Most will say no… but some are already wondering if it may turn out to be a yes…
In other sports there are always be arguments about who’s the GOAT. In football, it’s between Pele, Maradonna, and Messi. In tennis, some say Djokovic, others say Federer, whilst some say Laver. In basketball, Lebron, Jordan and Chamberlain.
Surely Messi is the greatest! But not all agree. Argentina won the World Cup Final 2022 against France at Lusail Stadium, Qatar.
However in cycling, for a very long time now, there had been no argument about who is the best. We are talking of course about the great Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx. The man who took victory in over 500 major races.
You see, Merckx didn’t just win grand tours like the Tour de France, unlike other specialists such as Greg LeMond, Chris Froome and more recently Jonas Vingegaard, whose primary focus was and is the Tour.
Froome in the yellow leader’s jersey celebrates his fourth General Classification overall victory with champagne during stage 21 of the 2017 Le Tour de France.
No, Merckx won everything during his pro career from 1965 to 1978. Everything. On the road in single day races, all the Grand Tours, and also on the track. His appetite for victory was voracious and insatiable. This is how he earned his his nickname, The Cannibal.
Eddy Merckx on winning the final sprint to take the World Professional Road Championship at Mendrisio, Switzerland, 1971. He won 3 Rainbow jerseys in total.
Merckx never saved himself for a particular event. If he went four days without winning a race, he would become depressed and say to his trainer: “I haven’t won anything for a while.”
Merckx’s style of racing could be summed up in two rules: 1. Escape; 2. Keep going and don’t look back. Here is analysis of the Merckxian ‘philosophy’ by writer Will Fotheringham in his book ‘Half Man, Half Bike’:
”Mostly, he relied on pure power. There were no tactics with Merckx. He would escape from the peloton with 100km to go, powering off into the sleet and the wind, elbows flailing with the effort, and not be seen again until the podium. Sometimes, the gap was so huge that the rider who came in second thought he’d won the race.”
Merckx arrives alone at the finish line to win the GentWevelgem road race, Wevelgem, Belgium, 1st April 1970.
Let’s quickly go through his record at the Grand Tours. He won 5 Tour de France. He also won 5 Giro d’Italia. Plus one Vuelta a Espana.
In 1972 he set the hour record at 49.431 km, a result that stood for 12 years. Not only that, but he also took the 10 km and 20 km records simultaneously within that hour record. His hour record was finally broken in 1984, but only with the help of aerodynamic improvements in bicycle and component technology.
In 1997, the UCI banned all these aerodynamic aids and the best time under the new rules was 49.7 km, only 269 m more than Merckx. Yes, 25 years of advancements in training, wind tunnel research and diet, and the one of the best pro riders could only beat Merckx by just over 260m.
Of the Monuments, the great one day classics of road cycling, he won 7 Milan San Remo, 2 Tour of Flanders, 3 Paris Roubaix, 5 Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and 2 Giro di Lombardia.
Incredible! Surely the greatest, as everyone says.
Belgium 2019, at the Tour de France. Merckx, centre, is still hugely popular in the cycling world and often is seen at major races.
But wait… there is a rider who some say will be even better than Merckx… and some are even saying he is already the greatest of all time.
Even Merckx has said that “I think he will do better than me.”
Who is this rider? His name is Tadej Pogacar.
Tadej Pogacar is 24, and was born in Slovenia in 1998.
Pogacar at 9.
Tadej Pogačar began his sports career with a ball on a pitch, playing football in his hometown near Kamnik, and he was quite talented. He got into cycling when his older brother started training with the Rog Ljubljana cycling club and a little later he joined the club as “Little Pogi”. Already as a teen he was included in the national cycling team, where he continually achieved good results. He was noticed by the UAE team, with whom he signed in July 2018 when he was just 20 years of age.
Pogacar, 2nd from right, at the World Championships U23 Road Race, 2018 in Innsbruck, Austria.
In 2019, he came as a rookie to the Volta ao Algarve and beat the entire cycling elite. This was followed by the Amgen Tour of California, where he was the youngest winner of this cycling race in the USA. At the 2019 La Vuelta, one of the three major cycling races in the world, he was was thrown in at the deep end when his team, UAE Emirates, decided he could manage to get through the 3 week event safely. He did better than that. He won three stages and ended an impressive third place behind Roglič and Alejandro Valverde.
Pogacar celebrating winning the 2019 Tour of California, a brilliant debut.
Pogacar beats Primoz Roglic of Team Jumbo-Visma during the 13th stage Tour of Spain 2019, Stage 13.
In 2020 Pogačar announced his intentions for the season with a win at the at the Tour of Valencia. Then he shocked the cycling world and went and won the Tour de France, cycling’s greatest prize and every boy’s dream, by winning the race outright.
A beautiful landscape during the 107th Tour de France 2020, Stage 18. This was the race that would make Pogacar famous.
Pogacar, in the KOM jersey, sits behind race leader Primoz Roglic, Stage 18, Tour de France 2020.
On the penultimate stage, Pogacar took a near-certain victory from Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in a tense stage 20 time trial, beating the far more experienced Roglic by a massive 1 min 56 over 36.2km.
Primoz took a decent lead into the penultimate stage, a 36.2km ITT, but everything fell apart for him.
Asked after the race if winning the tour was a childhood dream, Tadej Pogacar said “my dream was just to ride the Tour de France.”
One ride, one win – not bad! He celebrated his 22nd birthday the day after the race ended. Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia, wins the Tour de France on his first attempt.
To say that Pogacar stunned all who follow pro cycling is an understatement. The effect was seismic. Never had a rider quite won like this, coming from nowhere to beat the best in the world so comprehensively. He rode as though he was free, free from pressure and expectation. Unbelievably, he rode that final time trial on feel… without a power meter to read his wattage.
