The greatest cyclist ever to pedal a bike…
The 99th Tour de France commenced in a predictable manner. Nervous riders battled for the leading 20 places in the field as the peloton raced over the narrow, lumpy roads and lane ways of Belgium and northern France.
The leading teams endeavoured to keep the Tour favourites - Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans - out of trouble near the front of the rolling group of riders.
The combination of the nervous start and narrow roads resulted in a series of crashes that seem to feature in the early stages of each year’s Tour.
Amongst all this predictability, there emerged one of the most exciting new talents in professional road cycling for many years. His name is Peter Sagan, and his feats in the opening stages had commentators comparing his arrival at the world’s greatest bike race with that of a young Lance Armstrong in the late nineties.
The doyen of English- language commentators, Phil Liggett, even wondered if we were witnessing the advent of “a new Merckx?” The reference was the Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist ever to pedal a bike.
The setting was right - in Belgium, the home of the five-time Tour winner. At just 22, Sagan is a year younger than Merckx was when he won the first of five Tours in 1969.
But the comparison is daunting. When the great Belgium rider lined up for his first Tour, he had already won the world amateur and professional road races, Milano - San Remo twice, the Giro d’Italia, Paris - Roubaix and a number of other spring classics.
Merckx dominated his first Tour. Not only did he win the Yellow jersey, but he also claimed the King of the Mountains and the Sprinter’s competitions. Had there been a Best Young Rider’s jersey then, he would have taken it also!
His solo win on the 130 kilometre stage 17 to Mourenx in the Pyrenees was possibly the greatest ride in Tour history. The Belgium led the peloton over the first of four climbs before extending his lead to 45 seconds down the dangerous, twisting descent to the valley below. By the time he reached the foot of the 16 kilometre ascent up the Col du Soulor, he had stretched the advantage to a minute.
Two mountains were still ahead of him, the higher Col de l’Aubisque, and the even higher Col du Tourmalet, topping out at 2,115 metres.
At the summit of the Aubisque, Merckx had extended his lead to five minutes. By then he held the Yellow Jersey by a whopping eight minutes. In an awesome display of sheer power and will, Merckx attacked the Tourmalet alone. By the time he reached the summit of the famed climb, the young rider had taken another eight minutes on the peloton.
Even then, the race was not over, as he had another 50 kilometers to ride to the finish. Suffering from hypoglycemia from his efforts, he struggled through pain to claim possibly the greatest stage win in Tour history.
The Cannibal, as he was nicknamed, went on to win four more Tours, as well as three World Championships, five Giro d’Italias, the Vuelta a España, and every major classic, often numerous times.
Merckx’s final Tour in 1975 was equally impressive. While pedalling slowly at the start of a stage, Merckx and the Danish rider, Ole Ritter, tangled handlebars. Merckx hit the ground with his face, breaking his cheek bone in two places.
Rejecting medical advice to withdraw, he contested the last week with a swollen face, and unable consume solids, finishing second. The eventual winner, Bernard Thévenet later said that even on the final day on the Champs Elysées, with a two minute lead, he couldn’t relax, knowing that Merckx would never give-up until the race was over.
By the time he retired from professional cycling in 1978, the formerly fat little boy from Brussels had turned cycling on its head, having won an amazing 525 races.
For a cyclist even to be mentioned in the same breath as Merckx is an indication of prodigious talent.
Sagan’s seemingly effortless domination of two uphill stage finishes this year excited the comparison, as he outsmarted and over-powered some of the best riders in the world, including the man known as “Spartacus” - Fabian Cancellara. The ease with which the young Liquigas rider found wheels going forward impressed the cycling world.
Sagan displayed the talent that he was develop in the 2010 Santos Tour Down Under, his first Pro Tour road race. He rode with stitches in his arm and thigh after crashing on the second day. In the penultimate stage over Old Willunga Hill, he attacked with Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde and Luis León Sánchez, holding off the sprinters over the final 20 kilometres.
While the local media naturally write about the performance of Cadel Evans and the other Aussies, the real story of the first week of the Tour is the emergence of Peter Sagan. If he can learn to climb well, the Slovakian rider has the potential to join the ranks of the Tour champions.
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