Sunday, 16 September 2012

Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal - Daniel Friebe

The Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx has held some degree of fascination for me in recent times.  During my childhood, I recall constant references to him in the media, but at that stage cycling and the Tour de France seemed somehow remote and exotic. More recently though the wonders of the internet have enabled me to learn more about his achievements and personality.

Recently I watched, and blogged on, an excellent documentary film about the man:

Eddy Merckx - La Course En Tete

Hungry for more, I read Daniel Friebe's superb biography of Merckx:

The central thrust which I discerned was an examination of the seismic effect which Merckx had on the world of cycling when he first fully emerged in the mid-to-late 1960s, and how this impacted on his competitors. The status quo was destabilised, and much coverage is devoted to how his rivals and colleagues reacted to this new phenomenon, both on and off the bike.

It seems that for much of his career Merckx was regarded with a mixture of respect, awe and fear by all concerned. Suitably mesmerised, it took many too long to fully appreciate and understand what they were dealing with, and what the Belgian represented.  Merckx and his associates eschewed some age-old cycling conventions, and others were compelled to re-evaluate and re-calibrate their own philosophy of racing. 

The psychological effect of Merckx's methods was almost more important than the real physical and material ones. Once seeds of doubt and defeatism were planted in some minds, they proved very problematic to dispel.  Again, the author goes to great lengths to document this aspect of the Merckx story, through contemporary quotes and interviews conducted in the 21st century.  Not all of those interviewed had mellowed too much in their opinions!

Some of the most revealing parts of the book detail the "growing pains" which the sport was undergoing in the Merckx era, many of them precipitated by his success and prominence.  There are many enlightening tales of commercial pressures, back-room politics and expediency.

Inevitably, the subject of doping, a touchy one in cycling even in the 60s and 70s, is afforded much analysis.  Friebe to his credit approaches this subject with some realism and pragmatism, detailing the pressures on the riders, and the misgivings held by the peloton concerning the testing and disciplinary procedures then in place.

The author also delves into the Merckx character and psyche, and we see a multi-faceted personality, which tended to colour his often complex and contradictory relationships with his rivals. Some of these elements are traced back to his upbringing , his formative years and his apprenticeship in the sport.  To what extent was the die cast at a very early stage?

There is some great insight into what maketh the man, from parental influence, childhood environment and his unusual (for a pro-cyclist of the time) background.  These factors may have contributed to making him unique.

It is often tempting to contrast the Merckx on his bike with the private man, and label them as direct opposites.  Of course, life is seldom as straightforward as that, and the book concentrates on these nuances in some depth.  Like all of us, Merckx had his insecurities and foibles, and it seems that a kind of nervous tension was part of what drove him, and that he channelled this into facing new challenges. We also learn of the demands which were placed on others - team colleagues and personnel.

We see how some in the sport, including some spectators, developed an antipathy towards Merckx, because of his hegemony, but also because of how his modus operandi was perceived. Paradoxically, many riders also regarded him as indispensible because of his role as a benchmark and a beacon of reliable excellence.  Many riders were lulled to their demise by trying to play Merckx at his own game. Some eventually arrived at a strategy which helped maintain their own equilibrium and longevity, and to secure the occasional victory.  Those who paid heed invariably prospered.

Some of the most intriguing chapters in the book address Merckx's decline, and the latter years of his career, and how he managed this.  The aforementioned psychological hold which Merckx had on some of  his competitors may have helped him to sustain and prolong his time at the very top table.  Not everyone was quick to detect chinks in the armour, and capitalise.

In order to effectively and comprehensively convey the most momentous and pivotal episodes in the Merckx career, Friebe occasionally glosses over some less eventful races or periods of time.  However, this book handsomely fulfills its remit of exploring the Merckx legend, and its accompanying enigma, in a mature and gripping fashion.  Thoroughly recommended reading.


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