This was incredible.
This was a revolution.
And he did it again in 2021, winning by a massive 5.20 over 2nd place Jonas Vingegaard, looking in complete control the entire race.
Merckx said last year of Pogacar that “I have heard many times ‘this guy or that guy is the new Merckx’, without the expectations being fulfilled, but with Tadej I think we are really there this time – he is 23 and has already won the Tour de France twice, incredible.
“Tadej is only at the beginning of his career, I think he can do better than me in some races. He is 23 years old and has already won the Tour de France twice and 30 races [44 now in 2023], that is unbelievable.
“At 24, I had not even won the Tour. He is still at the beginning of his career, but I think he is doing better than me. He is a great champion and we are going to enjoy him for many years to come.”
Before the 2022 Tour de France, the cycling world expected that Pogacar would make it three wins in a row. He was however beaten by Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark, who beat the Slovenian by 2.49 minutes over the 3,349.8 kilometres.
The Dane put in a brilliant ride over the three weeks supported brilliantly by the best team in world cycling over the past three years, Jumbo-Visma. Pogacar also did not do himself any favours on some stages, riding with his usual devil-may-care attitude, showing his strength too early on some critical stages. Vingegaard, the more measured of the two, bided his time and played a fantastic game of ‘cycling poker’ to take a memorable win.
Pogacar congratulates VIngegaard on a memorable race. 2022 Tour de France.
But that Pogacar lost was, and still is really, a huge surprise, such was his dominance in the previous two editions. The Slovenian went away to build for the 2023 season a little bit wiser than before. He was still in all likelihood the strongest rider in the world on the road, but he would have to ride more tactically at times if he was to avoid giving away his advantages in the future.
He also had new motivation. Now he had a target to beat. You may know this expression:
Don’t poke the bear.
Meaning, do not intentionally make or try to make someone angry or offended, especially someone more powerful than you. The loss to Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma certainly seems to have motivated Pogacar this year. He won 12 races in the opening 5 months of this year, taking also the overall at Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Andalusia.
In 13 days of racing up til March 23rd, he had won seven of them. That includes six stage wins in two stage races and a one-day classic to open the calendar. This is more than a 50% win rate.
According to ProCyclingStats, he’s won 27 percent of all one-day races he’s started, 28 percent of all stages he’s raced, and 42 percent of all stage races he’s started.
The Tour of Flanders Win.
Pogacar this year became the first Tour de France winner in almost half a century to also win the world’s toughest one-day race contested over 19 cobbled hills and an epic 274km – the Tour of Flanders.
Pogacar attacks top leave Mathieu van Der Poel and Wout van Wert behind.
It’s was a race that is not supposed to be suited to him, and he won by leaving the best one day cyclists, such as Mathieu Van Der Poel, in his dust.
Merckx himself was impressed.
“That was an amazing race, the struggle between Pogacar and Mathieu van der Poel VP made it incredible. The winner is quite simply out of the ordinary,” said 77-year-old Merckx.
“What a rider this Pogacar is. I can never say it enough, he’s so much more than just a champion. You have to consider the meaning of what he has achieved, this is no small thing.”
Pogacar in this mood is a frightening thing to witness. Tour of Flanders 2023.
Only two other riders had achieved the rare double before, Merckx and Louison Bobet, in the 1950s, which Merckx said “places his achievement in context”.
Merckx pointed to the savvy shown by Pogacar to get the better of his rivals.
“The panache and audacity needed to achieve such an exploit has carved him a place in history. He is displaying a level of form rarely seen in cycling before him.”
Merckx also said he liked Pogacar as a person.
“I met him once in Italy when the pair of us were invited by the same sponsor. He’s a great guy, so easygoing, I was won over straight away.”
They call him the baby-face assassin…
What makes Pogacar so special, beyond his physical abilities, is his mind and temperament.
Tadej Pogacar has an interesting approach to pressure and mental endurance during a race and his coach claims that “one of his strengths is to know how to read a race”.
It is intelligence and race sense gives him a competitive edge amongst the rest. He states that he doesn’t “like to get over-excited and attack with no sense”, which seems truer in 2023 than it did perhaps in 2022. His coach suggests that other riders are pressured to make moves or attacks because of their fear of being inactive which leads them to become nervous.
This mentality is married to rather good natural DNA.
During the Tour of California in 2019, his team realized “that he didn’t have the same relative accumulated fatigue” as his teammates . His genetics allows him to recover quicker after a day of racing, which can explain his impressive power numbers during the latter half of a stage race. _____
There is no doubt that Pogacar is the best rider in the sport currently. He’s won two Tour de France. He has four career Monument titles spread over three separate races and a legitimate shot at becoming only the 4th rider of all time to win all five monuments.
This haul is shocking when we consider that Pogačar hadn’t won a single Monument just 24 months ago.
The fact that he is winning so often across a wide variety of terrain and races means that Pogačar is building a very serious case for being the best rider of all time. If this sounds crazy, it isn’t. After his first few seasons as a pro, Pogi has been tracking Merckx’ wins at a shockingly close rate, and has one-upped Merckx by winning Flanders, which Merckx won in his fourth try, in just his second attempt.
But Pogačar still has a long way to go to get near the incomparable records of Merckx. Five Tours, five Giro d’Italia titles, three World Championships, five Liège-Bastogne-Liège titles, three Paris-Roubaix wins, seven Milan-San Remos, two Il Lombardias, and many more besides in a truly incredible career.
That we are even speaking of a potential challenger to Merckx’s GOAT title is incredible. We will have to just keep watching Pogacar to how this already incredibly athlete will develop.
Cool, calm, collected, he may just become the greatest rider of all time.