Eddy Merckx celebrates his 70th birthday today, and his unbeatable career is celebrated by cycling fans, former teammates and even current riders around the world. Merckx revealed that his best birthday present was a 70km ride with some of his friends, including the former teammates, who helped him win the 525 races, including Classics and Grand Tours, that make him the most successful rider in the history of professional cycling.
Merckx was feted at home in Belgium, where he remains an iconic figure and the country's biggest sports star. During a special event he was presented with a special limited edition EDDY70 bike made by the Merckx bike company. Only 70 have been produced, with Eddy given bike number 1.
"When I was a boy I dreamed about becoming a rider. Then as a rider I wanted to become a champion. That made me even hungrier... so much so that the daughter of a rider called me the Cannibal. She said because I just left the crumbs to my rivals," Merckx told Italian journalist Marco Pastonesi in an intimate interview for Gazzetta dello Sport.
"After my racing career I realised that cycling would be part of my life for ever. No longer as a rider on the road but as a bike builder, first in the factory and now as an ambassador, of course surrounded by my former teammates and my friends."
Despite some health issues and turning 70, Merckx remains active and keeps fit. He recently rode the Eddy Merckx Gran Fondo in Italy and will ride a similar event in the Netherlands later this month.
"Being curious and passionate help you to stay young, at least inside," Merckx said.
"You never stop learning in life and the biggest rival is boredom. There's nothing worse that wasting your time. I never get bored and I'm very active. I don't know how to sit still. And people help me to stay active."
"If I'd raced now, I'd have perhaps won other races"
Merckx's career recalls the history of a unique generation, his huge palmares telling the story of professional cycling in the 60s and 70s, when riders targeted the Classics, the Grand Tours and virtually every race on the calendar. Comparing Merckx to modern day riders is almost impossible, with even Merckx convinced he would not have the same success.
"In my time politics and cultures were different. Now there are races in China, Korea, Oman and Dubai, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Norway and Poland. The bicycle has spread everywhere and will go even further," he suggested.
"If I'd raced now, I'd have perhaps won other races to the ones I did. I don't think I'd have won more. Do you not think I won enough?"
Merckx picked two particular moments from his career and life: the first, his biggest regret, is the 1975 Tour de France, the race that arguably ended his reign as the Cannibal of cycling. He revealed that the most difficult moment in is life was the death of his father in 1983.
"Before the final Alpine stage, I crashed hard, hurting my face and fracturing my jaw. But I kept racing. I gritted my teeth, even if I couldn't really do it because of the pain, and fought on," Merckx said.
"I was 38 when my father died in 1983. I suddenly felt exposed to the wind, without out anyone to protect me. Perhaps that days marked the end of my so-called eternal youth and marked the start of my real life, when there's no net to save you if you fall."