No. 2. On the 17th day of the tour, in a rain-washed gully in the Pyrenees, Ocana, the leader now by 7:23 minutes, slipped and went down in the mud, and Merckx, in his wake, came tumbling after. But Merckx got up, looked to see if Ocana was all right and took off. Ocana sat there by his stricken bike, presumably waiting for a replacement. And as he waited, said a witness, you could see his morale drain. A third cyclist rammed into him, passing over his stomach.
While the French press went to work on the (gleeful) premise that Eddy Merckx, vulnerable at last, would never have won were it not for the luck of the accident and echoed Ocana's prediction that he would "beat Merckx next time," a curious thing happened. Merckx went on to win the world championship at Mendrisio. And Ocana went into eclipse. He did not win a tour or a classic in 1971. He did not compete at all early this year. "He is saving himself [for the Tour de France]," the French newspapers optimistically reported. "He is crazy," said the Belgians. "You cannot make a season on one race." Which remains to be seen. One thing is known. Everywhere that Merckx went Ocana was sure not to follow.
Journalists who know him best contend that there are two Eddy Merckxes. One is the cold, deadpan killer cyclist. The other, at home in his villa outside Brussels, is congenial, outgoing and something of a chatterbox.
The Merckxes live in a modern yellow glass-brick house with a gray roof on Avenue des Bescasses in the Brussels suburb of Kraainem. Its features include conical aluminum lights, paintings of Eddy by Maria Esmeralda, the daughter of ex-King Leopold and a devout Merckxist, and a huge picture window overlooking the backyard, which sweeps to a cluster of tall trees. The trees were already greening when the American came to visit last spring.
Eddy was at home in a turtleneck, Claudine in a long dress with a slit up past the knee. She served coffee and pastries. Van Griethuysen had brought the American there and was grousing about the French writers. Van Buggenhout said Claudine had been upset that morning by an article quoting a French cyclist's prediction that this was the year Ocana would win the tour. Claudine said she refused to show the article to Eddy.
"But it does not really matter," she said, "because when he loses, tomorrow is another day. And when he wins, tomorrow is another day. It is the same."
Eddy had been to the doctor; he had had no pain in his injured back after the Ghent race and there was no more need for shots. He was in good spirits. While the others had coffee he got himself a chocolate drink and lounged in a massive suede chair.
Asked, he traced his ascent. How, as a schoolboy, he had had "the passion" for bicycling. He recalled that a teacher had asked his class to tell of its ambitions, and he had replied, "I want to be a champion bicycle racer." He said when the news came that Stan Ockers, the champion of Belgium, had been killed on the track at Antwerp, he ran sobbing to his room and would not come out for dinner.
"Ockers was the complete man," said Merckx. "A climber, a sprinter. He came from six minutes behind to win the world championship in Rome. It was unbelievable."
Merckx' father had a grocery store in the suburb of Woluwe St. Pierre. His mother did not want him to race bicycles. "She did not believe in the possibilities," he said. "She said, 'Go to school.' " She wanted him to be a professor of physical education. But in school he dreamed of spinning wheels. Especially he dreamt in French class. His grades were uniformly poor. His French was a disaster.