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Extraordinary story of Merckx the machine is subject of fascinating new biography

SPORTS BOOK OF THE WEEK


Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, by William Fotheringham

Published by: Yellow Jersey

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?

Lance Armstrong may have won more Tours de France than Eddy Merckx -- seven against five -- but consider this: between 1961 and 1978, the Belgian rider known as the Cannibal won 525 races, including the Giro d’Italia four times and and three world championships, in addition to his four straight Tour de France wins between 1969 and 1972, with another in 1974.

No cyclist has ever won more races in a career, which set Merckx apart from the rest in some minds as verging on mad. Armstrong would save himself for the big events, basing his season on being at his peak at the right moments.  Merckx seemed to want to be at his peak every time he rode.

He had an addiction to winning, so consuming that at the height of his powers he won the equivalent of a race every week for six years.  In his most prolific season, he won 54 races, a total never surpassed.  He holds the records also for most stage victories in the Tour de France (54) and the most days with the yellow jersey (96).  He is the only cyclist to have won the general classification, the points classification and the mountains classification in the same Tour de France, when he won it for the first time in 1969.

It was in the same Tour, with victory almost assured, that he committed the seemingly reckless and unnecessary act that his biographer, cycling journalist William Fotheringham, says encapsulated his character.   On Stage 17, a tough one involving three mountains and a 75-kilometre ride to the Pyrenees town of Mourenx, Merckx had a lead of eight minutes and was a comfortable favourite to win.  Yet instead of trying to conserve his energy, Merckx went on the attack, doubling his lead.  The final margin of victory -- 17 minutes and 54 seconds -- has never been matched.

It was his style almost every time he rode, relying on pure power to leave the field as far behind as he could.  Fotheringham says it was the result of the insecurity that he had never shed since as a boy he was shunned because he spoke French rather than Flemish.  His fear of failure led to him to strive for leads that were far larger than necessary, always fearful of disaster round the next corner, but in doing so he displayed a level of stamina, courage and  pain--defying determination that led people to perceive him as the ‘half-man, half-bike’ of Fotheringham’s title.

Who is the author?


William Fotheringham is a former competitive cyclist who has been writing about the sport since 1988, mainly for the Guardian and Observer newspapers.  He is the author of eight books, mainly on cycling, and has translated two others, including the biography of Laurent Fignon.

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