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From Inside Peloton: 1972, The Greatest Season Ever

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In life there are absolutes: the love of our parents, taxes, death, and the fact that Eddy Merckx was the greatest cyclist ever. For a short time after his seventh Tour de France victory, some Americans began to speak of Lance Armstrong as the greatest cyclist of all time. As if. [we all know the outcome of the Armstrong years now]

Words: Patrick Brady | Images: Kristof Ramon

There are few sports in which its greatest protagonist is more readily apparent than cycling. To say Eddy Merckx had 525 victories spanning 14 years overwhelms the senses and comprehension. It’s like asking how bright the sun is. After all, 525 victories work out to an average of nearly 38 victories per year. However, he didn’t win a lot at first, nor at the end; the bulk of Merckx’ success came in the eight years from 1968 to 1975. Still, that really doesn’t hint at how much better he was than the other greats.

Of all the feats a cyclist can accomplish, winning the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in the same year ranks as one of the truly superlative achievements. Only seven riders ever managed to win both the Tour and the Giro in the same year. They are a who’s who among legends: Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani. Three of these riders managed the feat twice: Coppi, Hinault and Indurain. Only one of them managed it three times: Merckx.

That detail alone gives him the win by a bike length, but Merckx wasn’t just a Grand Tour rider. He distinguished himself in the one-day races as well. During his career he won each of the Monuments: Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. Only two other riders managed this feat: Rik Van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck, neither of whom ever won a Grand Tour.

So not only did Eddy Merckx snag the Tour/Giro double more than any other cyclist, he is the only Grand Tour winner to vanquish each of the Monuments.

Above all others

Even when you’re the greatest of all cyclists, not all years are created equal. Most riders would strip naked and run through the streets singing Debbie Boone songs to enjoy a year like the one Merckx had in 1969, when he won the general classification at the Tour de France, as well as the points, mountains, combativity, and combination awards—not to mention six stages, including the final stage, an individual time trial.

Of course, the season didn’t start that way. No, he began with a win at Milan-San Remo (his third!) and followed it up with wins at the Tour of Flanders (his first) and Liège–Bastogne–Liège (another first). In addition to destroying the competition at the Tour, Merckx took the win at Paris-Nice. Do not be surprised that he was awarded the Super Prestige Pernod International award as the season’s best rider.

And while victories in three Monuments and a Grand Tour would arguably make any rider’s season—and career!—it wasn’t Merckx’s best year. That distinction goes to his 1972 season.

Fear, thy name is Cannibal

By January of 1972, every cyclist alive knew Merckx’s name and feared to line up against him. He had won three of the last four Tours de France and taken two Giri d’Italia. He had already won each of the Monuments at least once (and in the case of Milan-San Remo he had won it four times). He had been the national champion of Belgium. In August of 1971 he scored his second World Championship.

Merckx began his season in late February with the Trofeo Laigueglia, which he didn’t win, though he did finish second. From there he went to the Tour of Sardinia where rode almost anonymously and finished 37th overall.

His first win of the season came at the early-March Circuit Het Volk, a semi-classic. The next week he finished second at Paris-Nice despite winning three stages. So when Eddy Merckx lined up for the first Monument of the ’72 season, Milan-San Remo, he was the one rider present with four wins to his credit, as well as the wearer of the rainbow stripes.

That a breakaway would form in the 288km race to the Mediterranean coast lacks surprise. That it contained such favorites as Merckx, Gianni Motta, Marino Basso and Roger De Vlaeminck is surprising in the same way the Yankees winning the pennant is—not. Here’s the amazing part: From a group of 12 holding a lead of less than 20 seconds on a large and motivated peloton, Merckx leapt away and carved out a nine-second lead by the time he crossed the finish line in a now well-known one-armed salute with the arc-en-ciel encircling his chest.

Merckx wasn’t one to skip races and train for his next big rendezvous. Between Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, the Cannibal raced seven times and finished second in five of them. Flanders was a more significant miss, though; he finished seventh. At Ghent-Wevelgem he was third but finished seventh again at Paris-Roubaix.

No matter. He won his next Monument, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and took La Flèche Wallonne for good measure. Of the four races he did before starting the Giro, he won one and didn’t finish out of the top 10.

The stamp of authority

At the Giro, Merckx’s big threat came in the form of a slightly built Spanish climber named José Manuel Fuente. It was Fuente’s habit to shred the field any time the road went up a mountain. By Merckx’s own admission Fuente was “virtually unbeatable on a short stage with a mountain finish.” After giving up 2:36 on Fuente on stage 4a, Merckx turned the tables on the Spaniard on stage 7, dropping him on the run to the finish. Working with Gösta Pettersson, Merckx put 4:13 into Fuente and wrested the pink jersey from him. A double-stage day with two 20km time trials (he won one and finished second in the other) allowed Merckx to increase his lead.

