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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003

The five-times club, part two: Eddy Merckx

An event with a hundred years of history naturally attracts statistics-hounds who love to catalogue Tour numbers such as the youngest rider ever to win the Tour (Henri Cornet in 1904, just days before his twentieth birthday), the oldest (Firmin Lambot in 1922, at age 36), the average stage distance in 1930 (229.43km) and so on. But one Tour qualification most powerfully captures everyone's imagination: the elite club of riders who have won five Tours de France.

Every cycling fan can recite their names: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. More serious trainspotters can recite the years of the victories, their winning margins, the decisive moments in each win and the riders they left in their wake wishing they'd been born outside the reign of one of the Tour's supermen.

In the second of our series on the five-Tour winners, we look at the most successful bike racer of alll time, Eddy Merckx.

The Incomparable

By John Stevenson

Merckx' desire to win was almost palpable, never more so than in 1975, the first year he entered the Tour but didn't win.
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It's practically impossible to write 'Eddy Merckx' without first writing, 'the incomparable', such was the total domination of the rider almost universally considered the greatest bike racer of all time. Five Tour victories is no trivial achievement for anyone, but it's hard to see how Merckx could have amassed the palmares he did, with 525 victories including five Giros, seven Milan-San Remos, three Paris-Roubaix victories, three World Championships and an Hour Record, without casually knocking over a few Tours on the way.

1971, a victory marred by Luis Ocana's crash
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But there was nothing casual about the way Merkcx won races. For the rider they called the Cannibal, winning was the only thing that mattered, a passion and a drive. He won his first Tour in 1969 by 18 minutes, crushing all opposition in a decisive attack near the summit of the Tourmalet and winning the sprints and mountains classifications as well. Over the next five years, Merckx won 35 Tour stages, wore yellow for 96 days and picked up two more sprint jerseys and another mountains jersey.

Will to win

Talking to the press after Tour #5
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How badly did Merckx want to win? Former British pro Barry Hoban once told me that Merckx' superiority was a combination of talent and incredible hard work. Merckx would be out pounding the roads of Belgium in February, hammering out six-hour training rides in all weathers, while lesser riders were still tucked up inside in the warm. Shades of Lance Armstrong's winter reconnoitering expeditions to the Alps.

Leading Thevenet in 1975
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Merckx won the stage to the summit of Mt Ventoux in the 1970 Tour, passing the memorial to Tom Simpson on the way, where Tour director Jacques Goddet laid a wreath as the race passed. He went so hard that he collapsed at the finish and had to have oxygen administered. Winning was everything.

Despite a reputation for being unsympathetic toward those he beat, Merckx didn't want to win at all costs. When his rival Luis Ocana crashed out of the 1971 Tour while wearing yellow, Merckx declined to wear the jersey the next day and said, "I would have preferred to finish second after the battle," than win becauseof Ocana's misfortune.

Merckx meets the Pope.
Photo: © AFP
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Merckx' Tour reign was finally ended in 1975 by Bernard Thevenet, who delivered the coup de gras to a Merckx who had been unable to find his best form that year, by riding past him on the climb of Pra-Loup. Thevenet was still in the big rung as Merckx struggled and in the 2.5km to the finish, Thevenet took almost two minutes out of Merckx. At the finish a dejected Merckx said, "I did everything I could. I have lost. I know that I cannot win this Tour. It is over."

Pra Loup, 1975
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Later in the race, but still well before the finish in Paris, Merckx was more reflective, congratulating Thevenet and saying, "There are no miracles in sports. The strongest competitor always wins, and Bernard Thévenet is the strongest. There is nothing you can do or say. You just have to accept the way things turn out. In the five Tours I won, there was always that possibility that I would weaken, but it never happened. Ten years ago I was the man to beat. The day had to come when I would be beaten."

Today, Eddy Merckx runs a successful bike manufacturing company and is never short of an opinion on the performance of today's racers.

Merckx' victories

Year  Team          Time          Distance    Average       Winning
                                              Speed         Margin
1969  Faema         116.16.02     4,102km     35.28km/h     17.54
1970  Faemino       119.31.49     4,367km     37.56km/h     12.41
1971  Molteni        96.45.14     3,689km     38.12km/h      9.51
1972  Molteni       108.17.18     3,847km     39.76km/h     10.41
1974  Molteni       116.16.58     4,098km     37.84km/h      8.04

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