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The 74-year old believes that Dutch superstar van der Poel “can win everything – even the Tour de France.”
“He will fall short in the high mountains against Pogacar and Bernal, but if Geraint Thomas can win the Tour, Van der Poel can do it too,” Merckx told Het Nieuwsblad, Friday.
Van der Poel can seemingly do it all, collecting wins in stage races and classics on the road while scooping three world championship victories in cyclocross and competing at the top in mountain biking. With coronavirus knocking a planned start at the Tokyo Olympic mountain bike race off the agenda in 2020, van der Poel is pinning his season hopes on an ambitious Tour-Vuelta double this fall.
Merckx highlighted van der Poel’s lack of climbing chops as his potential downfall, saying “he will have to focus more on road races and mountain biking” to hone his grand tour skills.
While van der Poel is hoping his team receives a wildcard invite to the Tour to allow him to make his grand tour debut, there are still question marks over whether there will be a Tour at all, and if there is, what it will look like. While French ministers are stating that any sporting events this year will be held behind closed doors, Tour organizers ASO are adamant that their race will be staged with fans on the roadside.
Merckx, who won the Tour a record-equalling five times, would rather see no Tour at all than a stripped-back version of La Grande Boucle.
“A Tour de France without an audience is simply not a Tour de France,” Merckx said. “The people on the side are not part of the race, are they? Don’t get me wrong, I also hope the Tour can continue. I understand that it is important for the riders and the teams. But for me personally: rather no Tour than a Tour without an audience. I would find that pathetic.”