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The champagne droplets had yet to crust on the Tour de France podium Friday afternoon when the cycling world turned its collective attention to the latest, greatest, burning question of our time.
In case you missed it, on Friday Mark Cavendish accomplished the unthinkable by winning stage 13 into Carcassonne and drawing himself equal with Merckx on the Tour’s all-time leaderboard with 34 career stage wins. Yep, Cav tied a record that has stood for 46 years.
To put that in perspective, Babe Ruth’s MLB record for the most career home runs — a record that baseball fans at the time thought would last forever — stood for 39 years until Hank Aaron tied (and then broke) it in 1974. Yeah, what Cav accomplished on Friday was that historical.
Anyway, the Cavendish celebration came amid a flurry of online chatter about Merckx, who was quoted by the NBC Sports Network telecast as having a typically gracious-yet-grumpy perspective on the situation.
Eddy Merckx's comments re Cavendish and the Tour de France stage-win record, via NBC. pic.twitter.com/w45YH8Zte4
— daniel mcmahon (@cyclingreporter) July 9, 2021
“I won 34 Tour stages by winning sprints, in the mountains, in time trials, and going on the attack on the descents,” Merckx reportedly said. “Let’s not forget the five yellow jerseys I’ve got at home plus the 96 days I wore it. Does that not seem much?”
“Naturally, I’m not trying to play down what [Cavendish] has achieved,” he added. “Also, because he’s been through a difficult time and has fallen in love with cycling again. That’s a great message for young people in the sport.”
Of course, we do not know the context of the Merckx quotes, or what specific question prompted this reply from cycling’s most decorated rider. In recent years Merckx has carved out a niche as cycling’s grumpy uncle, quick to criticize the kiddies for abandoning grand tours early, or other actions that are deemed to be uncouth. Think Charles Barkley on two wheels.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the online response to Merckx’s comments has been decidedly split into two camps: the pro-Eddy, and Eddy-is-a-grump groups.
Still, the point Merckx makes brings to the fore a few fun if complicated hypothetical questions that we should absolutely unpack in today’s column.
Whose accomplishment is more impressive? Which guy would you rather hold up as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) Tour stage winner?
Unpopular opinion: I don't care about whether Mark Cavendish beats Eddy Merckx's record. It's like comparing apples and oranges. Whether it's 14, 24 or 34 stage wins, the number's almost irrelevant. The wider achievement is his longevity + standing as an epoch-defining sprinter
— Andy McGrath (@Andymcgra) July 7, 2021
It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, of course, but that’s what makes it such a fun debate. Merckx won all varieties of stages at the Tour de France, but he did so during the golden age of cycling, when the margin of victory was often 10 minutes or greater, riders pedaled on heavy, antique bicycles, and sports nutrition meant you put a raw egg in your beer.
Cavendish, meanwhile, won 34 pan-flat or lumpy sprint stages, but he did so in a hyper-specialized environment, where cyclists and teams have called on sports scientists, aerodynamicists, nutritionists, and yep, sometimes pharmacists, to squeeze a microsecond’s advantage over the competition. Cav won 34 stages, and by doing so he beat millions of dollars worth of engineering, skill, training trips to Tenerife, and fart-inducing protein powder.
So, I’ll ask it again: Merckx or Cavendish — who you got?
There’s no correct answer here, and your choice likely says more about you than it does Cavendish or Merckx. If your bike has downtube shifters, you probably say Merckx. If you chase Strava records, then it’s likely Cavendish. Retro jersey aficionado? Merckx. Wrap-around shades — Cav. King of the town line sprint — Cav. Queen of the local climb — Merckx.
Love a good grumpy quote? Well, you probably like both guys equally.
There’s another quality to take into account when choosing which side to take: greatness vs. longevity and durability. It’s a similar debate that NBA fans tackle when choosing between LeBron James and Michael Jordan as the sport’s greatest of all time.
Those who choose Jordan choose greatness. Jordan won six NBA finals in six NBA finals appearances, and once the victory was at hand, he was nearly impossible to beat. The same can be said about Merckx, whose 13-year professional career brought him 445 wins in 1,585 races. He won stages in all but two of the grand tours he ever started. And of those 16 grand tour starts, Merckx took the overall in 11 of them.
LeBron fans, meanwhile, point to his longevity and durability for why he’s the GOAT — he’s been awesome since 2003. Likewise, Cavendish fans can point to a similar record.
Cavendish’s record for greatness isn’t as stellar, however, his success has already spanned three decades. This is Cavendish’s 16th season in the pro ranks, and to be honest, he probably has a few more good ones in him. His sprint victories haves spanned multiple generations, and he’s beaten everyone from Erik Zabel, to Alessandro Petacchi, to Peter Sagan, to Wout van Aert in bunch kicks. He’s been great, fallen from grace, then fought his way back two or three times already. And that has to count for something, right?
How will we settle this debate? Is there any one quality we can really look at to push one man over the line? Sprints vs. climbs, new-age vs. retro, grumpy vs. grumpier?
Perhaps we should take a page from Cavendish’s own Instagram account and look elsewhere for guidance.
Yep, Cav is right. Marianne Vos is the only right answer here.