The Cannibal and the thief: Merckx’s legendary 1969 Tour de France, 50 years on

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Cycling, famously, is a sport of stars and water-carriers. The stars win; the water-carriers never do. But the history of cycling is written in those rare, fleeting moments when an unknown name attempts to steal victory from an established hero. Those moments are unlikely and rarely fruitful, but they define the sport just as much as the climbs and cobbles.

2019 is a momentous year for both the Tour de France and one of its most iconic stars. The 106th edition will fall precisely 100 years since the race’s most sacred icon, the leader’s yellow jersey, was first placed upon the shoulders of Eugene Christophe on a war-torn road in 1919. In addition, it marks the 50th anniversary of the first Tour victory for one Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx, the undisputed greatest cyclist of all time, the destroyer of pelotons, the favorite in nearly every race he entered, the appropriately nicknamed “Cannibal” of the sport.

In homage to the supernaturally dominant Belgian, the 2019 Tour will host its Grand Depart in Brussels. The first stage will feature a Classics-inspired journey around Flanders and up the consecrated cobblestone climb of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, eventually crossing through Sint-Pieters-Woluwe. This suburb of Brussels is where Eddy Merckx took the first of his record-setting 96 yellow jerseys on June 29, 1969. It’s also, in a perfect coincidence, his hometown.

This summer, the Tour will honor Eddy the Cannibal, the conqueror of everything that he desired in the 1969 Tour. Everything except one of the most storied and iconic mountain stages in cycling lore, stolen by a no-name domestique.

Merckx and his Faema team in action.

Merckx’s first Tour victory was his most dominant and arguably one of the most impressive of any Tour champion ever. He won the 1969 Tour with a margin of nearly 18 minutes between him and second-placed Roger Pingeon. The green sprinter’s jersey? Merckx won it, 244 points to 150. The King of the Mountains jersey? Merckx took it. The combativity prize, Merckx as well. If the white jersey for best young rider existed at the time, 24-year-old Merckx would have won that too. His Faema squad even claimed the overall team prize.

Merckx won six stages, a mix of sprints, mountains, and time trials, and Faema won the team time trial in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe for good measure. This performance was one of the most lopsided wins in modern Tour history. And to top it all off, this was Merckx’s first attempt at La Grande Boucle.

With hindsight, we think of Merckx as the presumed winner of every event he contested, even in his early years. In 1969, he was undoubtedly one of the most impressive riders of his generation, an up-and-coming preternatural talent, but he wasn’t considered the greatest of all time just yet. It was impossible to guess that he’d win everything in sight for nearly a decade.

Before 1969, he picked up two of his seven eventual Milan-San Remo victories, along with the first Paris-Roubaix to include the Trouee Arenberg cobbled sector, as well as a world championship title in the neighboring Netherlands. In 1968, he utterly dominated the Giro d’Italia, winning the maglia rosa, the points jersey, and the mountains classification, along with four stages. Going into 1969, Merckx was a star on the rise. Exceeding even the most outlandish expectations, he had a spring for the ages.

Merckx won the early season Paris-Nice stage race ahead of Raymond Poulidor and Jacques Anquetil, the two biggest names in cycling, then bombed down the Poggio to take a third Milan-San Remo crown days later. He confirmed his Belgianness by winning solo in a definitive edition of the Tour of Flanders, making brutal attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and the Muur in wild winds.

Following that victory, Merckx won nine more races in the next 17 days. To top off the Spring Classics season, he secured a third Monument victory for the year with superb team tactics in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, pushing through the cold, driving rain on a 70-kilometre breakaway with a Faema teammate. As the defending owner of the maglia rosa, the leader of a nominally Italian team, and in unstoppable form, he was honor-bound to uphold his title at the Giro that year.

Merckx holds the record for most Liege-Bastogne-Liege wins with five.

At the 1969 Giro d’Italia, Merckx continued his dominance. By the rest day on May 31st, he had won four stages and held a lead of nearly two minutes ahead of Felice Gimondi, the Italian hero. It was virtually inevitable that Merckx would win the Giro once more, barring hubris, catastrophe, or conspiracy. And then came the finish line at Savona.

