Rouleur Classic

Touchpaper: Why modern cycling champions do not match Eddy Merckx

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Photographs: Jakob Kristian Sørensen

Think about it.
Yes, there are 11 Grand Tour victories on the palmarès of Eddy Merckx, but also 27 triumphs in the one-day Classics; 19 of them Monuments.
Merckx was a man capable of winning any race he entered – 525 career victories attest to this – but to focus on the sheer number of his triumphs is somehow to miss the point. Greatness, exemplified by the Cannibal, is as much a matter of breadth as volume.
Where does this leave today’s riders: the Tour set, who build a season around three weeks in July, or the modern day Classics kings who fade into the background once April has passed? Surely none can hope to rival Merckx with such myopic campaigns.
Visitors to the opening night of the 1 Classic would have seen the dichotomy made flesh: Merckx and Alberto Contador together on stage, moments after Contador had outlined an early-season programme intended to deliver him to the Tour in peak condition.
Are we setting the bar too high in attempting to find rivals to the Cannibal? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Even those who played second fiddle to Merckx have palmarès of greater breadth and depth than today’s champions. Take Felice Gimondi, who not only won a Tour, Vuelta, and three Giri during Merckx’s reign, but also a world championship, Paris-Roubaix and Milan-Sanremo.

The same is true of other eras. Coppi and Hinault, champions in the eras immediately preceding and succeeding Merckx, exercised similar dominance across professional cycling’s full spectrum. Today? Boonen and Cancellara are the best of the one-day riders, but even here, their specialism can be narrowed to the Northern Classics, and neither would hope to win a Grand Tour. And while Contador has multiple victories in all three Grand Tours, plus a host of overall wins in week-long races of the first rank, there isn’t a one-day victory from the first rank.
Specialisation is killing any hope among today’s champions of rivalling those of the past, who targeted every race of note. Some were more successful than others, but the expectation of a top class rider was to be competitive all season. Roger De Vlaaminck never won a Grand Tour, but can point to 22 Giro stages alongside his four Paris-Roubaix triumphs, three Milan-Sanremo victories, his Lombardia brace and a victory each at the Ronde and Liège.
Chris Froome might win the Tour de France five times before he retires, but by doing so would earn a place in history as a Tour specialist. And if Boonen should add another Ronde or Roubaix to his haul next season, it will only cement a reputation as the best of his generation on the cobbles.
Alejandro Valverde has a Grand Tour victory to place alongside his three Monument Classic triumphs (all at Liège), and races to win from January to October, but his implication in the Operación Puerto affair prevents many from unqualified celebration. Vincenzo Nibali has no stain on his reputation and victories in all three Grand Tours and the Giro di Lombardia on his palmares. Perhaps he is the closest in the modern peloton to the all-rounders of the past. 
World champion Peter Sagan has the best chance of any of the modern set of a place among the greats of yore, but he has yet to win a Monument and winning the Tour of California is a long way from winning a Grand Tour. Similarly, Michal Kwiatkowski has the rainbow stripes on his palmarès and by today’s standards might be considered an all-rounder, but, like Sagan, looks a poor fit for a Grand Tour contender.
Today’s GC rider is required to roll off the start line in skeletal form. Sagan and Kwiatkowski simply don’t have the weight to lose to complete the transformation. The former is built like a middleweight boxer and Kwiatkowski is already very lean. Asking him to shed weight could be dangerous.
There is a corollary with the preference among race organisers for increasingly mountainous Grand Tours, a trend on which we have commented previously. What chance would Kelly, a comparatively recent champion, have of repeating his Vuelta triumph in its modern incarnation?
We must marvel at Merckx, but chiefly for the astonishing breadth of his talent. Perhaps Wiggins has a similar range of ability – both are Tour winners and breakers of the Hour Record, though the Londoner has nothing like the volume of Merckx’s triumphs and was content to finish in the top 10 at Roubaix.
Will the modern era produce a champion to rival the Cannibal, or even Le Blaireau? It is difficult to imagine, with increasing diversity in the peloton between the men of the Classics and those of the Grand Tours. Cycling is poorer for it.

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