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Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes

A look at one year in the life of the Cannibal.

Eddy Merckx at the start of the 1968 Trofeo Baracchi (with Ferdinand Braecke)
Eddy Merckx at the start of the 1968 Trofeo Baracchi (with Ferdinand Braecke)
All photos Tonny Stroucken

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes Title: Merckx 69
Authors: Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes (with a prologue by Eddy Merckx, translation by Rebekah Wilson)
Publisher: Bloomsbury (by arrangement with Cannibal Publishing)
Year: 2014
Pages: 180
Order: Bloomsbury
What it is: A time capsule taking you back to what many believe to have been Eddy Merckx's finest year
Strengths: Lavish production values, some wonderful photos and some pretty prose
Weaknesses: It's an act of hero worship

I saw him at work in snow, wind and storms. I drove behind him. I saw how he overtook riders who'd broken away. I saw something unique: the directeur sportifs in the following cars stopped to applaud him. When a champion gets his opponents to stop and clap him, he has reached the top of his sport.
~ Bruno Raschi

By the time the 1969 cycling season opened Eddy Merckx was already a two-time world champion (amateur and professional road race) and had won the Giro d'Italia, along with Milan-Sanremo (twice) and Paris-Roubaix. Add in a couple of Belgian Classics (Ghent-Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne) and a couple of Italian semi-Classics (the Tre Vali Varesine and the GP di Lugano) and he was clearly the man to watch for the coming season. And that season ... it was the sort of season riders have dreams of. It was also the sort of season riders have nightmares about. A season that swept high and crashed low. The nightmares are famous: thrown off the Giro in Savona having failed a dope test, and crashing on the track in Blois. The dreams, they include three monuments (Milan-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) and the Tour de France. Merckx 69 is a celebration of a very special season.

Made up of photographs taken by Tonny Stroucken (with, in the case of Blois, images from a few others) with Jan Maes serving up an epistolary monologue - letters to Merckx, from different points of the season - Merckx 69 covers the full length of Merckx's year, from the early season races, through the Spring Classics, past the Grand Tours, across the critérium circuit and into the Winter season on and off the boards. It is easy to say of Merckx that he was a man for all seasons, was winning in Winter and Autumn and well as Spring and Summer. It's harder to comprehend what that actually means. One aid here is to look at Merckx's performance throughout the year. The race results that follow are just a quick accounting of Merckx's calender, pulled from different sources quickly available but even with some gaps, show just what "winning in Winter and Autumn and well as Spring and Summer" really means.

Merckx opened his 1969 road season in Italy and then moved on to France where - in Aix-en-Provence, "an insignificant preparation race in the south of France" - he "looked into the flower girl's eyes for the first time." The first part of the season culminated with la Course au Soleil, Paris-Nice, where Merckx was up against a host of stars: five Tour de France winners (Jacques Anquetil, Lucien Aimar, Felice Gimondi, Roger Pingeon, Jan Janssen), as well as the nearly man of of the Tour Raymond Poulidor: "It was as if they'd drawn up a mutual agreement. They took it in turns to attack and try to break you. In vain. They had no chance of succeeding and had to bow to your dominant athletic ability."

On the final day, in the second part of a split stage, Merckx time trialled his way up the Col d'Èze - "the only beautiful place on the Côte d'Azur between Nice and Monaco" - and 300 metres from the line the torch was symbolically passed from one generation to the next when the Belgian passed the five-time Tour champion Anquetil. After, Merckx said that if it hadn't been about winning he wouldn't have passed Maître Jacques. But with Merckx, it was always about winning ("I never really wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be first").

