Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France and often regarded one of the greatest living cycling legends of all time, was on-hand at Interbike 2010 to debut his new line of 2011 high-end road frames and shake hands of adoring fans from across the globe. BicyclingHub.com staff member Jennifer Clunie met up with him in Las Vegas to discuss some of the most memorable moments of his cycling career, and how we might improve conditions for cyclists in America.
According to the Cycling Hall of Fame, "His record of 525 victories, including 445 as a professional, is untouchable." Nicknamed “The Cannibal” for his insatiable appetite for victories (as well as his ability to destroy rivals), Merckx has won a record 34 Tour de France stage wins, including 6 stages in 1969 and 1972, and 8 stages in 1970 and 1974. Winning each of cycling’s five monuments (Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Tour of Lombardy) more than twice, for a record of nineteen victories, he also holds the distinction of winning the Giro d'Italia five times and the Vuelta a Espana once for a total of eleven Grand Tour victories.
JC: What was one of your most rewarding experiences in your professional cycling career?
EM: "I think for me I best remember the Tour de France 1969 because it had been 30 years since a Belgian guy won the Tour. So for me it was a kid's dream becoming reality."
JC: What stood out most in '69?
EM: "It was the stage from Luchon to Mourenx and in the break was the yellow jersey 140 KM and I was the leader in the Tour de France and they arrived 8 minutes behind me…7:52 I think."
JC: And what was one most challenging experiences or difficult moments in your career? Something that pushed you beyond the limits?
EM: "In 1977 the stage over Alp d' Huez because I was sick…some food infection….the hardest moment."
JC: How did you overcome that?
EM: "You overcome that because when you're at the Alp d'Huez, the day after you still have a stage to do. You recover at night and that's it."
JC: You still have a job to get done?
EM: "Yeah, it's part of the job."
(pauses, then continues) "The hardest moment--maybe even harder--was the hour record in Mexico in 1972. The hour record, because you long to beat the hour record and after 40 minutes you think you can't make it. You're not putting any more into the legs, things like that. And 40 min to 50 min--boy--it's really hard, hard, hard. Suffering, suffering, and suffering again. Then when 50 minutes you see a hand--the hour record. And then 9, 8, 7…then you beat the hour record and it's surely a great moment. The most suffering hour in my career."
JC: Your son Axel has decided to follow in your footsteps, as best he can, into the pro cycling circuit and has done extremely well. What do you think as a father about him following your footsteps?
EM: "For him it would be very hard, no? But because it's his choice that I tell him, you know, that I was happy my parents had me ride so I cannot say 'you cannot ride.' You have to do what you like to do. But I think he was doing a pretty good career. Because he was a Merckx it was not easy for him. All the riders--especially in the young categories--when you go to the start they'll say, 'Merckx is there. Try to be for him.' They don't say, 'Win the race, but be for Merckx. Beat Merckx.' So for him, it was a lot of pressure, too. but he likes it."
JC: How did you start your son cycling? Family rides?
EM: "He was playing soccer and then sometime in the winter when they have the competition he goes with me on the track in Ghent and rides the bike in Ghent."
JC: How old was he at this time?
EM: "He was 10, 11 years old. but before he also biked with me to school or race bikes."
JC: So he began on the track and said, "I want to be like dad"?
EM: "Yeah. I think the track is a very good school for cycling. I would say it's the best school for cycling."
JC: Bradley Wiggins would agree with you on that. :) When people ask, "How can you possibly win so many different areas of your sport: criteriums, roubaixs, one-day stage races, multi-day events like the Tour?...
EM: "My parents made me." [laugher]
"I think you need talent, but also I worked very hard. And in the big races, yeah, you ride to make a name. And then in the small races the organizers pay you, and also the people coming to watch the criteriums pay for watching the criteriums. I think it's not professional if you only ride so they pay for saying you're winning. So I try to win. That's why I was winning so much. Because in the big races I ride to make a name, and the small races b/c I was paid to do these races."
JC: One of your famous quotes in regards to advice for training and getting fast was: "Ride lots."
EM: "First of all, you need talent. And then you also never have to think that you've arrived. As difficult as it is to arrive to the top, it's more difficult to stay at the top. So I think because that you're on top you cannot think have nowhere to train; you have to train harder because you have more competitors and on the end the other riders going to try--it's tough to win--so you don't lose the race."
JC: Do you think that people should target specific training goals (i.e., if you're a track rider, focus on track, if you're a crit rider, focus on crits) or they should adopt more of your perspective?
EM: "You have to do everything, I think, to be a complete rider. Riders focus more now on circuit races and also stage races but it must be possible to do both; if everybody does the same, you can do it. But now the Tour has become so big most of the riders focus on the Tour de France; but there's only one winner in the Tour de France. It's more pressure on the riders now because more newspapers, more TV channels…it's even harder. Also the material's different--but it's still the hardest sport."
JC: Speaking of materials, tell me about the Eddy Merckx bikes. And if I buy one, am I going to ride as fast as you?
EM: (without hesitation) "No, I don't think so. You cannot ride as fast as me. (shared laughter) Maybe you can be faster--maybe you have more talent than me. I'm not the godfather."
JC: How does that tie into your vision for the future of cycling, your brand and your products?
EM: "Everything is evolution. if you think that my bike that won the world championship in 1964 in Sallanches: the weight was 11 kilo 150. And now the bikes are 6 kilo 800; you cannot go under. so you can understand that they make change; also, the materials change. I think the big change is the click [clipless] pedals and also the changes in the brakes because driving is much easier…In my time, you have to sit down on the seat, change, and then go back, so it's completely different. But for everybody it's the same--so it changes nothing in the result."
JC: Where do you see the future of cycling going, both in the professional circuit and in terms of everyday riding?
EM: "Oh, I think you ride every day. Look at the basketball player; he also plays 2-3 times a week so he can be happy and he can be healthy and he recovers. he lives the sport then; it's the life. You train him that. You recover; you train. So If you get hurt; if you crash; it's possible."
JC: How do you think we can get here in America the same kind of mode shares that we throughout Europe? For example, Amsterdam has a 40% mode share of trips by bike; Denmark is close to 36%.
EM: "It's the work of the people who make the cities; when you make the roads, you have to provide the bike roads [bike lanes] so the people can go safely to work; so the kids can go safely to the school. that's why Netherlands is such an example; because they were put in a long time ago. Also, bikes were the way to go from one point to another point--circulation. In the beginning it was only the cars--big roads, fast; now, the roads become smaller because too many cars, pollution, accidents, things like that. So the speed is reduced. So before you could go as fast as you wanted on the highway; now it's limited . I think it's important that people in government, when they decide to build new roads, that they also think to make bike roads for the kids, also for the people who go to work.
"You don't stay in the queues [of cars]--you can can pass; the psychology; and it's good for your health. I think cycling is the most healthy sport for somebody who gets into a sport because if you go run, you have problems with your knees and things like that: the bike puts the weight of your body on the bike..."
JC: So we need to have complete streets on our roadways here in the US?