The greatest cyclist who ever lived did the double more times than anyone else. In 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1974 he won two major tours.
In 1970 Merckx had unfinished business with the Giro. He had been expelled from the previous year’s race while wearing the pink jersey after testing positive. He denied taking drugs and vowed to come back.
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He beat the home favourite and defending champion Felice Gimondi convincingly and then went on to win his second consecutive Tour de France with a crushing 12-minute win over the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk.
Two years later, he was in equally imperious form, wrapping up the Giro after leading since the end of the first week, before thrashing Gimondi at the Tour.
By 1973, Merckx had won the Tour four years in a row and the French were getting restless. While it is not exactly true that the Tour organisers requested that Merckx did not ride, by choosing to enter the Vuelta and Giro in the spring, he was weakening his hand by default.
The Vuelta was a race he had never ridden and never won, but it was one he felt he should add to his roll of honour. It was not a mountainous route and so the Belgian had a big edge over the Spanish climber Luis Ocana. In winning six stages and also dominating the time trials, Merckx sealed a comfortable victory and matched Anquetil’s feat of winning all three major tours.
It is astonishing to think now that Merckx finished the three-week Vuelta on May 13 and started the three-week Giro on May 18. That’s just four days between the two races, one of which would have been taken up with travelling from San Sebastian, where the Vuelta ended, to Verviers in Belgium, where the Giro started.
That Merckx won the Giro after leading from start to finish is a remarkable testimony to his focus and determination. Merckx won the prologue and stage one and four more stages.
The Giro ended on June 9, and the Tour was scheduled to start on June 30. There is speculation that Merckx was running scared from Ocana, speculation even that he wanted to take himself out of the picture to allow the Spaniard a chance of victory after that disastrous crash which denied him in 1971. Ocana deserved a Tour win, and Merckx knew that, but Merckx was not a man to stand aside. It’s also unlikely the Tour organisers seriously asked him to stay at home. What is more likely is that he was simply tired from six weeks of stage racing with barely a break.
Going out on a high
In 1974, the Belgian won his fifth and final Giro and his fifth and final Tour. The Giro was breathtakingly close. At the end just 12 seconds split Merckx and second-placed Giambattista Baronchelli after the Italian mounted a strong challenge in the final week’s mountain stages.
After the Giro, Merckx won the Tour of Switzerland then had an operation on his perineum. When the Tour got under way, the wound had not healed and his shorts were soaked in blood.
But Merckx being Merckx he won the prologue in Brest anyway, relinquished the yellow jersey for a few days and then grabbed it back as the race neared the Alps. On the flattish stage to Orleans, Merckx showed his superiority by riding away from the peloton with 14 kilometres to go and won alone by 1-25 — really incredible stuff. He paid the price, perhaps, in that afternoon’s time trial, where he was beaten by Michel Pollentier, but by the time the race reached Paris, Merckx had won eight stages.
GRAND TOUR CLINCHERS – 4 KEY STAGES
1) 1970 Giro d’Italia Stage 7, Malcesine-Brentonico
Merckx is still smarting from the positive dope test that cost him the 1969 Giro and sent him home early. A set-up, he claims. A week into the Giro and Felice Gimondi is his big rival. On the difficult stage to Brentonico, Merckx attacks and puts the defending champion in difficulty. Although it isn’t enough to win the Giro, it’s a big blow to Gimondi, who loses another two minutes in the time trial two days later, and with it his pink jersey.
2) 1970 Tour de France Stage 14, Gap-Bedoin Mont Ventoux
Merckx has never ridden Mont Ventoux in a race, the climb that claimed the life of his former team-mate Tom Simpson. But Merckx uses the Giant of Provence to put a Tour that already looks to be his beyond any doubt. He wins the stage by over a minute, although he looks very bad during the final kilometres. At the finish he collapses and is taken to an ambulance and given oxygen. He recovers and digests the news his overall lead is now nine minutes, which grows to 12 by the end of the race.
3) 1972 Tour de France Stage 7, Bayonne-Pau
Everyone is eagerly awaiting the Merckx-Ocana rematch after the Spaniard crashed out of the 1971 Tour with the Belgian on the ropes and the Tour in his grasp. Both riders are in great form but as the race reaches the Pyrenees, the weather turns ugly once again. And once again Ocana crashes. Merckx finishes with the stage winner, Yves Hezard. Ocana loses 1-49 and is battered, cut and bruised. He eventually quits the race with a lung infection, leaving Merckx to take the overall title.
4) 1974 Tour de France Stage 9, Briançon-Gaillard
Merckx already leads the race, but on this 241-kilometre stage he stamps his authority on the race, dragging a group of six clear, winning the stage and stretching his lead to more than a minute. A fifth Tour is already on the cards.
From the archives: Answering every challenge, unquestionably the strongest, Eddy Merckx has won his fourth Tour de France in succession — another record for the world champion — imposing his command in every department of what is acknowledged to have been the hardest Tour of post-war years.
It was not his wish that he should have won with the only two men who looked like making a fight of it going out in the last week — the Spaniard Luis Ocana, who had dedicated his season to preparing especially for this confrontation but found his health could not stand up to it, and French hero Cyrille Guimard who, from a simple ambition to win a couple of stages and take the points jersey, proved a revelation in the mountains and then had to quit with crippled knees so near the end.
But Guimard would have had no pretensions to finishing higher than the second place he held when he had to give up, and Ocana, after his fourth Tour let-down, must surely admit that his stamina is not up to such a challenge.
Merckx, accepting all the risks of a Tour which in its conception did not appear ideal for him, strong in all departments, brought his total of stage wins in the four he has ridden to 24. He needs one more to equal the record of the great André Leducq, which perhaps might tip the balance when the question of riding next year arises. He has said enough is enough, but in Paris he left the door open with a non-committal, “I am not saying no to 1973 — I’ll decide this winter.”
After the victory ceremony in Paris, at which Merckx made a touching gesture when he handed the green points jersey which was now his to an emotion-filled Guimard, the Belgian champion lost no time in flying home to Brussels, where his wife Claudine is expecting their second child.