PEZ Talk: Daniel Friebe
PEZ caught up with Daniel Friebe, author of ‘Eddy Merckx – The Cannibal’, to talk about the book and the difficulties of writing about Merckx, as well as nostalgia in cycling, doping (of course), and gladioli.
Contributed by Guy Wilson-Roberts
There were three books on Eddy Merckx published in English last year, including the glorious coffee table book ‘Merckx 525’ from VeloPress, billed by the great man himself as “…the only work authorized by me…and the first truly complete record of my accomplishments.” But if ‘authorized’ gives one view, there is plenty of room for other perspectives. PEZ was fortunate to talk to Daniel Friebe, author of one of the biographies published during what might be called the Year of Merckx.
I started out by apologizing to Daniel Friebe for taking so long to read ‘Eddy Merckx – The Cannibal’, which was published early last year but that I only managed to read over the Christmas break. I didn’t mention the slightly comical story as to why, involving multiple copies and a corrupted e-reader file, and will not recount it here. Suffice to say, Friebe was gracious enough to talk about a book that he is obviously passionate about but has been off his desk for some time.
But I did mention how compelling I found it. ‘The Cannibal’ is a page-turner and it pulls the reader back into an era of cycling history that most of us are too young to remember, but which Friebe recounts with extraordinary detail and vividness. It is less than a traditional biography and more a series of sketches that capture, in great detail, specific events and themes in Merckx’s career. Using these, Friebe paints his portrait. Firstly, then, I was intrigued by this approach and asked him whether this was his vision at the outset of writing or whether it evolved over time.
“What I really wanted to do was take the reader back to the time – it’s written in the past tense, obviously – but to make it feel immediate, particularly at key moments,” said Friebe. “The 60s and 70s was a important, colourful time, for music, culture and film. I wanted to bring out the vibrancy of it, with the people and the details. I didn’t want it to feel flat. I wanted to plunge the reader right back into those moments.”
Friebe suggested that he might not always have been successful in doing so but I begged to differ, having had some difficulty in putting the book down once I started it. I wondered if he was happy with how it turned out.
“It’s in my nature to be hard on myself, probably like a lot of hacks, or writers if you’re being kind,” he said. “Writing a book is such an intense experience. It dominates your life for three or four months – the writing at the end, the research is a lot longer. At the end you just want to get it over with. I enjoyed the process immensely, though. It’s excavation work. I talked to 50 or 60 people for the book. Whether you make the best use of the material, you don’t know. But in some cases I got the feeling that, if I hadn’t spoken to some of these guys, their stories about Merckx might never have been told, or certainly never have reached a wide audience. That’s really gratifying, to feel that you’re doing something worthwhile.”
The protagonists are certainly not getting any younger – Merckx himself is 67. But the obvious question seemed to be: why Merckx and why now?
“The publisher approached me about it,” said Friebe. “At first I wasn’t that enthusiastic. In my mind he seemed quite a one-dimensional figure and his reign quite one-dimensional. The other obvious concern was that I wasn’t born when he was racing, didn’t live through that period. I worried that anyone I tried to interview from that era would think I was a charlatan. In the end they might have thought that but it was overtaken by their nostalgia, and they were usually very happy to talk. But, yes, going back to what I said about him seeming one-dimensional, it’s amazing how many people told me that they didn’t really know anything about him. There have been other riders that have been much less successful, but have had these standout character traits and moments. With Merckx, if you haven’t studied him in some detail, there aren’t that many. So, no, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, but all it took to get me interested and then very passionate was a bit of time to explore the subject.
Complicating the research was the issue that Merckx did not want to collaborate and be interviewed extensively for the book, citing his own project. “The fact that he was not going to collaborate freed me up in a way,” said Friebe. “Although, in my opinion, it’s quite a sympathetic and multi-layered portrait, it may be that he’s not very happy with certain things that I’ve said in the book. If you write a biography about someone that’s still alive, without their collaboration, they’ll always be somewhat dissatisfied. That’s the nature of the beast. All lives are messy, but it can’t be nice to have someone who doesn’t know you waving that mess in front of your face. Especially when you’re used to being venerated.”
I suggested, though, that given Merckx was perceived during his race career (and to an extent even now, at least according to the cycling media) as a somewhat distant figure, it was appropriate to write a biography using sources that were observing him from close up and at a distance.
