In October, I was in Como for the finish of Il Lombardia, the race that one of my favourite riders over the past couple of decades, two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali, chose to bring down the curtain on his career – with the 2023 edition won of course by defending champion Tadej Pogačar , who has rapidly replaced the Sicilian as the rider I most look forward to watching.
Days before that final Monument of 2022, both men were chatting at the start line in Busto Arsizio to the north of Milan for the Tre Valli Varesine – a race the Slovenian, who’d only turned 24 a couple of weeks earlier, also won to kick off an astonishing sequence of results.
Beginning with that victory in Varese, over the past six months or so Pogačar’s past 20 days in the saddle at stage races and one-day races combined have seen him cross the line first on an incredible 12 occasions.
Besides three stage wins apiece at the Ruta del Sol and Paris-Nice – races in which he also won the overall, the points competition and, in France, the best young rider’s jersey – the UAE Team Emirates rider has won six of the eight one-day races he’s entered.
Those include two Monuments – that Lombardia win last October, and the Tour of Flanders after an astonishing ride earlier this month. Should he repeat his 2021 victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, Pogačar will be the reigning champion of three of the sport’s five biggest one-day races – something last achieved by Sean Kelly in 1986.
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He’d also become just the third man, after the late Davide Rebellin in 2004, and Philippe Gilbert seven years later, to win all three of the classics that make up Ardennes Week during the same season.
His achievements of course come at a time when men’s racing has seen the emergence of four all-round talents, each of whom deserves the ‘once in a generation’ tag – besides Pogačar himself, there is fellow four-time Monument winner Mathieu van der Poel, his great rival in cyclo-cross and now on the road, the 2020 Milan-Sanremo winner Wout van Aert, and world champion and 2022 Vuelta winner Remco Evenepoel, who will defend his Liège-Bastogne-Liège title this coming weekend.
Clearly, we’re going to see some fireworks between that quartet over the coming decade, and what is refreshing is that all mark a move away from the style of riding and racing we’d become accustomed to in recent decades, as many top riders increasingly adopted a narrow focus on their racing schedules and season targets.
While it’s by no means unusual to see a Grand Tour winner prevail in the two climbers’ Monuments. Liège and Lombardia, you have to go back to 80s for the last time the winner of a three week race triumphed at Roubaix, and since the 90s among riders who have won the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a Espana, only Pogacar has been victorious at Flanders and Nibali at San Remo.
Which of today’s standout quartet will emerge with the greatest legacy on the road is near-impossible to predict.
Completing a full set of five Monuments – something Pogačar and van der Poel are both more than halfway to achieving, and a feat only secured previously by Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy – would certainly seal their place among the sport’s legends.
So too would winning all three Grand Tours, something only six men, most recently Nibali, has achieved, especially if it comes with a side dish of success in the Monuments or the World Championship road race.
Of course, only Eddy Merckx has secured the lot – all three Grand Tours, all five Monuments, plus the World Championship – and it’s unlikely anyone will ever equal his total number of GC and one-day victories across those competitions.
But perhaps for the first time since Bernard Hinault in the 1980s, there are several riders with the ability, and the time, to take a decent crack at completing the set – and it’s Pogačar I would put in pole position right now to achieve that, narrowly followed by Evenepoel.
Both have already won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where they start on Sunday as strong favourites, and next month Evenepoel, who already has that rainbow jersey in his wardrobe, heads to the Giro d’Italia in a fortnight’s time seeking his second Grand Tour. But Pogačar’s four Monuments to date, plus his Tour de France win, put him slightly ahead for me.
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Whether or not either of those riders, or someone else, manages to emulate Merckx and pull off the full set, it’s going to be thrilling watching them over the next few years.