I know I have often said there is no next Eddy Merckx. I have also said on more than one occasion that Edvald Boasson Hagen is, in fact, the next Eddy Merckx. Both of these statements can't be true. So which one is? Let's look for some data to help us decide.
- Eddy Merckx finished 12th in the 1964 Olympics, at age 19. Edvald finished 71st in the Beijing Olympics at age 21. But that doesn't really count, there were fewer countries in 1964 than there are now.
- In his first professional season Eddy Merckx won three races, followed by 13 in his second year, during which he celebrated his 21st birthday. EBH won eight races in his first professional season, plus 15 more the next year, for a total of 23 wins before his 21st birthday. Actually, since his birthday is in May, you can add in a 24th, the Criterium International time trial in early April.
- At age 22, Eddy won his first grand tour stage, the 12th leg of the Giro d'Italia. He bagged his second stage two days later along with a second on stage 19. Meanwhile, at age 22, Edvald won his first grand tour palmare, stage 7 of this year's Giro d'Italia. He also shared a team win in the opening TTT, and took second on two other stages.
- Also at age 22, or shortly before, Edvald won the Flemish classic Gent-Wevelgem. In his comparable year, Eddy Merckx won Gent-Wevelgem. And Milano-Sanremo, Fleche Wallonne, and the World Championship. While taking second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, third in de Ronde, sixth in the Giro di Lombardia, and 9th in the Giro d'Italia.
Conclusion: Edvald Boasson Hagen is not yet the next Eddy Merckx. I'd give him another year or two. Certainly, he can catch up to Merckx by winning Paris-Roubaix, the Giro (twice), the Tour, Flanders, L-B-L, MSR a few times, and Paris-Nice. Then I definitely think we can call him the next Eddy Merckx.
[Tongue firmly in cheek here. EBH is utterly awesome... but not quite this awesome. Yet.]
Update: a little serious analysis now. It's hard to know where EBH is going, though at least we shall start to see in the next couple years since Sky are likely to set him free. But 22 is still incredibly young for a cyclist. In years' past his legs simply wouldn't yet have the strength they will someday, after a few hard seasons, Tours, etc. -- probably still the case.
But we do know already that he's a devilishly fast finisher, too slow for Cav but nearly on par with Greipel, Farrar and his countryman Hushovd. And we know he has fairly awesome raw power, on display in his time trial exploits, where he won his last two non-prologues, scored third in Rome, and is the reigning Norwegian champion.
Sprinting and time trialing... some comparables are Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd, or even George Hincapie. But Hincapie is taller and less sprinty, while Boonen and Hushovd are both at least ten pounds heavier. So while skillsets might be vaguely similar for now, I wouldn't fix expectations accordingly.
Climbing is the key, of course. We know Boasson Hagen can rip up a short climb, as his exploits in Belgium have shown. I would say he's a solid Milano-Sanremo contender right now. He may or may not be diesel enough to win Paris-Roubaix, but he is clearly capable of some Ronde results once he gets accustomed to the longest, hardest days in the saddle. [Warning: that may or may not happen in 2010.] Then what? Can he improve his climbing enough to compete in Amstel Gold? Liege-Bastogne-Liege might be a better event for him when he's ready, since the finish (in recent times) isn't biased toward the pure climbers and occasionally is won in a mid-length break (a/k/a time trial). Another comparable might be Philippe Gilbert, who is a shade lighter at present.
The final obstacle is the high mountains, and here we know nothing, except that in this year's Giro he was not a factor. There are a long list of explanations for this -- he was engaged in teamwork, it was his first grand tour, he wasn't prepared for the high mountains at any time this season, etc. Lance Armstrong, a big-diesel guy who was built like EBH at the same age, wasn't an instant sensation in the grand tours either. But Lance also possesses a supernatural cardiovascular system, a unique physical gift, and anyway comparing someone to Lance is only slightly less unfair than the cheeky comp that I started this column with. For now, suffice to say EBH isn't a high mountains guy, though I wouldn't rule it out someday.
I do think Boasson Hagen will be more than a Flanders success. I am a little skeptical that he will ever be able to hang with the pure climbers. If he dedicated himself to a decade-long, pan-European classics rampage, well, the field is brimming with talent these days, so he'll be sharing the spoils no matter what. But Boasson Hagen will leave a mark on the sport. The question is, how big?