Eddy Merckx is one of those indispensable heroes of Paris-Roubaix. Here's another story as a lead up to the big race this April.
In 1968, Merckx's move to the Italian team - coffee maker, "Faema," was a huge leap up for the twenty two year old. Under the Italian team, he learned care, preparation and feeding, all and all very new for the young Belgian star. Fitter and thinner than ever before, he won his first major stage race in the Giro d'Italia, convincingly. "I had remained a rough diamond who was now being polished by Italian hands," explained Merckx.
He first entered Paris-Roubaix in 1966, finishing 15th. A year later he came closer, placing 7th. But in 1968, wearing the rainbow jersey, he desperately wanted to win. Maybe it also had to do with the addition of extra cobblestones. The organizers wanted more of a rugged course and threw more in, along with a new section. The Arenberg section of pavé was included for the first time. The harsher the terrain the easier for the young star to eat it up and spit it out at his opponents.
Without losing a stride he plowed through the mud along with fellow Belgian, Herman Van Springel. For the last 52 kilometers, the two remained alone. And just before the velodrome, Merckx unceremoniously dumped Van Springel and crossed the line victorious. "I don't cycle anymore - I fly," he boasted. During this fantastic season, his former Peugeot teammate, Christian Raymond, first called him, 'the Cannibal.'
Merckx was ecstatic, finally winning Paris-Roubaix, all during his first season in Italy riding for Faema and wearing the rainbow jersey. He would go on to win Paris-Roubaix again, in 1970 (an astounding 5 minutes, 21 seconds over the last 35 kilometers beating most of the Mars-Flandrian team of the De Vlaeminck brothers, Leman, and Dierickx). And lastly, in 1973, after crashing and a changed of bikes, beating Godefroot and Rossiers some 2 minutes, 20 seconds behind.
Ironically, with his new Italian team, the Cannibal hardly drank coffee only chicory. And unlike his many gratifying victories ... caffeine always gave him indigestion!
(photo): The Cannibal, under the Italian influence. Steamin' towards his second victory in Hell!