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Campionissimo, the champion of champions, was the nickname given to Italian great Fausto Coppi.
There are few greater titles that could be bestowed on a sportsperson, and according to Eddy Merckx, Tadej Pogačar is worthy of that moniker already at just 23.
In an interview with the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, Merckx paised the talents of the young two-time Tour de France champion. He added that Pogačar’s big performances were good for cycling.
“It’s becoming difficult to find the words to describe what this young guy does. It’s spectacular and formidable. Pogačar is a campionissimo,” Merckx told Gazzetta dello Sport. “Considering he’s just 23, it’s incredible what he’s able to do. There’s a tendency to start winning at a younger age these days but what he’s doing is unique.
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“Riders like Pogačar dominate the sport when they are at their best. That’s tough to take for their rivals but good for the sport. The public watches eagerly and that increases the interest in the sport. I’m sure Pogačar will make our sport even bigger.”
He may have won a growing list of the biggest races on the calendar in his short time as a professional, but Pogačar isn’t immune to the praise just yet.
The Slovenian was very happy to receive it when it was relayed to him during the pre-race press conference for this week’s Tirreno-Adriatico, where he’s aiming to take his second straight win.
“I understand what being called a campionissimo means. I thank Eddy for that,” he said. “It’s difficult to know what to say about Eddy Merckx being a fan. I’m super happy about it and super proud.”
Pogačar added another feather to his well-covered cap at the weekend with a daring long-range attack from 50 kilometers to go at Strade Bianche. Despite some concerted efforts from the likes of Kasper Asgreen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), the UAE Team Emirates rider held an advantage all the way to the line.
The win was impressive, even by his standards, and stands next to his other one-day victories at Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
While some may have wondered why Pogačar chose to launch his attack so early, and possibly even doubted he could make it, Merckx says he was not so concerned by it. He added that his decision to go early was another example of his position as a great in the sport of cycling.
“I wasn’t surprised to see him attack so early because I’ve never seen him make a tactical mistake. When he makes a move it’s because he’s convinced that he can pull it off. That’s a rare quality that only the great riders have,” he said.
Tirreno-Adriatico is the next step in Pogačar’s spring of major races, which is set to include Milan-San Remo and his debut at the Tour of Flanders.
Pogačar has said that he’s ready for a “rough one” at the Flemish race and he has tried to curb some expectations on his first appearance at the race. However, Merckx — a two-time winner of the race — believes that Pogačar has the skills to do it on the first try.
“We’re talking about one of the greats. They never have limits and can’t be judged against ordinary riders. Of course, it won’t be easy for him with no experience but when he starts, he’ll want to win,” Merckx said. “I really like that he always rides to win. That means he trains hard and prepares everything as well as possible.”