Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx: The Greatest Cyclist Ever (Wasn’t So Great in Tokyo)

Individual Men's Road Race_Merckx
Eddie Merckx in the blue shirt and Belgium tri-colors (at least I believe it is). From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

Eddy Merckx is called the greatest cyclist of all time. As listed by Sports-Reference.com, he had won or had tied for the most championships in “the Tour de France (5), Giro d’Italia (5), World Championship road race (3), Milano-Sanremo (7), Gent-Wevelgem (3), La Flèche Wallonne (3), and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (5), and in that list, only Merckx’s five Tour de France wins has been surpassed, intially by Lance Armstrong, with seven, prior to his doping disqualifications.”

In 1964, this cyclist from Belgium in 1964 headed into the Tokyo Olympics as a favorite to win the gold as he had won the Amateur World Championships in Sallanches, France. Merckx was called the “Cannibal”, for his ferocious competiveness, and his attacking, devouring style towards the end of a race. And at Sallanches, he showed early evidence of this aggressiveness according to author, William Fortheringham in his book, “Merckx: Half Man Half Bike“.

He fell on the quarter after a few kilometers of chasing. He had barely given himself time to breathe before he attacked again…one by one his erstwhile companions fell back. Accelerating again to the final climb of the road that climbed to Val d’Assy, Merckx forged a lead of a hundred meters in spite of the courage Luciano Armani showed in hanging on to his back wheel. It was enough of a lead to earn him the world title by a clear margin. He was the youngest world amateur champion to that date: nineteen years old.

From there, it was on to Tokyo with dreams of gold.

Individual Men's Road Race
From the book, Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service

The Men’s Individual Road Race in Tokyo took place in a twisting winding 194 kilometer-race, that was essentially 8 laps of a 25 kilometer course. This course took the 132 cyclists on a tour of Hachioji, a suburban town on the outskirts of Western Tokyo. According to an AP report, “the route took the competitors past the Tama Mausoleum of Emperor Taisho and Empress Teimei eastward on the Koshu Highway and through Hachioji City. The riders then pedaled toward the town of Hino and across the Tama River. They then sprinted on a three-kilometer flat stretch between the towns of Tachikawa and Akishima. From this point on, the road starts climbing on the Tama Mountain range, and winding then through a scenic rural area and returning to the starting point past the town of Tobuki.”

 

Roger Swerts and Eddy Merckx Olympic Village.gif
A quiet evening dinner in the Olympic village in Tokyo with two members of the Belgian AMATEUR cycling team: ROGER SWERTS and EDDY MERCKX.

Despite being a heavy favorite to win gold due to his recent Amateur World’s title, Tokyo was an early blip on Merckx’s legendary career. He finished twelfth in the men’s individual road race. As explained by Fortheringham, his cannabilistic tendency was not so apparent. And the author claims that Merckx was not yet so entitled that the three other members of the Belgian cycling team would naturally support him, and that perhaps a failed attempt to monetarily persuade led to his mediocre results:

Merckz achieved his dream of racing at the Tokyo Olympics later that year, but while the ambition to ride the event had driven him since his early teens, the race itself was anything but a defining occasion. As the amateur world champion, he was no longer just another rider. He was heavily marked by the entire field as he attempted to split the race apart – not the last time he was to find this happening. He suffered from cramp. He rode a less restrained race than in Sallanches, and was chased down by Gimondi when he made his move three kilometers from the finish. Fate had stepped in. the night before, his wallet had been stolen from his room in the Olympic village; in it were the 12,000 Belgian Francs he had brought to pay his teammates. That was the best way to be absolutely certain that they would help him to win. Instead the Belgian team rode for themselves: the gold medal went to an Italian, Mario Zanin, with Godefroot winning the bronze medal and Merckz tweflth. His meteoric amateur career was all but over. Merckx turned professional on 24 April 1965 for the Solo-Superia team led by Rik Van Looy.