Eddy Merckx: Mind Traits Of A Legend

Why was Eddy Merckx so unstoppable? What was his secret? While the vast majority of dedicated cyclists will never reach the dizzying heights of Triple Crown status, that doesn’t mean that we won’t get to know how great it feels to reach once-elusive cycling goals, climb the racing ranks or win – if we only know how to get there. Physical strength is non-negotiable but don’t underestimate the power of the mind. Here’s what we can learn from how Eddy Merckx used his.

Total Commitment

Eddy Merckx was known for his dedication to riding in all weathers and for hours on end. There is no doubt that the unstoppable determination to just get out there and ride had a huge impact on his podium prowess. Leading up to his first Tour de France, his training diary could make even the most passionate cyclist weep: all weather, back-to-back days, 200 miles at a time and often without any company. “Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride,” is a well-known quote from ‘the Cannibal’; and if you follow this tip, you won’t go far wrong.

Race Face

Withholding nonverbal expressions, or poker face, is purported to be a great advantage in competition. In cycling we call it race face and, of this, Merckx was a master. While winning (over 500 races!) would earn his wide smile, in the saddle, he was impossible to read and his inscrutable gaze became his trademark. When Merckx raced, he fixed his eyes on the goal ahead with unwavering dedication – he was a master of getting into the zone.

Merckx combined this masterful ‘eyes on the prize’ talent with the art of tactical psychology to triumph over stronger opponents. When he recognised that José Manuel Fuente, known for his mountain mastery, could beat him on the climb, he made him nervous in order to encourage errors. The result? He was never beaten by Fuente.

Mental Toughness

Once you’ve practised your poker face, know that it’s not enough to look like you mean business – you have to convince yourself that you do, too. Even athletes at the top of their game report negative self-chat, that niggling little voice telling you that you can’t do it, and many reveal how they found a way through this barrier. Visualization practise and mantras, for example, have helped athletes on their way to Olympic gold or World Record status. For Merckx, mental toughness was paramount. He is quoted as saying: “The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.” And: “When it’s hurting, that’s when you can make a difference.”

Strength Through Stealth

So, how can you become good at ‘suffering’ on the bike? Well, knowing what’s coming helps – a lot. Merckx’s dedication enabled strength, physically and mentally. Practise, practise, practise – the more you race, the more you have mental reminders in race situations and will be in a good place to handle them. Regular rehearsal allows you to extend your comfort zone bit by bit, adding another hill, another sprint, another cold ride incrementally.

It’s important to realize that cycling hard – and racing – hurts. Merckx once said: “Cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it you will win nothing.” But, there’s a positive side effect to all this enduring. If you gain mental strength on the bike, you’ll probably be able to use this to tackle the challenges of day-to-day life, too.