Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: Anton Vos/CorVos/SWpix.com
Historical echoes matter across all sport. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they are one of the foundations of sport. That’s why cricket will now be looking for the next Shane Warne – as easy a set of shoes to fill as Eddy Merckx’s I fear – it’s why when France’s rugbymen win this year’s Grand Slam (allez les bleus!) the names of Serge Blanco and Jean-Pierre Rives will float in the wind. It’s also why, of course, England soccer fans and media constantly harp back to 1966.
Those who practice sport at the highest level can never avoid references to those who have come before. It’s not always comfortable for them. We in the media like our labels, and the pressure of national expectation around the latest “new Merckx” or yet another “possible first French Tour de France winner since Hinault” is never easy to deal with, and in some cases can be counter-productive. Sportsmen and women are right to always respond that they want to be the first Annemiek van Vleuten or Wout van Aert, but they should also embrace the comparisons with stars of the past.
Which brings me neatly to Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico. There aren’t many comparisons with the precocious talent of Tadej Pogaçar, winner, in the last 12 months of a second Tour de France in a row, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Giro di Lombardia, Tirreno and Strade. Who would now bet against him nailing the opposition down in Italy for a second year in a row this coming week?
The immediate comparison that sprang to my mind was with the young Bernard Hinault. Hinault’s career as a pro took a few years to get rolling, as his team manager Cyrille Guimard deliberately held him back, most notably keeping him out of the 1977 Tour de France in spite of pressure from the race organisers. But once Hinault got rolling he was unstoppable: he won his first two Tours, and by the end of spring 1980 had won Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice, and had taken an epic Tour of Lombardy at the back end of 1979, first escaping 150 kilometres from the finish; behind the rampant Badger the biggest group was only a dozen strong.
Like the young Hinault, you get the sense that, right now, Pogacar can win any race he sets his mind to, and like the Badger at his best, he can win in a number of ways, although unlike Hinault (Champs Elysées 1982) we haven’t yet seen him win a full on bunch sprint. It may only be a matter of time though. He doesn’t quite display Hinault’s anger, but like the Badger at his best, he looks like he’s having fun.
Equally significantly, the years when Tour de France contenders warmed up gently in March and built gradually through May and June are clearly far behind us, and that’s all to the good. You watch Wout van Aert (the new Sean Kelly) drilling the bunch into submission at Omloop and Paris-Nice and you know what this promises for July.
It’s all very well for one-day specialists to complain that the Grand Tour stars are making it hard for them to win Classics, the bottom line is that the presence of the biggest names in the sport at the biggest races, and their desire to ride those races as races rather than as extended training rides, are two factors that have combined to make WorldTour racing totally enthralling right now.
Back to those historical resonances. The toughest and probably decisive stage of Tirreno this Saturday includes two climbs of Monte Carpegna. Those familiar with Jørgen Leth’s account of Merckx’s 1973 Giro d’Italian win, Stars and Watercarriers, will recall Carpegna as being the location for a massive battle between the Cannibal and the Italian Giovanni Battaglin. What neutrals will be hoping for is a head to head between today’s New Badger, Pogacar, and the man tipped as the next Merckx, Evenepoel. As well as those echoes of the past, this could be a preview of many encounters to come in the near future.