I Remember back in the 00s, when Lance Armstrong was winning all those Tours de France, the question of whether he was the greatest cyclist of all came up from time to time - mostly from Americans, I would guess. To his credit, Lance called Eddy Merckx the greatest, which is just true, unless there's an alternative cycling universe I haven't tapped into yet. Consider this:
- Eddy Merckx won 5 Tours de France, 5 Giros and 1 Vuelta. 11 Grand Tours in 7 years. This is a record, but Bernard Hinault comes close with 10.
- In the Tour de France he holds the record for number of days in the maillot jaune - 96, and most stage victories in one Tour - 8.
- Eddy has more stage victories in the Tour de France than anyone else - 34. Hinault, again, is 2nd, with 28.
- In the 1969 Tour, Eddy took the overall win, points (sprinter) classification AND mountains classification.
- Merckx has won 28 one-day Classics, including 2 Tours of Flanders, 3 Paris-Roubaix, 5 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and 7 (7!) Milan-Sanremo. I don't know who is 2nd, but he's probably Belgian.
- Merckx won the World Championships 3 times. A record, but shared with a few others.
- Of course he also has the record for career victories - 525.
All these achievements came from a career that spanned 12 years. Comparing his wins above to anyone these days could just not work, since there are virtually no riders in the modern peloton who can win on all terrains. Cancellara can smash hopes and dreams in the Belgian springtime, then get spit out the back in the Alpine summer. Froome can time trial and climb, but he doesn't have a sprint. It's a specialized world now (or 'for now').
It may not be fair to compare different epoques for another reason (at least when looking at Grand Tours): modern 3-week tours have many more mountain-top finishes and generally more climbing than before. Of course Merckx was climbing the same mountains we still see on France 3 each July, but they were generally longer stages with finishes in the valley, not on top of the mountain. He might not have been as dominant in today's Grand Tours.
I, of course, missed all this. My late 60s and mid 70s were filled with being born and watching Bobby Clark and Guy Lafleur. But here's a little anecdote that might illustrate how dominant Eddy Merckx was back in the day.
At John's Thanksgiving party the other night, the conversation naturally drifted toward cycling, and I mentioned to a French guest that I was a big fan of the sport and we somehow got onto the topic of Eddy. He told me he had no interest in Merckx because when he was young, in Lille (near Belgium), everywhere you turned on TV you would see Eddy Merckx winning something. In his words, it was 'boring'. I'm glad I grew up with hockey, but I'd trade a childhood of Bobby Ore for just one season of Eddy Merckx.