“I didn’t want to de-mystify him too much, pare him down to the minutiae of what he used to eat for breakfast, what toothpaste he used et cetera. ” said Friebe. “Of course these people are all normal folk who were just particularly good at riding their bikes. They can be a little one-dimensional because they focus so much of their efforts and energies on their sports. But as the public we’re not really interested in how normal they are; we are interested in what they can do that’s incredible. So we want to keep them on a pedestal to a certain extent. I wanted him [Merckx] to be accessible, but to retain the mystique. That’s what makes these people interesting – in Merckx’s case because he did things miles beyond our capabilities and those of most other bike riders, not because he used Colgate like we do.
“Perhaps that’s also me giving myself a caveat, though, as there were a lot of things that I couldn’t find out about Merckx and his private life, because no one would talk about them. And looking through the archives of newspapers there was little interest in or access to his life off the bike at the time; there was very little scandal. So you could also argue that me saying that I wanted to maintain the mystique is another way of me saying that I didn’t manage find out much about his private life. I hope not, but you might think that.”
In some ways, though, I pointed out, it might have been a blessing because the book ends up being more about Merckx the cyclist than Merckx the man, although Friebe was not sure there is a distinction.
“I think a book about Merckx is only ever going to be like that,” he said. “That was Merckx – he lived his life on the bike and he was special because of what he did on the bike. I’m sure there were complexities in his life, but really it was a certain simplicity that made him such a fine bike-rider. The more top sportsmen you meet, the more you realize that what distinguishes many of the best ones is the lack of noise, the lack of interference in their head. Some of them might have chaotic private lives, but they can abstract themselves when they’re on the bike or on the field. We always talk about “focus” – it’s essentially that. Now Merckx either had a supernatural ability to block out the noise or he kept it to a minimum by being so single-minded. He didn’t watch a lot of films, read a lot of books or cultivate many other interests. Consequently, a book about Merckx was always going to be mainly about bike-racing.”
Friebe mentions William Fotheringham’s book on Merckx, also published last year, and although he hasn’t read it he understands that there is not much in the way of personal material in there either. It was a slightly comedic situation, though, which Friebe has covered in other interviews, with both of them working on biographies at the same time and literally chasing the same interview subjects around the continent.
“It pushed me a bit more,” said Friebe. “It certainly made me interview more people and it made me more thorough. I think once or twice William and I both called up people and they said, ‘I’m already speaking to someone about a Merckx book’. There was one that I was slightly miffed about, and that was Rik van Looy. William managed to get a decent interview, whereas I made the silly mistake of not buttering him up about his own career before asking about Merckx, whom he manifestly didn’t like. The response I got fitted my narrative and other people’s portrayal of van Looy, but I would have liked a longer conversation!
Fotheringham, though, had an advantage in that he is working on a book on Flemish cycling, so his remit was a bit broader in doing his research. But if Friebe missed some details from some sources he was certainly fastidious on others. In the chapter on Merckx’s positive dope test at Savona in the 1969 Giro, one of the great whodunits of cycling history (and feeding the Italian love of a good conspiracy), Friebe opens the chapter with the following: “Of all the flowers, there were gladioli in reception, the symbols of moral integrity. Someone from Faema [Merckx’s team] had handed them to the receptionist of the Hotel Excelsior the previous evening, and now there they were, poking pathetically out of a faux crystal vase like leftover, burnt-out candles.” Given that these events are now some forty years old, I had to ask – really?
“The writing of the time, like in, say, [Italian newspaper] La Stampa and other newspapers was fantastic in detail,” said Friebe. “Some of the writers covering the Giro at the time were great novelists. It was a prestigious gig to be writing about the Giro, and it often went to people like Dino Buzzati, famous novelists. You find fantastic details. One of those writers had written a great colour piece on the scene in that hotel – and you get details like that. I always tried to pick things out like that. The tiny details were hidden in stories like that. I hope they added colour!
“It was stimulating work. I remember on Savona, I spent a day in the Gazzetta dello Sport archive department, just going through their all their stuff. You’d unearth a lot of useless material, but then every now and then something really exciting would turn up, although it might only make half a sentence. Sometimes, though, the material is so good that the worry is: ‘am I going to be able to do this justice?’ You think you’ve got absolute gold there, but you can get obsessed with it. To find out that Merckx was wearing an aquamarine turtleneck in the hotel felt like a great discovery – but for most well-adjusted adults it wouldn’t be.”
