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When his mother went to the seashore following a minor operation, Eddy "took profit to go in a race at a small fair. Sixty kilometers. I finished sixth." He was 16. On that same day (July 16, 1961) Jacques Anquetil won his first Tour de France.
Ultimately Mother Merckx relented. She agreed to let Eddy drop out of school to try cycling for a year while working in the store, delivering groceries. His first bike—a one-speed model for amateurs—was purchased from Felicien Vervaecke, a pre-World War II Belgian champion known as The King of the Mountains. Already Vervaecke could see that "Eddy had the temperament: race, race, race."
In 1964 Eddy won the world amateur championship at Sallanches, France. In 1965 he turned professional; in December 1967 he married Claudine. In 1969 he was driven through the streets of Brussels in an open car to a reception at the palace, the first Belgian winner of the Tour de France since 1939. "The people went completely crazy," said Van Griethuysen.
Eddy sipped his chocolate and reflected as the American speculated on what an insular, solitary thing riding a bicycle for distance must be; that it was the appetite of a loner, like swimming channels or photographing insects.
"I do not need to have company to be happy," said Eddy Merckx.
"What, then, is having a good time? I mean, apart from winning Tours de France?"
"He likes music," Claudine said. "Fats Domino. Louis Armstrong."
"He is happy when he is in the basement," said the manager.
"Come," said Claudine. She led the way down to a mare's nest of sprockets and gears and wrenches; a neat row of 100 wheels, the tires kept on them for as long as three years, curing (the older, the tougher) in the cool of the basement; an assortment of bicycles and a treadmill on which a bike could be ridden. There was a sauna and a large portable mirror Claudine said she held for Eddy so he could see himself as he pedaled on the treadmill. She said she would sit there by the hour, holding the mirror or watching Eddy tinker at his workbench, drilling holes, experimenting with his seats (on hills, he sits nearer the front of his bicycle; on the flats, nearer the middle; on a rough road, all the way back).