*WORDS:* Guy Andrews
“That Belgian, he doesn’t even leave you the crumbs, he’s a cannibal!”
– Christian Raymond
In cycle racing there have been some amazing feats; stories of comeback and of daring-do, of great victories and of great tragedy, of personal sacrifice and bad luck – and then there is the story of the greatest cyclist ever: Eddy Merckx.
This extraordinary Belgian notched his unrivalled palmares in a career that spanned a little over 13 years. No surprise then, that even his teammates nicknamed him ‘The Cannibal’. Merckx was from a different time: a time when professional cyclists raced all year round, from the cold, early season Classics, through to the hot summer Grand Tours, and on. Merckx raced long into the winter too: the indoor six-day circuit on the track and the hour record… The astonishing thing about Merckx’s ability was that it was truly all-round – he was equally at home on the velodromes of Ghent, Amsterdam and Berlin, as on the climbs of the French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees and Italian Dolomites, and equally powerful in the flatter, cobbled one-day races like Paris–Roubaix as the hillier Liège–Bastogne–Liège. These days cycle racing is very different and bike riders specialise in one event; they are either Grand Tour contenders, six-day specialists or Classics hard-cases, rarely all. Eddy Merckx was a winner at all of the major bike races and more. The Cannibal was, and still is, unique.
If anyone is in any doubt then I draw your attention to RAI’s coverage of the Giro. Eddy’s been a star summeriser on their Giro show and the presenters have shown their admiration, or rather adoration, of the campione in spades. So much so that regardless of what is happening in the race they have regularly stopped their commentary just to fawn over big Ted. And behind the scenes are the tifosi, shouting: ‘Eddy, Eddy, Eddy…’ But despite this retrospective love, back when he was racing, the Cannibal had a big problem. People got bored of his dominance and the way he would smash the opposition into submission, in a way we have never seen since, and although he showed some incredible strength of character at times and no small sprinkling of panache, in the end the constant winning got boring. If you’re not sure what I mean but recall the 1990s Tours better than the 1970s, think of Miguel Indurain. I have nothing against the five-time Tour winner – he seems like a likeable man – but boy was he boring to watch. Motivated by hanging on in the mountains and then grinding his way back through the GC against the clock, his wins at the Tour were as far away from the exploits of Merckx as you could get and eventually his wins got a bit too much, even for the Spaniard’s admirers. Cycling fans are a pretty transient bunch and eventually we want to see someone else get a chance. But how?
Merckx’s 525 victories had me thinking. Most riders are lucky to ride that many races in a lifetime and win any at all. What has stuck with me over the last few weeks is a question that many new racing cyclists ask: how do I win a race? It’s a tricky question and one that has so many answers that it would fill several books, let alone one short blog post. Truth is there are no hard and fast ways to reach the line first, but to the uninitiated the fundamental rule is somewhat confusing: it’s not something that just involves being fast. Eddy’s response to this question was pretty familiar. Apparently he was ‘scared’, so attacking was the best method he had of dealing with the fear – perhaps it was the fear of losing, or of not winning. Whatever. Merckx just rode as fast as he could, because that was good enough most of the time.
But not winning, in my experience, teaches you an awful lot more about road racing craft than just riding the opposition off your wheel does. Winning is such a complex business – although, granted, professional racing is as different to the amateur level as tiddlywinks is to chess – but regardless of the level you’re at, whether strong and dumb or weak and clever, winning or not is all down to timing.
So if you have ridden 500 or more races in your career and won very few, or perhaps even none, you will have a different approach to racing and one that is as unique as Merckx’s palmares. Underachieving is actually the best education you can have, as not winning races means you’ll learn an awful lot from your mistakes along the way.
John Gadret won at the Giro on Wednesday and in many ways this was a victory for the ‘loser’ in cycling. Not that Gadret is a loser – far from it – but he has built a career on finishing up there, but not quite there. He has been a professional since 2004, his name often features in the TV commentary when the break is ten minutes down the road, and he knows well enough by now that today probably won’t be the day. But May 18th, 2011 was Gadret’s day, and the finish was text book stuff. It wasn’t the measured response to covering your rivals, or being told in your earpiece who was strong and who wasn’t. It was all about timing and no small amount of bravery, but most importantly, as the splintered break was swallowed up, he knew too well what it felt like to be caught and sensed the oh-so-slight hesitation in the chase and, as the favourites stuck together like cattle, our man jumped away for the biggest win of his career.
The emotion on the 32-year-old’s face was the whole story; the unsuccessful breaks, missed attacks and unlucky punctures. They were all written in his expression. Collecting the crumbs had been a long time coming.