Reasons to compare Boonen to Merckx:
- It sells newspapers.
- It's actually kind of fun.
Reasons not to compare Boonen to Merckx:
- Other than being Belgian and successful, they don't have much in common.
Exactly how the local media are making this case hasn't come out (in English) yet, and I just found a used copy of Rik van Walleghem's book on Eddy Saturday, but I'll take a preemtive stab at this subject. This is too juicy to sit out...
I suppose the case right now is that, in terms of the Classics, Boonen looks so dominant that he's as Merckx-like as you're gonna get. Given how strong he is, that he's only 25, just coming into his prime, and very serious about his craft (are you listening VDB?), he could run the table for years to come... on the cobbles. Yesterday he was le Patron for a day, and look for something similar next week in France, where they actually use the term.
The argument against the comparison is quite obviously that Merckx won every-bloody-thing, from the Alpes to the flatlands, from Grand Tours to every single Classic. Nobody reading this site needs a recap on Merckx's career (though for fun here's Wikipedia's). When Boonen or any other Classics rider does the Giro-Tour double, then the Merckx comparisons can flow.
The problem with looking for the "next Merckx" is, that era looks more and more distant. During the internationalization of the sport over the last 20 years, so many old European cycling traditions about how to train, race and live have been challenged and defeated by new ideas that the work of a top professional racer nowadays bears precious little resemblance to even those forefathers who are still around, still riding bikes, albeit a tad slower. It's almost unthinkable that "another Merckx" is even remotely possible.
I know, people said that breaking the five-Tours record seemed impossible, but in fact the sport has evolved in a way that has made Lance's achievement distinctly possible. Specialization not only means guys are good at fewer things, but that their one thing they do, they can repeat again and again. Boonen is so ideally suited to de Ronde, that if he wanted he could reel off a string of victories until either his wattage started falling or another similar strongman came along.
Boonen stands tall in the media because (and this is good news) other than Boonen on the cobbles, there is no discipline with a dominant force. Ullrich squandered his chance at the Tour, and Basso has yet to confirm his talent. The Giro and Vuelta will always be second-fiddle, so anyone who dominates there just moves on to the Tour. The Ardennes have had two big winners the last two years, but really those fields are completely wide-open (and likely to produce some of this year's best action). There is talent everywhere you look, and very little domination of anything.
So the question is, if there can't be another Merckx per se, what would a "next Merckx" look like in the modern era? My guess is: a guy who can win convincingly on both the cobbles and the Ardennes, take a few green jerseys in the Tour, and maybe some later Classics. Another version is someone who wins in the Ardennes and grabs yellow at the Tour, several times, plus a Lombardy or two. I'm open to other formulations. Boonen could be the former, but is a long ways off yet. And compared to Merckx, at age 25 he's actually fallen behind.