By Carlton Reid, www.bikebiz.co.uk
Smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves, Eddy Merckx opened up emotionally to a small group of English journalists after an evening meal in a rustic restaurant high in the hills above Rimini, Italy. The meal was organised by the committee of the Riccione Bike Hotel group who sat with Merckx on one table. At the other table were four journalists and the PR manager for British Cycling. Starting this year, Eddy Merckx bikes are the official loan bikes of the 14 hotels that market themselves to roadies around the world.
Towards the end of the evening Merckx answered a cellphone call from his sister. She urged him to return home sooner than planned as his mother had been rushed to hospital with a thrombosis in the head. While cars were being readied to get everybody down to Riccione, Merckx went outside to light a cigarette on the terrace of the Castel Albereto restaurant. He apologised to the journalists for cutting short the evening (in fact, it was 11.30pm).
With rheumy eyes, he explained what the telephone call had been about and why he needed to leave on an early flight to Brussels. "I'm smoking," he said, blowing smoke into the air. "I don't normally. I'm very worried. A mother is better than a wife at looking after you. My mother means everything to me. I need to get back. I want to spend time with her. I hope she can have more years to come. She made me." He said he didn't get enough time with his father when he died in the 1980s.
Unprompted, Merckx also talked about the death of Tommy Simpson in 1967. "We shared a room [at races], you know this? I was the only member of [the] Peugeot [team] to go to his funeral. The only one. Tom was a real friend. I still miss him."