Three days later in stage 14, Fuente did all he could to separate himself from Merckx, but couldn’t collect more than a minute. He faltered in the final kilometer of the uphill finish and Merckx passed him like a kid in a Corvette, taking the stage.

On stage 16, a day with two climbs, he again dropped Merckx on the second climb, only to see the Belgian return on the descent, drop Fuente and ride into Livigno more than a minute ahead of the Spaniard.

The Cima Coppi—the high point of the ’72 Giro—was the Stelvio. Ascending the north side of the climb, Fuente attacked once, was brought back and then bided his time and then attacked again—in the big ring, no less—this time making it stick. At the finish line at the top he had a whopping 2:05 on Merckx. However, Merckx had a lead of nearly 6 minutes in the overall. Not to worry.

The remaining stages, though some contained significant climbs, saw no further improvement in Fuente’s gap on Merckx. The penultimate stage was an 18km time trial that only saw Merckx stretch his lead once again. He won the Giro by 5 minutes, 30 seconds.

Breaking the best at the Tour

At the prologue in Angers, Merckx, wearing the yellow jersey of the reigning champion, chose the opportunity to make a statement. In only 7km he put 12 seconds into second-place Raymond Poulidor, 13 into Joop Zoetemelk and 15 into the previous year’s great threat, Luis Ocaña. Merckx finished the day as he started it—clad in the maillot jaune.

Cyrille Guimard was a talented sprinter and captured the yellow jersey when he sprinted to victory in stage 1. Stage 3b, on July 4, was a team time trial which Merckx’s Molteni team won; victory in the stage gave Merckx a 20-second bonus, returning him to yellow. But he wouldn’t keep it. Just a day later, Guimard was back at it and took the sprint into Royan, putting him in yellow for the second time.

The next day was yet another split stage, with a flat, 134km run for the sprinters followed by a prologue-like (13km) time trial. Of course, Merckx took the TT, but he didn’t gain enough time on Guimard to take back the yellow jersey. That would have to wait until stage 8, the second day in the Pyrénées. He was 11 seconds off of Guimard, but more importantly, he had 51 seconds on Ocaña.

Stage 7 was the first mountain stage and took in the Col d’Aubisque. On the descent Ocaña crashed, taking with him Bernard Thévenet. By the finish he had lost 1:49 to Merckx. Stage 8 from Pau to Luchon was a classic Pyrenean stage, navigating the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde. When van Impe attacked on the Peyresourde, the surprise was that Merckx followed and Ocaña didn’t. The gap at the finish was only 8 seconds, but it might as well have been 8 minutes for what it said of Merckx’s strength.

Merckx was now back in yellow, as Guimard had finished more than three minutes down on him. The Cannibal would not relinquish the yellow jersey for the rest of the race.

Following two mountain stages—stage 11 to the summit of Mont Ventoux and stage 12 to Orcières—stage 13 presented a classic Alpine stage. The first climb of the day was the Vars, followed by the Izoard—a climb that helped seal Fausto Coppi’s reputation as the greatest climber of his generation—even for Merckx, winning in Briançon wasn’t simply a matter of will.

Using his Molteni teammates like hammers on a railroad spike, they drove the pace until only 16 riders remained. Raymond Delisle attacked on the Vars, and when Merckx responded Ocaña was dropped. Despite having never ridden the Izoard before, Merckx dumped Guimard like a warm water bottle and kept a group of four chasers (Guimard, Poulidor, van Impe and Felice Gimondi) at bay on the descent into Briançon by 1:30. Ocaña, to his credit, managed to cross the line only 10 seconds behind them.

The next day was text-message-breakup cruel. Stage 14a took in 51 mostly uphill kilometers from Briançon to the top of the Col du Galibier, whereupon the racers bombed their way to the ski town of Valloire and the finish. In stage 14b they departed Valloire, made the brief (4km) climb up the Télégraphe before descending to the valley to climb the Grand Cucheron and the Granier. What 14a lacked in distance, 14b made up for with 151km on tap.

Joop Zoetemelk summited the Galibier first, but as there were still 17km to race downhill, his achievement amounted to nothing. Merckx dropped on Zoetemelk like a falcon snatching a sparrow from the air, outsprinting the Dutchman for the win.

That afternoon the leaders stayed together until 5km from the top of the day’s final climb, at which point Merckx, Guimard, Gimondi, Zoetemelk, van Impe, and three others pulled away from what was left of the lead group. At the finish Guimard took the win from Merckx by less than the thickness of a deck of cards. Ocaña, who couldn’t follow the crucial acceleration on the Granier, rolled across the line in 33rd, some 5:19 down on Guimard. Any hope Ocaña had for yellow was water that evaporated in the summer sun. He withdrew from the race and revealed a lung infection.

