When I read Rik Vanwalleghen’s biography of Eddy Merckx following its translation into English in 1996, my reaction split between simultaneous disappointment and relief. I felt relief to have finally enjoyed a book-length examination of the greatest cyclist the world will ever know. It was a study containing considerable insight into a man who was enigmatic even at his best. But the book was no chronologic biography, it undertook no traditional survey of the man’s career, life. It may be that the book’s particular genius was to leave much unsaid, unplumbed. Vanwalleghem undertook an impressionistic form of reportage, painting portrait after portrait of Merckx, none of them more powerful than his account of the Cannibal’s assault on the hour record in 1972. What stayed with me from that account was less the ride than what Vanwalleghem shared of the events subsequent to it.
Merckx, he wrote, suffered terrible saddle sores from the hour ride, sores that were so bad he laid in bed for days following the record. Merckx is said never to have complained.
Vanwalleghem’s “Eddy Merckx” left me wanting. Wanting more, wanting different, wanting. In that, he did me a service.
It is into this hunger that “Merckx 525″ arrived. Published, like Vanwalleghem’s Eddy Merckx” by VeloPress, this 224-page Belgian tome was written by Frederik Backelandt and translated by the ever-skilled Ted Costantino (the original editor of Bicycle Guide). For those who sneeze at relatively high prices, the $60 price tag for a coffee-table volume will elicit outraged cries—why it’s 50 percent higher than my Graham Watson book! But as a memento to a career we won’t see again, it’s worth every stinkin’ penny. For those of you among our readers who are American (it’s a sizable majority, but by no means everyone), we deserve to be reminded that we frequently miss out on the best images shot in cycling because they are only printed in European magazines. For this book, the editors drew upon images from Het Laatste Nieuws,Olycom, Photonews, Omega, Presse Sports (from which the bulk are drawn) and the private collections of several other photographers. Merckx 525 undertakes to share with us the best of those photos, and it should, for this work is nothing so much as a picture book.
However, the book is not only a collection of images. There are brief portraits in text as well, here the 1966 Milan-San Remo, the event that set the world on notice, there the 1970 Paris-Roubaix, and near the end, the 1976 Milan-San Remo. Each of the portraits are written present-tense, still harboring the wonder bound up in the world’s curiosity of whether He could do it yet again. Arranged chronologically, one can imagine the book as the ultimate family photo album of the star-shined favorite son.
For my part, the real joy of this book was a chance to feast on images from the early part of Merckx’ career. There are roughly a dozen images of Merckx that I’ve seen over and over and over. This was a chance to break the die and see the Belgian not as the Cannibal, but the man who would become the Cannibal, a young rider whose greatest ambitions were not only unrealized, but as yet unknown, even to him.
This isn’t the be-all-end-all book that will slake a thirst for Merckx’ life on the bike. In that regard, we are still waiting for the definitive study of his career. This is the palate-cleansing sorbet that is its own delight.