Eddy Merckx becomes first member of Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame - and gives his tips on Milan-San Remo
Still dithering over your Fantasy Cycling selection? Let the man who won the race seven times be your guide
The legendary Eddy Merckx, five times a winner of the maglia rosa, was today inducted as the very first member of the Giro d'Italia Hall of Fame in Milan. What's more, he's also been giving his thoughts on Saturday's Milan-San Remo - if you haven't finalised your Fantasy Cycling team yet, the advice of a man who won the race an astonishing seven times between 1966 and 1976 has to be worth heeding.
Described as the first initiative of its kind in professional cycling - British Cycling, you may recall, unveiled its own Hall of Fame, honouring people at all levels of the sport, to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2009 - the Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame is said to recognise "the true greats of cycling and the riders who have made Giro d’Italia history."
Joining the 66-year-old Belgian as he was presented with the Trofeo Senza Fine - identical to the one latter-day winners of the Italian three-week tour win - to mark his final victory in 1974, were other riders from his era, as well as team management and even mechanics.
Those present included Alfredo Martini, Fiorenzo Magni, Gianni Motta, Italo Zilioli, Giorgio Albani, Davide Boifava, Ugo De Rosa and Mario Molteni, whose father sponsored the team Merckx rode for sproting what still remains one of the coolest and most imitated jerseys in cycling.
Also present was another legend of cycling forever linked with Merckx, Ernesto Colnago, who was both chief mechanic for Merckx at Molteni and of course built frames for him too and who is still looking to innovate at the age of 80, as the hubbub surrounding those disc brakes unveiled in Taipei this month testifies.
We can only speculate how successful Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali might have been had World War II not interrupted their careers, but it's hard to argue against Merckx's record of victories making him the greatest road cyclist the world has seen.
In the modern age, when Grand Tours can be won without taking a single stage, or perhaps just one or two, his appetite for stage wins shows why he earned the nickname The Cannibal - 25 in the Giro alone. That's before you even consider his record in one-day races.
Despite his fearsome reputation on the bike, he remains an approachable, affable figure off it, as the presence of so many of his contemporaries today demonstrated.
“Being the first person in the Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame is a great honour for me," said Merckx. "I consider Italy my second home. I’m loved as much in Italy as I am in Belgium. I have a lot of fans here and that’s very special for me.”
“Italian cycling gave me a lot. My first big wins were in Italy. Then I joined an Italian team and learnt a lot. Fiorenzo Magni became a good friend. He took me to criteriums and then introduced me to Colnago, who became my mechanic and built my bike for the hour record. After that Ugo De Rosa taught me how to make bikes and helped me create my own bike company.
“Our era was special because all the great riders rode all the big races and competed against each other. It’s a pity that doesn’t happy very much today. For great races, you need great riders.”
Merckx's seven Milan-San Remo victories were achieved in just ten participations in La Classicissima di Primavera, and he'll be more interested than most to see who joins him on the roll of honour come Saturday evening on the Riviera dei Fiori.
“I think there are a lot of favourites for this year’s Milan-Sanremo. There are a lot of riders on form but if they don’t drop Cavendish on Poggio, he’ll be difficult to beat," he reflected.
“Cancellara looks good, so too do Sagan, Boonen and Van Avermaet. Nobody has talked about Oscar Freire but he’ll be there after 300km and could win his fourth Sanremo," he added - inadvertently letting slip that he hasn't read road.cc's preview in which Geraint Thomas tipped the Spaniard as one to look out for.
"Gilbert isn’t so on form but we’ll see what happens," he continued, "though if he was dropped in a team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico, it’s not a good sign.”
While there are several home riders who could on their day win the race, Italy's hopes appear to have been firmly pinned on Vincenzo Nibali, who looked strong when taking a stage and subsequently the overall in Tirreno-Adriatico this week.
If the Sicilian is in the lead group on the Poggio, the expectations are he'll attack hard, throw caution to the wind on the descent - he's one of the best men in the peloton going downhill - and hope to have built enough of a cushion to keep in front on the final run-in - it promises to be spectacular.
“Nibali is going well, he’s a classy rider, I saw him win a stage in Oman," agreed Merckx. "However he’s got to learn to use his head more and race more intelligently. He lost Oman because he made a mistake. If he’s going well, he could get away on the Poggio and so perhaps win Milan-Sanremo," he added.