Merckx tested positive for a banned substance. This being only the second year of standardized drug testing at the Giro, the public was stunned. The peloton was surprised. Merckx was devastated. The entire country of Belgium was outraged, so much so that the “royal airplane was sent to bring the Belgian national hero home.”

Their young conquering champion had been capriciously tossed out of the race while in the pink leader’s jersey, in suspicious circumstances, and with no chance for appeal. A week later, Felice Gimondi won the Merckx-less Giro.

Merckx in tears after his positive test at the 1969 Giro.

The incident devastated Merckx, who still claims innocence and views Savona as the biggest defeat in his career. Merckx’s racing status was in flux, but the 1969 Tour approached rapidly.

After weeks of negotiation and debate between the UCI, the Tour, and the national cycling federations, Merckx was cleared to race. This decision was not without a serious challenge from the Italian cycling federation, who nearly pulled two Italian teams from the Tour de France. In the end, Merckx was set to race the Tour, simultaneously a last-minute entrant, race debutante, and the overwhelming favorite.

Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, summed this up on the eve of the race with articles entitled, “Can Eddy Merckx lose the Tour de France?” and “The Tour de France of Eddy Merckx, or the Difficulty of Being a Favorite.” Merckx was in rare form, he was furious, and he was ready to dominate.

Merckx responds to questions about his positive test.

With his racing status finalized at the last possible moment, Merckx did not have an ideal preparation. But despite this, he placed second in the opening time trial behind the German Rudi Altig and “provoked a kind of collective delirium” when he took that first maillot jaune in Sint-Pieters-Woluwe days later. Hometown fans were euphoric that Merckx had a genuine chance to be the first Belgian winner of the Tour since World War II.

Although Merckx ceded nominal leadership of the race to a Faema teammate a stage later, everyone knew who the real leader of the Tour was. As the early stages progressed, Merckx and Faema imposed a stranglehold on the race, bringing back dangerous breakaways with ease.

Merckx was not the only first-timer in the Tour that year. Pierre Matignon, an unheralded 26-year-old Frenchman on the Frimatic-De Gribaldy squad, was also a Tour debutant. Matignon didn’t have a single professional win to his name for 1969 or for any other year. He was a relatively old neo-pro, having been elevated to the professional ranks after winning the amateur French national championship in 1968.

Matignon might have had a better career had he gone professional in 1962. As a 19-year-old, Matignon won a stage and came third in another in the 1962 Tour l’Avenir. L’Avenir is the most prestigious amateur stage race in the world and good results there tend to lead to professional contracts. Instead, Matignon was bound to complete his mandatory military service, returning to racing years later as a different sort of cyclist.

Today, Matignon’s name lives on as the honorary title of an amateur cyclocross race in Nantes. The average cycling fan is unlikely to have heard of him. He was an unknown in his time and ours, a no-name domestique in a peloton full of no-name domestiques.

Merckx wins stage 6 of the 1969 Tour solo.

By the time the race returned to France, Matignon was in 124th place of 127. He successfully supported his team leader, the Portuguese champion Joaquim Agostinho, to a stage victory on July 3, but that was the extent of his involvement in the race thus far.

With the mountains approaching, journalists argued that the non-Merckxian members of the peloton, those “who consider themselves oppressed by the despotism of the leader in power” might rise up against the Cannibal, but the first climbing stage to Col de Ballon d’Alsace ended that prospect. On the approach to the climb, Team Faema set a pace that few could match, then Merckx did the rest. He won the stage, took a firm grasp on the yellow jersey, and put significant time into all of his rivals.

Pierre Matignon rolled across the line in 107th position, over 21 minutes down on Merckx.

By the start of stage 17, Merckx had accumulated three more stage victories and increased his overall lead. Eddy was already far ahead of any rivals, having dispatched every potential challenger with surgical precision. He didn’t need to do anything more than follow wheels, stay upright, and cruise to Paris. Instead, he took yet another stage win in a jaw-dropping display of aggression, courage, and vengeance.

Stage 17 was a classic Pyreneean Tour stage, scaling the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and the Aubisque — four mountains already legendary in Tour mythology. With 130 kilometres remaining, Merckx left the peloton on the Tourmalet and continued alone, adding to his lead with every pedal stroke. Years later when discussing this stage, Merckx said that he “always used to ride with a little bit in reserve, not full gas, but I just kept riding and the others at the back kept losing time.” On stage 17, Merckx held nothing back.