Date Race Place
Thu 6 Feb Six Days of Milan (with Patrick Sercu) General Classification 1st
Fri 7 Feb
Sat 8 Feb
Sun 9 Feb
Mon 10 Feb
Tue 11 Feb
Wed 12 Feb
Sat 15 Feb Trofeo Laigueglia 2nd
Mon 17 Feb Aix-en-Provence 87.5 km 1st
Sat 1 Mar Omloop Het Volk 193 km 10th
Mon 3 Mar Vuelta a Levante Stage 1 Elche 112 km 2nd
Tue 4 Mar Stage 2 Elche to Benidorm 142 km 2nd
Wed 5 Mar Stage 3 Benidorm to Cullera 141 km 1st
Thu 6 Mar Stage 4 Cullera to Buñol 182 km 1st
Fri 7 Mar Stage 5 Valencia to Benicasim 175 km 1st
Sat 8 Mar Stage 6 5th
Sun 9 Mar Stage 7 Villareal 75 km 3rd
General Classification 1st
Points Classification 1st
Mon 10 Mar Paris-Nice Stage 1a Villebon-sur-Yvette 4 km 2nd
Mon 10 Mar Stage 1b Villebon-sur-Yvette to Joigny 153 km 3rd
Tue 11 Mar Stage 2 Joigny to Le Creusot 211 km 1st
Wed 12 Mar Stage 3a Paray-le-Monial to Saint-Étienne 147 km 5th
Stage 3b Saint-Étienne (ITT) 6.5 km 1st
Thu 13 Mar Stage 4 Saint-Étienne to Bollène 205 km
Fri 14 Mar Stage 5a Tavel (TTT) 20.5 km
Stage 5b Cavaillon to Hyères 207.5 km 6th
Sat 15 Mar Stage 6 Hyères to Draguignan 137.0 km
Sun 16 Mar Stage 7a Draguignan to Nice 105 km
Stage 7b Nice to Col d'Èze 9.5 km 1st
General Classification 1st
Points Classification 2nd

Three days after climbing the Col d'Èze, Merckx was descending the Poggio, en route to this third victory in four years in la Primavera. The Spring Classics season had begun. A week and a half later Merckx followed up his win in Milan-Sanremo by adding the Ronde van Vlaanderen to his already bulging palmarès. Attacking 70 kilometres out, on the flat, Merckx infuriated his directeur sportif Lomme Driessens. who tried to convince Merckx to temper his enthusiasm and hold his fire ("Your response to him was to the point, although not particularly godly I heard."). It was proper Flandrian weather that day, and maybe that's why Merckx rode away from the others, he just wanted to get home and out of the rain and the others weren't getting there quick enough. Or maybe - as Maes wonders - Merckx's packed calender meant he didn't get to spend enough time with his wife and, with Claudine waiting at the finish to accompany him to the airport and a flight to Spain, going harder gave Merckx more time in her company.

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
Victory salute in the Ronde van Vlaanderen

Three weeks after the Ronde came la Doyenne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In between was more racing and not much luck: illness took Merckx out of the Spanish race and defeat followed in Paris-Roubaix, the Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne. They say Merckx was hungry by the time he reached the start in Liège. He said he wanted to be the winner when he reached the finish in Liège. Few knew what to say when he did just that, having turned the last hundred kilometres into a two-up time trial with team-mate Vic van Schil and put more than eight minutes into his nearest rival, Barry Hoban (Mercier).

Wed 19 Mar Milan-Sanremo 288 km 1st
Sat 22 Mar Harelbeke-Anvers-Harelbeke (E3 Harelbeke) 215 km 7th
Tue 25 Mar Gand (Omnium, with Robert Lelangue + Frans Mintjens) 1st
Sun 30 Mar Ronde van Vlaandern 259 km 1st
Mon 31 Mar Vuelta a Mallorca Stage 1 Palma 176 km
Tue 1 Apr Stage 2a
Stage 2b Benisalem to Palma 180 km 1st
Wed 2 Apr Stage 3 DNS
Sun 13 Apr Paris-Roubaix 264 km 2nd
Tue 15 Apr Anvers (Omnium) 1st
Fri 18 Apr Amstel Gold Race 259 km 3rd
Sun 20 Apr Flèche Wallonne 222 km 5th
Tue 22 Apr Liège-Bastogne-Liège 253 km 1st

The next major rendezvous on Merckx's schedule was the defence of his Giro d'Italia crown, three weeks after the end of the Classics season. Those three weeks, they were filled with more racing for Merckx.

