Did Merckx ride with potentially lethal heart problem?

Eddy Merckx rode throughout his outstanding career with a heart problem that could have killed him at any moment, according to an Italian cardiologist. Dr. Giancarlo Lavezzaro made the claims in a new biography of Merckx to be published tomorrow, according to the Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

In “Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal” by Daniel Friebe, Lavezzaro claims that anyone presenting an equivalent cardiogram today would be denied a licence.

Findings claim that the Belgian suffered from “non-obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathie”. According to Lavezzaro, "There are no symptoms, but there was a risk of sudden death. Eddy Merckx rode his entire career with the sword of Damocles over his head."

The story stems from the 1968 Giro d'Italia, Merckx' first Grand Tour victory. After the third stage, his team doctor happened to meet Lavezzaro, who was with the Institute for Sports Medicine in Turin, and asked him to do cardiograms on Merckx and Vittorio Adorni.

Merckx' cardiogram was “alarming” and at first Lavezzaro thought it was from someone who had suffered a heart attack. Another cardiogram the next morning showed the same result. The rider took it “very lightly”, as he had “earlier said that his heart tests always yielded 'strange' results,” the doctor said.

Lavezzaro wrote a letter to the Belgian doctors, “but they replied that it was nothing serious because Eddy kept winning bike races.” He said that he continued to worry about the young rider. "Every day after work I went back home and asked my wife what had happened in the Giro. I feared she would reply that there was a problem with the Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx."

Looking back, Merckx said he remembered the cardiogram, “but the man said there was no problem. Everything was in order. At least that is what I heard later, at the time I was not aware of it.”

He was also surprised to hear of the drastic conclusion. “I know I have a special heart. It is very large. They even have photographs of it at the Sport School in Cologne, because it is so big.”

Merckx is very aware of his cardiac health and potential problems, however. “On my father's side there are many heart problems. He and several uncles died young. I have myself examined  every year. I do sport and take medication to keep everything under control. But during my career I never had any problems."

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