With 11 grand tour victories, success across five monuments, three world championships, and a host of other trophies in his palmarès, it’s fair to say that Eddy Merckx experienced a lot during his cycling career.
The Belgian, now 74, did not experience quite such an unusual season as that being played out in 2020 however. The year so far has seen a global pandemic tear up the racing calendar, a four-time Tour winner coming back from injury and considering moving away from his grand tour dominating team, and two prodigious youngsters rising to the fore of the sport.
Merckx spoke to Tuttobici this weekend about some of the biggest talking points of today’s cycling world, namely the re-scripting of the year’s racing calendar, Chris Froome‘s ambitions and desires, and the rise of Remco Evenepoel.
The Belgian legend agreed that the UCI needed to issue its new calendar “for the teams, for the fans but also for the sponsors, otherwise cycling risks collapsing.” He was less approving of the way in which the Tour de France had dominated the UCI’s scheduling process however, leaving the Giro d’Italia elbowing for space in an October crowded with a host of one-day races and the start of the Vuelta a España.
“Eight calendar months were concentrated in 90 days, some overlap was inevitable,” Merckx said. “But the Giro was not treated well, there was no respect. Some great classics had to be programmed also during the Tour.”
“Nobody wants to deny the enormous importance of the Tour, both economic and media, but they also deserve respect for the other races that have made the history of cycling,” he continued.
Merckx has won both the Tour and the Giro five times. His Tour tally is equaled only by Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain. Chris Froome, now on four Tour wins, has made it clear that he wants to make 2020 his year to join that exclusive club of champions with an ambition of taking his fifth yellow jersey just 13 months after a career-threatening crash.
The Sky / Ineos stalwart kicked up a whirlwind of rumors last week with suggestions that he may take to this summer’s tour with a new team as he contemplates a rare mid-season transfer. While there are many possible contenders for Froome’s signature, Merckx feels that he would be better off staying with his grand tour-dominating team if he wants to claim a fifth Tour title.
“I heard he wants to leave Ineos perhaps because he can’t stand internal rivalry with Bernal and Thomas,” Merckx said. “But the feat of the fifth Tour will be very difficult for him if he does not have a squadron at his side as happened in his four victories in France.”
Merckx began amassing his huge trophy cabinet at just 20-years-old, taking his debut Milano-Sanremo in 1966. Belgium’s new cycling superstar, 20-year-old Remco Evenepoel, has drawn his share of comparisons to Merckx with his early rise to fame and do-it-all abilities. Merckx thinks the Deceuninck-Quick-Step phenomenon has a little way to go yet though.
“He has already won a great classic like San Sebastian, but he still has to learn a lot. To hear some of his interviews it seems that he already feels arrived, but it seems to me that he still has to eat many sandwiches [i.e., do more work],” Merckx said. “On the other hand, I really like the young Dutchman Van der Poel, in my opinion he could also become a grand tour rider in the future.”
Evenepoel responded to Merckx’s comments this weekend in Het Nieuwsblad, saying, “Eddy Merckx has the right to put someone in their place. Look at his career, there is nothing to add.”