Fri 25 Apr Rome (Omnium) 1st
Sun 27 Apr Omloop der Vlaamse Gewesten 183 km 10th
Wed 30 Apr La Roche-sur-Yon (Omnium, with Robert Lelangue + Frans Mintjens) 1st
Thu 1 May Garancières-en-Beauce 130 km 3rd
Sun 4 May Championnat du Zürich 261 km 4th
Mon 5 May Yvetot (Omnium) 1st
Sat 10 May La Trimouille 110 km 1st
Sun 11 May Bruxelles - Meulebeke 1st
Tue 13 May Milan (Omnium) 2nd

Lady luck seemed to be smiling on Merckx in Italy. At the end of the race's first week, when the Giro arrived in Terrachina, the Belgian had already won three stages. The last of those three, in Terrachina, was a bunch sprint: "Intuitively, you felt that this would be a dangerous sprint. That's the only reason you rode at the front. But then that darned [Marino] Basso turned up. You couldn't let an opponent win! You persevered and won the sprint you hadn't really intended to win." The story of the day, though, was being written behind Merckx: a stand full of spectators collapsed, killing one young boy and taking out a few riders following the sprinters home. Merckx was spared. As he was spared when a bottle was thrown at him by one of the tifosi, it missing him by centimetres. And spared again when his rear wheel was shunted by a motorbike as the Giro neared Savona.

The Giro's sole rest day came a week later, by which time Merckx had stretched his stage tally to four and was wearing the maglia rosa. In the individual time trial before the rest day Merckx dominated his rivals. The Italians declared him fuoriclasse, an hors catégorie rider. There was then a sense of inevitability about what was to come, even though the Dolomites were yet to appear: Merckx was going to arrive in Milan in the pink jersey and, three weeks later, make his début at the Tour de France. The only question was would he join Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil in doing the Giro-Tour double. And then came Savona, the day lady luck turned her smile - and Merckx's world - upside down.

"You left Hotel Ecxelsior. On the reception desk stood a bouquet of gladioli, the flowers that symbolise moral integrity. They didn't look right there at all. This hotel deserved better, a bouquet of flowers with a pink ribbon. Yes, that should have been there when you passed by to head off to the start. But instead there was just the stupid gladioli. not even in a real crystal vase but a cheap fake one. You didn't pass by to head off to the start. Instead, you set off for home, without any flowers and without the pink jersey. After much deliberation the peloton set off in the direction of Pavia, without you and your team-mates. They didn't allow you into that area. Your bike was loaded and the only thing in your case was disillusionment. Yet I still believe it will turn out all right. In spite of everything, I still believe Savona will only make you greater."

Fri 16 May Giro d'Italia Stage 1 Garda to Brescia 142 km
Sat 17 May Stage 2 Brescia to Mirandola 180 km 11th
Sun 18 May Stage 3 Mirandola to Montecatini Terme 188 km 1st
Mon 19 May Stage 4 Montecatini Terme (ITT) 21 km 1st
Tue 20 May Stage 5 Montecatini Terme to Follonica 194 km 15th
Wed 21 May Stage 6 Follonica to Viterbo 198 km 18th
Thu 22 May Stage 7 Viterbo to Terracina 206 km 1st
Fri 23 May Stage 8 Terracina to Napoli 133 km 16th
Sat 24 May Stage 9 Napoli to Potenza 173 km 12th
Sun 25 May Stage 10 Potenza to Campitello Matese 254 km 7th
Mon 26 May Stage 11 Campobasso to Scanno 165 km 8th
Tue 27 May Stage 12 Scanno to Silvi Marina 180 km 6th
Wed 28 May Stage 13 Silvi Marina to Senigallia 166 km
Thu 29 May Stage 14 Senigallia to San Marino 185 km
Fri 30 May Stage 15 Cesenatico to San Marino (ITT) 49.3 km 1st
Sat 31 May Rest Day
Sun 1 Jun Stage 16 Parma to Savona 234 km
Mon 2 Jun Stage 17 Celle Ligure to Pavia 182 km DQ