By now it was apparent that Merckx’s greatest opponent was Guimard, who took the next day’s 28km mass-start stage from Aix-les-Bains to the top of Mont Revard. Merckx appeared to be winning and as he raised a hand to celebrate, Guimard threw his bike, embarrassing Merckx in the process. And while Guimard was closest to Merckx on GC, the threat would not last.

Following a transitional stage, the race’s final mountain stage ascended the Ballon d’Alsace. Guimard had been suffering knee pain for most of the race and while he had hidden his trouble from the others, the pain saw him struggle to stay with the leaders, eventually finishing 2 minutes down. The next day he started only to withdraw after 10km. Though Merckx would go on to win the Versailles time trial, the race was effectively over the moment Guimard climbed off his bike. Merckx’s winning margin over Felice Gimondi was a commanding 10 minutes, 41 seconds.

Though Merckx would win the green jersey, he took over the jersey upon Guimard’s retirement from the race. The Frenchman had worn the jersey since stage 1 when he took it off of Merckx who had won it in the prologue. Guimard was brought up on the podium to present the jersey to Merckx, who promptly returned it, saying it really belonged him.

In the week following the Tour, the closest thing Merckx took to a day off was one of his two abandonments all season. Beginning the day after the Tour ended and going straight through to August 1, Merckx recorded three more wins at post-Tour criteriums as well as four top-10 finishes. He then took four days off to rest before the World Championship road race in Gap.

At the World Championships, Merckx helped to make the final selection of seven riders. In the group with Merckx were Guimard (already back from his knee injury!), Zoetemelk, Franco Bitossi, Marino Basso, Michele Cancelli and Leif Mortensen. With less than 5km to go, Guimard took a flyer and Bitossi latched on, but refused to pull through. Guimard slowed and the group reeled them in. But at the moment of the catch Bitossi took off.

What happened next defies explanation. Bitossi’s teammate on the Italian national team, Basso, took up the chase. Soon he recruited Merckx, Guimard and Zoetemelk to pull. At the line Basso pipped Bitossi while Guimard bested Merckx for bronze. So close.

Following the World Championships, Merckx didn’t let up on his schedule of racing. In the two months leading up to the Tour of Lombardy he raced 28 times, and took 16 wins and eight top-10 finishes.

Lombardy played the protagonists of the Tour de France against each other yet again, this time with the outcome expected in Paris: Merckx broke away from a group containing Guimard and Gimondi, and by the finish he put 1:27 into them. Guimard took the sprint from Gimondi.

Still, Merckx wasn’t through with his season. He raced four more times, winning three and taking second in the other. Only then did he take eight days off, during which time he traveled to Mexico City to tackle the hour record.

The Cannibal decided he would not only take the hour record, but he would set the record for both the 10 and 20km distances along the way. Ole Ritter, who held all three records, had set each record during individual rides, and not in one ambitious hammerfest. In setting a new mark for the hour, Merckx bettered what only 19 men before had achieved.

Merckx went on to beat Ritter’s time for 10km by 19 seconds and his 20km time by 11 seconds. Ritter’s mark of 48.653km fell by nearly a kilometer, with Merckx setting a new mark of 49.431km. It was the biggest increase in the mark in the previous 17 records going back to Oscar Egg’s mark of 43.525km set in 1913.

What makes the 1972 season so extraordinary isn’t Merckx’s win rate, though it was superlative. He won 51 of 137 races, giving him a 37-percent victory rate. When you consider the number of top-three finishes he had his rate of success is an astonishing 57 percent. Just imagine a season in which more than half the time you wind up on the podium. Just how many magnums of champagne can a man shake?

Merckx had another season where he won more often, but the reason why ’72 remains his best year is simple: It’s a year on which an entire career could be built: Two Grand Tours, three Monuments and the hour record. Though Coppi and Anquetil could claim the Tour/Giro double and both set the hour record, Merckx was the first—and only—to achieve all three in the same year. As some pointed out, after beating the entire peloton, when Merckx set out to conquer the hour record he vanquished the one person he hadn’t previously humbled: himself.

1972 by the numbers

Below is a listing of each race Merckx entered during the ’72 season and his result. To achieve these results, Merckx had to race 139 times over 127 days. That he won so often is all the more amazing considering the lengthy transfers he often endured to race consecutive days even when not engaged in a stage race.

