Recently dubbed by Eddy Merckx as a “blessing for cycling enthusiasts”, Tadej Pogacar’s victory at Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race was further proof – if needed – that the Slovenian is the greatest cyclist in the world in this moment.
Of the 17 days of racing he started this year, Pogacar crossed the finish line with his arms aloft nine times and also sealed the overall standings in both stage races he contested. However, it is not the number of race wins that impresses him most, but the wide range of canvases on which he created his masterpieces.
While reigning Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard has racked up racing for fun – seven stages and two GC wins in 17 days of competition – on the kind of terrain you’d expect a Grand Tour rider to be building towards further successes, Pogacar went a different route.
From the Spanish gravel on the relatively unknown Jaén Paraiso Interior one-day race, to the unforgiving cobbles of the Tour of Flanders and now, Sunday in the Netherlands, the ferocious climbs of the Amstel Gold Race, Pogacar is crushing under its most delicate frame the sports dogmas. With little respect for tradition, the 24-year-old is rewriting the rulebook and he’s amazing to watch.
Having made a name for himself in Grand Tour racing, the two-time Tour de France winner – second to Vingegaard last year and third in his first three-week race at the 2019 edition of the Vuelta a España – now, unlike many of his predecessors, has chosen to take the classics seriously, the biggest one-day races in cycling’s busy calendar.
Among the recent winners of the most important race of all, only the now retired Vincenzo Nibali also had a monument in his palmarès – one of the five pillars of the one-day calendar – while we have to go back to 1985 to find a winner of the Tour de France (Bernard Hinault) who also had a cobbled monument on his list of victories. Pogacar, however, has won four monuments out of just 10 starts, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2021), Il Lombardia (2021, 2022) and the Tour of Flanders (2023), while twice narrowly missing the podium in Milan – Sanremo, a race until recently considered a classic for sprinters.
No wonder, then, that Pogacar has been compared to Merckx, a rider whose insatiable appetite for winning motorcycle races has led to him being nicknamed “the Cannibal”. However, unlike Merckx who battled his way to victory in all five Monuments – one of only three riders to achieve the feat – along with all three Grand Tour world titles, road and track, as well as the legendary hour record, Pogacar perhaps has more in common with another sporting great. While Merckx is widely regarded as the greatest cyclist who ever lived, the late Fausto Coppi – ‘Il Campionissimo’ – is a man whose legend, through riding with grace, poise and panache, continues to echo through the ages.
Similarly to Il Campionissimo, Pogacar is not a rider who should excel on cobblestones, but he does and, as seen at the Oude Kwaremont earlier this month – see clip below – the UAE Team Emirates leader has it all in his arsenal to crush the heavier set specialists that were born for the classics. And all this from a biker who seems to touch his pedals with the divinity of an angel.
When, as we saw on Sunday, the road ascends in dizzying, mouth-watering gradients, Pogacar is able to drop punches with ease – and high in the mountains he’s floating in the clouds – it’s as if he’s on a one -man mission to take cycling to another level and take the sport beyond the realms of mere mortals.
Pogacar is a phenomenon, an unrepeatable example of sporting perfection. He floats like Johan Cruyff, stings like Muhammad Ali. Pogacar is the greatest rider this correspondent has seen in 40 years of cycling viewing and, as Merckx said after his win in Flanders earlier this month, he’s a “blessing” for the sport.