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
Signing autographs for fans ahead of the Tour de France

Wed 18 Jun Caen 58 km
Thu 19 Jun Sint-Andries 132 km
Sun 22 Jun National Championships 32nd
Mon 23 Jun Ottignies 175 km 1st
Rocourt (Omnium) 4th

Twenty-seven days after Savona - and after much politicking behind the scenes which enabled Merckx's positive test to be excused but not excised - Merckx arrived at the start of the fifty-sixth Tour de France. He may only have been making his grande boucle début but the Tour was already celebrating him, the Roubaix grand départ (where, as luck would have it, Merckx's name had been drawn to be the first rider down the prologue's start ramp) being followed by a visit to Merckx's home of Woluwe-Saint-Peters. And there, in the team time trial on the afternoon of the Tour's second day, Merckx donned the maillot jaune, he leading his Faema team across the line in front of neighbours and friends ("Woluwe was transformed into a southern arena of indomitable joy. [...] Cycling is a modern form of bread and circuses. The winner is cheered and is always right, the losers mocked and derided. 'Win the favour of the people and you'll survive the arena.' It'll be like that all the time from now on. Never again will you have to win the favour of your own people.").

Merckx69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
The hero leaves home and sets forth on his quest
promising to return with an armful of
golden fleeces

The next day Merckx swapped yellow for white, his Faema team-mate Julien Stevens donning the maillot jaune while he donned the maillot blanc, which back then was awarded to the leader of the combination classification. On the last day of the Tour's first week the race reached the Vosges and the Ballon d'Alsace. The end of that day might just as well have been the end of the Tour, Merckx had taken the stage win and added to his lead in the combination classification the climbing and points classifications. And the overall. His nearest rival - Rudi Altig (Salvarani) - was at 2'03", all the rest already more than four minutes in arrears. Sixteen days of racing remained. The year before, the Tour hadn't been decided until the last day, Jan Janssen (Netherlands) usurping Herman van Springel (Belgium A) in the time trial finale and winning with the race's narrowest victory margin to-date (38"). All that could be hoped for in 1969 was that the peloton might somehow get its act together and stage a coup d'état.

The coup came on the Tour's seventeenth stage, only it wasn't staged by the peloton. It was staged by the man in yellow, Merckx himself. Across the Tour's history there are hundreds and hundreds of days that just blend one into the other, and there are a few dozen that will never be forgotten. Eugène Christophe in Saint-Marie-de-Campan in 1913. Albert Londres in that café in Coutances in 1924. The thunderstorm between Bayonne and Luchon in 1926. The French team in the Alps in 1930. René Vietto in the Pyrénées in 1934. Jean Robic on the road into Paris in 1947. Fausto Coppi en route to Sestriere in 1952. Federico Bahamontes on the Col de la Romeyere in 1954. Jean Malléjac on the Ventoux in 1955. Tom Simpson on the Ventoux in 1967. They are days that help define the Tour, some showing the race at its best, some at its worst. In 1969 Merckx added one of the best on the road between Luchon and Mourenx.

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
Between the Tourmalet and the Soulor, en route to Mourenx

"Mourenx was on tenterhooks waiting for your arrival. The applause was like a wind that had blown across the mountains. It had been accomplished. A breakaway that had everything: passion, daring, perseverance, class and emotion. The finish line lay ahead. On an ordinary road, not an avenue fit for a king. An ordinary road, not really worthy of this performance."

