Three years ago, I hadn't even heard of Eddy Merckx...I was a typical working stiff who worked way too much and did not play nearly enough. That all changed when I lost my job. I grabbed my mountain bike, headed for Central Park in NYC and I haven't stopped riding since. Coming from a runners background, I was always up to date with all the goings on in the sport and some of the history too. But now as a cyclist...it was time for a new education. Sure I knew the Tour de France, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong but had never heard of Eddy Merckx. Then as my cycling education began I started reading about his exploits and thought..."Wow! This man was truly an animal!"
Last year I moved to San Francisco, the hotbed of American cycling, and a few weeks ago I saw a posting about a charity ride with Eddy Merckx and I said to myself "self...this is a ride I can't miss" . When the day came I made my donation to the Oak School for autistic kids, put on my kit and grabbed my bike.
I thought, ok, it's a charity ride so it will be pretty mellow. A collection of local racers from the various Bay Area teams were in attendance as well as regular folks on their mountain bikes, cruisers and tandems. Charity ride...35 miles....no sweat. After about 30 minutes of pre-ride introductions, greetings, interviews and autographs, everyone was ready for the ride to begin...including former World Champion and 5x Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx. And it was like a starters pistol was shot. The charity race....ummmm..ahhh...ride was now underway.
I thought to myself...."man this is fast...maybe Eddy's just stretching the legs out", "...ahh yeah that's what it was."
I soon realized that if I did not make a strong move out of the back of the group I was about to dropped...on a charity ride! As I moved past all the recreational, non-racing folks, the group stormed the streets of Mill Valley. The ride made its way onto familiar roads in Marin so I thought "ok, on the climb it will all comeback together" Wrong... And I was chasing hard again...
Then as a cascade of spent cyclists was shelled off the back like empty cartridges from a Gatling gun. We made our way thru the crowded streets of San Rafael. Here things started to get interesting. Police were trying to keep the group moving safely while lycra covered, helmeted, clipless shod "pros" dodged traffic, rode on sidewalks and did everything a kid on a bmx bike does just short of jumping garbage cans, all for a chance to ride next to the legendary Merckx. It was at this point that the police asked Eddy to bring the ride back into one lane. With that, Eddy yelled something (probably some Belgian curse) and turned up the pace, stretching out the group and thus displaying how adeptly the five times tour champ can tame an out of control peloton.
Finally we got off the busy streets and rode an empty stretch of rolling hills. This is when things turned into a classic showing of bravado. Kit clad, wannabe pros shooting to the front in an effort to draw out the Cannibal. Eddy's group would give chase in an effort to control the ride. Effortlessly he'd reel them back in, proving that the guile gained by winning five tours wasn't lost over the years. The pace was fevered, Yet, an aged Merckx showed stoic pleasure. This was insane...doesn't anyone want to ride next to him and get a pic? How about, 'say hi' and ask him his thoughts on racing as we leisurely ride around Marin County for a good cause?
As the ride made its way back toward the start, the speed really started climbing. The group kept pushing...maybe they wanted to let Eddy know that West Coast cyclist mean business? Or maybe they thought, "Eddy Merckx, I could take him." At one point though, a true highlight could be seen. As we came to an intersection for a left turn, with the group composed of about 7 wide across the front, the Legend stood up, pushed about five hard pedal strokes and right there you could see the beauty of what made him such a great rider as he led thru the turn. That must have been what all his rivals saw...and dreaded.
With one climb remaining, I thought this is my last best chance to pull along side for a photo op. After I pulled up next to him, I said hello. He politely returned the hello... I asked him what he thought of the World Championships... He praised Bettini's ride, and with that I attacked!... No I'm kidding. Since we were now approaching the final climb I did one better. I thought, I am going to suck this old man's wheel and for almost a mile Eddy Merckx pulled me up the last climb. As we reached the top... then I attacked.
Noooo...! Gotcha again. The group now descended the climb and everyone seemed to finally relax. As the group of about 25, out of a starting 200, returned you could hear everyone saying...how cool it was to ride with Eddy Merckx. But first and foremost it was a ride for a good cause with quite possibly the greatest cyclist the world will ever see. A charity ride that averaged almost 25mph...