...other greats of cycling I had met, most notably Bernard Hinault, were almost dismissive about their cycling careers. Others had regrets that seemed to consume them. Others had raced hard and didn't delve into the whys and wherefores. Merckx had expanded on it elsewhere: 'It's the most beautiful thing that there is in the whole world. If nature has given you exceptional ability it would be a shame not to use it. You have to work on what you are given. Otherwise you will have achieved nothing in your life and wasted what you have in you.' What drove him, he said in another interview, was 'dreaming [in my view another term for 'passion']. It was stronger than me. I was a slave to it. There was no reasoning involved.'
--William Fotherigham, in Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddie Merckx
Merckx inherited his father's obsession for cleanliness and detail. Merckx kept a notoriously precise machine, personally adjusting components and cleaning his machine even when he employed top mechanics. When he was home, he'd spend hours cleaning his bike; after he was done, his father would clean it again.
He came into the peleton as Anquetiel, his idol, was leaving, handing the baton Coppi had given to him.
Merckx won in a ruthless, never-easing, comprehensive fashion. He was pro, always le metier. He attended to his bike and his fitness in a way the notoriously hard-dranking campionissimos of the past had not. Success may have prevented Coppi and Anquetiel from more victories. It didn't soften Merckx.
That's because to Merckx bike racing wasn't a vehicle to something he wanted; bike racing was the something.
The sport Merckx came into in 1965 had its omerta. Only this one was an alliance between top riders, stars of the sport whose wins brought in revenue and created fans. Teams worked for their star riders not only because he had the best chance of winning, but because a win by their star was worth far more commercially than a win by a lesser rider. It inspired the fan base and brought in exposure and revenue for sponsors.
Merckx was strong enough buck the omerta--not only on his own team, but that of the entire peleton.
But it wasn't only his strength; it was also his sense that races were contests between racers, struggles. They were spectated, yes, and they could be shows, but Merckx made them battlefields. Winning mattered more than profit.
This approach was only possible because Merckx rode a wave of profitability his predecessors created. Anquetiel and Coppi made cycling sponsorship profitable for companies like Bianchi and Bic, and knew precisely the value of each winnings and often bought and sold races. Merckx never knew the purse for a race--he simply pursued victory so singlemindedly that in several years he won nearly half of the races he entered.
In sports, it's harder to find an example of "dominetrics" than Merckx. More ink is spent on this than on any other of Merckx's attributes: his winning. Of course, he made money and earned fame, but the consensus among fans was that Merckx impoverished the sport by winning so predictably.
And yet, for the first time a bike racer won for the purpose of winning. His winning was profoundly confusing to his predecessors who built the sport into profit; to struggle for victory as he did in the 1975 Tour de France through a broken cheekbone made no sense to them.
|Merckx with Broken Face Attacking Thevenet in the 1975 Tour|
If Coppi was the symbol of post-Catholic Italy and Anquetiel that of sexually liberated France, Merckx is the hero of the age of existentialism. Existence precedes essence wrote Sartre; we are what we do, seemed to be the point.
Camus wrote of Sisyphus in 1955, a figure of Greek mythology forced to push a boulder up a mountain again and again. This is a meaningless existence, one defined by purposeless struggle. But Sisyphus finds happiness, Camus states, in that struggle: "The struggle itself...is enough to fill a man's heart."
These days existentialism pops up in watered-down form as chicken soup for the soul, daily affirmations of purpose. They ignore the grinding, immense lack of purpose in everything.
For whatever reason, Merckx found purpose, as Sisyphus did, in struggle. He was little loved, but, true to existentialism, to this day he still finds purpose and passion in the struggle.
Of course, it wouldn't be a philosophy to him. Wanting to win bike races is not a logical choice. It's just something to pass the time, like Cool Hand Luke knocking the top off parking meters.