Why Eddy Merckx Is The Greatest Cyclist Of All Time
Eddy Merckx is undeniably the greatest cyclist of all time. We are so certain of this fact, that we decided to model our Grand Velo Tour after his 1972 Tour de France winning route.
Now if you’re reading this, it’s likely that you know a lot about Merckx and his victories – or at the very least have heard of him. So we won’t be detailing his biography, his childhood history, listing all of his wins (that’d take all day!)
In this article, we’re going to be discussing what made Eddy Merckx so great, the legacy he has left behind in the world of professional cycling, and what we – as amateur and novice cyclists – can learn from him when completing the Grand Velo Tours.
So, what really did make Eddy Merckx the greatest cyclist of all time?
How Eddy Merckx Earned His Nickname The Cannibal
If you’re in touch with the greatest cyclists of all time, then you’ll know that many of them had famous nicknames based on competitions they had won or personality traits.
Henry Anglade was nicknamed Napoleon for his bossiness and short stature, Phil Anderson was called Dr. Teeth for his eye-catching smile, and Davis Phinney was dubbed The Cash Register for taking everyone’s prize money.
So what about Eddy Merckx? How did he get the ominous and intimidating name, The Cannibal?
According to biographer Johny Vansevanent, it was actually given to him by a little girl.
Merckx’s teammate, Christian Raymond, had a daughter who was so impressed by Merckx’s riding capabilities that she asked her father: “what’s wrong with him?” Raymond allegedly replied with: “he wants to eat all the races” – to which she said, “he’s a cannibal.”
And so the nickname was born.
But it takes a lot more than one little girl to earn a nickname as striking and powerful as The Cannibal. Merckx certainly earned the title due to his attitude towards cycling and his unwavering resolve.
You only need to look towards famous quotes of his about racing – “cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it, you’ll win nothing” – to truly appreciate the strength, determination, and passion he brought to every race.
What’s more, his clever tactics when it came to racing often saw him attacking the peloton and picking off his competition one by one. Merckx rode strategically and with a plan in place which very rarely failed – making him one of the most calculating, intelligent, and dangerous riders to compete against.
He Is The Most Successful Rider To Have Win The Milan-San Remo
With an impressive seven wins under his belt, Eddy Merckx takes the number one spot as the man who won the Milan-San Remo the most times as of date.
The Milan-San Remo, a one-day, 293km race, is no easy feat. It requires resistance, strength, endurance, and so much more. All of which Eddy Merckx possessed to the highest extent. Many cyclists consider this to be one of the hardest races a professional cyclist can undertake in their career – meaning for Merckx to have won it so many times, his skills cannot be underestimated.
One of the greatest victories Eddy Merckx witnessed in his Milan-San Remo career came in 1967, when he easily won the sprint above the rest of his competitors and even established a new average speed of 44.805km per hour. Merckx won the race with an impressive time of 6 hours, 25 minutes, and 40 seconds, one of 196 starters and 116 classified finishers.
So how did he win so many times?
Whilst, famously, some cyclists have claimed that the Milan-San Remo is down to luck – Colombian professional cyclist Fernando Gaviria vehemently disagrees.
“They say Milan-San Remo is a lottery, but if someone won it seven times,” he said, according to Cycling Weekly, “then that’s not true.”
“You’ve got to be good, arrive well on the Poggio and not crash on the sprint.”
And it’s for this exact reason that Merckx won. Whilst many other competitors have tried to beat Merck’s record, with some like Constante Girardengo making the podium 11 times but only winning 6, it is Merckx’s undeniable skills which has allowed him to remain the undefeated champion of Milan-San Remo so far.
His Tactics And Cycling Techniques Remain Unmatched
Throughout his professional cycling career, Eddy Merckx managed to get some impressive victories under his belt.
In fact, according to The Global Cycling Network, Merckx won 525 Pro Victories, 34 stages of the Tour de France (including 8 in one race), 11 Grand Tour Victories, 28 Classic Victories, and 3 World Championships.
But, how did he do it?
