Eddy at Le Tour: Five magical Merckx moments to savour from his five yellow jersey triumphs

When the peloton rolled out of the Walloon city of Binche on Monday and headed for Epernay, it brought to a close the opening weekend celebrations to mark 50 years since Eddy Merckx’s first Tour de France triumph.

There are few doubts that Merckx is the greatest cyclist of all time and to say he is synonymous with La Grande Boucle is an understatement.

A joint-record five overall wins and 34 stage wins mean there’s very few to touch the Cannibal in the most iconic race of them all.

His influence today was evident for all to see as the Tour kicked off the 106th in Merckx backyard.

1969 – Merckx leaves all in his wake to secure first Tour victory

Merckx was in just his fourth year as a professional when he took to the start line for his first Tour de France.

Having already won the Giro the year before, his plan going into 1969 was to complete a Giro-Tour double but that ended in scandal when, already in the pink jersey, he failed a doping test at the end of stage 15 and was expelled the following morning.

Merckx claimed he’d been framed and plenty of rumours and speculation circulated – had someone spiked his bidon? Why had the organisers informed the press before his own team manager?

His protests fell on deaf ears although the UCI overturned a one-month ban which would have prevented the Belgian from competing in that year’s Tour.

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By the end of the 1969 Tour, many of his rivals would have wished the ban had stood.

He took the yellow jersey on stage six and by the 17th stage he’d added another three wins and had an advantage of more than eight minutes.

What happened next was the stuff of legends. Merckx won the stage by eight minutes having ridden alone for some 140km.

He climbed the Tourmalet in a small group including Roger Pingeon and Raymond Poulidor and attacked on the final bend to the summit. By the foot of the Col d’Aubisque he had more than a minute and by the top eight minutes.

In the final 70km into Mourenx he didn’t drop a stroke, and he would go on to win that Tour – his first in only his fourth year as a professional – by 17 minutes 45 seconds.

1970 – The Cannibal completes first Giro-Tour double

Twelve months after his resounding victory, Merckx crushed all in front of him again – finishing almost 13 minutes ahead of Dutch rival Joop Zoetemelk and more than a quarter of an hour clear of Sweden’s Gosta Petterson, who was third.

The win also meant Merckx joined Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil in becoming only the third man to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour in the same year.

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His performance in the Tour was another to savour, he won a record-equalling eight stages and his final stage win in the time trial from Versailles to Paris was nothing short of astonishing.

Merckx finished in 1hr. 9min, 39sec., 1min. 47sec. faster than Luis Ocana, of Spain, covering the 33.5 mile-course at more than 29 miles an hour.

It’s been well-documented that fear was a big driver in Merckx success and he was able to admit after the race that he the fear gripped him before rolling off the ramp for the final stage.

“I was trembling at the start because I was so worried I was frightened of falling – frightened of losing,” Merckx said. 

1971 – Ocana looks set to tame the Cannibal before disaster strikes

You need a certain degree of luck to be a great champion and Merckx had that in 1971.

Or maybe it was the case that Luis Ocaña had no luck at all.

Things started well for Merckx. His Molteni team won the opening stage team time trial and the Belgian would hold the jersey for the first nine stages until losing it on the 10th to Zoetemelk.

Ocaña attacked the next day on the climbs to Orcieres-Merlette, leaving Merckx and Zoetemelk in his wake and soloing to victory nine minutes ahead of the pair who finished in third and fourth.

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From there it looked like Merckx was fighting a losing battle – he gained time on the next day but only two minutes; he won the time trial but didn’t put too much of a dent into Ocaña over the 16.3km course.

Then the gods intervened. In heavy rain on the 14th stage Merckx attacked up the Col de Mente, but each time Ocaña managed to come back.

Merckx hit the deck but bounced straight back up again. During a descent, Ocaña fell.

At first, he was slow to get up, before Zoetemelk came around the same corner at high speed.

Zoetemelk punctured and was unable to avoid him, and hit him hard. A disaster for the Spaniard, whose injured shoulder meant he was forced to abandon.

Merckx – the new leader – refused to take to the podium at the end of the stage and refused the yellow jersey. He even considered abandoning himself out of respect for Ocaña but was convinced to stay.

He ended the race more than 10 minutes ahead of Zoetemelk.

1972 – Too good to race

The following year brought Merckx not only another Giro-Tour double but such dominance in the latter that the organisers pleaded with him to skip the 1973 edition.

And it wasn’t just on the roads of France and Italy that Merckx shoed his strength and class.

After success in pink and yellow – and strong performances across the Spring Classics campaign despite breaking a vertebrae during Paris-Nice – the Belgian also went on to break the World Hour Record with a distance of  49.431 km.

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As for the Tour, it was a typical Merckxian affair – he won the opening prologue and got himself a gap of more than three minutes over all his rivals except Ocaña over the first few stages.

Having lost the yellow jersey on the first stage proper to Cyrille Guimard – although he did regain it briefly after his Molteni team won the TTT on the first of the split stage five – Merckx retook it on stage eight and never lost his grip on it all the way to Paris.

It probably helped Merckx’s cause that both Ocaña and Guimard were forced to abandon – the Spaniard on stage 14 and the Frenchman on 17 – but even with them still in the race, few would have bet against the Cannibal adding a four title to his palmares.

He finished the race with a winning margin of almost 11 minutes over the Italian Felice Gimondi.

1974 – One last triumph in yellow

Having missed the 1973 Tour, normal service was resumed in 1974 with Merckx once again in imperious form.

His Spring Classics campaign hadn’t been a success by any means and was the first year as a professional that he hadn’t tasted victory in the early-season races.

Victory at both the Giro and the Tour de Suisse, however, did provide some kind of indication to his rivals that he was hitting form at just the right time.

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He again won the opening prologue to take yellow but the jersey then passed between his fellow Belgians Patrick Sercu and Joseph Bruyère (and the Dutchman Gerben Karstens) in the first week before it took up residence on Merckx shoulders from stage seven all the way to Paris.

Merckx notched up eight stage wins although British fans will be pleased to note that Barry Hoban – who completed 11 of the 12 Tours he started – won the intermediate sprints classification and took the stage into Montpellier.

The race featured plenty of high drama and none more so than on Stage 15 which saw the race head into Spain and Basque separatist placed bombs on press and team cars.

Nobody was hurt, but cyclists were, predictably, spooked by the incident.

Spanish champion Lopez Carril did not wear his national champion’s jersey, afraid he might become a target if he did.

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