He might have been the greatest male road racer ever, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s Eddy Merckx also built one of the best teams ever. So how did he prepare them to race?


When Italian coffee machine manufacturer Faema recruited Eddy Merckx in 1968, part of the deal was to provide the cash not only to pay Merckx but to let him build the best team he could. That agreement was preserved when Molteni took over sponsoring Merckx’s team in 1971.

Eddy Merckx

Merckx looking effortlessly cool with an espresso.     Photo: Cycling Weekly Archive

Merckx and his personal manager Jean Van Buggenhout enlisted the best talent possible, but with one proviso — anyone joining the team wasn’t just riding for anybody, but Eddy Merckx.

The pay was good, but you could forget personal glory. The deal appealed to some, but not everybody he approached, thankfully.

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Once the team was assembled there was a pretty tough regime implemented. Training started with a bang on January 1 each year, and riders were expected to stay fit through to the end of the previous year. They had to cope with what Merckx had in store for them.

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Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the team met at his house just outside Brussels for a ride. Most of the team were Belgians, so they were expected to turn up. And the ride plan was simple and unwavering.

Eddy Merckx

Merckx won the 1971 Milan-San Remo: his fourth of a total seven victories.     Photo: UPI / Cycling Weekly Archive

For almost the whole of January, the team rode 200 kilometres together. They rode side by side, swapping riders at the front. And they rode whatever the weather threw at them. Rain, hail or sleet, it didn’t matter.

They rode from Brussels to the East Flanders hills, the Flemish Ardennes, did a big loop of the Tour of Flanders climbs, then rode back to Brussels again.

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“I used to see them,” said former British rider Barry Hoban. “I’d be out training, but the Flemish Ardennes are a lot nearer to where I lived in Ghent than they are to Brussels. I’d be on my way home and I’d shout, ‘Enjoy your 200 kilometres, lads,’ taking the mickey a bit, but the training worked.

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“Merckx always had riders around him towards the end of a Classic. He always had teammates who could set the pace and close gaps, setting things up ready for him to attack.”

Eddy Merckx

Merckx and De Vlaeminck going head to head.     Photo: Paul Coerten / Cycling Weekly Archive

The training group would have a team car following them, with bike spares, extra clothing, food and drinks because there were never any stops.

The car didn’t pick up stragglers though. Anybody who dropped behind had to make their own way back, then explain to the boss why they were late. And if it rained or if sleet fell, Merckx would just tell the group it would probably do the same in the Tour of Flanders, so they’d better get used to it.

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Once back at Merckx’s place the riders showered and ate — usually the universal pro recovery food of Seventies Belgians, hot minestrone soup — then the group dispersed. And in the days they were at home, they were expected to do their own training.

It was a tough regime but when the season started in February, Merckx and his men were always ready. He was never less than competitive in his favourite first races; the Trofeo Laigueglia, Monaco GP and the Tour of Sardinia, often winning them.

Then Merckx would roar into the Classics. Winning Milan-San Remo seven times was no accident — it was based on those Monday, Wednesday and Friday sessions.

Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook

  • RJ Hudson III

    like my granny used to say “let em all take drugs and lets see what they can really do!”

  • Peter J Kott

    And so was everyone else.

  • Ge Du

    they forgot to mention that Merckx and his boys were on every PED available at the time

  • Eric

    I don’t care what people look like. Just know how to ride a straight line, take your pull, and at least know some history about the sport you have taken up.

  • b sloma

    true, but their elbows seemed more bendy than in these modern times

  • Oskar Scarsbrook

    It’s also not a photograph. Confounding eh?

  • James Gillett

    The Chrome was thick and the women were straight back then too.

  • Dr.Madhav

    I concur with your views.

    Beards doesn’t suit everyone; on some faces it looks like Fugly! 2012 era Wiggo was cool to watch.

  • Luis

    Maybe you should race with the women. Most women do not have beards.

  • 100% agree. Beards are spreading like wildfire throughout the peloton. Cavendish looks so much nicer without and as for the Namibia rider – well enough said. Shave them off lads. Especially young Yates who looked as if he just came from a real yokel’s nest.

  • Aaron Cassidy

    Me too! (I emailed the folks at CW to see how one might purchase it … so far no reply.)

  • Chris Sidwells

    Some Italians had black plastic overshoes in the late sixties, a rider called Denti used to get them made. And Belgians started using neoprene diving socks in the early seventies, bought 2 sizes bigger than the shoes with a hole cut out in the sole for their shoe plates (cleats in modern parlance)

  • Eddy

    Indeed. And all the gear levers and brakes have gone missing too. Very strange.

  • Roy Walter

    Oddly they don’t have chains or spokes either. Confounding eh?

  • Eddy

    Same here. Although it has just occurred to me that the black overshoes are a bit of an anachronism too.

  • liversedge

    I want that as a print, its fab

  • Eddy

    The illustration at the head of the article is wonderful. It is a bit inaccurate though. Cyclists rarely, if ever, had their stems that low on those days (cf the photo of Merckx and De Vlaeminck).

  • freakyjerk

    Whateva Fred.

  • kasual

    Wiggo should never shave that beard.

  • John Rayner

    My wish or hope for 2015 is that we don’t see any riders with “BEARDS” in my opinion it does’nt seem to look right for a racing cyclist!!!!