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Axel Merckx is in the news this week after speculation mounted that he could become the Lotto-Soudal general manager in 2023.
So we dug deep into the VeloNews archives to find this story from March 1994 on the young Belgian as he turned pro. You can subscribe and read our entire 50 years of archived content, right here.
Imagine this: Your father just happens to be Mickey Mantle or Joe Montana or Michael Jordan. And from the time you’re a teenager, you play baseball or football or basketball. During each game, your rivals invariably try a little bit harder. They’re pumped because you’re the son of a super-athlete and they believe you, too, are blessed with special, God-given talent. While there’s no denying your dad’s prodigious fame, you, better than anyone, recognize his skills are unique.
No matter. Owing to that celebrated last name, opponents, along with the spectators and the media, scrutinize your every movement in the athletic arena. What’s more, all this unwanted pressure becomes magnified to the 100th power when, at age 2 1 , you sign a pro contract. Egad ! Talk about the overwhelming burden of having a pop practically everyone’s heard of.
Does this compelling drama sound improbable? Well, maybe so in America. But in Europe, this very plot – where a son enters the playing field once dominated by his mega-sports-star father – has already unfolded and continues to gather momentum, in the turbulent world of pro cycling.
The story began during 1987, in Belgium. It was then and there that 16- year-old Axel Merckx decided to race his bike. And ever since the gangly youngster made this fateful decision, he has had to shoulder the burden of being compared to his legendary dad, Eddy Merckx – one of the all-time greats in cycling history.
“No, I didn’t see my father race,” remarked Axel, now 21 , nodding his head toward the dark-haired man sitting out of earshot in the main office of the Eddy Merckx bicycle factory, at Meise, in the green countryside east of Brussels. “I was too young.”
But it wasn’t as though someone would have to apprise him that when, after 16 years of racing, his dad retired in 1978 he had racked up an unsurpassed total of 524 triumphs – 98 as an amateur, 426 as a pro. For Axel, that was a no-brainer. Also, he knew by heart that this staggering sum included five first-place finishes in both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, as well as victories in every single-day classic, except for Paris-Tours.
Plus, Axel was fully aware that, on no less than three occasions, his dad won the world pro road race championship. And if pressed, he could’ve cited another highlight on dad’s incredible r6sum6: From 1 969 through 1975, Merckx – dubbed “the Cannibal” due to an insatiable hunger for winning-captured seven Super Prestige Pemod titles. (For those not up on their cycling history, this season-long series was the forerunner of today’s WorldCup competition.)
“Yah, when I went to school, everyone knew my father was very famous,” recalled Axel, who completed his “normal” education prior to a one-year hitch in the Belgian army. “You always have some jealousy. The kids think you are special. But that’s not right, even if my father is the best cyclist in the world.”
It would also be incorrect to presume that Merckx senior, a bicycle manufacturer since 1980, encouraged his son to become a racer. “When Axel was seven, he had already been riding three or four years,” recounted Eddy, as soon as he joined the conversation that was taking place in the factory’s showroom – stocked with his frames, bicycles, and clothing. “I said to him then, ‘Do not become a cyclist, because it’s a hard sport.’ I never pushed him into cycling. I said, ‘Play soccer. It’s much easier.”‘
Respectful of this counsel, the boy threw himself without any reservation -into that activity. Until his l6th birthday. By then, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Axel realized he wasn’t interested in becoming a soccer player. Instead, he wanted to become a two-wheeled athlete.
Not surprisingly, Belgian cycling development practically dropped to their knees and cried, “Hosanna!” It seemed the sport’s Grand Confrere had finally granted their long-standing wish: The Second Coming of a Merckx. And with that prospect came an intensive search for the faintest resemblance between the sire and his offspring.
Observers duly noted that, in 1961, Eddy was the same age as Axel when he began racing a bicycle. Also, Eddy’s father, a fruit shop owner, never used his son to pursue – or even succeed at – this endeavor. In addition, inspiration, as well as instruction, were provided by a cycling master – Felicien Vervaecke, a former racer turned bike-shop owner.
“Vervaecke was second in the’38 Tour de France,” recalled Eddy, “and was King of the Mountains in ’37.” (Moreover, in both the 1935 and 1936Tours, theBelgian rider placed third overall.)
Under Vervaecke’s tutelage, Merckx quickly posted an auspicious victory: In r 1962, he became his country’s amateur l road race champion. Looking back now, this exploit launched a career which culminated in a cycling legend.
Based on Axel’s amateur record, nobody has dared to predict a remotely similar destiny. How could they? In 1990, as a debutant, he produced nary a single triumph. The following year, however, the name Merckx did appear twice in the victor’s column. Then, during 1992, Axel rang up four wins, including a stage triumph at France’s prestigious Tour de l’Avenir. And this year, he flashed first across the finish line in two events, dressed in the Team ASLK-CCER tunic.
(The squad, sponsored by a Belgian bank and Merckx Bicycles, was run by Ferdi Van den Haute, an assistant director sportif for the defunct PDM outfit.) “My father coached me for the first two years I was racing,” Axel related, in his characteristically polite manner. “He told me how many kilometers to ride for a day, and how to train during the winter. Which means I swim and lift weights at the fitness center.”
