Eddy Merckx on the Legendary Cycling Record He Broke in Mexico City: “It Was Pain, Pain, and Pain”

The plush Metropole Hotel in the heart of Brussels has a nostalgic air about it. It’s a palace that exudes luxury, in polished teak wood, Namibian marble, gilded bronze, forged iron, and sturdy mahogany set in an art-nouveau style. It’s here – surrounded by history – that cycling deity Eddy Merckx and Guillaume Michiels, his loyal masseur for most of the 1970s, spoke to us and reflected on the longest hour of the cyclist’s career in Mexico City.

In the final days of September 1972, the Belgian athlete finally decided to attack the world hour record after completing a Tour de France-Giro double earlier that season. The hour record, which is measured by how far one cyclist can go in a set amount of time, is the ultimate benchmark of what an athlete can achieve on two wheels, a test of stamina unencumbered by all other variables.

“He had cycled a bit too much to attempt an attack on the record,” says Michiels. “He had participated in the Tour de France, the Giro, and all the classic races. When you race so much, there’s never a good moment. But all his seasons were like that. He was in good shape and that’s why he did it.”

At an altitude of 7,350 feet, the air was thin and less resistant, adding to his speed.

Merckx’s sponsor, an Italian salami manufacturer by the name of Molteni, wanted Milan as the venue for the attempt, but instead Merckx chose the Agustín Melgar open air velodrome in Mexico City. The seven-meter wide track, which is three hundred and 33 meters long and boasts a Schurmann design banked at 39 degrees, was a venue during the 1968 Olympic Games. Those Olympics had proven that endurance athletes struggled in a limited oxygen environment: at an altitude of 7,350 feet, the air was thin and less resistant, adding to speed. Yet the energy supplied to an athlete’s muscles was lower.

“Ole Ritter had beaten the hour record [48.653 kilometers] in Mexico City,” explains Merckx. “You have an advantage [at a high altitude], you have enough air, but you need to adapt.”

“The atmosphere was relaxed among my companions, but I was less relaxed,” recalls Merckx.

The universities of Milan and Liege submitted Merckx to tests. For six weeks, he prepared by simulating the effects of Mexico’s thin air with 30 oxygen bottles in his garage on static rollers. Doctors were present and checked his health and condition regularly.

Merckx boarded a plane to Mexico City on October 21, his longest flight since the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, with a stop in Montreal. Belgian journalist Jan Van den Berghe claimed Merckx was calm, amusing himself with light banter, consuming an overfed chicken at four in the morning then washing it down with a few whiskey drinks.

“The atmosphere was relaxed among my companions, but I was less relaxed,” recalls Merckx.

“He got a bit nervous in Mexico,” says Michiels. “It was windy and there was a bit of rain. The attempt had to be postponed. He was more difficult to handle when he got twitchy. He didn’t talk a lot; that was striking. He was always preoccupied with the hour record – that he didn’t talk meant he was feeling very good.”

After a few nerve-wracking days, Merckx attempted to break the record on October 25. A sacred silence descended over the velodrome, as Merckx awaited the starting shot. The bang came at 8:46 a.m. Merckx was in a trance, bundling his mental and physical energy in utmost concentration. The magnitude of the challenge dawned on him.

In the 70s, the world hour record was at once prodigious and prestigious: Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil built their reputations in part by attacking the world hour record. The concept, which was conceived by Henri Desgrange, the father of the Tour de France in 1893, was simple: how far could a cyclist push himself?

The world hour record was simple: how far could a cyclist push himself?

Merckx had initially been projected to surpass Ritter’s record by 240 meters. A revised time table put forth a far more ambitious target: 49.2 kilometers. After ten kilometers, he was 28 seconds ahead of Ritter. Merckx’s start was not just promising, but devastatingly fast, so much so that it worried his teamleader Giorgio Albani.

“[It was about] cycling as fast as possible, that required a fast start,” says Merckx. “It was a deliberate way to be ahead of the projected time table.”

“He had a strong start and kept racing like that,” says Michiels. “Albani was there to stop him a little if he was accelerating and attacking too much. He stood close to where the clock hung. He walked forwards or backwards [to indicate to Merckx] that he was ahead or behind the hour record. He often shouted: easy, easy!”

Such a speedy start held the danger of a midway collapse. Merckx had his experience and expertise to rely on, but during those 60 minutes of intense solitude, three questions constantly tried to puncture his mental resilience: “How fast am I going? How long is there to go? Can I maintain this tempo?”

Merckx slowed down after 35 minutes; Ritter had done so after 42 minutes. But he was able to stabilize his pace before a crescendo finish, breaking the record in a distance of 49.431 kilometers, 788 meters more than Ritter. Yet there was no outburst of happiness or euphoria at the end of such a dramatic race: Merckx, exhausted, nearly collapsed. He grimaced in pain as he gulped down water.

“He stood next to his father-in-law [Lucien Acou], who had to support him,” says Michiels. “He was whacked. We went to the dressing room. We didn’t talk. He almost couldn’t walk.”

“It was the most intense hour of my career,” says Merckx. “It was pain, pain, and pain [when I crossed the finish line].”

That same year (1972), a reporter asked him which natural attribute he most desired. Merckx’s answer? Immortality. This new record was another leap towards eternal life, with Merckx cementing his spot in the pantheon of sporting gods.