These sorts of details do make the book and they are indeed like tiny nuggets for the reader. The reader does feel like they have been on a journey back in time. With this book, Fotheringham’s, and ‘Merckx 525’ all coming out in relatively close proximity, Merckx seems to be everywhere – not to mention the Faema or Molteni jerseys regularly sported by fans. There is no doubt, by the numbers, he was the greatest in history, but I wanted to hear from Friebe his views on Merckx’s enduring popularity. Was it a kind of nostalgia?
“I think his appeal should probably be greater than it is, given his achievements,” said Friebe. “I sometimes feel that he is underestimated because he wasn’t particularly colourful as a personality. His appeal comes down to banal things, like his name – Merckx – is a fascinating name, and the Molteni jersey, for example – it’s the iconography of the sport. Merckx appeals to the kind of fan who likes the tough, silent, unsmiling type, that sort of sportsman, rather than those who prefer a temperamental genius like an Ocana. Among those into cycling history, you’d probably find more fans of Coppi than Merckx. This, despite the fact that, as a performer, Merckx absolutely oozed panache, flair, daring. That was also something I wanted to get across in the book.”
I suggest that perhaps we have a rosy view of Merckx nowadays, that he just won a lot of races. But at the time, when he was racing – and this is a theme in Friebe’s book – he was a fearsome competitor, the inventor of ‘No Gifts’.
“I don’t know how much of my book he’s read, but I understand that there are passages he doesn’t like,” said Friebe. ‘This idea of the cannibal, that he was ruthless and merciless has always irritated him. He doesn’t understand why anyone should reproach him. He’s got a point and in a way: the whole idea of chivalry in cycling is a bit of an illogical notion. Some of the rules are arbitrary – like waiting for people when their machinery fails, yet the next minute boasting in an interview about your team’s bike is giving you a competitive advantage. They don’t make perfect sense to me and they don’t make sense to him. Also, for anyone in life who’s successful and used to being the best, the constant gratification of the ego becomes self-perpetuating. They can’t conceive of not being the best and not winning all the time. And I think he just got into that, which is an unusual position to be in cycling – you will always lose more than you win. But he felt he should be winning every race. And he was capable of it, so there was no reason not to try.”
Merckx won more races than anyone else. Clearly he had enormous physical gifts, and great tactical acumen and so on. But was there something else: a psychological need to win and a capability to bury himself in every race with no thought of the future consequences, that gave him the edge?
“He was obviously very physically talented, but there weren’t the tools in place then to enable it to be quantified. If we knew now that Merckx had a VO2 max of 110, say, then it would be obvious why he was better than everyone else and the mystery would be solved. From what we know, he was in the upper deck of physiologically talented riders, but I think an equally important factor was what I mentioned earlier: he was very single-minded and nothing intruded on his focus and in training. And he got used to winning. That then bred immense confidence and a relentless drive to keep it going. This may sound odd, but it was the winning that kept him winning. That’s also why, I think, his decline was actually pretty sharp.
What broke, I think, was not his body but the idea that he had of himself of invincibility. He was confronted with his own mortality, his own vulnerability, and then the whole fortress collapsed. What had held that fortress in place, what it was built on, was this idea of invincibility – that he couldn’t be beaten or surpassed. Also, going back to what made him to dominant, a few of his peers said to me that everyone else was shell-shocked after 1969 [among other victories he literally rode away from the field in the Pyrenees at the Tour de France], and that lasted for three or four years. They were scared to move a muscle. 1969 was the pinnacle, the year when he could attack 100 kilometres from the finish in major races and not even be afraid, but those performances became rarer as the years passed. It perhaps didn’t matter, though, one because he was still the best, and two because by then he’d battered a generation of riders mentally.
“By 1974 he was riding conservatively, even though he was still the best. Then he got to 1975, and I talk about this in the book – the two lines intersecting with Bernard Thevenet and the rest of the field going in one direction [up] and Merckx in the other [down]. Those lines intersected at the Tour in 1975 in the valley before the climb to Pra Loup [not wanting to reveal too much here as all the details are in the book!]. The new generation was rising and Merckx was declining. For him, for the sport, it was a huge moment.”
