In the course of an interview with L’Équipe at his home in Meise on the outskirts of Brussels, Merckx was asked if he expected Froome to claim the yellow jersey in Paris next July. “Of course he’s going to win it again,” the Belgian declared. “If it’s not him, then who else?”
Merckx added: “It won’t be Quintana who will worry him, because he’s too limited in time trials. Quintana climbs well, but he’s a bit weighed down, too cautious. Waiting for the penultimate day and Alpe d’Huez [in this year’s Tour] to attack Froome revealed a lack of calibre.
“As for the others: Nibali won’t be there, Contador will be another year older, Aru I don’t really know… No, on paper, Froome hasn’t really got any rivals.”
On the question of Froome’s popularity and the attacks and insults the Sky leader received during this summer’s Tour, Merckx reflected on the threats and assault he was on the end of when he was dominating the Tour in the early 1970s. “Froome had urine thrown at him, which even I don’t think I was subjected to. But I experienced something a lot worse, in the shape of the punch I received from a spectator on the climb of the Puy de Dôme,” he said.
Asked if he thought Froome had been unjustly treated by the press and public, Merckx responded: “The public have always been excessive, and are more so today with the competition between the different media, the increasing amount of information, the spread of rumours that aren’t always verified.
“Then there’s the problem of identification. We were more recognisable. We raced without helmets, with our faces uncovered, which humanised our effort, our weaknesses. Today, because of helmets and glasses, I don’t think Froome’s face has really entered yet into people’s consciousness.”
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Elsewhere in the interview, Merckx lamented the lack of a Belgian grand tour challenger and his country’s continued focus on the Classics. But even there, he said, Belgium is not blessed with talent.
“There’s [Greg] Van Avermaet, [Philippe] Gilbert… both good riders, but I don’t really identify with them. I prefer Nibali, Sagan. Especially Sagan.”
Pressed on his admiration for world champion Peter Sagan, Merckx explained: “I love his style, he’s a fighter, a warrior, someone who attacks from a long way out and forces movement. And I love his extrovert personality. Sagan gives cycling some colour with his declarations.”