Like It or Not, Tadej Pogačar is On Pace to Become the Next Eddy Merckx
Plus, what Ineos' out-of-contract riders tell us about the team's future
New BTP Podcast: Diving into how Lombardia reflects the sport’s changing trends.
Tadej Pogačar’s win this past weekend at Il Lombardia saw the 23-year-old Slovenian lay down a marker with yet another major victory in his mind-boggling young career. It meant that in only three full professional seasons, he was able to rack up two Monument wins, three grand tour podium finishes (including two Tour de France wins) and nine grand tour stage wins, a respectable palmeres for a rider’s entire career.
While we’ve seen many great riders come along in recent seasons, none have the ability to win with such volume (and ease) over such a wide variety of terrain and events. With such an impressive three-season run, there has been a lot of talk since the most recent win about whether Pogačar could be an heir apparent to the best rider of all-time, Eddy Merckx.
Initially, I shrugged these comments off as insane and not something to take seriously. After all, Merckx won a total of 283 races, including 11 grand tours and three World Championships.
While it is difficult to imagine any rider ever matching these achievements, if we isolate the first three seasons of Merckx’s career, the comparison doesn’t look so crazy.
Eddy Merckx’s Wins Over First Three Pro Seasons
Tadej Pogačar’s Wins Over First Three Pro Seasons
Total Wins: 33
Monument Wins: 2
Grand Tour Stage Wins: 2
Grand Tour Overall Wins: 0
World Championship Wins: 1
Total Wins: 30
Monument Wins: 2
Grand Tour Stage Wins: 9
Grand Tour Overall Wins: 2
World Championship Wins: 0
As far as wins go, both riders got to an impressive mark of at least 30 wins in their first three pro seasons (with Merckx just topping Pogačar 33 to 30). But, as far as quality is concerned, Pogačar potentially tops the great one. Merckx and Pogačar both won two monuments, but, even though Merckx got a World Championship title, he failed to win a grand tour overall title while Pogačar took home two consecutive Tour de Frances (not to mention Pogačar’s absurd WorldTour win to win ratio).
A World Championship is certainly nothing to scoff at, but the difficulty of winning the sport’s biggest race, the Tour de France, is enormous. Taking into account the two wins, one could make a compelling argument that Pogacar is arguably off to a better start than Merckx.
This is highly impressive and shows Pogačar is a truly special rider, but it will still be able to match Merckx’s standing in the sport. Ultimately what makes true greatness is sustained success. Pogačar is off to a great start, but he would have to keep up his current dominance for the next 7-10 years to even come to a true comparison to Merckx. While not impossible, it will be an incredibly difficult feat, especially as other extremely talented young riders continue to emerge out of the woodwork.
Ineos Cleaning House
One interesting subplot unfolding this fall is the apparent house-cleaning going on over at the British superteam Ineos. The top-end of the team’s roster has been surprisingly stagnant since its founding in 2010 (which may explain why they find themselves outgunned by the modern top grand tour contenders) with tenured riders like Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift having been there since day 1. However, both Thoma and Swift are currently without contracts for 2022, while Rohan Dennis, Gianni Moscon, Iván Sosa, Owain Doull, Sebastian Henao, and Lenardo Basso are all confirmed to be leaving at the end of the year.
Riders Out of Contract at End of Season
With an average age of 28.6 years old and an aging core of stars like Thomas (35), Richie Porte (36), Michał Kwiatkowski (31) it is certainly time for some wholesale changeovers. Even their newer leaders like Adam Yates (29) and Richard Carapaz (28) are pushing 30 in an era of young stars.
Judging from their signings so far for 2022, the team’s management clearly recognizes this. To replace those leaving, they’ve brought in Ben Tulett (20), Luke Plapp (20), Magnus Sheffield (19), all extremely talented young prospects.
It would be easy to look at the talent and promise of these three, extrapolate exponential growth and pencil them in as future Tour de France winners. But, if we really take a look at Ineos’ recent past, this isn’t as certain as many would think. What is surprising about these recent exits is just how many of the riders were brought into the team, some at great cost, as future leaders, only to struggle to get race starts and suffer career stagnation. Much of this is due to the team’s reverence for their older established stars at the expense of their budding talent, and nobody embodies this more than Iván Sosa.
The 23-year-old Colombian was brought to Ineos in 2019 as a highly-touted prospect from the Androni Giocattoli team along with Egan Bernal. Ineos was so confident in his ability that they bought Sosa out of his previously signed contract with Trek-Segafredo at great cost. Flash forward three years and Sosa has failed to produce any meaningful results and is heading to Movistar while Ineos has eaten the cost of his contract buyout without any return.
While Sosa might be the most high-profile flop, he isn’t an outlier, and this is becoming something of a trend at Ineos despite their reputation as the most development-focused team in cycling. If we pull back, it is difficult to name many young riders over the past four seasons who have improved significantly after coming to Ineos. In fact, the team relies on its original crew of Thomas and Porte to carry a shocking amount of its workload.
They have brought in stars like Egan Bernal, Richard Carapaz, Tom Pidcock, and Filippo Ganna, but, outside of Ganna, all were extremely successful before their arrival. There hasn’t been much, if any, improvement from Bernal, Pidcock, or Carapaz since joining the team. Carapaz’s only career grand tour win came during his time at Movistar in 2019 and while Pidcock put in a few very impressive performances in his first pro season in 2021, he was an established off-road star for years prior to his arrival. Bernal could potentially be the exception here since he came to the team as a prospect in 2018 and won the Tour de France in 2019, but, if we go back through the old film, it isn’t clear that still hasn’t actually improved since coming over to the team. He jumped into the 2018 Worldtour season without missing a beat and was able to finish 15th in his first Tour in 2018 after riding as a domestique for Geraint Thomas before coming back to win in 2019 after gaining leadership status. But, he has struggled to match those results since, and when he has looked good, he is simply matching his performances from 2018/2019, not exceeding them.
Ineos still sits high up in the team PCS rankings, but this is more a function of their budget-related depth. If we look at their ability to win the world’s biggest races, they are clearly a step behind. With the financial strength to sign any rider at any amount, this shouldn’t be the case. I had initially assumed this was due to a lack of a competent scouting department, as evidenced by the team missing out on superstars like Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar, both of whom were without teams relatively recently. But, after watching this exodus of riders that were supposed to be their next generation of stars, I wonder if it is a development program. Perhaps even if Ineos signed them, Pogačar and Roglič would have spent the best years of their careers parked on the front working for Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte, and Adam Yates a la Kwiatkowski, and in turn, would not have been able to turn into the dominant riders they are today.
I will be sending out initial thoughts on the 2022 Tour de France route, which was released today, in tomorrow’s post…
I am not one to quickly jump on any upcoming rider’s bandwagon, but I thought Pogacar was special from the start. Just something about him. He rides with passion, determination, skill and confidence, yet also with humility and constraint. He’s a nice kid, as he’s shown on podiums and during interviews. You can tell that it’s not just work, but he’s having fun. Pogacar has also proven that he has an exceptional technical understanding of the sport for his young age.
It’s hard to compare athletes from different eras. Sports change, competition and technology improves. So, whether or not Pogacar ultimately bests Merckx records, he’s likely to be at the top of the sport of road cycling for years to come.