BRUSSELS (AP) — Tens of thousands of people gathered in downtown Brussels on Thursday as the Belgian capital turned yellow to celebrate cycling great Eddy Merckx’s maiden Tour de France victory half a century ago.
Less than 48 hours before the Tour start, Brussels was in a cycling frenzy as a sea of yellow-clad fans took to the streets to attend the presentation of teams on the Grand Place. Giant pictures of Merckx were on display across the city, and the Manneken-Pis — the landmark bronze sculpture in the center of Brussels — donned a yellow jersey.
Cycling’s three-week marquee race starts from Brussels this year to honor the 50th anniversary of Merckx’s first of five Tour victories.
Merckx received a buoyant ovation when he stepped onto the stage amid a small pyrotechnic display, with fans chanting “Eddy, Eddy!”
A versatile rider capable of winning on all terrains, Merckx was known as “The Cannibal” for his insatiable taste for victory. Widely regarded as the greatest rider ever, Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages.
He is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times alongside French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain of Spain. American Lance Amstrong’s seven consecutive Tour victories were stripped because of doping.
“Without Eddy we would not have the race starting here,” Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium said at the presentation.
In addition to his five Tour titles, Merkcx also won five Giro d’Italia and the 1973 Vuelta. Crowned world champion in 1967, he exerted his dominance wherever he could and claimed resounding wins at prestigious one-day classics including Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia.
The Tour will begin on Saturday with a 194.5-kilometer stage that will be followed by a short team time trial in Brussels before the peloton leaves Belgium on Monday.
It’s the second time that the Tour sets off from Brussels, which also hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958. This year’s Tour also marks 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.