Catching the news of Eddy Merckx's retirement from the bicycle company that bears his name the other day made me think back to my first brush with the name Merckx. Besides running track and cross country, I raced a bit back in my late teens and early twenties. That was the era of LeMond and Fignon, Roche, Kelly then Indurain. Back then, as now, racing was a fairly close-knit community. Not that you knew everyone, but the same guys showed up for every race and you always knew who to look out for. I'll never forget this one guy around my age, dark tan, black wavy hair,... very Euro looking to me. He rode a Merckx. Red, World Champion stripes on the frame, Columbus SL tubing. All Campy. So Pro. I loved his bike. He and his bike beat me often, but sometimes I beat him. Of course by that time, it was something like 10 years past the Merckx era so I had no idea. I only learned of Eddy after seeing the bike and doing research on the name I found so fascinating.
I used to enjoy rolling around the parking lot before races and checking out bikes and generally just enjoying the scene. I rode past the Merckx rider and overheard him say to his buddy while looking in my direction "That's the guy to look out for today." You see, I'd come in 3rd in a very hard fought race the weekend before and he was there too. So I guess that's where he got the idea.
During the race, 50 miler, I recall being in a solo breakaway for several miles before he and a few others reeled me in. After I got caught, another guy took off and I went to the back of the group, he got mildly annoyed that I wasn't taking any turns pulling. He said something like, "Just because you did a breakaway doesn't mean you can just wheelsuck now." I ignored him for awhile to catch my breath and a few miles later he came beside me and asked if maybe we outta go for it. He had such a great riding style I thought, I said nah, no condition for another attempt and he didn't go either. Anyway, he ended up winning the race in a group sprint and I got dropped just out of the lead group with under a mile to go, coming in 9th or 10th I guess.
A few months later I was walking across campus and I ran into him again. Tony Sylvester was his name, also a student at my university. It turns out his dad was my history professor and the head of the college's racing club. He asked if I was still riding/racing and if I wanted to join the university club. I joined. It was nice getting all those free tubular tires, food allowance and gas money to race for a guy living on $10 a week.
We did a lot of training and racing together after that, including the collegiate national championships. He regularly beat me. He was a gifted rider and sprinter, and his Red Merckx was just plain beautiful.
Anyway, that was my intro to the Merckx name and his retirement reminded me of that Beautiful Red Merckx.
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