The breakthrough: Eddy Merckx, 1966 From issue 50 • Words by John Wilcockson w/image from Horton Collection

When Eddy Merckx lined up for Milan–San Remo in March 1966, his career had barely begun. Only 20 years old, he was starting his first major spring classic and he’d never raced in Italy before. Like many young, talented athletes—he won the 1984 world amateur road race title at age 19—Merckx had yet to prove he’d be successful as a professional.

IMAGE: Grand Prix des Nations, 1966. Eddy Merckx finished third behind Gimondi (2nd) and Anquetil (1st). Horton Collection.

After a first pro season with the Belgian team, Solo-Superia, when he quit more races than he won (and those wins all came in minor Belgian kermesse events), he realized that he wouldn’t progress much in a squad devoted to its superstar leader, Rik Van Looy. So Merckx joined a French team, Peugeot-BP, whose star classics rider was Tom Simpson who’d just won the world road championship—but Merckx was happy to work for Simpson, who became a good friend. More importantly, he was happy that there’d be no pressure on him to ride long stage races.

In fact, in his amateur career, Merckx didn’t start a single stage race outside Belgium, and in his rookie year with Solo-Superia he rode just one (four-day) stage race; but Peugeot knew that if its new signing were to have a chance in Milan–San Remo he would have to compete in the preceding Paris–Nice. Merckx didn’t win any of the eight stages, but he was consistent enough to place fourth overall behind a trio of superstars: Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor and Vittorio Adorni.

Prior to the 288-kilometer Milan–San Remo, Merckx said, “I didn’t rate my chances of winning because of how long the race was…though I had built myself up into good condition at Paris-Nice.” He certainly benefited from the long, hilly stages of Paris-Nice, and he was still in the 95-strong peloton after 275 kilometers of racing with the last of the day’s hills, the Poggio, fast approaching. “I got up to the leading group just before the Poggio,” Merckx recalled. “But I still wasn’t thinking about winning—just a place on the podium would have been fantastic.”

The Poggio is not steep or long, but Merckx, pushing a big gear and hunched over his bike in the style we’d get to recognize so well, forced the pace all the way up the climb and only 10 others could stay on his wheel. The 11 men dropped into San Remo together and prepared for a sprint finish on the famous Via Roma. There were some fast finishers in the group, including the Italians Adriano Durante and Michele Dancelli and the Belgian Herman Van Springel.

“I started the sprint from a long way out,” Merckx said. “And to my utter amazement no one got past me.” It was a close finish and the judges needed to look at a photo finish before they decided that Merckx had just held off Durante. Winning the so-called classicisima was a huge breakthrough for Merckx but, as he later admitted, he still had a long, hard apprenticeship to go.

“Even though 1966 saw me win Milan-San Remo, it also showed that I was a little wet behind the ears,” he said. “In other races, my inexperience or ignorance was mercilessly exposed. There was plenty more learning to do.”

Besides winning a first classic that year he also won a stage race for the first time. This victory came in the four-day Tour de Morbihan, a French event important to his Peugeot team in the month of August. It was a hilly race in the bike-crazy province of Brittany, where Merckx won both of the last two stages to take the overall victory. But after repeating his San Remo victory in 1967, and also taking Ghent-Wevelgem, the Flèche Wallonne and the world road title that year, he was still regarded as a one-day specialist until he won a first Giro d’Italia in 1968.

By the end of his career, of course, Merckx racked up five victories in the Tour de France, five in the Giro d’Italia and one in the Vuelta a España, along with three world titles and 19 monument classics (including a record seven editions of Milan-San Remo). But when he lined up in Milan at his first true classic in March 1966 a wet-behind-the-ears Merckx had yet to win any of those races.

From issue 50.