Riding with Merck: the more things change, the more they stay the same

Eddy Merckx came to Melbourne for an Australian-style long weekend, from October 12 to 15, and while...

Tales from the Peloton, October 24, 2006.

Eddy Merckx is a man that needs no introduction. The Belgian's list of credentials is comparable to few athletes, not just cyclists. Cyclingnews' correspondent John Trevorrow caught up with his old cycling rival from the '70s during the Belgian's four-day stay. He found that some things never change, especially when riding with the great man.

Eddy Merckx came to Melbourne for an Australian-style long weekend, from October 12 to 15, and while here he caught the final exciting stage of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, as well as attend the Bicycling Australia Show to help the Australian distributor promote his range of bicycles.

Fittingly, the world's greatest cyclist also took part in what was meant to be a 'fun ride'. It was part of the very popular Portfolio Partners Round the Bay in a Day recreation ride, an event that sees up to 10,000 cyclists attempt a variety of circuits (one over 200km) in and around the Victoria capital city.

Merckx was the special guest on the final day of the Herald Sun Tour and awarded the Portfolio Partners sprint jersey. But, while Eddy may have been invited for the presentations, he obviously still loves a bike race, and they don't come anymore exciting than the finale of this year's Sun Tour. Eddy sat enthralled through the final stage, checking times and enjoying the battle. "It was a very exciting race and it is always exciting if a race can be decided in the final sprint," Merckx said. "Cycling must be very popular here. There is a big crowd, it is live on television and there is good coverage in the paper."

Merckx was the special guest at a dinner on Friday night held at Ormond Hall, a beautiful bluestone building that is part of the outstanding complex which was the blind institute and is now the Belgian Beer Café.

More than 200 people packed into the hall to catch a glimpse of the man and got a lot more. After a sumptuous meal and some fantastic footage of Eddy's career, emerging cycling commentator Matt Keenan overcame his nervousness to interview Eddy face to face on the couch. It was riveting stuff. Not a word could be heard in the room and even the old cliché of the dropping pin was fitting.

Keenan was brilliant because Eddy is not any easy man to interview in this type of situation. He is genuinely modest and does not enjoy telling stories about his great career victories, but Keenan asked them in a way that was relaxing and soon Eddy also looked relaxed and the next hour or so was just unforgettable.

For a bit of comic relief at the end of the evening, as the conversation turned to one of Merckx's great feats, the hour record, Keenan introduced a (then) young Aussie who was fortunate enough to witness that world-class 60 minutes of pain. That young Aussie was me, not so young now (57) and I told the story of a special occasion that stays with me as though it was yesterday.

I was a member of the Australian team riding in the Tour of Mexico in 1972. Along with another Aussie Don Allan and American Mike Neill, we had gone there after the Munich Olympics and had travelled half way across Mexico in a bus to the Olympic Velodrome in Mexico City.

I filmed most of the epic ride on a super 8 camera I had won off an American in a poker game a couple of days before. Merckx completed the hour, smashing the record and came to a stop just over the fence from us. We were the first over the fence and were right there as his manager and handlers helped him from his bike. I was so close to Eddy and was still filming when the crowd surged around us pushing me even closer, too close in fact - I hit him in the head with the camera. Here was the greatest cyclist in the world who has just smashed the greatest record in cycling, reeling backwards and rubbing his head in pain.

Eddy laughed when reminded of the incident and said he still remembered the crack on the skull.

I won't go into the fun we had getting back across Mexico to where we were supposed to be, that's a good story for another day.

On Thursday I was asked if I would like to go for a ride with Eddy on the Sunday. The plan was for Dave MacKenzie (recently retired ex pro) and me to join the legend in a ride along the famous Beach Road and join up with a group doing the Round the Bay 200 km plus recreation ride. It was too good an offer to miss even though I have hardly turned a pedal in anger in quite a while and I'm currently about 40 kgs over my old racing weight. Eddy on the other hand looked great - there was still definition in those legs.

I raced against Eddy in the '70s and he used to spit me out the back then. Now I thought the ageing process may have worked in my favour as Eddy is four years older than me. But no, he still spat me out the back and it was even easier than before. I joked with Eddy before starting out that I would be gentle on him and he said that he would be generous with me - he lied.

I've got to say that Eddy really came to life when we got going on the bike. He seemed frustrated over the early kilometres with the constant stops for traffic lights, and I reckon he adjusted his position 50 times on his brand spanking new Eddy Merckx special. But once we hit the open road Eddy was enjoying himself. And boy was he going. At one stage, as I was grovelling on his wheel, I looked at my computer to see we were doing 40 kph, uphill in a head wind, going past riders like they were standing still. Dave's brother Stuart McKenzie is pretty fit and he and Dave were sharing time on the front riding next to the great man.

Occasionally, Eddy would turn around to ask why I wasn't riding on the front with him. Little did he know that the only reason I was there at all was that Dave Macca was pushing me over the top of the hills. There was one occasion when Eddy was passing a group that contained a youngster who was decked out in all the gear and a shining new Eddy Merckx bike. "Nice bike son," Eddy said, and the look of awe and the speed of the head spin on the young lad was priceless.

After Black Rock, Eddy decided to really put the hammer down and that was the end of me. I decided to turn around and recover so that when they caught me I would be able to put up a better showing. As I cruised past the Sandy Pub I thought that maybe some sustenance would improve the balance. So I stopped for a couple of quick pots (glasses of beer - Ed) and then got back on the road just in time to cop another pasting from Eddy.

I rolled into the finish at Melbourne Docklands about five minutes behind Eddy and he had a bit of a chuckle. Later that night I caught up with him over a couple of glasses of red and it was great to just sit back and chew the fat.

Eddy Merckx is one of the world's greatest sportsmen. Only a few stand out as the greatest in their field. Name a sport and there is debate over who was the best ever. Even Tiger Woods is still to catch the legendary Jack Nicklaus. Actually, only two come to mind - Sir Donald Bradman in cricket and Merckx in cycling. But it's Eddy's genuine modesty that soon warms you to him.

"I am no different to those people walking past," he said. "I have skin, bones and muscles (he said meat) and the only difference was that I could ride a bike very well."

Ironically, it is probably the fact that he truly believes that he is not so special that makes him so.

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