Comparisons and debate about who is the sport’s greatest ever rider come often and easily but are rarely fair and objective. Merckx is the undisputed greatest of all time in men’s professional cycling because of his incredible palmarès and the way he dominated his rivals and races.
Despite now being 76, Merckx still has a competitive streak and an acute understanding of the sport. Yet he is happy for Pogačar to be considered his heir.
"I have heard many times 'this is the new Merckx' without the conditions being fulfilled, but with Tadej I think we are really there this time," Merckx said during the winter.
“I’ve always said I don’t like to make comparisons. I’m just happy to have been the best of my generation," he added with a hint of modesty when speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport after Pogačar won Strade Bianche.
Merckx crowned Pogačar as a Campionissimo, an Italian title that is reserved for the likes of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.
"It’s becoming difficult to find the word to describe what this young guy does. It’s spectacular and formidable. Pogačar is a Campionissimo," Merckx said.
"Considering he’s just 23, it’s incredible what he’s able to do. There’s a tendency to start winning at a younger age these days but what he’s doing is unique."
If Strade Bianche had existed when Merckx raced, he would no doubt have attacked alone with 50km just as Pogačar did.
"I wasn’t surprised to see him attack so early because I’ve never seen him make a tactical mistake," Merckx suggested.
"When he makes a move it’s because he’s convinced he can pull it off. That’s a rare quality that only the great riders have."
Pogačar will target Tirreno-Adriatico next week and then even make his debut at the Tour of Flanders. Merckx won Milan-San Remo a record seven times and will again pull up a chair and watch the Italian Classic in two weeks time, convinced that Pogačar can win again.
"Why not? He can definitely attack alone and get away on the Poggio, and so nobody would catch him before the finish," Merckx suggested.
Pogačar has played down his chances at the Tour of Flanders because he has only raced the Under 23 version of the Flemish classic and knows little of the testing race route.
"We’re talking about one of the greats. They never have limits and can’t be judged against ordinary riders. Of course it won’t be easy for him with no experience but when he starts, he'll want to win," Merckx argued.
"I really like that he always rides to win. That means he trains hard and prepares everything as well as possible.
"Riders like Pogačar dominate the sport when they are at their best. That’s tough to take for their rivals but good for the sport. The public watches eagerly and that increases the interest in the sport. I’m sure Pogačar will make our sport even bigger."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.