Take, for example, his criticism of Wout van Aert gifting victory in this year’s Gent-Wevelgem to his Jumbo-Visma teammate and friend Christophe Laporte. Or his latest suggestion, in the pages of Il Messagero, that “today’s riders evidently don’t really like cycling, in cycling you need passion.” This was, he went on, because most current riders “only think about one race, it’s as if they don’t care about the others.”
The statement was part of a longer declaration in praise of Tadej Pogačar, who, according to Merckx, “races all year round, he does the Classics, he does Roubaix, he does everything. He’s not one of those you only see in stage races,” as opposed to, presumably, most of “today’s riders.” In addition, the now-injured two-time Tour de France winner “climbs, he rides on cobblestones, he rides everywhere, he knows how to manage himself, he knows how to correct mistakes, he knows how to improve. And he wins.”
Finally, Merckx said about the Slovenian, “I’m happy to see that there is a rider who doesn’t prepare for just one race. Cycling is not just the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France; cycling is all year round.” Everything he said in this interview about Pogačar is true. It is also true about another rider, Eddy Merckx, who in 1975 rode in a staggering 195 races and, according to the Guardian, competed in 1,413 races from 1966 to 1977, or an average of 128 a year. If there is one rider today who has taken Merckx as a role model and appears to have the same hunger, stamina and legs, it is Tadej Pogačar. No wonder Merckx said, “I like Pogačar a lot.”
But it is unfair and unrealistic to expect other riders to approach their careers in the same way, because the sport has changed a great deal since Merckx dominated it. For one thing, there is the money. As Merckx himself told the Guardian in 2013, “Sir Bradley Wiggins made £6m last year… if I could have made £6m in a year I wouldn’t have ridden as much. You had to ride a lot back then to make money.”
Then there is the fact that few riders draw up their own racing schedules. Their schedules are determined by the teams that pay their generous salaries so that their riders will not have to ride all those races to make a decent living. I imagine that even world road-race champion Remco Evenepoel, at this stage of his career, still follows the commandments of his Soudal–Quick Step boss, Patrick Lefevere. Otherwise, considering how ambitious he is, he might already have tackled the Tour de France.
In addition, road racing today is considerably faster than it was in the 1960s and 70s. That is due to the bike and training technology and to the greater fitness of the modern professional cyclist. Training methods have improved, diet plays a far greater role and the ready availability of lots of relevant data have made today’s riders – there is no other way to say it – better and faster than they were when Merckx competed.
On the other hand, that has made road racing more competitive and more dangerous – as have the bigger pelotons and larger number of teams in a race. In the 1975 Tour de France, 140 riders from 10 teams were at the start line; in 2022, 176 riders from 22 teams appeared for the Grand Départ. That adds to the stress, the fatigue and the risks of crashing.
Pogačar crashed in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and broke his wrist because he was caught up in the fall of EF Education-EasyPost’s Mikkel Honoré, who had suffered a double puncture. But the Slovenian always seemed to be able to avoid crashes before – this was the first time in his career that he quit a race because of a crash. Did fatigue play a part in his crash? Maybe. Perhaps his reaction time was just a little bit slower because Liège was his third tough race in eight days. Anyone active in a high-performance sport knows that you tend to be hurt more easily when you are tired. And you also tend to win less. It is telling that the year Merckx rode in 195 races, 1975, he did not win the Tour de France because he crashed and broke his jaw. He did finish the race – and came in second!
And finally, as Merckx must surely know, not all riders are created equal. Riders like the great Belgian and Pogačar come along only once in a half-century. No one else possesses their ability to maintain a superior level of fitness for long periods of time, their powers of recuperation after a punishing race, or their hunger for victory. Merckx was and Pogačar is one of a kind in their respective eras.
You can’t expect every rider in the peloton to be you, Eddy.