It has been an exciting spring. The early classics have been marked by unpredictable weather and unpredictable racing. The clear headline story, though, has been the ascension of Peter Sagan to the darling of the cycling media. This is not without good cause, as his performances in huge races have been great. I cannot help but be a little annoyed at just how quick we are to anoint Sagan as the greatest rider since sliced bread. He is impressive, young, and full of potential that he is beginning to fulfill—but if we are being objective, he is not even the best classics rider currently in the peloton.
This lack of perspective, has even led to what I would call ridiculous comparisons between Peter Sagan and Eddy Merckx. Now I’m no stranger to sports media hyperbole, but I have a hard time even putting Sagan in the same sentence as Merckx. This is no dig against Sagan. I just think we have lost perspective on just how unmatched Merckx was, and probably ever will be, in his accomplishments. So here is a healthy dose of perspective on the company in which you are putting Sagan, when you claim he is, “the next Merckx.”
A quick disclaimer before we get into this: I am very aware of how different the era of Merckx was than today. But doping conventions, number of days racing, and the overall parody in the peloton aside, Merckx’s list of palmarés is borderline absurd, and I would venture to doubt if it will ever be equaled—or even approached again.
Merckx’s arrival on the cycling scene was a pretty great one. He turned pro in 1965 after winning the amateur world championship in 1964. In addition to his prowess on the road, Merckx was a great track star and won the Six Days of Ghent—one of the premiere six day races, which were huge back then—in his rookie season. He didn’t waste much time announcing his arrival into the pro road peloton either, winning Milan-San Remo the following year, before his 21st birthday—the first of SEVEN times he would win that race. Sagan is 23 this year—and considered a “young” star of the peloton.
Merckx was off to a great start and he didn’t slow down. Listen to his list of wins from the following year (he was 21, and turned 22 in July of this season): Second consecutive win at Milan-San Remo, La Fleche Wallonne, Gent-Wevelgem, 2 stages of the Giro d’Italia, and another win at the Ghent Six Day. Oh and I forgot one: The World Championships. But at this point Merckx was not yet in his prime.
Already having won enough races to make an entire career, he began to hit his stride the following year in 1968 riding for Team Fæma. At age 22, Merckx won his first Giro d’Italia—he also won the Mountains and Points classifications, as well as 4 stages. That year he also won Paris-Roubaix, the crown jewel of the classics calendar, along with the Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.
It’s worth stopping here for a moment to point out some things. Merckx at this point is still younger than Sagan currently is, and just finished a season where he won Paris-Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia in the same season. A feat which—in our age of incredible specialization—is unlikely to ever happen again.
Sounds like an incredible season, right? Surely one any cyclist would be eager to endure. It was far from Merckx’s best. The next six seasons were Merckx’s magnum opus. From 1969 to 1974 Merckx was otherworldly, winning the Tour de France five of those six years, including four straight—not too shabby. Even more impressive considering the year he didn’t win the Tour, he won the other two remaining grand tours, the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana.
From 1970 to 1974, he won two grand tours every year but one. In that season, 1971, he only won the Tour de France general classification, points classification and four stages. Other victories from that “off year” were his second of three world titles, Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Giro di Lombardia, Omloop “Het Volk”, Paris-Nice, and Criterium du Dauphine Libere.
Only NINE riders in the history of cycling have won two grand tours in one season. Merckx did it four times, and incredibly three straight years from 1972 to 1974. I would be dumbfounded if Sagan ever cracked the top 10 in the general classification of any grand tour in his career.
His list of stage wins is also the most of all time. Mark Cavendish has gotten a lot of press lately for being great at winning stages in the grand tours; he has 36 so far. Eddy Merckx’s total? 64! 34 of those came at the Tour de France on cycling’s biggest stage.
So his grand tour resume is rather impressive, but what is most impressive about Merckx is that he did not just focus on those races. He was also incredibly dominant in classics style races. Merckx has won 19 of the cycling “Monuments.” (The monuments consist of the five biggest one-day races of the season. They are Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro Di Lombardia). Merckx’s total of 19 is far and away the most of all time. Roger De Vlaeminck, another great Belgian, has 11, which is good enough for second place.
Sagan has yet to win one—but he has a good chance at his first this weekend’s Tour of Flanders.
I’m not meaning to belittle Sagan here. He is a great young rider. My point is this: Sagan is not the next Eddy Merckx. He is not even on the same continent as Eddy Merckx, let alone the same neighborhood. The problem I have is that making that kind of comparison belittles Merckx’s greatness. Sagan will be lucky to have half as much success as Merckx did, but that should speak more to Merckx’s greatness rather than Sagan’s failures.
I’m as excited to see what Sagan can do in his career as anyone else, but calling him the next Eddy Merckx is not only pre-mature, but it is outside the realm of normal sports hyperbole. To be honest, it’s insulting to every cyclist who is more deserving of such comparisons—as well as to Merckx himself.
So let’s slow our roll a little bit on cycling’s new Wunderkind. Let’s reserve judgment for when he has actually won enough to be in the same sentence as even Tom Boonen, or maybe even Phillipe Gilbert, because he is not even there yet.
But here’s to hoping he will be one day…