Cycling great Eddy Merckx has returned to Belgium from the Tour of Oman after learning of the death of his father-in-law and former coach Lucien Acou

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Belgian cycling great Eddy Merckx left the Tour of Oman, which he co-organises, overnight on Monday after hearing his former national coach and father-in-law had died.

Merckx was coached by Lucien Acou before going on to dominate cycling in the 1960s and 1970s. Through his coach, who was 94, he met his wife Claudine.

The pre-race press conference for the Tour of Oman began one hour late on Monday. “He fell, it’s bad,” Merckx told Cycling Weekly afterwards. A visibly upset Merckx then left with his son Axel for the nine-hour flight from Muscat to Brussels.

Acou reportedly became ill while going to retrieve the newspaper from the mailbox and fell. He is survived by his 95-year-old wife and daughter Claudine.

Merckx began racing in 1965 and shot to the top with victories in nearly every race. He won all three grand tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France five times each, and every major classic.

In the Middle East, he co-organises the Tour of Qatar and Tour of Oman stage races with Dirk De Pauw. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) won the Tour of Qatar on Friday. The Tour of Oman began today without Merckx.

Merckx may return on Friday ahead of the final two stages. It is a critical moment for him and De Pauw, who are trying to renew the race’s contract for three more years with the capital city of Muscat.