Eddy Merckx has told La Gazzetta dello Sport he will congratulate Mark Cavendish if he equals or beats his Tour de France stage win record. But true to his ever competitive cannibal nature, Merckx was quick to highlight that he won stages on every terrain, won the Tour de France five times and lead the race for 96 days during his incredible career.
“There’ll be no problem if Cavendish equals my record. I won’t lose any sleep over it. If he does it, I’ll congratulate him because it’s not easy to win 34 sprints,” Merckx told La Gazzetta dello Sport from his home in Belgium where he has been watching the Tour de France.
Cavendish has won three stages in this year’s Tour de France after a late call-up to replace Sam Bennett as Deceuninck-QuickStep’s sprinter and he still has several chances in the race to win again.
The Manxman has tried to avoid talking about Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins, modestly highlighting the difference in era and their abilities.
However, after victories in Fougères, Châteauroux and Valence, it appears only a matter of time before Cavendish takes his 34th victory. He could even go on to better Merckx’s record on the Champs-Élysées on the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris.
“Of course there’s a difference between us,” Merckx pointed out to La Gazzetta dello Sport, still competitive even at 76.
“I won 34 Tour stages by winning sprints, in the mountains, in time trials and going on the attack on the descents. 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 he’s achieved. 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.”
Merckx has watched every stage of the 2021 Tour de France from home, admitting he was moved by Mathieu van der Poel dedicating his stage win and yellow jersey to his late grandfather Raymond Poulidor. He has also been impressed by Wout van Aert’s win on the double climb of Mont Ventoux and Tadej Pogačar’s decision to defend the Tour de France leader’s yellow jersey against breakaway stage winner Ben O'Connor in Tignes.
“I’m not afraid to say I was moved to see Van der Poel win in Brittany and dedicate his win to his grandfather. Poulidor deserved to be here to savour his grandson do such a great ride. Van der Poel is a champion and his gesture will be remembered forever.”
Merckx was proud to see Van Aert win the Mont Ventoux stage wearing the Belgian national champion’s jersey.
“What a ride! He was very good at managing his ride because he's not a climber,” Merckx highlighted. “Van Aert is a great rider just like van der Poel and they’re always worth watching when they compete against each other.
“We’re lucky to have him in Belgium, even if I’m convinced he’s not a Grand Tour rider because he’s more suited to the Classics. I think Remco Evenepoel is better suited and more capable of targeting the Giro and the Tour. He’s recovered from his Il Lombardia crash and just needs to race and forget what happened. He’s also got age on his side.”
Merckx tipped Pogačar to follow in his footsteps of winning multiple Grand Tours and the biggest and hardest Classics.
“He’s going to be difficult to beat in the Grand Tours and can collect five or six Tours, beating everyone,” Merckx predicted. “He’s a complete ride, who can climb, time trial, he doesn't appear to have any limits to his talent. It's going to be difficult for the others to beat him.
“With the right preparation and the right team, I think he can even do the Giro-Tour double like Pantani, he can beat my record of the number of days he wears yellow.
Merckx clearly identifies in Pogačar’s hunger to dominate the Tour de France, leaving little for his rivals and riding to keep the yellow jersey day after day.
“He’s not afraid to be the race leader, I like that,” Merckx said. “I’ve never understood why some riders try to give it away to save energy. If you’re strong, why give up the race lead and the symbolism of the leader’s jersey?
“Winning a stage in the yellow jersey at the Tour or the maglia rosa at the Giro is extra special so ‘chapeau’ to Pogačar for wanting to keep it.”
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