After seven hours in the saddle, Merckx crossed the line eight minutes ahead of his next closest challenger. After the epic journey, Merckx’s overall lead had doubled and the Tour was his to win. The victory was a battle waged “in the style of yesteryear,” familiar to the heroes of the golden age of cycling like Coppi, Bartali, or Bobet. The Cannibal had arrived.

At the finish line, exhausted in victory, Merckx explained this impossible feat to his detractors: “I hope I have done enough now for you to consider me a worthy winner.” He sought redemption for Savona and became a legend in the process.

Stage 17 of the 1969 Tour de France.

Matignon finished the stage a half hour behind the yellow jersey. Adding insult to injury, he tested positive in a doping inspection and received a 15-minute time penalty from the race commissaires. On stage 19, he completed the day alone and in 86th place of the 86 remaining riders. At the start of stage 20, Matignon was in dead last overall, the infamous lanterne rouge, the caboose of the peloton.

The lanterne rouge is something of a folk hero in the Tour de France. While the organizers have historically worked to keep the gravity of the race focused at the top of the standings, there is something still honorable and endearing in coming in last. To finish last, you must still finish the most unrelentingly perverse sporting event ever invented. Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s founder, infamously believed that the ideal Tour would result in a single finisher and no more. It’s a race of attrition; being the slowest survivor is still a monumental feat.

The lanterne rouge is not an official award, but because fans romanticize the role, it can be quite lucrative in the series of races that come after the Tour each year. Matignon was in line for a decent paycheck. Perhaps that would make up for the toll of carrying water across 4,000 kilometres of France.

Even for a sport that fetishizes ancient cobblestone streets and rutted mule tracks that traverse mountains, the Puy de Dome is an anachronism. There will never be another Tour de Frace stage to this peak, despite its place in the pantheon of holy cycling mountains. The narrow, steep road to the top of this extinct volcano is too small to handle the size of the peloton and the attendant movable feast that follows the race each year. But for a few decades, this was the site of great struggles and victories won and lost.

Although the Puy had already produced many notable champions, the mountain’s most famous appearance was in 1964. Jacques Anquetil, going for his record-setting fifth Tour win, climbed up the Puy side-by-side with Raymond Poulidor, both riders leaning on and elbowing each other for advantage, both riders completely and entirely exhausted by the sheer steepness of the climb. It was a tete-a-tete battle between the sport’s titans and one of the first stages ever televised to the world. It was instantly and indelibly iconic. The Puy de Dome is sacred ground, and Merckx intended to add his name to the list of heroes.

The stage to the Puy de Dome began with Matignon in dead last. Somewhat bizarrely, his closest “rival” for last place attacked the peloton and broke away just as Matignon suffered a flat tire. The lanterne rouge was as good as his. Given Matignon’s position, his Frimatic-De Gribaldy team had no interest in expending effort to pace him back to the peloton. He was obliged to slog alone at the rear, slowly catching up with the rest of the pack.

Matignon’s day was effectively over. He could have finished the stage slowly ascending the volcano with the rest of the also-rans, water carriers, and domestiques. If he had done so, he would have guaranteed his post-Tour financial bonus and cashed in on his last-place status. He could have rolled into Paris as the lanterne rouge, the folk hero of the Tour, the final finisher of the toughest bike race in the world.

For some reason, he didn’t.

Anquetil (left) and Poulidor (right) tussle on the Puy de Dome at the 1964 Tour.

After chasing solo, Matignon eventually rejoined the peloton and caught his breath. With 65 kilometers to go and with a brutally steep volcano looming on the horizon, Matignon surprised everyone by jumping clear from the bunch and taking off alone.

Matignon’s choice doesn’t make a damn bit of sense now, nor did it 50 years ago. But because he didn’t remotely represent a threat to the rest of the field, Matignon was given a long leash. This was incredible. Merckx’s Faema team had spent the entire race bringing back breakaway after breakaway, regardless of how dangerous the group was.

Forty-five kilometres to go and Matignon was three minutes ahead.

In the silent, black-and-white footage of the race, Matignon already looked haggard. His pedal stroke was not smooth. He labored against the bike, fighting it every time the gradient changed. It was an uncommonly hot summer day in the Massif Central mountain range. Matignon carried on alone.

