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Notes From A Tour de France Champion

Eddy Merckx, a five-time Tour de France winner was nicknamed The Cannibal. At 65, he still gives you the impression he could devour you whole

Published: Feb 24, 2010 08:37:12 AM IST
Updated: Feb 24, 2010 08:48:04 AM IST
Notes From A Tour de France Champion
Image: Vikas Khot
Eddy Merckx was nicknamed the Cannibal; at 65, he still gives you the impression he could devour you whole

What are the similarities between sports and business?
You have to train, you have to make sacrifices and you have to make hard choices. Talent is not enough because cycling is a hard sport. You suffer a lot on the bike because if you have to climb higher it’s one hard hour of climbing when it’s 35-40 degrees. So you feel the pain but you have to overlook that. Similarly, I was a businessman for 30 years. I used to work in my factory [producing bikes] until evening. And after office hours I used to stay in my office to sell the bikes and then I used to try and find distributors in other countries. It was hard work even there. In both cases you need quality to do what you want to do. To be a champion you need talent and a little bit of experience.

What kept you on top of your trade for a whole decade?
As a cyclist you have to train everyday. You have to sleep early and take care of your food. It’s difficult to ride to the top but it is more difficult to stay on the top. A sportsman has to prove himself every year. Maybe you’ve won a lot of races the year before but the next year you have other competitors; young riders come in but you have to be the best even that year. Every year you start from scratch. Yeah, you’re confident because you are good but if you don’t train and you are not motivated it’s over. There are around 180-200 racers on the track but only one can win. Every professional rider trains for 35,000 km a year. It was not only me that did it. But what makes the difference is what Mother Nature has given you more than she gave others.

You were in a horrible crash in 1969 in a derny race in Blois…
That was a horrible crash. My pacer [his name was Wambst] died instantly. I had the choice at the time to get out of the sport. At the next race I thought about it when I was doing the first laps on the track. Why was he dead and why was I still alive? I passed out when I crashed and when I woke up the doctor was over my head. The first thing that struck me was my wife was pregnant. It was 1969 and my daughter was born in 1970. The first thought was, ‘Is she going to have no father?’ It could happen no? But I had to go for it because that was my job.

How did you recover from the injuries?
I suffered a lot more than I had to. At that time the sport was not so professional as it is now. There was no proper medication. I broke my hips and it took a long time for me to recover. I started racing again and I was always racing with pain. Also if you see the next Tour de France, it was not so easy as before. [In the 1969 Tour that took place before the injury the rider who came second to Merckx followed him by 18 minutes. In the 1970 race the time was down to 11 minutes.]

Top cyclists usually train individually, maybe with one other person. But when you cycle competitively you cycle as a team. How can you be competitive and at the same time also work as a team?
When you are part of a team you have a leader. Why haven’t you become the leader? Maybe you’re not good enough. If you are in a team with a good leader you can make money. All the prize money is divided within the team. In a team of six, you make money every month and also the prize money. If you ride for yourself you cannot win. But if you have two leaders then sometimes there is a clash. Look what happened this year with [Alberto] Contador and [Lance] Armstrong.

You had a blistering rivalry with Luis Ocana in the 1970s…
We were fighting to be the best during the race but nothing after that. Also sometimes journalists make it out to seem more than what it actually is. So for one-and-half years we didn’t speak to each other. Afterwards we became good friends. We were both fighting to win but we did it only with legs and not with fists.

You are an old school sportsman. What do you think about new age additions like sports psychologists?
I don’t think I need a psychologist. Maybe it’s important in a team sport. But you have to be strong for yourself. You have to motivate yourself. I don’t think I need a psychologist to motivate me for cycling and for winning because I like my sport. Nobody had to tell me to go to a race.

Compare your sport now to what it was when you raced…
Now the riders focus more on the Tour de France. It has gotten bigger and it has gotten more riders. In our time we had star riders in the one day races as well as the stage races. Now the riders ride less and train more.

You were winning race after race and a lot of people didn’t like you. You were also viciously punched at the Puy de Dome in 1975 by a spectator. How did you react to all of that?
It motivated me more to do better. Only bad thing was, the punch cost me the title at the tour and I came second. I don’t care about people who don’t like me. The press also doesn’t like it when you win too much. They want competition. But when you are the best, you are the best. Sometimes I also received letters that said if you ride we are going to shoot you and things like that but you don’t think about things like that.

How can you shut it out?
When people are baying for your blood it motivates you to go faster. It gives you more adrenaline so you are faster.

You have been to India before…
I was here 15 years ago. Me and some friends were riding from Manali to Leh and we slept on the roads and it was a good experience. It was very hard but it was not racing. We had a trekker with us since we did not know the roads and we did the big climbs in the mountains.

Do you think Lance Armstrong has a chance this year?
I don’t think so. Now Contador is also very strong. He won the last Tour de France and you have also the Brothers Schleck [Andy and Frank] who are good.

What next for you?
We didn’t have big money when I met my wife. After my racing I started my bicycle factory and worked it for 28 years. I sold it two years back. I am 65 years old and it was time to retire. But I still go to the factory and I have shares in the factory and I also have a say in the new products. But it’s not the everyday stress. I started working when I was 17 and stopped at 65. Now I can take it a little bit easier.

(This story appears in the 05 March, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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