Pro cycling often reaches for historical comparisons, this blog included. There’s a rich history to exploit and in moments where it can be hard to work out the meaning of a performance or the value of a race, comparing today’s riders and results to the past can supply context. It can also be misleading.
Take the frequently asked question of whether Tadej Pogačar can win all five of the so-called “Monuments”, namely Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia. It’s a feat only Rik Van Looy, Eddy Merckx and Roger De Vlaeminck have achieved so as a present day accomplishment so it’d put Pogačar up with the best. That’s the point: it’s not just a difficult thing, it’s the comparison to feats of Eddy Merckx.
Only the concept of the Monuments is a relatively modern one and these five events got their unique status after the current set of riders to win them managed the feat. It came along with reform of the calendar for 1989 when a World Cup was established with “new” races in Canada and Britain. Attention was also paid to some of the special, traditional races to preserve their identity, including their extraordinary distance which continues today as in they’re all frequently over 250km. L’Equipe’s Philippe Bouvet described these five races as monumentales and the label seems to have stuck. So these five races were formally placed on a pedestal in 1989.
Before that, say, back in the day of Merckx these races were special but not part of restricted, elite circle of five special events. For example at times the Flèche Wallonne was the prime race of the “Ardennes week” and was part of the season-long Super Prestige calendar. In 1972 Eddy Merckx won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, obliterating the field even… but it wasn’t part of cycling’s top calendar that year. It was even held on a Thursday. It’s an example of how doing this and that today isn’t necessarily comparing races of the same value today.
Similarly the sport wasn’t always seen the same way. Spanish riders would often race in Spain and not much further, Italians raced in Italy. Now this is a generalisation verging on an exaggeration but all the same today’s teams are obliged to race across the world, it’s an entirely different system. Starting the five Monuments is obligatory for the 18 teams when decades ago it wasn’t. Take Rik Van Looy who won Sanremo and Lombardia while riding for Italian teams, he’d return to Sanremo when he rode for a Belgian team but never Lombardia again.
For another example of trouble with historical comparisons, take Jumbo-Visma’s recent 1-2-3 in the Vuelta a España. Unmatched? No because the KAS team took all the podium places in 1966. The same? Of course not. Now KAS did even better than Jumbo thanks to a 1-2-3-4 on GC, in fact they placed six riders in the top seven, the Fagor team salvaged a fourth place to spoil a KAS septuple. However the 1966 Vuelta isn’t comparable to the event we know today, the race that year almost didn’t happen and when it did go ahead, it was 17 days rather than the 21 days we know today. It had a small startlist with few foreign stars, especially when it came to the GC contenders, so as a feat it wasn’t as impressive and certainly not comparable to 2023’s vintage.
While we’re on it the 1966 Vuelta a España can also serve as another example, it only had 90 starters and six nationalities taking part. This year’s race 176 starters. The Bahrain team alone started with eight different nationalities. “Back in the day” the Tour de France field consisted of French riders and typically more from bordering countries like Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Italy. To the point where even British riders were considered exotic, take Tom Simpson having to pose with a bowler hat. Today’s peloton is still very Euro with the French and Italians a large part of the World Tour peloton but there are Colombians, Americans, Australians and more. Of course the Slovenians too, who before 1990 were excluded from the pro peloton because of the Iron Curtain. It means today’s field is denser, there’s way more quality to pick among.
If anything all this makes today’s feats even more impressive. Bigger fields, stronger startlists, more rival teams: to win a Monument today might well be harder. But then again Federico Bahamontes branded today’s riders as soft because they got showers and massages so some things were harder back in the day. So we can hold up the quantitative results such as winning as many Monuments as Merckx, but rating the quality is a never-ending argument.