Presence is an undefinable, but unmistakable quality.
Eddy Merckx still has it in spades. After an hour of waiting at the Longcross proving ground - a tarmac oval in Surrey, used variously to film driving scenes in television programmes and by McLaren for ‘shakedowns’ of its customer cars - the Cannibal emerges from the back seat of a Maserati Ghibli.
It is as if the headmaster has stepped into a playground of unruly pupils, though the small knot of journalists, photographers and handlers has been doing nothing more adventurous than trying to stay warm on a bitterly cold November day.
There is a photo shoot before Merckx is familiarised with the controls of a Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale and embarks on a few laps of Longcross while the camera clicks again. He is whisked to the nearby Foxhills golf club for tea, sandwiches and an interview, before we join him in the back of the Ghibli for the slow drive back up to town.
Merckx is tired but professional: of course he has time for my questions. And so an interview begins, in the back of a car crawling through Friday night traffic on the M25, with one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century.
There are 27 victories in the one-day Classics (19 Monuments) among your 525 victories. Today’s stage racers don’t show themselves in Spring, and the Classics kings no longer even contemplate victory in a Grand Tour. Is cycling poorer? The great man shrugs.
“This is modern cycling. All the riders did the season. Now it is different: the Classics and then stop. In our time, the only one who did not ride the Classics so much was [Lucien] Van Impe. He focussed always on the Tour de France. But his physique was not large enough to be riding every race.
“I think it’s better if all the riders ride all the races because it makes cycling more popular. Now it is difficult to say which is the number one. The number one in the Classics is Sagan and the number one in the stage races is Chris Froome. They are big champions, but it is different. You cannot compare.”
Sagan is a good world champion, he continues, but lacks the ability as a climber and time-triallist to contest a Grand Tour. Panache is not enough. But what of his appeal? Might he transcend the sport in a way that Merckx once had, and become an ambassador for cycling? Merckx is unconvinced. There are riders of similar quality – Froome, Cavendish, Kristoff – with equal allure. Then there is the new generation: Aru, Quintana. No, scratch Quintana. “He is not the same level.”
Merckx was instrumental in setting up the tours of Qatar and Oman and retains an interest in both. Next year, cycling will hold its World Championships in Qatar. Who might win? “A strong rider who is fast." Glib? Not so. He clarifies: a sprinter, but only on his strongest day. “A finisher.”
“The wind can be as hard as a climb,” he warns. “I can tell you that if the wind is like it was from October 9 to 16 this year, there will not be 50 or 60 people together at the finish.”
Merckx turned professional in 1965. As a sporting child of the '60s, did he feel the freedom to excel? He chuckles at the suggestion. He was too focussed on cycling to consider the spirit of the age. Only when he won Milan-Sanremo in his second year as a pro did he believe cycling could be a job.
The tools of his trade have since become fetishised. The ’73 Colnago, the adidas shoes, the Molteni strip. Did cycling seem beautiful to him then? Does it now? Unsurprisingly, Merckx gives a racer’s response. Modern equipment is infinitely superior: dual control levers allow the rider to shift while standing, jerseys are light and aerodynamic, and remain so even when it rains. “Faster,” he concludes.
Merckx does acknowledge his place among other sporting greats of the era and indeed of the 20th century. He is stating no more than a fact when he does so, and his matter-of-fact tone is appropriate, despite the enormity of the statement. There is nothing boastful about Merckx, despite accomplishments that give him every reason to be so.
It is nothing short of the rarest privilege to share a car with him, never mind to discuss his career. Merckx has presence to burn, still. There are a handful who breathe such rarified air – Ali, Pelé, Nicklaus – and five minutes conversation with any would be the achievement of a lifetime. Merckx, however, is a cyclist and so the experience is all the more special.