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By Paul Slegers | Jul 20, 2019
It is a warm weekend, mid-July. Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of the landing on the Moon. But at least equally prominent in Belgian media, today is the 50th anniversary of Eddy Merckx’ first victory in the Tour de France.
For those of you not familiar with the sport of road-cycling. Eddy Merckx is without contention the greatest road-cyclist ever.
In his professional career he won a total of 525 races, roughly one third of all races he started in. And the greatest cycling-race is the annual Tour de France in July, 3 weeks of intense competition. In 1969, Merckx dominated his first participation ending with a record time-gap ahead of the second, Roger Pingeon, of almost 18 minutes.
That first Tour-win of Eddy Merckx is absolutely historic and pushed the moon-landing clearly to item number 2 of Belgian news-topics at the time and still today is the cause for many festivities. That attention for the extraordinary sports-personality of Eddy Merckx had me musing over my personal encounters with the legend.
Eddy Merckx and my youth
I was too young to remember the Tour de France of 1969. But Eddy Merckx was an important factor while growing up.
As soon as I could ride a bicycle, I basically did nothing else in my free time. And Eddy was my hero and example. So, when I got my first small racing-bike at the age of 8, I got to choose an extra gift, a real cycling-jersey. Logically, I chose the one of world-champion, as Merckx had triumphed in so many races earlier that year, proudly wearing that same jersey of world-champion.
Too bad, 6 weeks later, the Italian sprinter Marino Basso won the next world championship, followed by Felice Gimondi the year after. By the next year, when Eddy Merckx won his third title, my jersey had become too small. I had spent two years pretending to be Eddy, while wearing another jersey.
The year was 1982, August 1st
A few days before my 18th birthday, I had decided to participate in the Tour of Flanders in the juniors-category (nowadays called U19). It being a shorter version of the classic for professionals in the same region did not only attract my interest. The race was with free participation, which I noticed going to pick up my number. We had a total of 320 riders or more, an organizational nightmare.
Eddy Merckx was the race-director, meaning that he follows the lead of the race in his car, making sure the race goes on in a proper way. And the challenge for him began with the start, where over 300 youngsters were trying to get as far as possible to the front of the pack.
Myself, I managed to get about halfway. And the start was hectic. Even on the broadest roads, 300 riders is too many, thus it became a frantic adventure to stay upright at first, then to progress into the pack towards the front. After about 45 minutes, I managed to reach my first goal, to be with the first 10 of the peloton.
Happy with that achievement, I was also sad, because I saw up-ahead the road a big group of about 40 riders already a minute ahead. And behind the car of the race-director, my youth-idol Eddy Merckx.
Luckily, some 10 kilometers later, we had the Flemish hill Berendries. With no cobblestones, it suited my light weight and I went into a single counter-attack at the top of the hill.
Coming closer to Eddy
And there I went. I did not feel my legs and the car of the race-director was the goal ahead of me. Minute after minute, I am coming closer and gradually, reality sinks in: I am going to move back up into the leading group.
Now, rest assured, I was not a super-talented racer. These kinds of shorter in-race efforts were my specialty, but they rarely led to a final win. In comparison, one of my club-mates who was wearing the same jersey as I, Ronny Vlassaks was a great talent. He was one of the race-favorites that day. Destined to become one of the better Belgian professionals later on, he was personally sponsored by the new bicycle-brand set up by my idol Eddy Merckx.
So now I am approaching the lead-group. And when I am confident that I am going to finalize the cross-over, I suddenly see the race-director’s car reducing speed. Eddy Merckx wants to take a look at me! At the dare-devil who all alone crosses the gap towards the lead-group. And I feel my pride rising...
Seconds later, I am next to the car.
I look at Eddy. Eddy looks at me.
I do not know what he thought, but the disappointment on his face was clear. And his car suddenly brakes and takes position behind me. Yes, I know. I was not the red-black jersey-rider Merckx was expecting. I was not my club-mate Ronny, whom he was hoping for. And I can honestly understand his surprise. But Eddy, 50 years after your biggest victory ever. Decades after you dominating a sport like nobody else has done before. May I allow myself the liberty to give you a small piece of advice:
“Do not so openly show your disappointment, when you do not get what you hope for.”
I did make it to the leading-group. But on the next hill I paid for the effort and let them go past me again.
And Eddy Merckx? He still is the greatest ever. And while not really an idol anymore, I still have the highest respect possible for the man. All of the festivities going on now are well deserved.
Thank you, Eddy. Mille fois merci. Dank je.