It isn’t entirely fair to blame Phil Liggett, really, because the curse had already been bandied about on group rides, in coffee shops, on Twitter and elsewhere as soon as Peter Sagan started becoming a majority owner of short stage races. But it was Liggett who formally unleashed the curse on Sagan on Tuesday’s NBC coverage of the Tour de France, declaring to the world seconds after Sagan’s stage 3 victory that “(Sagan) is the new Eddy Merckx in cycling, for sure.”
Nearly 35 years after “The Cannibal’s” 1978 retirement, the “next Merckx” label, a curse both intended and disguised as compliment, remains one of the heaviest albatrosses that can be slung around a professional cyclist’s neck. If we’re honest, the next-Merckx curse is more symptom than a disease of its own. It’s reflective of the impossible expectations that a sport hungry for new stars places on its prodigies — an expectation not to just be good, not great, but to be the best ever. If you look, you can see those expectations already building around Sagan. Always more of a rider for tough finales than bunch sprints, there was, nevertheless, told-you-he-was-overrated tut-tutting from various corners when he failed to defeat Mark Cavendish in the race’s first bona fide sprint in Tournai. Nevermind that Sagan had won his first Tour road stage handily the day before, or that Cavendish is one of the pre-eminent pure sprinters in cycling history.
Sagan is just the latest in a string of next-Merckxes. Belgium’s Eric Vanderaerden wore it briefly in the 1980s, and Frank Vandenbrouke took over in the 1990s and early 2000s. Both riders achieved plenty to be proud of, but simple plenty is not Merckx-ian, and the curse set both men’s careers against an undercurrent of disappointment. I forget who the next-next Merckx was, but it was not Axel Merckx, who always seemed just as happy not to be the heir apparent to his own surname. A new next Merckx is anointed every few years, and there is some level of continuity in Sagan’s inheritance of the curse on Tuesday, which he accomplished by beating his next-Merckx predecessor, Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, into second place in the sprint in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
It’s possible the curse has lost some of its force since the 1980s, become more of a simple verbal tic than an honest prediction. Today, there is increased acknowledgement that cycling in 2012 is not the cycling of the 1970s, with greater specialization and greater depth all but eliminating the possibility that a single man can win yellow, green, and polka dots at the Tour, carry off every major classic save Paris-Tours, and maybe knock off a few six days on the track over the winter. It was unlikely when Merckx did it in the 1970s. Today? Impossible is a dangerous word, but it seems about right.
So what can we expect from Sagan, assuming the weakened Cannibal curse doesn’t sink his prodigious talent? It’s possible he could be something like the next Rik Van Looy, in his results if not his attitude. Known as the “Emperor of Herentals” for his royal domination of the classics, self-image, and the loyalty he demanded from his troops, Van Looy stands alone as the only rider ever to win all seven of the traditional classics (the five monuments, Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Paris-Roubaix and Giro di Lombardia, plus Ghent-Wevelgem and Flèche Wallonne). In recent years, rider specialization and course changes have rendered that particular combination of wins by a single rider exceedingly unlikely, but Sagan’s combination of strength, sprint, and resistance on the types of climbs that mark races like Lombardia and Lièege make him the best candidate since Sean Kelly in the 1980s and Michele Bartoli in the 1990s.
Or Sagan might be the next Philippe Gilbert – a threat in almost any tarmac race with a sting in its tail, and a dangerous man in any serious breakaway — though it’s worth noting that Gilbert is still busy inventing just what it is to be a Gilbert. Or perhaps he is the next Vanderaerden, or, god forbid, the next Vandenbrouke, talented and accomplished, but somehow sunk by the weight of unreasonable expectations at an early age.
The most likely scenario, though, goes along the lines of the now well-trodden sound bite: Sagan won’t be the next Merckx, or Van Looy, or Gilbert or Vanderaerden. He’ll be the first Peter Sagan. At just 22 years old, there’s no telling where his talents may ultimately go. Many look expectantly to the classics, but Sagan’s Liquigas director Roberto Amadio believes it could even include a grand tour overall down the road. Just be kind to the first Peter Sagan, and don’t expect it all.
Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999, and admits to being the Ryan behind http://www.theservicecourse.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.