The breeze, already blowing hard enough to set the branches of the roadside maples dancing, was growing stronger by the minute. The road was arrow-straight, and it led right into the eye of the wind. I dropped my head till my chin touched the stem. My hands already gripped the drops. The wind had me at its mercy. I could make myself no smaller. Suddenly, another cyclist appeared alongside me. How had he approached without my seeing him in my mirror? I wondered. But that question would have to wait. There were certain courtesies of the road to be observed. I darted a glance at my new companion. He was riding a bright orange bike, and he moved with an effortless grace that I could only envy. The wind seemed to have no effect on him. I didn’t have enough breath to spare for a greeting, but I could manage a smile and a nod.
The cyclist returned my smile. His face looked familiar. Very familiar. But I couldn’t place it. Then he spoke: “Un peu venteux, n’est-ce pas?” Seeing my look of polite noncomprehension, however, he quickly added, “Windy day, yes?”
I nodded again. Even that small movement threatened to exhaust my few remaining reserves of strength. My breath was now coming in hoarse gasps, and ribbons of fire were coursing over my thighs. The wind had risen to near gale force. Even the tall pines were swaying from tip to butt.
Without another word my companion moved ahead. When his rear wheel cleared my front, he gestured for me to hold position in his slipstream. I didn’t need a second invitation. In the fluid confines of this welcome refuge the wind abated to a gentle zephyr. Within seconds the flames of fire in my thighs had guttered. My breath no longer came in ragged gasps. The unflappable cyclist looked back at me, then made an unmistakable thumbs-up gesture. We rode on together in silence.
It was several minutes before I glanced at my cyclometer. 30 miles an hour! Into the teeth of a gale! How was that possible?
And then I knew why my companion’s face had seemed familiar. I was riding behind Eddy Merckx.
At that very moment I woke up. The gale still roared in my ears, and my breath still came fast and furious, but the road no longer stretched before me.
So it was all a dream. Only a dream. But it was dream well worth the dreaming. I’m not much given to hero-worship, and in an age when the word “hero” has come to signify little more than “he did the job he was paid to do,” the label has lost much of its meaning. Yet there are a few individuals whose extraordinary deeds redeem it. Eddy Merckx—properly, Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx—is one of those few. Nowadays almost all professional cyclists are specialists. They train to excel in one event, and one only. Merckx was cut from very different cloth. He raced in everything, and he excelled in everything. The Grand Tours (all three of them, for a total of eleven wins, including five victories in the Tour de France), the Classics, the World Championship, six-day track races, the world hour record… The list of his accomplishments is so long that it warrants a separate Wikipedia entry. And he was certainly no one-trick pony. Few climbers can sprint, and almost no sprinters can climb. Merckx climbed and sprinted with equal facility. In the Tour de France, perhaps the grandest of the Grand Tours, he won both the mountain and the points (sprint) classifications—and he won each several times. In 1969 he won both. He also won the Tour.
One race. Three winner’s jerseys. One man. That gives the measure of his absolute mastery of his chosen métier.
Of course, Merckx has now retired. He raced his last race in 1978. And in June this year, he will be 69 years old. He still rides, but now he rides for pleasure. And once—just once—I rode with him. In my dreams.
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