Merckx’s record of race wins is astonishing in its breadth and depth, surely not repeatable by any racer in the modern age. But can we entirely rule out another Merckx?
“There could be someone of that superiority,” said Friebe. “But they would only manifest that superiority in certain parts of the season. Someone could win four monuments every year for five years – that could definitely happen – or they could win major tours by 10 minutes regularly. But they won’t be as versatile, partly because the physiological level of performance was lower in Merckx’s day; when he was riding the Tour, I don’t believe he was as fit as guys are today. That’s not only because of nutrition et cetera, but because they didn’t taper towards these big form peaks then. They were riding at a high level throughout the season.
When you read reports from that era, you rarely if ever see references to “form”, or someone coming into “form”. It was much more fluid. Someone would have a good week, then dip a bit, then be strong again two weeks later – and two months later. They would wax and wane throughout the season. They wouldn’t have these six-week micro cycles. Consequently, the same rider could win all types of races, all year. Riders are more specialized and fitter when they’re in form now. A guy who has peaked in April can’t peak again for the Giro, then the Tour, then the Vuelta or Lombardy.”
Merckx was no stranger to doping controversies during his time, which Friebe covers in some detail in his book. Looking at today’s controversies, it’s tempting to shrug one’s shoulders, plus ça change… and all that. I wanted to know if it was hard for Friebe to stay optimistic about the future of cycling.
“It is hard,” he said. “Cycling is paying such a high price for trying to do the right thing, to clean itself up. Then you look at sports that have done nothing and they’re in a better position. Cycling has made an investment with the view that one day it will be worth it. But when you look at what has happened over the winter, it could create five years of fallout. What’s going to come out of a truth and reconciliation process – another year of scandals, appeals, and arguments? Two years of that? These are still the aftershocks of Festina, some 15 years on. When is it going to end, and will it all have been worth it when it does? It’s not so much the doping that’s the problem; it’s how it’s dealt with. There need to be prompt, clear-cut sanctions in doping cases.
What is really damaging are the appeals, the tit-for-tat, the disputes, the hand-wringing, the emotivity of it all – people saying, ‘Oh, another positive test, that’s the end, the whole sport is rotten, everything has to change.’ People throwing the baby out of bathwater. Because, in most cases it’s just another positive test, like there will always be positive tests. So all of this undermines the credibility of the system and the image of a sport, which should be able to say that it’s proud of what it’s accomplished over the last 15 years. Instead, it just keeps flogging itself on the moral high ground.”
There is a danger, I suggest, in looking back at the 1980s or the Merckx era as a simpler time, when doping was not under the same scrutiny. But during the research for his book, Friebe unearthed some further details of practices in the era that might be the beginning of a re-evaluation of its significance.
“There’s a misconception that the doping was just water pistols compared to the machine guns they’re using now,” said Friebe. “That’s wrong: not only was it the best available at the time, but it wasn’t that different from what’s available today. There was no EPO, but there were steroids, cortisone, and blood transfusions.” Pro cycling is now entering an unprecedented era of (mostly) clean racing, so there is a sense of history unfolding. But what of the past? “The culture has changed, it really has, even if the past will keep on haunting cycling and generating fresh controversy,” said Friebe. “Unfortunately, even if everything goes smoothly from now on in, which of course it won’t, the legacy of the last 100 years will be maybe 10 or 20 years of us questioning everything we see.”
Discussing doping was not an upbeat way to end our conversation, but it was a necessary topic – such is the sport that we have. So in the spirit of looking positively toward the future I asked Friebe about upcoming book projects.
“I’m currently working on a sequel to Mountain High, my book on the great cycle climbs of Europe,” he said. “That’ll be finished soon and released in the autumn. Beyond that I’m just looking forward to getting back to races and finding some great stories. Because, in spite of everything, cycling does throw up some absolutely marvellous material for a journalist.”
You might, dear reader, be feeling a little overwhelmed by the volume of printed material coming out on Merckx over the last year. But ‘Eddy Merckx – The Cannibal’ has an intensity to it appropriate to its subject matter and a breadth of focus that keeps it relevant to cycling today. On this basis I, for one, will certainly be looking forward to future publications from its author. If Daniel is prepared to be as generous for PEZ with his time to review his new books when they come out as he was for this one, we will be grateful!