The long homestretch was hedged on both sides with people. Taverns along the way were open and jammed, the patrons sipping beer and staring at television sets showing the race. Claudine ordered a lemon drink. When it was announced that the cyclists were near, she hurried outside and down the line to a point where she could intercept Eddy when he slowed down. The American got up on a photographer's platform to try to see the finish. He was asked if he had enjoyed the race. The American said yes, "but it is impossible to see."
"If it is not in your blood," he was told, "it cannot be put there."
Eddy Merckx came in seventh, muddied beyond recognition save for a couple of MOLTENIS: Claudine kissed him when he paused where she stood and then, head down, he rode on in the rain to the hotel.
Merckx! Encore et toujours Merckx!
There is a book retailing in Brussels and Paris whose first chapter begins that way. There is another, Mes Cornels de Route 1971, Eddy Merckx' diary of his season, whose last chapter is entitled Mission Accomplie. No cyclist ever had a season like it: of the 120 races he entered Merckx won 53 (think of it as Henry Aaron hitting .442), including his third consecutive Tour de France. This month he is going for No. 4, a feat equaled only by France's Jacques Anquetil in 1961-64. Halfway through the race he is in first place and is the overwhelming favorite to win. The French, who reason, after all, that it is their party and who invited him, anyway?, have not taken the spread of Merckxism cheerfully. Their writers pout ("He takes the fun out of cycling") and complain that the Tour is "losing its passion." Their racers, it has been written, "would not recognize Eddy Merckx on the street because they have seen him only from the rear."
Unable to find fault with Merckx' performance, they twit him for his lack of panache. Louis Bobet, who won three Tours de France in a row, says, "Merckx is almost too professional. My generation of cyclists felt that as vedettes [public figures] we owed something to our audiences. We were excited when we won, angry when we lost. Our entourages vibrated with our excitement. Merckx is interested only in cycling, and in winning."
Merckx, says Anquetil, "is as cold as any cyclist I have known. All cycling champions have sang-froid, and all of us like to win, but Merckx must win all the time. And not by a mere 20 or 30 seconds but by five or six minutes." But Anquetil is compelled to add that Eddy Merckx "is in a class by himself."
It is evident now, too, that Merckx has acquired an added dimension that often comes to those in sport who win as if it were foreordained. His impassivity, even if nothing more than shyness, gives him an inhuman quality, like that of those dire men who sleep on nails, and the many times he has come from behind to triumph have had their effect.
Consider two incidents in the 1971 Tour de France.
No. 1. Luis Ocana, the Basque from southern France who is considered the only threat to Merckx' primacy, had built up a lead of several minutes. That night reporters crowded around Merckx in the hotel at Oci�res-Merlette, asking "What happened?" "Aren't you worried?" One observer recalls that Merckx' face was totally impassive. "He might as well have been asked if he preferred chocolate to vanilla." All he said in reply was, "There is a lot more of this race to go." The next day he rode like a demon, and made up two of his lost minutes. ("For all his majesty," says Anquetil, " Eddy Merckx enjoys a fight.")