Yet, according to poppa, the main offseason activity for the lanky, almost 6- foot 3 -inch, 1 69-pound rider remains big, gear pedaling on the wind trainer. Axel must. Otherwise the chances are less than slim of overcoming an obvious weakness in his cycling arsenal: a dearth of explosive leg-power.
“Right now, I’m teaching him about food for a stage race, and how to recover,” added the elder Merckx, prior to predicting that his Axel’s strong suit will eventually be the multi-day contest. “l’m also teaching him some racing strategy. But you have to feef this by yourself. You cannot really teach anyone how to race. Still, he always listers to me. We’ve never had any differences about my coaching philosophy. ”
Before you could say, “Yo, Eddy, get real!” this too-good-to-be-true relationship received quick, unequivocal confirmation. “My father has so much experience in the racing milieu, you can’t be in conflict with him,” affirmed Axel, who lives at his parents’ home, situated a stone’s throw from the bicycle factory. “He’s the greatest. He’s also my father
For sure, and neither of these two factors have been lost on cycling fans, the media, or, especially, Axel’s opponents. It wasn’t possible. In Belgium, the name Merckx stood out like a red parka in the white blur of a snowstorm. So, from the moment he started racing, Axel has had to withstand a perpetual avalanche of pressure.
“In the beginning,” recalled Axel, mothers and fathers of the other guys told them, ‘Watch out. You have got to finish ahead of Merckx.’ There was a lot of riding on my wheel. But I think the more you go up in the amateurs, the more clever the guys become. They understand that it’s not so smart to stay with me when another one is going, because then their race is finished, too.”
Asked how he handled the strain of constantly being a marked man, Axel replied flatly, “l’m always asking myself, ‘Why are they doing this to me?’l’m not one of the strong riders, and I don’t have the results like the other guys. It’s not enough to say, ‘Because his name is Merckx, he’s a good one.’ I’m just another rider. Some of the guys don’t understand this. But this kind of pressure doesn’t affect me.”
What may contribute to this seemingly cavalier attitude is that Eddy doesn’t behave like your stereotypical, pushy Little League parent. Yes, he does watch Axel race whenever it’s feasible. And, yes, he later critiques his son’s performance at the dinner table. But Eddy would no more insist Axel finish first than he would force him to eat spinach. “What’s important is for him to enjoy racing and to do his best,” allowed the 48-year-old executive. “l never said, ‘You must win, like me.”‘
Good thing. Since the chances of Axel duplicating his old man’s feats are about the same as Michael Jordan’s kid developing into a gravity-defying, roundball wizard. Still, when it comes to discussing what would constitute a successful pro career for Axel, the Merckxes’ opinions do vary slightly.
Remarked Eddy: “Maybe a few stage wins in a few big races, and finishing high on general classification.”These goals seem as lusterless as a plastic spoon compared to those Axel alludes to. “The dream of everybody is to be world champion or win the Tour de France,”declared the younger Merckx. “But only later on will I know if there is a chance for this.”
But, undoubtedly, one thing is certain: For as long as Axel races a bicycle, he will always be measured against Eddy, cycling’s ultimate yardstick. “Even if I won the Tour four times,” admitted Axel “people would say,’It wasn’t enough. His father won five.”‘ Given that, would he elect, if it were possible, to have a dad who wasn’t so famous? “I think for racing it’s better not to have such a well-known father. Off the bike, it makes no difference. But if l had to choose a different last name than Merckx, maybe it would be Acou, the name of my grandfather.” (Lucien Acou, Eddy’s father-in- Law, was coach to the Belgian national amateur team in the early 1960s.)
That said, Axel followed Eddy back to the factory’s main office. Yet it was the son who plopped down into the huge desk chair draped with his father’s grey suit jacket. Behind him stood a cabinet containing four time-tarnished Super Prestige Pemod trophies. And on the wall, hung just above Axel’s head, was a monumental oil painting of Eddy sprinting to yet another victory.
In September, a week after Axel Merckx came in 18th at the world amateur road race championship, he rode as a stagiaire, or trainee, in several events for Motorola – a team that pedals bikes affixed with his dad’s distinguished logo. And as expected, the pressure on Axel was tremendous.
Especially at the 200km Mandel-Leie-Schelde race in Meulebeke, Belgium, September 4. “Eddy was there for his first race,” reported Motorola’s directeur sportif Hennie Kuiper. “Axel was surrounded by fans, photographers and journalists. He handled himself pretty good, though.” So, what was the stagiaire’s take on causing a frenzy at Meulebeke, as well as at the five other events he raced for Motorola? “lt was boring,” replied Axel off-handedly. But the same could not be said about the competition at any of the venues, where he found “the top speed very high,” and struggled to come in with the group during each outing.
His unspectacular results, however, played no part in Axel’s decision to ink a professional contract in early October with the German-based Telekom formation (also riding Eddy Merckx machines). “All you can do is weigh the pluses and minuses of the teams,” remarked Axel, “then choose one. I think Telekom will be better than Motorola for me.”This conjecture, like so many others which shadow the son of cycling’s most brilliant star, simply remains to be seen.