eastern thought divides knowledge into two distinct flavours: those who know, and those who know about. it's possible that such inflections have periodically and selectively invaded the western world, but generally, as a people, we tend to glorify both in the same way. this 'knowing' generally pertains to religion or philosophy rather than bricks and mortar or nuts and bolts and maybe needs a touch more clarification. while we are likely to venerate scholars who are at the forefront of their individual fields, their knowledge is more regularly about their subject; we would likely find a professor of buddhism who dressed in saffron robes and shaved head to be a touch eccentric. in short, the west sees no real dichotomy between someone being an expert on a specific religion while holding different beliefs of their own.
this differential was often accrued by history's great philosophers, many of whom theorised over the ideal form of behaviour in a 'do as i say' manner as opposed to 'do as i do'. it's a price we pay for the straitjacket western education has introduced and maintained over hundreds of years. not necessarily one that has given much cause for concern it must be admitted, but it's there nonetheless. daniel friebe has, in this comprehensive volume concerning the cannibal, eddy merckx, rather blurred the lines between those two schools of thought, for though the book is undeniably about merckx, he has come remarkably close to knowing, rather than knowing about.
this has been achieved not by nefarious means, nor by smoke and mirrors, but through intensive research, interviews, and observation while having the literary wherewithal to string all together in a highly readable three hundred plus pages.
the eddy merckx story has been well documented, not so much in print, but most certainly through video. and now with 24 hour access to youtube and the like, it's incredibly easy to find out more everytime the merckx name pops up in conversation or on a blog. dissection by google if you like. however, that brings us back to knowing about rather than actually knowing; while daniel friebe may be regarded as a scholar of cycle racing, this book admirably demonstrates that he knows.
through the eyes of those surrounding merckx at each stage of his career, the book's narrative provides mental pictures to accompany the text as if you and i were part of a tv crew recording each demonstrable success while experiencing the inevitable lows. it's a shame that one or two of eddy's rivals and compatriots are now no longer with us, for friebe would more than likely have been able to endorse one or two further enlightenments regarding such an illustrious career. that said, it is testament to his sense of persepctive that the cannibal elucidates as much as it in fact does.
perhaps the most surprising aspect is the apparent change of heart shown by those whose careers undoubtedly suffered in their parallel course to that of merckx. i'm thinking here of such as roger de vlaeminck and felice gimondi, understandably, those who could conceivably have added to their own individual palmares were it not for merckx's insatiable appetitie for victory. they, along with van looy, were less than keen to commend his upward trajectory at the time. however, several seem now to have gained a clearer picture of the times in which they competed, glad indeed that their careers crossed paths. while merckx often comes across as being too much of a nice guy to be a team leader, those who were happy to be subservient in the same jerseys no doubt did so both in awe of his immense power and the undoubted riches that could be had in line with his serial victories.
his constant need to win has parallels with armstrong's 'no more gifts', though even the latter knew when to grant dispensation to others. 'most if not all other aspiring tour winners would have seen a lowly rider like jacques de boever's attack, 60 kilometres from the end of one of these 'transition stages' like the one to aubagne, as an irrelevance. not merckx. to him it was a race like any other, an opportunity, and a win by an inferior rider would be, to his way of thinking, an incongruity or even an affront. the much-discussed, much-mythologised 'politics of the peloton' to him sounded more like the convenient excuses of those uncomfortable with the idea of sport as meritocracy'.
not unnaturally, not only this constant need to win, but an apparent ability to do so at will brought with it accusations, sometimes reinforced by 'positives' such as that in the giro d'italia in 1969 (which left merckx with the dubious distinction of receiving the benefit of the doubt. though a subsequent 'positive' at lombardy in 1973 carried similar doubts, in the spring of 1977 along with several others, he was probably guilty as charged in the 'stimul' affair. if i have any critcism of friebe's book it's his dwelling on the subject of drugs. i am not, in this case, admitting to a form of euphoric naivety, but merckx's career is done and dusted, the stuff of legend. in the words of vic reeves 'you wouldn't let it lie'.
attending trade day at the last cycle show to be held at earls court, it was salutory to watch a long queue of those one would expect to be more blase about meeting a man of his stature, wait in line to have him sign something, anything.
it's not unnatural for suspicions to be raised, but in respect of all that precedes this particular chapter, i think the dwelling is lengthier than absolutely necessary. or maybe i'm just euphorically naive.
however, it would not be stretching credibility too far to suggest that friebe has, deliberately or otherwise, drawn attention to our current appraisal of apparently superhuman displays of riding by cycling's contemporaries. despite many a victory being achieved by more than modest time gaps, the overhwelming sense of disbelief by all and sundry at merckx's 'positive test' at savona in '69 would indicate that eddy was not held to be in thrall to chemical assistance. yet, here we are in the 21st century where anything even slightly out of the ordinary by way of performance is apt to result in a raising of at least one eyebrow.
i figure it's a regrettable omission that there is no index at the back of the book, but i do love the fact that each of the chapter headings is printed in lower-case type, and i delight in friebe's narrative style, one that pulls the reader into the world of eddy merckx to the exclusion of all else around. i believe the word is immersion. if i were you, i'd become immersed sooner rather than later. compulsory reading.
posted tuesday 10 april 2012...........................................................................................................................................................................................................