Eddy Merckx on the evolution of cycling, the meaning of ‘cool’

Cycling's most legendary champion weighs in on bike design, his favorite riders, and the sports evolving standards of “cool.”

Photo: TDW

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

One of the most frustrating and futile tasks a cycling fan can take on is trying to explain the importance of Eddy Merckx to a layman. Superlatives fail, and the analogies run out to comical lengths. “He’s like Michael Jordan plus Lionel Messi, combined with the Pope.”

So who better to pass judgment on the current state of cycling fashion, technology, and racing, all of which Merckx is still deeply involved with? After a few years away from his namesake bike company — which he sold in 2008 — he is back working closely with new owners to resurrect the brand. They are leaning on Merckx not only for his insights into bike design but also the cachet that only he can bring. The company’s new models are all named after legendary wins from his career.

Here, Merckx weighs in on bike design, his favorite riders, and cycling’s evolving standards of “cool.”

VeloNews: How do you navigate being a legend?
Eddy Merckx: If I can give youngsters a good tip: No matter how good you are, even if you are a big champion, always stay simple and stay as you are. During my career, I was a type of leader that respected my teammates a lot. I treated them the same way I treated myself. They also had to work as hard as me! During the Tour de France, for instance, I never went out to dinner with famous or powerful people. I always stayed with my teammates. I still stay in contact with my teammates. After my career, twice a week, we would go for a bike ride. And after the rides, in my garden, we would drink some Belgian beers with good ham.

VN: How would you define “cool?” Is it something you ever think about?
EM: I know that these days design is important for the visual identity of a bike. But in my time, that was less important. A bike only had one color. But I do notice that many people like the retro bikes and clothing of Molteni and Faema. Heritage is trendy. Even heritage cycling events are popular now.

What is always cool to me are the jerseys — yellow, the world champion stripes, and [the Giro’s] pink. But if I went on a bike ride and had to choose between those three, I would take the yellow jersey.

Winning the Tour de France for the first time in 1969 — 30 years after Belgian rider Sylvère Maes had won the Tour de France — was really the biggest win of my career. My childhood dream of winning the Tour de France had come true.

VN: Why do you think cycling is a sport where style evolves so quickly?
EM: Like I said, this evolution comes with the graphic design of bikes that is becoming more and more important. When I ran Eddy Merckx Cycles, my daughter did the graphic design of the bikes, and it was just one color, like Ferrari is red or yellow. It was that simple. This would not be possible now. Fashion has entered the cycling industry. Even fluorescent colors are getting popular. These days, you have to follow fashion trends.

VN: When you were coming up, were there cyclists you tried to model yourself after?
EM: I had a hero. When I was 11 years old, I admired Stan Ockers. He won several track races and the green jersey of the Tour de France. He was really my idol. I found a love for track racing through my admiration of him. Unfortunately, he died on a track.

VN: If you remove results, what attributes or personality traits make a cyclist popular or universally loved by cycling fans?
EM: The way you ride. I took my victories, as they say, with panache. I attacked. That is what people want to see. In our day, we had no radio communication, and cycling was much more spontaneous. Nowadays, they ride too defensively, and big teams control all the races. But take Sagan, for instance: The reason he is popular is because of his riding style but also the fact that he attacks in both one-day races and big tours. In my time, you always had the same riders at the start of all races, all year. That’s more attractive. Nowadays, you have different riders in each race. If you are in the picture all year in different kinds of races, always attacking, your popularity grows, like with Sagan.

VN: Is it safe to assume you enjoy watching Sagan as much as everyone else?
EM: Yes. But also, don’t forget that Sagan is very skilled with a bike, because he is coming from the mountain bike. I like this. I would recommend to young people that they train on the track, like I did in the winter. On the track, I learned to control my speed, I learned to ride in a peloton in dangerous situations, and I learned lots of other bike-handling skills. In some downhills, I could close or make a gap of two minutes, but all without losing control and stability of the bike.

VN: Eddy Merckx bikes are now all named after some of your historic victories — except for the 525, which is named after your overall professional win total. Has it been fun to dive back into some of those rides and see them used in this modern context?
EM: Yes, of course. In fact, it was me who chose the names. They weren’t chosen randomly. San Remo76, for instance, which is a high-performance race bike, is named after Milan-San Remo because this is a race that mostly is won in the sprint. And the Mourenx69 is our gran fondo model, built for long distances and a comfortable body position. It’s named after my win in 1969 in Mourenx, where I did a long solo attack of 140 kilometers. I attacked wearing the yellow jersey in a mountain stage and came in with an eight-minute advantage.

A nice coincidence is the name of our new children’s bike: Petit-Enghien. My first win ever, as a child, was in Petit-Enghien in Belgium.

VN: You rode much of your career on your own branded bikes. How did that happen?
EM: In 1969, I licensed my name to a Belgian factory named Kessels so they could launch commercial race bikes with the name Eddy Merckx. But our professional bikes were custom-made. 1969 was the first year we rode on Belgian bikes. So the first Tour de France I won was on a steel frame made in Belgium. In 1970, our bikes were made by an Italian frame builder. From 1971, it was Ernesto Colnago and then Ugo De Rosa. De Rosa was absolutely the best for me. Mr. De Rosa helped me to build up my factory. I had a lot of experience in racing on a bike, but building a frame is something else. I spent six weeks with Mr. De Rosa, and he taught me how to build a bike. All my life I will thank De Rosa, because without him I could not have started a factory of this quality.

VN: Which modern bike technologies do you most wish had been around when you were racing?
EM: Click [clipless] pedals and the shifters in the brake levers. I’m sure that if I could have ridden the hour record with click pedals I could have done over 50 kilometers.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.