Finishing this year’s Pick n Pay Argus Cycle Tour in a resoundingly average 3:57 was not, it seemed, enough. To rub salt into my wounds, a man that in age terms qualifies to be a pensioner finished 12 minutes ahead of me.
This was so unfair. I could draw on the accumulated experience of 14 Arguses. By comparison, Eddy Merckx, on merely his fourth, was a rank beginner. It’s just my luck that Merckx is, quite simply, the greatest cyclist that has ever lived.
On the eve of the big local race, I was lucky enough to spend a short while in Cape Town with Merckx (long story, but it involves Peugeot, whose bicycles incidentally, he once rode). Having met the man, I can say it’s hard to reconcile today’s affable Eddy with the single-minded individual that utterly crushed the competition. He dominated the sport in the 1960s and 70s as no man before or since.
Naturally my invitation to meet Merckx, since 1996 Baron Merckx of course, was worth substantial bragging rights over my riding buddies. But I had another reason for an entirely unjustified smugness: the opportunity to have my picture taken with the great man and my own bicycle made by the company he founded. A classic Eddy-era steed made of Columbus SLX tubing, my Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra has travelled thousands of kilometres here as well as abroad, where I rode it in Paris-Brest-Paris in 2007.
As we stood alongside the bike, Eddy did what every cyclist on the planet does in the same situation. He sized it up and then with a hand on the saddle and one on the bars, hefted it. I think he winced a little because, though the frame itself is no heavyweight, the whole thing is weighed down with accessories, tools and whatnot. It’s a Pop Mech thing.
In discussion with me and a couple of colleagues, it emerged that age and the decades since his heyday had dimmed the maestro’s competitive instincts not one bit. He corrected his interviewer, good-humouredly – but pointedly – when it came to the statistical minutiae of his career. No confusion there about any of the numbers involved.
Also, I think he may believe modern riders are a little pampered. We call today’s Tour de France a gruelling contest at 3 000 kilometres, more or less. “In our day we did 4 000.” Nods all round.
Times have moved on, though. What does he think, for instance, about mountain biking? He nods with what appears to be qualified approval. And then adds that he wouldn’t ride one in the wet. “It’s too dangerous on the road.” Of course.
I wondered if he had any thoughts on the East Africans’ dominance of distance running. Could they do the same in cycling?
He pursed his lips and did a little shrug.
“Yes, I think they could.”
So what’s stopping, them, then?
“But of course they must get on the bike.”
Well, there’s something to look forward to: in future, I can now expect to be beaten by Kenyan pensioners, too.