Tour wins: 1969-72, 1974
The Belgian rider with the Scrabble-friendly surname is still rated by many observers as the greatest all-round road cyclist of them all.
He won five Tours in a golden six-year period between 1969 and 1974, only missing out on glory in ‘73 because he chose not to ride (prompted by race organisers, he was also wary of a backlash from the legion of French fans who didn’t want to see a Belgian rider win their beloved race for the fifth year in a row), instead exerting himself in the tours of Spain and Italy.
Merckx’s finest hour, by his own reckoning, was his maiden Tour win in 1969, when he became the first rider in the race’s history to win the holy trinity of jerseys in the same event: yellow (overall classification), green (points) and the red polka dots of the King of the Mountains.
No rider since Merckx has achieved this feat of total domination, and in this era of specialist sprinters and climbers, it’s unlikely that anyone will come close.
Nicknamed ‘The Cannibal’ due to his intense hunger for winning races, Merckx not only won five Tours de France, he also won the Giro d’Italia five times, plus one Vuelta e Espana for good measure. His astounding record of 445 wins as a professional is likely to remain unchallenged.
Merckx might have distanced himself further still from the peloton in his illustrious career, but for a brutal injury he suffered in an exhibition race in France in September 1969. He was knocked unconscious after crashing into fallen Czech rider Jiri Daler at high speed, cracking a vertebra and twisting his pelvis in the process. He never fully recovered from the crash.
After he retired, he admitted as much, saying, “What happened was that my hips were knocked out of line with my body. It meant that my legs were also out of line with the rest of my body. After that day I could never sit comfortably on my bike again.”
Yet the injury, which affected Merckx’s ability to climb most of all, did not stop him winning a further four Tours de France. What a testament to The Cannibal’s unsurpassed natural ability and desire to finish first.
His attitude to the sport of cycling was summed up perfectly in an interview he once gave to Cycle Sport magazine, in which he said, “A race has to have a winner. The whole point of a race is to find a winner. How can you take part without trying to win?”
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