Life cycle

Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham, Yellow Jersey, £16.99, 320 pages

John F Kennedy once said that a bike ride was the height of simple pleasure. He obviously hadn’t seen the Tour de France. The vast distances and endless climbs, the sleet and snow, the occasional crash into the concrete ...

And if one thing could make the race more torturous, it was the sight of Eddy Merckx forging on ahead. The man they called the Cannibal, who peaked in the early 1970s, was perhaps the greatest cyclist of all time and the most aggressive. His adversaries spent years staring at his yellow-jerseyed backside.

“Second to Merckx is a victory to me,” said one rival. “He goes 5km faster than the rest of us,” sighed another, himself known as the Flying Milkman.

This biography, by journalist William Fotheringham, explores what drove Merckx on. It is a fine portrait of obsession, and a rich reminder that cycling did not begin with Lance Armstrong.

Born in Belgium in 1945, Merckx showed little aptitude for study or interest in his parents’ grocery business. Instead, he was desperate to prove himself in cycling, although he knew he might be considered too small, too fat or too French for Belgium’s Flemish cycling establishment.

As a racer, Merckx won because he feared he wouldn’t. “You’re never certain of winning. You can always have a bad day, no matter how much of a lead you have,” Merckx told Fotheringham. His finest moments came in the Tour de France, which he won five times. While later champions would cagily hang back, the Cannibal insisted on riding from the front – la course en tête.

Hegemony lasted a decade before unravelling spectacularly in 1975. Leading the Tour just days from the finish, Merckx was punched by a spectator and soon after, his tired body could no longer fend off the chasing pack. He retired in 1978, having – on one estimate – raced 30,000km each year for a decade.

The book makes grand claims: Merckx was the greatest Belgian sportsman, a bridger of the Flemish-French divide, and one of the few men to look good in flares. He is compared to other sporting greats. His reluctance to rely on teammates, for example, was like Muhammad Ali “offering a repeat of the Rumble in the Jungle with one arm tied behind his back”.

But Merckx was no Ali. For all his glories, the cyclist remains a more remote, less transcendental figure. Indeed, his voice is strangely absent from much of the book. We are told little about what he made of the society around him, of the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. His wife, Claudine, also barely features until after the champion’s retirement, when the two wonder what normal couples do on Sundays.

When he wasn’t racing, he was training. When he wasn’t training, he was adjusting his bike. But perhaps that says less of Merckx in particular than of the gruelling way that he chose to earn a living.

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