February/March/April [28 days]:
2/20 Trofeo Laigueglia (2)/Tour of Sardinia (37th overall); 2/27 Stage 1 (main group); 2/28 Stage 2 (7); 2/29 Stage 3 (main group); 3/1 Stage 4 (45); 3/2 Stage 5 (5); 3/4 Circuit Het Volk (1); Paris-Nice (2nd overall); 3/9 Prologue (1); 3/10 Stage 1 (4); 3/11 Stage 2 (1); 3/12 Stage 3a (15); 3/13 Stage 4a (20); Stage 4b (4); 3/14 Stage 5 (1); 3/15 Stage 6 (4); 3/16 Stage 7a (8); Stage 7b (2); 3/18 Milan-San Remo (1); 3/19 Pontoglio (2); 3/20 Petite-Foret (2); 3/20 Valenciennes (2); 3/25 Harelbeke E3 GP (2); 3/26 Fleche Brabançonne (1); 4/2 Gavardo (7); 4/3 San Martino (2); 4/9 Tour of Flanders (7); 4/12 Ghent-Wevelgem (3); 4/16 Paris-Roubaix (7); 4/20 Liège–Bastogne–Liège (1); 4/23 La Flèche Wallonne (1).

May/June [34 days]:
5/1 Henninger Turm (2); 5/6 Momignies (1); 5/11 Nandrin (8); 5/16 Mirandola (5); Giro d’Italia (1st overall); 5/21 Stage 1 (12); 5/22 Stage 2 (4); 5/23 Stage 3 (2); 5/24 Stage 4a (5); Stage 4b (35); 5/25 Stage 5 (4); 5/26 Stage 6 (19); 5/27 Stage 7 (2); 5/28 Stage 8 (28); 5/29 Stage 9 (8); 5/31 Stage 10 (7); 6/1 Stage 11 (14); 6/2 Stage 12 (TT) (1); 6/3 Stage 13 (26); 6/4 Stage 14 (1); 6/6 Stage 15 (34); 6/7 Stage 16 (1); 6/9 Stage 17a (3); Stage 17b (30); 6/10 Stage 18a (17); Stage 18b (TT) (1); 6/11 Stage 19 (10); 6/12 Castelfranco-Veneto (1); 6/13 Busto Arsizio (2); 6/14 Mantua (2); 6/15 Monsummano (2); 6/16 Rimini (1); 6/16 Poggio a Caiano (2); 6/20 Zomergem (1); 6/21 Boulogne (1); 6/25 Bornem (Belg. Champ.) (2); 6/27 Peer (crash out); 6/28 Wavre (2)

July/August [42 days]:
Tour de France (1st overall); 7/1 Prologue (1); 7/2 Stage 1 (6); 7/3 Stage 2 (37); 7/4 Stage 3a (30); Stage 3b (TTT) (1); 7/5 Stage 4 (7); 7/6 Stage 5a (22); Stage 5b (1); 7/7 Stage 6 (9); 7/9 Stage 7 (5); 7/10 Stage 8 (1); 7/11 Stage 9 (55); 7/12 Stage 10 (29); 7/13 Stage 11 (2); 7/14 Stage 12 (3); 7/16 Stage 13 (1); 7/17 Stage 14a (1); Stage 14b (2); 7/18 Stage 15 (2); 7/19 Stage 16 (57); 7/20 Stage 17 (4); 7/21 Stage 18 (35); 7/22 Stage 19 (48); 7/23 Stage 20a (1); Stage 20b (48); 7/24  Aalst (4); 7/25 Ronse (1); 7/26 St. Lambrechts-Woluwe (1); 7/27 De Panne (abandoned); 7/28 Londerzeel (8); 7/29 Rijmenam (6); 7/30 Rocourt track (2); 7/31 Heusden (12); 8/1 Schoten (1); 8/6 World Championship (4); 8/7 Chateau-Chinon (4); 8/9 Bilzen (4); 8/11 Tienen (1); 8/12 Drongen (26); 8/13 G.P. Dortmund (1); 8/14 Quiberon (1); 8/15 Moorslede (11); 8/25 Heusden (4); 8/27 St. Lenaerts (4); 8/28 Brustem (1); 8/31 Rummen (1)

September/October [23 days]:
9/1 Hyon-Ciply (2); 9/2 Zingem (1); 9/3 Plelan-le-Petit (1); 9/4 Chateaulin (3); 9/7 Volgera (1); 9/9 Tour of Piedmont (1); 9/10 Mendrisio (1); 9/14 Championship of Flanders (2); 9/15 Ougree (1); 9/16 Mont-sur-Marchienne (10); 9/19 Maldegem (1); 9/22 Beernem (1); 9/24 Montjuich (1); 9/25 St. Lauriens (2); 9/29 Ayneux-Fleron (1); 10/1 Paris-Tours (main group); 10/4 Bologna (1); 10/7 Tour of Lombardy (1); 10/8 Sallanches (1); 10/8 Lausanne (RR) (1); Lausanne (TT) 1; 10/11 Baracchi Trophy (1); 10/17 Putte-Kapellen (2); 10/25 Mexico City (World Hour Record)

TOP 3 FINISHES: 79 (includes overall win)

Special thanks to Bill McGann of for his research assistance.
Keep up with Kristof Ramon on Twitter @kristoframon, on Instagram @kramon_velophoto or at his website.

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