Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rant: There is no 'next Eddy Merckx' part deux

So I went on a long rant yesterday about how the team "the next Eddy Merckx" needs to be buried in the graveyard of retired cycling idioms. Now it is time to see examples of what type of pressure "the next Eddy Merckx" tag puts on riders...

Screw the Mayans and 2012. 1978 was the apocalypse for Belgium. God was dood (Well, figuratively). Eddy Merckx was a shell of his former self and just shy of his 33rd birthday, Merckx rode his last race at the Omloop het Waasland on March 19th. Injuries had taken their toll and his body couldn't find the form that propelled him to 525 wins over his career. What was Belgium to do? Roger De Vlaeminck was nearing the end of his magnificent career. Sure they had guys like Freddy Maertens and Michel Pollentier (they were training partners) but neither of them would suffice as a Merckx replacement. So who would they turn to?

The two victims were Fons de Wolf and Daniel Willems. Both were talented espoirs; de Wolf won the U23 Paris-Roubaix and Belgian amateur champion while Willems was both military and amateur national champion along with winning the U23 Het Volk. Both were gems and had promising starts to their career that had people's expectations swelling.

Lomme Driessens (left) and Fons de Wolf (right) (thanks to inrng)
Let's start with De Wolf. He was a fragile rider but he had panache in his early years as he was drove on by the hard nose Lomme Driessens. Nowadays, neo-pro riders aren't expected to due much in the way of results. Rather, they are focused on learning and growing stronger. De Wolf wasn't having any of that and went straight to winning in 1979. 5 stage wins in the Vuelta a Espana along with the points classification. This was on his small Lano-Boule d'Or. So there was more pressure and less room for error. Fonsie stepped up to the plate in 1980 and won the Giro di Lombardia and Trofeo Baracchi. The pressure continued to rise. Where were all the wins and dominating performances? Perhaps he could challenge for a Grand Tour?

Daniel Willems was an incensed rider as an amateur. He only knew one speed...balls to the wall. His time trialling skills were world class while he had all-around capabilities to ride with nearly anyone. He went pro in the last half of 1978 with IJsboerke and won the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen. So his first full pro year in 1979...just learning the ropes? Wrong.

He won the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque along with the TT stage. Won the Brabantse Pijl. Won the Tour of Belgium. Rund um Henninger Turm. Impressive. Yet he was also 3rd at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He was on the podium at 5 more high-level time trials including on the Col d'Eze at Paris-Nice. It is hard to fathom a rider like this in today's term. Perhaps the next Eddy Merckx has been found.

1980 was filled with victories and even more near misses. He won Ruta del Sol but then had four second place stage finishes at Paris-Nice. You think he was pissed off? Damn right. The Tour de Suisse  was where claims of the next Merckx could finally be validated. Willems wins the prologue. Then sprinted to a stage one win. Then stage two. He hit the repeat button on stage three. Split stages the next day? Two more wins including a time trial. Willems won the first SIX stages of the Tour de Suisse and even with all of this time out in the wind, he claimed 5th overall by the end of it. He had about a thousand more podium places the rest of the season but finally claimed another big win at Paris-Tours, taking a solo victory over a charging peloton. Fons de Wolf was 4th.

1981 was a big year for both Willems and De Wolf. Were they going to fill in the shoes of the monolith that was Eddy Merckx? No. But that isn't to say they didn't try. De Wolf won Milano-Sanremo with an impressive attack over the Poggio. Willems finished 15th. Willems won three stages at Setmana Catalana. De Wolf was present in nearly every big classic while Willems possessed a lethal combination of time trial power and devastating sprint. Their bright star like talents came together at the 1981 Ronde van Vlaanderen. There was no question that they were the two strongest riders yet they watched each other for the entire race and let Hennie Kuiper slip up the road. They were no pair of Merckxs but neither seemed to care as opposed to the rabid fan base.

Going into the 1981 Tour, both were set for big rides. Willems went 3rd in the prologue. De Wolf stayed up with Freddy Maertens in the sprints. As seen in the video above, Willems won a legitimate Paris-Roubaix stage that was 250km long and finished in the Roubaix velodrome. De Wolf climbed with Hinault and Jean-René Bernaudeau nearly all the way to the top of Le Pleyet. Willems then went on to win the stage into Saint-Preist over a yellow-clad Hinault. The next stage? Willems was the only rider to come within a minute (37 seconds) of Hinault on a TT around Saint-Preist. Willems left the race with only one stage to go but De Wolf went on to finish 11th overall.

Willems wins in Saint-Preist
They weren't Merckx. They were impressive in their own rights respectively but the pressure was beginning to show and chinks in the armor were exposed. De Wolf, while still very talented, was expected to do it all, when in reality, he hated the Tour and wanted out of the spotlight. Willems was setting his sights on the Tour de France and was notably absent from many of the classics and stage races that he was dominating just a few years before. Willems rode the Tour de France and won two more stages and finished 7th overall but he would never ride a full season again. Health problems would derail his career and he was done by 1985. He became an insurance man.

De Wolf switched to the Italian squad Bianchi-Piaggio. He won Het Volk, Giro di Toscana and Coppa Agostini but he fell completely flat at the Giro and after just one season, he was dumped. The last success he tasted was really in 1985 with a Vuelta stage win. He never was the same rider afterwards. He had all the weight on his shoulders at a young age and wasn't able to live up to it. His accomplishments make for a fine career but one that could have been more. He is a funeral home director now.

Other riders were bit by the next Eddy Merckx curse. Eric Vanderaerden was touted as the next Merckx. While he was talented, he admitted that the public expected too much out of him and what they wanted was unrealistic. He was incredibly talented as a junior and amateur and he was a classics and prologue rider at heart. He was never a real climber.

Frank Vandenbroucke had talent that was unmatched for his generation. For what he lacked in dedication via his drug addiction, Vandenbroucke was one of the most impressive riders to watch when he was in form. He was no Merckx though.

An issue of Cycle Sport from 2005 had an interview with Tom Boonen and Merckx. They were making some wild predictions about how Boonen could possibly go for Liege-Bastogne-Liege and perhaps the Tour de France. Bollocks.

Edvald Boasson Hagen came under scrutiny after his explosion onto the pro scene in 2009. He can seemingly win races over nearly any type of terrain but he lacks consistency and is held back by team commitments for riders like Wiggins and Froome.

So we are back to Sagan...and the same applies. He is no Merckx whatever he does. So stop calling him anything related to Merckx or Hinault or Kelly or whoever...he is Peter Sagan.

Now...back to your regularly scheduled programming.

No comments:

Post a Comment