Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome has been backed by the most decorated cyclist of all time to repeat his groundbreaking double Grand Tour success in 2018.
Belgian Eddy Merckx called the Briton “the complete rider”, insisting he can “absolutely” continue his winning ways.
Froome last week revealed plans to ride the Giro d'Italia in May, the first of cycling’s three most revered annual races. It is expected that the Team Sky rider will go onto the Tour de France a few weeks later.
“He can win both. I don’t know why he can’t win the Tour [thereafter],” Merckx told City A.M..
Froome has dominated the Tour de France in recent years, winning the coveted winner’s yellow jersey in four out of the last five years. And this year the Kenyan-born rider, 32, backed up his triumph on the Champs Elysees by romping to victory at the Vuelta a Espana.
A victory in Italy next year would see Froome hold all three titles – Italy, France and Spain – at once.
Just seven riders have won two Grand Tours in the same year. It is just one example of Merckx's dominance of the sport that he achieved this feat on three separate occasions in 1970, 1972 and 1974.
No one has ever completed the triple in the same calendar year.
Known as "The Cannibal”, Merckx won five Tours de France in all. But unlike riders today, who are either stage or general classification specialists, he also amassed a record 34 individual stage victories at the event.
And it is Merckx’s stage record that Britain’s Mark Cavendish still harbours hopes of surpassing. The Manxman sits in second place in the all-time ranking, just four wins shy of the Belgian.
“Mark is a good friend of mine,” said Merckx, 72. “My time is past. If Mark wins more stages than me, I say congratulations. I am not upset with that.”
In 2017 Cavendish battled back from illness to make the start line at the Tour de France, only to see a high-speed crash during a sprint in the first week end his hopes of adding to his tally.
Showing a soft spot for the sprinter, the Merckx predicts that Cavendish will surpass his individual stage record before Froome achieves an unprecedented sixth yellow jersey.
“I think Mark, if he is in good shape like this year, can win two or three stages,” he says.
Despite significant technical improvements in equipment, training and nutrition since the 1970s, today's riders complete the Tour de France only around 2mph faster.
Merckx refuses to say the comparatively pampered professional cyclists of today have it easy.
“It is different,” he says. “It is just as hard. They train hard, you still have to have talent.”
“It is difficult to compare generations. It is complicated. I think the most important thing is to be the best in your generation."