Well, for starters, his commitment to cycling was unmatched. Merckx was known to ride in any weather conditions, for several hundred miles a day, often alone and purely to train. He is famously quoted for saying “ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel like. But ride.” And it’s this level of commitment and dedication to the sport which is one of the reasons why he was able to dominate so often – it seems he had been cycling practically every day of his life.
His mental attitude was also another attribute which helped him win so many races.
Often, riders at competitive levels will note how they sometimes hit a mental block. A wall, they call it. Where the voice in your head tells you that you’re too tired, or the race is too hard, or there’s too much track left. Merckx would overcome this in many ways – but his acceptance and embracing of the toughness of the ride is one of the most impressive.
It seems to Merckx that one of the most valuable tactics for winning is an acknowledgement of the difficulties and level of exhaustion one can experience when cycling – and an ability to overcome it. To him, the pain of cycling just came with the territory.
How Did Eddy Merckx Compare To His Competitors?
It would be tempting to diminish the name and success of Eddy Merckx by merely claiming that his wins came about because his competitors weren’t that good. If Merckx had been competing against someone from the modern day, in 2020, there’s no way he’d stand a chance of winning. Right?
Eddy Merckx’s competitors were known to be some of the best cyclists of their generation – from Luis Ocaña, to Lucien Van Impe, Felice Gimondi, and so many more. Each possessed different strengths in sprinting, mountain climbing, and time trials. They were worthy rivals to Eddy Merckx.
Meaning that, Eddy Merckx’s competition was fair. He wasn’t able to win the races because of a lack of good competition, or compelling rivalries, or fair challenges – he won so many races in spite of these things. Merckx’s ability to demolish his competitors and rivals for the title is what made him such a great cyclist.
You would be right in saying that Merckx would have a different cycling experience in 2020 though. After all, Merckx did not benefit from the knowledge, bike maintenance and technology, and nutritional information which is so readily available for present day cyclists.
So surely that makes his wins even more impressive?
To discredit Merckx and his competitors would be to undermine the challenges they faced. They did not possess the same science and technology we do now, and yet they were still able to effectively and impressively win hundreds of races.
All of these men were competing in races and acting as competent and entertaining competitors to each other, without the knowledge we have now. If anything, that makes their skills all the more admirable.
The 1972 Tour de France
What would a love letter to Eddy Merckx and his skills be, without a brief mention of the 1972 Tour de France?
It was the first time the race was going to be taking place entirely in France in 25 years, and was made up of a staggering 3,846 kilometres.
Luis Ocaña was Merckx’s biggest rival, having been so close to beating him in the previous 1971 race before he crashed and had to drop out. Ocaña was very vocally unhappy about Merckx’s win, and felt like he had something to prove.
The race started off well, with Merckx and Cyrille Guimard exchanging the yellow jersey back and forth between each other for the first 7 stages. Guimard was proving himself to be someone worth reckoning with, and was giving Merckx a literal run for his money.
But where was Ocaña?
Ocaña had been consistently riding behind Merckx, waiting for his moment to strike. In the 11th stage he believed this was it and attempted to increase his position. But that’s when the crash occurred. Ocaña punctured his tire on the Solour and crashed his bike into Thévenet who, despite going on to win a later stage, had lost all chance of winning.
Later, Ocaña dropped out after the 14th stage after contracting a lung infection thanks to his previous crash. It left the competition between Cyrille Guimard and Eddy Merckx.
Guimard went on to win the 15th stage, literally snatching it from the hands of Merckx who, famously, had already risen one hand in celebration when Guimard crossed the finish line before him.
Despite this, however, Merckx’s victory was soon secured.
At the end of the 18th stage, Guimard dropped out due to a bad bout of tendinitis. Eddy Merckx was winning with a victory of 10 minutes ahead of his other competitors, and there was no doubt that he would be taking home the yellow jersey at the end of the race.
In fact, this was his 4th consecutive Tour de France win. He won the yellow jersey, the green jersey, and the combination classification. But, in the interest of sportsmanship and fairness, Merckx bestowed Cyrille Guimard with the green jersey on the podium due to his winning of the points classification from the 1st to 17th stage, despite not actually finishing.
If you would like to experience riding the 1972 Tour de France, then check out our About Us page! Grand Velo Tours offers rides through France with an amazing team of experienced cyclists!