After twenty-two days of racing uninterupted by rest days Merckx rode into the Cipale Vélodrome in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, the last man home in the 1969 Tour de France, adding a sixth stage victory (seventh if the team time trial is counted) to his collection of the maillot jaune, the maillot vert, the King of the Mountains title, the maillot blanc, the combativity award and his share of the team prize. The fans cheered him home loudly, offered none of the coldness they had greeted Maître Jacques with in the Parc des Princes in another era. Merckx's mother and his wife, both were there to cheer him home too. As was Belgium's Prime Minister Paul van den Boeynents, who had brought his jet to Paris to whisk the conquering hero home to Belgium that night.

Sat 28 Jun Tour de France Prologue Roubaix (ITT) 10 km 2nd
Sun 29 Jun Stage 1a Roubaix to Woluwe-Saint-Peters 147 km 5th
Stage 1b Woluwe-Saint-Peters (TTT) 16 km 1st
Mon 30 Jun Stage 2 Woluwe-Saint-Peters to Maastricht 182 km 15th
Tue 1 Jul Stage 3 Maastricht to Charleville-Mézières 213 km 15th
Wed 2 Jul Stage 4 Charleville-Mézières to Nancy 214 km 39th
Thu 3 Jul Stage 5 Nancy to Mulhouse 194 km 4th
Fri 4 Jul Stage 6 Mulhouse to Ballon d'Alsace 133 km 1st
Sat 5 Jul Stage 7 Belfort to Divonne-les-Bains 241 km 28th
Sun 6 Jul Stage 8a Divonne-les-Bains (ITT) 9 km 1st
Stage 8b Divonne-les-Bains to Thonon-les-Bains 137 km 29th
Mon 7 Jul Stage 9 Thonon-les-Bains to Chamonix 111 km 2nd
Tue 8 Jul Stage 10 Chamonix to Briançon 221 km 2nd
Wed 9 Jul Stage 11 Briançon to Digne 198 km 1st
Thu 10 Jul Stage 12 Digne to Aubagne 161 km 3rd
Fri 11 Jul Stage 13 Aubagne to La Grande-Motte 196 km 32nd
Sat 12 Jul Stage 14 La Grande-Motte to Revel 234 km 31st
Sun 13 Jul Stage 15 Revel (ITT) 19 km 1st
Mon 14 Jul Stage 16 Castelnaudary to Luchon 199 km 4th
Tue 15 Jul Stage 17 Luchon to Mourenx 214 km 1st
Wed 16 Jul Stage 18 Mourenx to Bordeaux 201 km 56th
Thu 17 Jul Stage 19 Bordeaux to Brive 193 km 34th
Fri 18 Jul Stage 20 Brive to Puy-de-Dôme 198 km 2nd
Sat 19 Jul Stage 21 Clermont-Ferrand to Montargis 329 km 62nd
Sun 20 Jul Stage 22a Montargis to Créteil 111 km 54th
Stage 22b Créteil to Paris (ITT) 37 km 1st
General Classification 1st
Points Classification 1st
Mountains Classification 1st
Team Classification 1st
Combination Classification 1st
Combativity Classification 1st

Merckx then set out on his victory Tour, that Shadow Tour of critériums and track races that follow and celebrate the main event, cycling's new hero taking time out on the Monday (before racing in Aalst that night) to meet the King and the Queen of the Belgians in Laeken and on the Thursday (before an evening critérium in De Panne) to parade through the streets of Brussels in an open-topped car ("It was like being in America. Confetti flew through the air and fluttered down onto you and Claudine. They lined the streets in their thousands: people hung from the windows of tall buildings just to get a glimpse of you.").

