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There’s only one Eddy Merckx.
The Belgian legend holds just about every record there is in elite men’s road racing.
In the course of a short but stellar professional career so far, Tadej Pogačar seems intent on catching up real fast.
The 24-year-old continued on his Merckx-like start to the 2023 season by ripping to victory at Paris-Nice like a warm knife through French beurre.
“I always feel I’m good in the first race of the season. It was always my dream to also win Paris-Nice, so I’m happy that I did it, it’s incredible,” Pogačar said humbly on Sunday after winning the final stage and the overall at the “Race to the Sun.”
And Pogačar is carrying those legs straight into Milan-San Remo and a busy spring classics racing period.
“Milan-San Remo is a beautiful race. I know the roads pretty well. I don’t live too far away and sometimes in training I can go to the Poggio and ride it,” Pogačar said.
“I’ve pictured many scenarios in my head of how the race can go. But it’s unpredictable and for sure one of the hardest races to win,” he said. “We have a strong team and we’re riding well together so I think we’ll have a few different options maybe for the finale.”
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At Paris-Nice, he dismantled Tour rival Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) after winning three stages and the overall in his Paris-Nice debut. It’s another stage race to add to his already burgeoning palmarès.
In Pogačar’s world, there are no preparation races. UAE Team Emirates is very selective with his calendar, and coaches tweaked his approach in 2023 and swapped out Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico for Paris-Nice.
Every time he toes up to the line he’s plotting victory.
Just consider his stats so far in 2023:
- In 13 days of racing, he’s won on seven of them. That includes six stage wins in two stage races and a one-day classic to open his calendar. Do the math, and that’s more than a 50-percent win rate.
- So far with stage races, he’s two for two, winning the overall at both Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice.
- With one-day racing, he’s one for one, winning Jaén Paraíso Interior. That means, of course, he’s won every one-day race he’s started so far in 2023.
In fact, his winning percentage across four seasons in the WorldTour is stunning.
According to ProCyclingStats, he’s won 27 percent of all one-day races he’s started, 28 percent of all stages he’s raced, and 42 percent of all stage races he’s started.
Right now, he’s at 55 victories and quickly counting.
His winning percentage only becomes mortal in time trials, winning just under 5 percent of starts against the clock. That statistic reveals that he might not win against time trial specialists, but does not show that he’s almost always faster than his other direct GC rivals against the clock.
Merckx still stands alone, with more than 500 wins across his career and historical markers in just about every category.
Only one stage race before Tour de France
Up next for Pogačar is a string of one-day races that commences Saturday at Milan-San Remo and continues to Liege-Bastogne-Liège on April 23.
That run includes a debut at E3 Saxo Bank Classics, a return to Dwars door Vlaanderen, and a replay on his dramatic battle with Mathieu van der Poel last year at Tour of Flanders.
Then he will try to unravel the puzzle that is Amstel Gold Race in his first start at the Dutch classic since a DNF in his rookie year in 2019. Flèche Wallonne and a return to Liège, where he was a winner in 2021, finish out his spring classics.
So far, it looks like Pogačar will only race the Tour of Slovenia in his lone stage race from here and a return to the Tour de France.
📊🥇With GC-win in Paris-Nice, 🇸🇮Pogacar is the 7th rider in history to win both 🌤️🇫🇷Paris-Nice and 🔱🇮🇹Tirreno-Adriatico in his career.
➡️🥇GC-wins in 🌤️PN+🔱TA (win in both):
4 | 🇳🇱Zoetemelk, 🇨🇭Rominger
3 | 🇪🇸Contador, 🇸🇮Pogacar, 🇸🇮Roglic (+🇮🇹TA’23)
2 | 🇮🇹Rebellin, 🇩🇪Klöden
— Cycling Statistics 📊 (@StatsOnCycling) March 12, 2023
Right now, there’s nothing else officially on his calendar. An “early” world championships, scheduled in August in Scotland, will likely be in the cards.
That blank space sets up the tantalizing prospect of Pogačar returning to the Vuelta a España in 2023.
A return trip to the Vuelta, where he won three stages in his grand tour debut to finish third overall in 2019, has been postponed for one reason or another, but it could happen this year if he comes out of the Tour motivated to keep racing.
Of all cycling’s major milestones, he’s already achieved many of them. A world title and stage victories in all three grand tours so far remain elusive. He’s also won three stages in every grand tour he’s raced, with nine stage wins at the Tour and three at the Vuelta.
Of course, he’s yet to race the Giro d’Italia but vows to do that sooner rather than later.
In three starts at the Tour, he’s raced 19 days in the yellow jersey. Merckx still holds a very big lead in that stat with 111 days in yellow.
A monument sweep in the making?
Pogačar’s winning ways and hot start to 2023 have some already talking that Pogačar could someday complete the “monument” sweep.
He owns two titles at Il Lombardia, and one Liège in what’s three wins in eight starts in the major monuments, boasting another Merckxian-like 37 percent winning average.
Only three riders have won all five of cycling’s monuments. Among them are Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaemenck, and, of course, Merckx.
Philippe Gilbert was the closest among modern riders to come to the sweep after winning four of the five, only falling short at Milan-San Remo before retiring in 2022.
As sports director Fabio Baldato told VeloNews, Pogačar is racing to win every race he starts in the spring classics this year. A start at Roubaix could be in the cards “someday,” Baldato said, but definitely not in 2023.
Pogačar showed he could handle the cobblestones in last year’s stage across the pavé at the Tour de France, but Paris-Roubaix is something the team will leave for later.
He’ll have a shot to expand his “monument” collection at San Remo on Saturday, a return to the Ronde on April 2, and Liège on April 23.
For Pogačar, the fun is just starting.