Book review: Eddy Merckx The Cannibal

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Merckx history book biography

Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal by Daniel Friebe

During his career Eddy Merckx won roughly one third of all the races he started. For an unbroken period of seven years he finished no lower than first in every grand tour he completed.

Daniel Friebe’s biography is more than the story of Merckx, it is a history of cycling under the reign of rider known as The Cannibal as told by interviews and anecdotes from the riders who saw their hopes, ambitions and earnings swallowed up by the insatiable Merckx. Yet many now seem cheerful about the whole experience.

The book follows Merckx’s career in chronological order, the early years right until the painful decline in public. Friebe has an enjoyable writing style with some florid language at times. Eddy Merckx’s agent Jean Van Buggenhout is labelled “Van Bug” and described as a “big kahuna”. The writing style comes alive when interviews with rivals of Merckx. You almost laugh when Friebe describes the domestic scene of Roger De Vlaeminck and his younger wife. Observing his technique of dabbing spilt coffee, Friebe describes how the Flemish legend looks out from his kitchen window onto a muddy field where a pet llama stands to declare the beauty of the Flemish countryside.

Across all landscapes the consistent theme is utter domination by Merckx and how his appetite meant famine for others. One typical tale comes from the 1970 Giro d’Italia. A Tuscan winegrower offers 40 flasks of wine for the winner of a bonus sprint in the middle of the stage. It’s not for a jersey, nor a time bonus, just some red wine. Dino Zandegù notices Merckx readying himself but outfoxes him to take the sprint. Merckx was livid and declared “that Chianti was mine” and threatened Zandegù with never riding a criterium again, an important source of income for riders in those days. After the stage Merckx tracks Zandegù down in his hotel room to demand half of the wine. Zandegù relents. Already the highest paid rider in the sport here we see Merckx enraged that someone can beat him in a sprint for some wine, even going as far as threats and spending, even wasting time hunting Zandegù to demand half of the prize. All for some wine. The book recounts other incidents when races and reputations are at stake. For example in the 1974 Tour de France Merckx refuses to allow a sprinter to take the yellow jersey for a day or two early in the race, “it’s my yellow jersey” he declares. And worse, all the others got in return was pain.

We see Merckx through the eyes of Felice Gimondi, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Thévenet and other big rivals during the period. Don’t forget that as well as depriving them of wins, he also deprived them of money. Put simply had Merckx taken up another sport their lives would have turned out very differently. But these interviews are conducted in the present day and with some hindsight the riders also appreciate some good fortune to have ridden with the greatest ever rider especially since they were amongst those able to beat him.

The book is full of great little stories, for example “The Cannibal” nickname was not the invention of a senior journalist or a rival eaten alive during a race… it came from a little girl. And I never knew that the brown Molteni jersey was really supposed to be gold, the sponsor’s colour. Presumably nobody could make gold wool jerseys. There’s more.

It’s not a hagiography, Friebe examines the monopoly, allegations of a “mafia” racing style that used force and even violence to intimidate others. There also the doping in the era with Merckx’s positive tests as well as speculation on undetectable methods. It’s handled sensibly in my view. Levity and analysis ensure the book is a page turner because it’s easy to read but also because you want to find out more.

One thing that is lacking is an index at the back. I’d love to look up incidents and anecdotes again from this book but it’s harder without the index.

Summary
Lively writing makes this an enjoyable read, especially the way the book progresses through Merckx’s career through the eyes of others. Friebe’s observational skills come to the fore with interviews conducted in the present day, not just for what we learn about Merckx but for what we learn about these 60 year olds who once fought with Merckx. But it is the tale of Merckx that impresses, his relentless ability across all terrains all year long.

Merckx vs Merckx
Having reviewed William Fotheringham’s “Merckx, Half Man Half Bike” a few weeks ago, comparisons are inevitable if you’re in the market for a book on the greatest ever rider, arguably the twentieth century’s finest sportsman. With next to nothing in English, suddenly two books come along. Amusingly both books are published by companies within the Random House publishing empire but neither arm knew what the other was doing until late. Sales of one book could cannibalise sales of other.

The more I read about Merckx, the more impressive his riding. Two accounts of his exploits just aren’t enough and each book complements the other. There is obvious overlap, tales from the past are told twice yet these are different books. Fotheringham’s book is more an account of Merckx’s career with a second angle of trying to look inside his mind, his mental state as motivation for his cannibalism and has the feel of a slick well-researched documentary. Friebe covers the supremacy too but often the way it experienced by others and with a touch more colour and poetry. Should you do get both books, I’ve read both within a short space for the sake of review but ideally you should to space them apart by a few months.

Disclaimer: this book was sent by the publisher for review.

A list of book reviews is available at inrng.com/books.

Pete April 11, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Rather than a historical account, I prefer the anecdotes in all biographies – it makes even Cannibals seem human!

Frank April 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Wow the Chianti incident makes him sound something of a bad loser- no wonder he had to win!

ToTheBillyoh April 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Thanks for the review. One should never get too close to one’s heroes? I have always had an aversion to some of the extremes men go to in making their living from this sport. Some very unattractive behaviour.

Messenger Dad April 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I am currently half way through Mr Friebe’s book, having already read ‘Half man, Half bike’ by William Fotheringham a few weeks ago. I excitedly bought both books together and after finishing one I thought it might be a bit over the top to have both of them? reading the same information twice?!
I couldn’t have been more wrong. They are both brilliant books, well written and fascinating in their own right. They approach the subject from different angles so it has been great to read them back to back. A Merckx-athon!
Both are highly recommended.