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
The conquering hero gets his triumph

Once, the Belgians had ruled the Tour, for a time maybe even squeezed the life out of it. Odile Defraye, Phillipe Thys, Firmin Lambot, Léon Scieur, those four men had won every edition of the race between 1912 and 1922. They were followed by Lucien Buysse, Maurice Dewaele, Romain Maes, and Sylvère Maes who added another five titles between 1926 and 1939. The Belgian rule of the Tour, it began before the First World War and ended before the Second, eight Belgians delivering 11 Tour titles in 24 editions of the race across 28 years. Across the next 29 years and 22 editions of the Tour another eight Belgians could deliver no better than podium places: Brik Schotte (1948), Stan Ockers (1950 and 1952), Jean Branckart (1955), Jan Adriaenssens (1956 and 1960), Marcel Jannsens (1957), Jozef Planckaert (1962), Herman van Springel (1968), and Ferdinand Bracke (1968), with Van Springel having come closest to ending the drought. (Belgian cycling was not without its heroes in those years, they were the eras of the two Riks, Van Steenbergen and the Emperor of Herantals, Van Looy.)

Of the men who had stood atop the podium in Paris, Thys, Scieur, Buysse and Romain Maes were still alive to witness the birth of a new Belgian hegemony at the Tour. All bar Scieur (who was ill and would die in October that year) were on hand to greet Merckx when he was paraded through the streets of Brussels. As was the original Belgian, Cyrille van Hauwaert, the man who had lit the torch by winning Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in 1908, inspiring his compatriots to turn Belgium into a cycling nation.

Mon 21 Jul Aalst 100 km 1st
Tue 22 Jul Renaix 81 km 2nd
Wed 23 Jul Woluwe-Saint Lambert 75 km 1st
Thu 24 Jul De Panne 115 km 2nd
Sat 26 Jul Denderleeuw DNF
Rijmenam 110 km 2nd
Sun 27 Jul Vincennes 3rd
Vincennes (Omnium) 1st
Tue 29 Jul Guerlesquin 104 km 1st
Sat 2 Aug Remiremont 106 km 1st
Sun 3 Aug Commentry 100 km 3rd
Mon 4 Aug Château-Chinon 110 km 1st
Tue 5 Aug Paris-Luxembourg Stage 1 Paris-Rethel 4th
Wed 6 Aug Stage 2 Rethel-Luxembourg 1st
General Classification 1st
Sun 10 Aug World Championships (road) Zolder DNF
Mon 11 Aug Lokeren 80 km 2nd
Tue 12 Aug Ostende (Omnium) 1st
Wed 13 Aug Turnhout 85 km 3rd
Honselersdijk 74.7 km 2nd
Fri 15 Aug Londerzel 60 km 1st
Sun 17 Aug Saussignac 90 km 1st
Moorslede 90 km 1st
Tue 19 Aug Bilzen 100 km 3rd
Wed 20 Aug Auvelais 56 km 1st
Tue 26 Aug Villeneuve-sur-Lot 2nd
Sun 31 Aug Vincennes (Omnium) 2nd
Wed 3 Sep Alès 96 km 1st
Sun 7 Sep Châteaugiron 117 km 3rd
Vincennes (Omnium, with Julien Stevens, Gerben Karstens + Andres Gandarais) 2nd
Mon 8 Sep Châteaulin (Circuit de l'Aulne) 150.7 km 1st

A month before Léon Scieur died Eddy Merckx almost beat him into the afterlife. It was September 9, a Tuesday, on the concrete track of the Pierre Tessier vélodrome in Blois, France. For most of the 50 days since the Tour had ended Merck had been on the road, shuttling from one race to the next ("This was no longer the life of a cyclist, but the life of a gypsy. In the morning an appearance in Belgium, in the evening a race in France ... I counted them: between the end of the Tour and that fatal fall in Blois, you raced in 36 critériums."). Blois was just another day, another race.

The fall

The crash killed Merckx's Derny pilot but left the Tour winner - wearing his maillot jaune - with concussion, which caused him to be hospitalised. The other injuries were more lasting and wouldn't even be noticed for a while. And before they were, there was time for yet more races.

