Throwback Thursday: How others fared when they were billed as ‘the Next Merckx’

Riders have come and gone, but Eddy Merckx remains the reference point in elite men's racing.

Photo: Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

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Someone has to be the GOAT, right?

Every sport has one. In basketball, it’s Michael Jordan. Golf has Jack Nicklaus. And for elite men’s road racing, Eddy Merckx remains the eternal number one.

Riders have come and gone, but Merckx remains at the top of nearly every statistic in the record books.

Every generation seems to serve up at least one rider who earns the moniker as the “next Merckx.”

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Tadej Pogačar is the latest in a long list of riders who get the pressure piled onto their shoulders. Some have handled it well, and others, well, not so great.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, we look at some of the riders who saw that pressure foisted upon them, and examine if Pogačar could go even further.

Who was the rider that you thought would be the ‘Next Merckx’?

Jan Ullrich suffered a lot of ups and downs during his controversial career. (Photo: James Startt/VeloNews)

James Startt: I was convinced Jan Ullrich was just going to be the biggest rider of his generation by far. He was the surprise of the 1996 Tour and finished second and then he simply stormed to victory the next year. He could climb. He could time trial. He was young. Who was going to stop him? Unfortunately, he seemed to stop himself. Ullrich never dealt with the pressure, and soon succumbed to injury and scandal. When he was his best, he was hard to beat.

Also read: How a clean and sober Ullrich pedaled back from the brink

Andrew Hood: It’s interesting how pressure and expectations can change a rider’s trajectory. Some can deal with it, others cannot. Everyone thought Tejay van Gaarderen would be a Tour contender. Jan Ullrich had all the makings of a great one. And those riders were great, but for one reason or another, they could not get the maximum in terms of results out of their superb engines. Trying to live up to the mantle of GOAT isn’t easy.

Does Tadej Pogačar fit the bill?

Tadej Pogačar on his way to winning stage 18 of the 2021 Tour de France.
Tadej Pogačar on his way to winning stage 18 of the 2021 Tour de France. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

AH: Tadej Pogačar seems to have that rare mix of a massive engine coupled with that mental edge. Some race off anger or pain. Pogačar seems immune to any type of outside influences and almost seems as if he enjoys racing for the pure joy of it. Let’s see how long that holds out. The incredible thing about Pogačar is his recovery and his relative ease on and off the bike. So far, the pressure and media demands haven’t gotten to it. If he can stay insulated from that part of the sport, remain focused on winning races, and stay healthy, he could start zeroing in on some of Merckx’s marks.

Also read: Pogačar widens ambitions in 2022

JS: Perhaps I shouldn’t be so optimistic, because we’ve seen riders flame out before under expectations. But Pogačar has now won two Tours de France in very different ways. And he has won monuments like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy. He has that rare combination of being able to climb, time trial, sprint, and knows how to handle himself in the bunch. And everyone said his team was weak. I don’t agree with that, but even if that might have been slightly true, the team is only getting stronger. With even better riders around him, there could be no stopping him. I truly feel like he is the real deal!

What day of racing are you looking most forward to in 2022?

SD Worx rode a near-perfect race in the 2021 Strade Bianche. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

JS: Oh, I don’t really know. There are so many races I love and it is not always a single day. I love the Tour de la Provence in February and there are stages in the Giro I already am looking forward to, like in Sicily. For sheer drama nothing surpasses Paris-Roubaix, but I really hope to do Strade Bianche again as it combines drama and beauty in an unmatched manner.

Also read: Inside the Strade Bianche winning tactics at SD Worx

AH: Strade Bianche is right up there. I’m a big fan of all the major one-day races. Every grand tour seems to deliver one big day of racing that changes everything. The Tour de France Femmes should also be a big event. Every season has its mix of stories and narratives. For 2022, can Roglič beat Pogačar? Will Sagan come back? Can women’s racing continue to grow? Cycling never disappoints.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.