Footage from stage 20 of the 1969 Tour de France.
Thirty kilometres to go, five minutes ahead.

Matignon needed to steal all of the minutes he could before the climb began. The cruel, unrelenting 12% grade on the upper slopes of the Puy makes it easy to lose vast amounts of time rapidly. The stars would catch him before the finish line. They always do.

Twenty kilometres to go, seven and a half minutes ahead.

As Matignon approached the foot of the volcano and the time gap grew ever more substantial, the peloton began to chase with heightened vigor. Merckx and his Faema team drove the pace, shedding hangers-on with every kilometre.

Matignon started to ascend. The gap began to fall.

In ancient Roman times, the Puy de Dome was the site of a temple honoring Mercury, god of travelers, thieves, and trickery. Matignon surely did not know this as he zig-zagged across the road, urging his bike through the narrow passage between cliff edge and rock wall.

Merckx dropped Gimondi, Pingeon, and Poulidor. He set a pace that even his closest rivals could not hope to hold. With such a gigantic lead in the overall race, there was no need to attack and no need to break his rivals, but Merckx did anyways. You don’t become known as the Cannibal without good reason. He pursued Matignon alone.

Matignon passed under the flamme rouge, the red kite, the banner signifying a single kilometre to go. His vision was blurred. His legs shrieked. One kilometre to go, with the greatest cyclist of all time at the absolute peak of his powers just 500 meters below him, breathing down Matignon’s neck.

At the summit of the mountain, a single figure emerged. Even in the grainy footage, the rider’s fatigue was evident. Matignon rolled in, attempted a slight wave to the crowd, and nearly lost control of his bike in the process. His head bobbed down towards his handlebars, exhausted beyond measure. He disappeared into the masses. The lanterne rouge won the most prestigious stage of the Tour.

One and a half minutes later, Merckx crossed the line in second place. He looked strong, his pedal strokes were smooth, and he was furious. In a post-race interview, in true Merckxian fashion, he reviewed the mountain and found it lacking: “The Puy de Dome? Less hard than I thought.”

Merckx in action on the Puy de Dome on stage 20 of the 1969 Tour de France.

Le Monde’s headline described the stage as “the gag of the Tour de France,” a “modern illustration of the Tortoise and the Hare.” There is undoubtedly a sense of absurdity in such an unexpected result, but the news coverage sold Matignon short. Matignon’s success wasn’t the punchline to a joke. Against his interests, with little chance for victory, he took a gamble. “I felt ridiculous. I wanted my name at least once to appear on the race reports … and I wanted to try,” he said. “It felt miraculously good after so many days running on empty to play a part in the attack.”

To try, to play a part in the impossible, to throw yourself into an attempt despite the longest of odds. What is bike racing but that?

Merckx would ride into Paris a champion, continuing his complete domination of the sport. Matignon would finish the race in 85th of 86, his epic breakaway depriving him of the title of lanterne rouge.

Of the 12 Grand Tours that followed the 1969 Tour de France, Merckx would win nine, along with scores of one-day victories. Matignon would never win another race.

Merckx is one of the most famous Belgians alive. Matignon died anonymously at age 44.

Merckx is the greatest cyclist of all time. Matignon is the reason we love the sport.

About the author

Connor Christensen is a freelance cycling journalist, covering the forgotten stories of the sport’s early days. He lives and works in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter here.

Sources

ProCyclingStats.com
Le Monde (Paris), 1969
– Leonard, Max. Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour De France. 2014.
– McGann, Bill, and Carol McGann. The Story of the Giro D’Italia: A Year-by-Year History of the Tour of Italy, Volume 1: 1909-1970. 2012.
– Spender, James. “Eddy Merckx”. Cyclist. October 15, 2015.
– “Tour De France : Brive-Clermont Ferrand 20ème étape 1969 – Tour De France : Brive-Clermont Ferrand 20ème étape Volume 90%.” INA.fr.
– “Tour 1969 : Matignon, Une Lanterne Rouge Au Nirvana.” Velo101.com. July 27, 2006.
– “1969 Frimatic – Viva – Wolber – De Gribaldy.” Jean De Gribaldy. 2006.

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