Tue 9 Sep Blois DNF
Wed 17 Sep
Sun 21 Sep Schaerbeek 80 km 1st
Mon 29 Sep Saint-Genesius-Rode DNF
Thu 2 Oct Trofeo Baracchi (TTT, with Davide Boifava) 3rd
Sun 5 Oct Gand (Omnium, with Julien Stevens) 1st
Mon 6 Oct Oostrozebeke 115 km 2nd
Sat 11 Oct Soumagne 147.5 km 2nd
Sun 12 Oct A Travers Lausanne Stage 1 5th
Stage 2 (ITT) 5th
General Classification 6th
Fri 17 Oct Cologne (Madison, with Patrick Sercu) 1st
Sun 19 Oct Scorzè 108 km 1st
Sun 26 Oct
Fri 12 Dec Six Days of Charleroi (with Julien Stevens) General Classification 2nd
Sat 13 Dec
Sun 14 Dec
Mon 15 Dec
Tue 16 Dec
Wed 17 Dec
Thu 18 Dec
Thu 25 Dec Gand (Omnium, with Roger de Vlaeminck) 1st
Gand (Madison, with Patrick Sercu) 2nd
Fri 26 Dec Charleroi (Omnium, with Ferdinand Bracke) 1st
GP de Wallonie (Charleroi) 1st
Sat 27 Dec Anvers (Omnium, with Jacques Anquetil, Rudi Altig + Harm Ottenbros) 1st
Super Prestige Pernod 1st

Merckx 69 is a record of what many believe was Merckx's best year, of what was certainly the most important in his cycling career. It is not a record of all the races Merckx appeared in, not even a record of all the races he won that year, instead it is a selection of the best, broken into 12 sections (one to open the season (which includes some images from previous years), one for the Col d'Èze, three for the Spring Classics, two for the Giro, two for the Tour, one for the post-Tour celebrations, one for Blois, and one to round the collection out). The strength of Merckx 69 is its narrow focus, 12 'moments' from one year in Merckx's professional career. Stroucken doesn't have to select one solitary image to sum up a whole race, he can present a selection of images which have the space to breathe. And tell a story.

Each of Merckx 69's sections comes with a brief introductory text and a two-page letter from Jan Maes, which add colour to Stroucken's black-and-white photographs. Maes doesn't offer up race reports, rather he offers a fan's response to the events depicted by Stroucken. If you've already read Daniel Friebe's Eddy Merckx - The Cannibal, William Fotheringham's Merckx - Half Man, Half Bike or Jan Backelandt's Merckx 525 (or any of the Giro, Tour or Classics books that are out there) you will probably be familiar with the detail of the victories (and of Savona and Blois), in which case Maes's text adds depth to those accounts by approaching the subject from a different angle. If you're new to the Merckx canon, Maes says enough to tell you what you need to know of the detail to understand his response to those events depicted. And his response to those events really is what his words are all about.

Two criticisms. The first is that Maes is a fan and fans write hagiography. Maes's words are love letters from a fan to his idol. Merckx is treated like a cycling God, there is no criticism, no questioning. As beautiful as Maes's polished prose is - and it is a thing of beauty - I personally would prefer to see some sandpaper taken to the legend, get to see what is really behind the gilt. The other criticism is that the book only offers black-and-white images. I love black-and-white but colour photographs from the 1960s and 1970s have a peculiar beauty, partly (I think) coming from the film stock but also coming from the sport itself: the jerseys of the time were cleaner, simpler, not the cacophony of colour that came later, they used strong, primary colours, and used them in moderation (the red and white of 1969's Faema jersey, for instance). These, though, are minor points, rectified by the reader referring to the rest of the Merckx canon (four books in three years and doubtlessly more to come with all the fiftieth anniversaries about to rain down upon us).

Merckx 69, by Tonny Stroucken & Jan Maes
After the Tour was over, being whisked back to Belgium by government jet