The World Hour Record, Umpteen Grand Tours and Countless Classics are bound.
Fans of any sport delight in comparing its champions across different eras, or attempting to, at least. Would Dempsey have beaten Tyson? Might Borg have foxed Federer? Perhaps Rees would have been too much for Taylor? It’s a futile exercise, of course, but it fuels Mankind’s eternal quest to answer: Who is Greatest Of All Time?
This is all by way of saying that a package landed on the desk at Boultbee Towers recently, giving us amateur cycling historians cause to once again ponder the conundrum.
A rather interesting book came out in 2010. Called Merckx 525, it was a largely pictorial biography of Le Cannibale, and authorized by the man himself. Unhelpfully for those of us who can’t read the language, its chapters were all written in Dutch. But we gather that it sold quite a few copies outside Holland and Belgium on the strength of its photographs alone.
Our good news today is that it has now been translated into English, and published by the same people who last year brought us The Spring Classics.
Five hundred and twenty five is, of course, the number of occasions on which cyclist Eddy Merckx found himself victoriously atop a podium. The book traces this unsurpassable success story from its beginnings in 1961, when Merckx logged his first amateur win, to 1977, the year in which he registered his last one, and beyond into retirement.
Famously, Merckx won just about everything that there was to win on a bike over this decade and a half, and 525 has photos taken from the entire period. While generally spattered with dirt, or shiny with sweat and rain on these pages, we also see Merckx in less familiar, domestic settings, and bantering with his teammates and friends out of the saddle.
Whether in beautifully judged black & white or shockingly real period colour film, Merckx’s foe-crushing drive glows from almost every photograph. The strongest memory one comes away with is perhaps an image of Merckx in some amalgamation of his countless winner’s poses. Smiling, hoisting a trophy, waving a bouquet, commiserating with the second placed rider. In short, winning.
Of course, given the recent disclosures and events surrounding Lance Armstrong and his contemporaries, the subject of winning important bike races has now become something more akin to a seminar on Moral Relativism than a simple matter of First Over The Line.
Few will now still disagree that its administrators need to lay down some markers, and satisfactorily answer some fairly fundamental and unpleasant questions if the sport is to be taken seriously again as a physical endeavour by the general public.
As already noted, Merckx’s dominance of cycling podiums far outstrips anything managed by his predecessors, or those who followed him. Armstrong, for example, may have ostensibly controlled a single race for seven years, but Merckx controlled entire seasons for longer than that.
So who’s to say that such standards of performance in today’s world would not come under a degree of scrutiny unknown to cycling in the Sixties or Seventies?
Maybe unsurprisingly, the book does not set out to contribute heavily to this discussion (although it does mention Merckx’s controversial positive test for a banned substance during the 1969 Giro d’Italia).
Rather, it provides meaning-loaded snapshots for us to meditate upon, and ultimately conclude that perhaps there was in fact one who, with all other things being equal in the ethically, physically and chemically Parallel Universe that is Professional Cycling, would surely have have reigned as king across every generation.
A crown that can still be worn with pride? Time may tell.
Merckx 525 is published by Velopress.