in 1969, the beatles had released abbey road, the one with the cover where they're walking across a zebra crossing just outside the recording studio of the same name. paul mccartney is walking in bare feet, a subtle oddity that led to rumours of his demise. according to legend, if you played the album backwards near the end of the record, a voice could allegedly be heard saying 'paul is dead'. i seriously doubt that works in itunes.
on july 20 1969, neil armstrong stepped off the lower rung of the steps of nasa's lunar module saying those immortal words 'this is one small step for mankind...'. i recall watching as much of those blurry space transmissions as i could, aged only thirteen and on holiday after the end of my first year at secondary school. it was also the beginning of the end of the lengthy summer of love. the woodstock festival took place at yasgur's catskill farm in bethel, sullivan county new york. reputedly 400,000 attended the festival, listing it as one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock'n'roll.
meanwhile, on the other side of the atlantic, a twenty-four year old belgian, riding for an italian team sponsored by a coffee machine manufacturer had just won his first tour de france, beginning a domination of professional cycling that would last well into the 1970s. coincidentally, that makes eddy merckx 69 this coming month, explaining, in more ways than one, the title of this massive book from bloomsbury.
featuring some utterly fabulous, grainy, black and white photographs from eddy's 1969 season from the collection of photographer tonny strouken, accompanied by words from jan maes, tentatively holding your breath and opening the first few pages brings to mind nothing more or less than a pristine copy of rouleur magazine. you can argue the case for e-books all you like, there's simply nothing to match the heady aroma of printer's ink on heavy art paper. i mean no disrespect to maes' eccentric narrative, but the photos are not only glorious, fascinating, engaging and addictive, but undoubtedly the very reason you'd part with your £35 in the first place.
even as i type this review, with the book open on the table by my side, the fragrance rising from its pages truly ought to be bottled and sold separately.
maes' narrative occupies two distinct styles; factual and emotional. each chapter is preceded by a factual approach to the subsequent images; the twelve distinct captured moments begin with aix-en-provence. following on from a brief precis of merckx's career up to the end of 1968, maes ends the season's preface with "1969 looked sure to be a vintage year. It did not disappoint", despite my english teacher's dogma that you should never start a sentence with a number. following an image of merckx with ferdinand bracke in peugeot team clothing at 1967's trofeo baracchi, we reach the first of maes' letters to eddy.
"Dear Mr Merckx
"It really wasn't cycling weather today. The freezing rain beat down relentlessly onto my face. The icy chill didn't just deprive me of my remaining bodyheat, it also robbed me of my enjoyment of the ride."
this apparent flight of fancy leads us to his alleged recall of merckx two years previously in a soaking peugeot jersey at the summit of the giro's tre cime di lavaredo. i confess i was taken in. i truly thought these letters were real, written to eddy in 1969. but unless i really have missed the point, they are strategically placed devices providing an insight into particles of merckx's career. surprisingly, it's a device that works very well, offering a more human facet in a book about a rider that many considered superhuman.
i have great affection for film grain (if that isn't too odd a statement to make). i can understand why there are plug-ins for photoshop to restore this factor to modern day digital images. after all, digital noise is hardly contemporaneity's finest hour. the photographs are reproduced in all their monochrome glory, some at considerable size, so much so that reading this book in bed will make your eyes go funny. but if you're a fan of the days when riders raced eveything on one bike, machines with the gear levers on the down-tube (and they really were tubes in those days) and cables exiting the top of the brake levers, days when cotton caps were the only headgear and shiny toe-clips kept black leather shoes atop quill pedals, you will adore every print incense impregnated page.
and just to round out the definition of the book's title, there's a total of 69 glorious images in those 180 pages.
merckx is a rider not short of testimonies to his superlative cycling skills. attending the press day of london's cycle show in earls court many years ago, it was illuminating to watch a sizeable queue of supposedly hardened industry stalwarts waiting patiently to have a visiting eddy merckx sign posters, postcards and autograph books. they always say you shouldn't meet your heroes, but as maes testifies in the book's final page...
"I was aware of the dangers of finally meeting the idol who had made such an impression on my youth. It could have burst the 'myth of the hero', tainting my wonder years into the bargain. With Eddy Merckx, quite the opposite happened. Being able to meet in person the man behind the unapproachable champion has only increased my respect for him."
photographer strouken echoes those thoughts: "I will cherish forever the fantastic performances of the best cyclist I have ever photographed.". as the 2014 giro d'italia draws to a close, and the craziness of a grand depart in yorkshire looms on the horizon, i struggle to think of a contemporary professional who will elicit the same adoration in 45 years' time. in the absence of such, and despite the aforementioned myriad of merckx books already on the bookshelf, this is an absolute doozy, one that will continue to offer those rouleur moments for ever and ever and ever.
would i lie to you?
saturday 31 may 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................