“That day, winning was all that mattered”
Eddy Merckx welcomes us with a firm handshake when we arrive at his farm in Meise. The winner of the 1969 Tour of Flanders is beaming - the weather has improved and he can cycle outdoors again. He tells us about the brisk wind on his ride earlier today, which was not in any way comparable to the stormy conditions 50 years ago.
30 March 1969. Perhaps one of the most important days in his career. That day, the cycling world caught its first glimpse of The Cannibal. “I was just 24 years old and had been a professional road racer for three years,” says Merckx. “I’d won Milan-San Remo three times, as well as La Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix. But I had yet to win the Tour of Flanders. How could it be?”
Merckx was putting too much pressure on himself. “Only one thing mattered to me: I had to win the Tour of Flanders. I remember being rather nervous that day at the start. In previous years, something had always interfered: in ’66 I fell, in ’67 Gimondi and Zandegu blocked me and in ’68 the weather was glorious and the race was not a sufficiently hard one as a result. So the victory was always beyond my reach. As a result, in ’69, the pack knew that I was the man to beat, even more so than in previous years.”
The greatest cyclist of all time has a sparkle in his eye as he travels back in time with us. “After 28 km, there was a crash in the pack, during which several of my rivals, including the winner of the ’68 Tour, Godefroot, were eliminated. A group of just 28 riders remained. After the commotion, I looked around me and realised that Gimondi and Basso were still in the race. Everyone in that group rode to stay ahead. But just before we hit the Muur van Geraardsbergen, I sensed we had some drafters on board. They stopped taking over, and were happy to ride behind me. I realised that I had to attack here, because Bosberg was the last hill in the race, which meant I wouldn’t be able to make the difference.”
It was the beginning of a legendary Merckxian solo of over 70 km. “Our team manager, Lomme Driessens, drove up to me in his car and asked me whether I had gone mad,” he says with a smile. Legend has it that the two men exchanged some salty language. “I can’t remember what I said exactly, no. But I did tell him to bugger off. What should I have done? Just stay put in the group and do all the work while the rest of them were saving themselves for the last kilometres right behind me? The pack was on our heels, so if I wanted to win, I had to go it alone. It wasn’t easy, mind you. 70 km is a long way. I was riding against the wind from Ninove all the way to Nederbrakel. But I powered on and by the time I hit the finish line I had a good lead.”
5’36” to be precise. “As I crossed the finish line, I thought: I’ll remember this Tour of Flanders for the rest of my life! That kind of solo just gives you that extra bit of satisfaction at the finish line. When you win with a lead of a few seconds, the finish line is a much more nervous affair. After the finish, my team manager came to see me: “We won again!” he said. That was so typical of Dries,” Merckx laughs. “I admit, I would have been very disappointed if I had not stayed ahead. You can always run into trouble, but you don’t think of that while you’re riding. All you can think of is to break free and stay ahead. You just want to cross that finish line as soon as possible.”
The finish line was in Gentbrugge, not in the middle of the Flemish Ardennes like it is today. “The Tour of Flanders is a completely different race nowadays, because of the route. In my day, it was a race for sprinters and fast riders. There were more cobbles and fewer hills en route. After Bosberg, the course was too easy. I’m not jealous at all of the pack of today - I had my time. But I do enjoy today’s Tour. It is a race for strong athletes. Honestly? I would have preferred to ride this course and yes, I’m almost certain that I would have won the Tour more than two times in that case.”