Ken April 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Merckx was a master at cheating, and many of his wins are certainly open to scrutiny. I’m glad we don’t see domination of cycling now in the style of Merckx otherwise people will draw the same conclusions, probably correctly.

Brendon April 13, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Lance Armstrong dominated the TdF, and conclusions have been drawn (probably correctly) about the methods he used to win.

Chuffy April 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm

That chianti incident does Merckx no favours at all does it?

The relaxed (modern day) attitude of his rivals and victim sound like a variation of Stockholm syndrome, where kidnap victims start to identify with and approve of their captors. It also puts me in mind of the way that sportsmen will always bow to the biggest alpha-males and turn a blind eye to the nastier aspects of their behaviour. You only have to look at the way that at least one recently retired multiple Tour winner still seem to have fans both within and outside the peloton, despite having a record that suggests he isn’t the most pleasant (or honourable) of people. Sport (perhaps cycling more than most others?) obeys a very feudal hierachy and might most definitely is right.

The Inner Ring April 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm

The books don’t make him sound vindictive, just insatiable. We have Zandegu’s version… but maybe Merckx would say he was cut up in the sprint for example?

Also most of his rivals seem cheerful about the experiences today, as if they gained in stature from being known as contemporaries, or on some days, able to beat him.

Guadzilla April 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, IR. Gonna order both these books.

Larry T. April 11, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Thanks for the review – another one to add to the list for sure. Funny how different people work on a project in secret only to find out someone else is working on the same idea. Same thing happened with my friend Bill McGann’s “The Story of the Giro d’Italia” http://www.bikeraceinfo.com/books/giro-story-1.html As soon as he announced publication of Volume 1, Herbie Sykes excellent “Maglia Rosa” http://rouleur.cc/maglia-rosa was released. McGann’s Volume 2 should be out very soon.

Jim April 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

Back in the day I read of Merckx’s exploits in awe, and noted the descriptions of how cycling fans would turn on Eddy because they thought that he won too much. Many years later I attended an interview/talk with Eddy. I was impressed by how genuinely modest he was about his accomplishments and by his gracious behaviour towards the audience. I am not sure what I was expecting

bikecellar April 11, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Well I spent the first half of my xmas book voucher on Half Man Half Bike two weeks ago, so now thats the second half taken care off. Cheers for the review!

jimmyk April 12, 2012 at 12:30 am

Speaking of an Index any chance of Inner ring starting an index so that readers can browse by subject topic? key riders? or just a list of book reviews.

I know the search bar is there but it often mis-classifies articles

Chromatic Dramatic April 12, 2012 at 1:55 am

Pity it isn’t available as an eBook (Kindle). I might have then read it!

TheDude April 12, 2012 at 6:12 am

I’m not much for hero worship. Usually, there’s the guy behind the guy, etc. There commonly seems to be an adoration in sports of persons who win prodigiously yet little emphasis in looking at the context. I guess if that rational thinking came into play it wouldn’t be entertainment or “fun.” Personally, seeing the same person or team win over, and over, and over in sport gets boring really quick.

The Inner Ring April 12, 2012 at 9:40 am

jimmyk: I do categorise pieces with a tag but it’s probably equally incomplete and as a result I don’t display the tags, it’s more a way to help Google list the pieces.

If you want some other book reviews, here’s a list:
http://inrng.com/2012/03/merckx-half-man-half-bike-book-review/
http://inrng.com/2011/12/book-review-the-sweat-of-gods/
http://inrng.com/2011/11/book-review-competition-bicycle/
http://inrng.com/2011/11/book-review-mountain-high/
http://inrng.com/2011/06/book-review-racing-through-the-dark-david-millar/
http://inrng.com/2010/04/fignon-book-review/
http://inrng.com/2011/03/the-rider-2/

The Dude: that’s what they said about Merckx, it could be boring. But some said “nobody complained about Mozart writing music” and the press did compare Merckx to a genius. Indeed it seems many did enjoy Merckx because he often won with outrageously bold riding, attacking with 50km or 100km to go. Or taking on the sprinters at their game and so on.

Bundle April 12, 2012 at 11:31 am

1) To me, the most amazing thing about Merckx is not only his victory rate, it’s the sheer mastondontic length of his racing calendar.
2) @ The Dude: we had the same discussion recently over Cancellara and Boonen demolishing their rivals on P-R. It might not have been the nail-biting TV show that keeps you on the edge of your sofa, it was MORE, it was BETTER: it is something we continue to talk about and, simply, to admire, 30 years later. Who remembers the very disputed, last-minute wins by Janssen in the Tour, or Bertoglio in the Giro? (I do, but I don’t think so do many…. :) ) Sometimes it’s not about who wins, but about how they do it.
3) Too bad Ocaña and Fuente are no longer there to complete the history of those who made Merckx look human.
4) To those who put Merckx’ tremendous record in relation to chemicals, I think it is a fair question. The guy not only won and won, he just didn’t stop racing from Het Volk to Giro de Lombardia, and he also did track and even cyclo-cross. How could he do it, when in the “haematologically-supported years” some riders would be limited to 50 racing days a year? On the other hand, Merckx is 66 now. Still standing, and doing fine. Leaves one thinking…

Mark W April 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Merckx’s winning percentage is just insane. Boggles my mind everytime I look at it.

Steve April 12, 2012 at 9:13 pm

It is a record which will is held up unassailable. Just like Jennie Longo’s record?

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