Tadej Pogačar the Next Eddy Merckx?

How many times have you heard an up and coming rider is the next Eddy Merckx? Me, I’ve lost count.

Here’s a Top 10 list I compiled 2 years ago in a post where I argued why Remco Evenepoel is not the next Eddy Merckx:

  • Tom Boonen
  • Peter Sagan
  • Wilco Kelderman
  • Edvald Boasson Hagen (c’mon)
  • Damiano Cunego (yes, Cunego)
  • Johan Museeuw
  • Claude Criquielion
  • Frank Vandenbroucke
  • Eric Vanderaerden
  • Freddy Maertens

It’s okay if you didn’t click on that link to read the post. Here’s the TL;DR summary of the argument:

Remco is (mind you, this was 2 years ago, and still true today) too young to declare him the next Eddy Merckx. Let’s wait to see him win a couple of Grand Tours, the Ronde and things like that.

Since then, I have revised my opinion on this whole “The Next Eddy Merckx” idea. I based my argument on how many Grand Tours, the Monuments and whatnot a guy must win before bloggers and cycling journalists should declare him The Next Eddy Merckx without looking stupid.

I asked (and answered): What does the next Eddy Merckx mean anyway? Here’s my criteria as it stood 2 years ago. I wrote:

For me, the next Eddy Merckx would have to win:

  • all Monuments
  • all Grand Tours plus at least one double
  • at least 5 Tour de Frances
  • at least one road world championship
  • more than 3 Northern Classics
  • a bunch of lesser Classics
  • cherry on a cake — Hour Record

Notice how it’s all about the wins. This is wrong.

Take Mark Cavendish. Last year, he scored his 34th Tour de France stage win to catch up with Merckx. This is great except Eddy won his 34 stages in every way possible: uphill and downhill, at the top of the mountains and at the bottom of the mountains (after eating everyone alive in the process), solo and from the bunch sprints.

Mark, without a doubt a great sprinter, won his from the bunch sprints off a well-oiled leadout train. Nothing wrong with that. A win is a win.

For me though, and you may disagree, the number, as much as it is impressive, has no weight when you drop it next to Eddy Merckx. Mark Cavendish might, and I think he will, go on and win more Tour stages.

Bloggers and cycling journalists will declare Eddy’s record fallen, champaign and beers will ooze down the throats but Eddy’s Tour wins will remain untouchable, at least for now, no matter how many Tour stages Mark wins.

A number, on its own, has no meaning. Mark’s 34 bunch sprint wins don’t come anywhere near Eddy’s 34 wins. Apples and oranges.

(As a pro, what would you take — 5 sprint wins nobody will remember or an epic annihilation of everyone still standing on the Alpe d’Huez? I’m thinking of Christophe Riblon’s 2013 win as one example. They climbed d’Huez twice that day, just a casual mention.)

This brings me to the meat and potatoes of this post — the latest next Eddy Merckx, Tadej Pogačar (accent on the last syllable, please).

At least this time around, bloggers and cycling journalists didn’t look as stupid comparing Pogačar to Merckx. When they thought Edvald Boasson Hagen was the next Eddy Merckx and asked him what he thought about that, he said he didn’t know who Merckx was.

That was a red flag. They should’ve stopped the press and wrote about a new bike model or something. They didn’t.

I’m writing this in August 2022 and we all know what happened in July. In July, Pogačar learned a valuable lesson delivered to him by Jonas Vingegaard, free of charge.

The lesson was — do not underestimate your rivals. Merckx knew that (which is why he was Merckx) and Pogačar didn’t (I hope he does now).

From that point of view, he still has to learn some ropes and realise it’s not always just about the legs in the Tour de France.

Another problem for the next Eddy Merckx crowd counting wins and other stats — Merckx won his 5 Tours in a row. Pogačar might do that and end up with 7 wins but not in a row as Lance did but nobody has so far mentioned Armstrong’s name next to Pogačar so we can forget about 7 for now.

Finally, the reason I think all this next Eddy Merckx babble is a waste of bandwidth (except this one) is the path today’s professional cycling is on.

When Merckx went on to win everything under the sun, not a single pro had ever thought to focus on a single race in the season (thanks Lance). No one would ever allow them to even think about it. They had to race and to race a lot.

This is how Merckx won so much in the first place — by racing all year whatever was on the calendar. Grand Tours, Classics, Monuments and everything in between.

That’s how it used to be. Not anymore.

Those counting wins and stats are on the wild goose chase because the stats won’t ever reach Eddy’s benchmark the way today’s pros structure their calendars. Not possible.

What is possible though is for Pogačar to make his own benchmark. He’s got the engine and, equally important, the panache of a great racer, a great racer of the Merckx quality who has an appetite for every race under the sun.

Just like Eddy Merckx had.