighty tome.