The manager produced another poster, this one smaller, a portrait for Eddy to autograph for the American. It showed Eddy leaning on his orange bicycle in a shirt with five bars of color—blue, red, black, yellow, green—and MOLTENI written above the bars. "Only one driver is allowed to wear such a shirt," said the manager. "The champion of the world. All the colors of the rainbow. All the countries of the world." He turned the poster over and printed FAEMA on the back.
Before Molteni, he explained, Eddy's team sponsor had been Faema, a brand of Italian coffee. (Because of the expense, Belgian firms do not sponsor top cycling teams.) He held the posters up and recited a popular Merckxist slogan taken from the letters of the name: "Faites attention, Eddy Merckx arrive!—Be careful, Eddy Merckx is coming!"
The smell of Nupercainal was heavy in the cramped rooms on the second floor of the hotel at Ghent. Eddy Merckx smelled of the liniment. His legs, long and ropy rather than thick with the consolidated muscle one might expect in a cyclist, were shaved and rubbed down; novocain had been shot into his back where he had twisted several vertebrae in an accident in the Pyrenees in March. It had happened halfway between Paris and Nice, at St. Etienne, when the Dutchman, Gerben Carsten, fell in front of him at 35 mph. Eddy plowed into him and was flipped into the air like a tiddledywink. He landed on his back.
"It could have killed him," said Van Buggenhout, as Eddy dressed. "He got up and tried to continue, but he could not. It is better now."
The Molteni trainer was drying his hands. Around his stained table were the bottles and tubes of odorous balms that the flesh must have to keep the mind from dwelling on its weakness. The administration of drugs (most especially amphetamines) is not unusual in cycling, but there are rules. Once, in the middle of the 1969 Tour d'Italie (Giro), which Merckx has won three times, he was accused of taking a tranquilizer. This is legal in Belgium but outlawed in Italy. A urine specimen was taken; the lab report was positive. "It was sabotage," said the manager. "You cannot be sure of the Italians. They are tricky." It was never proved that the urine sample was actually Merckx'. When he was exonerated, it was too late to rejoin the race. In the Tour de France that year Merckx demanded to be given a urine test after each race day.
"You must be made ready," said Van Buggenhout, "or you will get the cramps. Eddy got the cramps last year in the Li�ge-Bastogne-Li�ge. His stomach had been bad for three days, and he did not train enough, and it was a very heavy race. He is alone, four minutes ahead, on the last hill at Cottes des Forges when he gets the cramps. Georges Pin-tons of Antwerp catches him two kilometers from the finish, and they are head-to-head in the sprint onto the track. There Eddy loses the cramps, and he wins the race by this much—" The manager opened his arms wide.
Eddy had put on his Adidas shoes and had donned black briefs and a black-and-white T shirt with MOLTENI on the chest. He postured, matador fashion, before a cracked full-length mirror, adjusting his helmet. The padding crisscrossed the top of his head like strips of crust on apple pie. It is minimal protection. At Blois in 1969, on the indoor track, the pacing motorbike fell into the lead cyclist, who was directly in front of Merckx. Merckx caromed off the pile of ruptured metal and fell onto the balustrade. He was unconscious for two or three minutes. The pacemaker was killed.
"It is a very dangerous sport," said the manager. "People are killed, people are injured. Eddy has fallen many times, but it is good fortune that he had only the one bad injury to his back."
Eddy Merckx smiled a good morning at his visitors.
"Before a race he is very nervous. He paces, he goes to his mechanics again and again to check. When he is like that, something is going to happen."