It's almost 30 years since he retired, but Eddy Merckx' record still over-shadows that of any rider before or since. As Shane Stokes discovered he's as happy to look back on his staggering career as to comment on the riders of today, but is reluctant to make comparisons.
Lance Armstrong may have moved ahead in terms of outright Tour de France victories last summer, but even a cursory glance at the palmares of Eddy Merckx shows that he is the colossus in the sport of cycling. Over the course of his career the Belgian champion took a staggering sequence of victories, netting five Tour de France titles, five Giro wins, one Vuelta a Espana, four world championships (three professional, one amateur), seven Milan-San Remos, five editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, three Paris-Roubaix, two Tours of Flanders and Tours de Lombardy apiece, countless stage races, 17 six day titles plus the world hour record. Merckx was easily the most dominant athlete the sport has ever seen, crushing his rivals underfoot during his peak years and winning 445 professional victories. With an array of results such as these it was clear that Merckx's pronouncement last year that Armstrong was the better rider was somewhat over generous; in this era of specialisation, the Texan made have made the Tour his own, but he is still a long way off equaling the feats of Le Cannibal.
Cyclingnews met up with Merckx several weeks ago at the Riccione Bike Hotel camps in Italy. The Belgian champion is a partner of the group, which provides a top class training environment for riders from all over the world. Participants of all nationalities were in Riccione for the camps, and these jumped at the chance to rub shoulders with their hero. Watching the awe with which they regarded Merckx showed just how much he is respected and revered within the sport; the riders hung on to his every word, beaming like demented Cheshire cats when they had an opportunity to have their photo taken with him, and turned up in their droves when he agreed to go on a quick ride.
As you might expect, Merckx is a fascinating interviewee. The chance to get inside his head, to find out what made him tick is a rare one; spending half an hour picking his brains about his own career and the modern era was, to put it simply, a treat.
Cyclingnews: Eddy, first off you are looking very fit. Are you doing much on the bike?
Eddy Merckx: Not a huge amount. I am riding at the weekends and sometimes training during the week. It depends on what is on. With trips like this, I don't have so much time. And with 29 people in the factory, I'm very busy there too.
CN: You had an incredible career, with 445 wins.
EM: As a professional, yes. I had about 100 victories as an amateur. Also, on the track, 17 six days and various championships.
CN: Those wins included five Tours de France, five Tours of Italy, one Tour of Spain, three world championships, countless Classics, six days. What drove you, what made you the person you were?
EM: Well, genetically it was because my parents gave me something more than the others. Also, I was training hard, working hard on the bike, always doing what I could to improve. That is why I became such a good rider. In truth, you can have as much talent as you like, but that is not enough. You have to work as well, and start every year from zero. Each year, you don't know what is in store. This was especially after 1969 when I had a bad crash on the track in Blois. Things weren't so easy then.
To read the rest of the interview, click here.