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by Matthew de Vroet
September 22, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
As each year goes by, more and more talented cyclists make a name for themselves with amazing feats of endurance and skill. But among these many excellent riders, only a handful stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. These are the legends of our sport.
If you’re new to cycling, or you’ve just never really followed the history of the sport, it’s time to get out your notepad and start jotting down some names. These are the legendary riders that you’ll want to know about and remember; the riders that have shaped the sport as we know it.
Of course, cycling has a chequered history and it’s very hard to talk about the sport’s greatest without mentioning riders with questionable pasts. That said, all the riders below have undoubtedly contributed to the sport and have earned their legendary status through their results and, in some cases, their work off the bike.
The list below is in chronological order, with the span of each rider’s career in brackets beside their name.
World hour record holder, world champion, five-time Giro d’Italia winner, two-time Tour de France winner — Fausto Coppi was deservedly given the nickname “Campionissimo”, the champion of champions.
Coppi was known for winning by large margins, often in excess of 10 minutes. He dominated the sport both before and after World War II where he was held as a prisoner of war in North Africa.
Coppi and his famous rival Gino Bartali attacking each other.
Coppi is still a poster boy for the Bianchi brand.
Coppi’s had a fierce rivalry with Gino Bartali. Their rivalry divided Italy and they would have rather not raced than helped each other while representing their country.
Bartali won the Tour de France twice, in 1938 and 1948 — an astounding 10 years apart. He also won the Giro three times. However, perhaps Bartali’s greatest achievement was off the bike and only emerged in December 2010.
During World War II, Bartali used his training as cover for secret efforts to rescue persecuted Jews throughout the war. Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar and helped save their lives. He also carried messages and documents via his bicycle to the Italian Resistance. A legend both on and off the bike.
“Monsieur Chrono” was the first rider to win the Tour de France five times, including an impressive four consecutive wins from 1961-1964. Known for his exceptional time trialling ability, Anquetil boldly stated before the 1961 Tour de France that he would hold the yellow jersey from day one all the way through the Tour. Incredibly, he managed to do just that, cementing his spot in our list of legends.
Anquetil is one of just six riders to win all three Grand Tours, his wins at the Giro and Vuelta adding to his success at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and five Paris-Nice titles.
Beryl Burton dominated women’s cycling over several decades, winning seven world titles (two on the road, five on the track) and 96 national British titles. She refused to ever turn professional, turning down an offer from Raleigh Bicycles to remain an amateur in 1960.
Burton was most famous for holding the 12-hour record for two years, for both men and women, and set this while passing her nearest competitor and offering him a liquorice stick. Burton’s career spanned such a long time that her daughter, Denise, raced against her and outsprinted her for the 1975 British national title. This led to Burton infamously refusing to shake her daughter’s hand on the podium, showing her fierce competitiveness.
Simply put, Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist of all time. The man nicknamed “The Cannibal” dominated professional cycling like no one else and won every important race there is to win.
The Belgian triumphed in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times each (often picking up the points and mountains classification while he was at it), and also won the Vuelta a España once. His incredible total of 65 Grand Tour stage victories puts him at the very top of the list with a record that’s unlikely to be broken anytime soon.
Merckx success wasn’t only confined to the Grand Tours however. He won all of cycling’s Monuments multiple times, including Milan-San Remo an astonishing seven times, and was world road race champion three times. Add in an hour record that lasted 28 years and a total of 525 victories and you’re looking at a simply unrivalled palmares.
Merckx battling it out at Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Eddy Merckx with his famous Molteni Cap
A five-time winner of the Tour de France, “The Badger” didn’t just conquer each of the Grand Tours, he also collected a cobblestone by winning Paris-Roubaix in 1981. Hinault won the Tour that same year — a rare double indeed.
Add to that a world title as well as four out of the five Monuments and there aren’t many with a more impressive palmares.
Luis Herrera in the mountains jersey, Hinault in yellow, and Hinault’s teammate LeMond in the combination jersey during the 1985 Tour de France.
One of the most successful cyclists of the 1980s, as well as one of the finest classics riders of all time, Sean Kelly won 193 professional races across his 17-year career. He “only” won one Grand Tour — the 1988 Vuelta a España — but the Irishman won an amazing nine Monuments: three editions of the Giro di Lombardia (now Il Lombardia) and two each of Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Milan-San Remo.
Kelly was also a fantastic week-long stage racer, his seven Paris-Nice titles among the victories that make him one of the most versatile riders in history.
Sean Kelly was one of the finest classics riders ever. Here he is on his way to the 1984 Parix Roubaix win.
Kelly also excelled in the hillier classics. He won two editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège as well as Paris-Roubaix.
Involved in some of the most exciting and dramatic moments in cycling history, Greg LeMond could not be omitted from this list. He’s the winner of the closest Tour de France in history, the American winning the 1989 edition by a mere eight seconds after a remarkable final-stage time trial.
LeMond was the first non-European to win the Tour de France, a race he won three times, and he also claimed two world road titles. Since retiring, LeMond has been a passionate and vocal opponent of performance-enhancing drugs.
LeMond won the 1989 Tour de France with a last-stage time trial effort to overhaul Laurent Fignon.
LeMond won the World Road Race twice, in 1983 and 1989.
Giving riders over 70kg the hope that they too can win a Grand Tour, “Big Mig” is possibly the heaviest rider to win the Tour de France … and he did it on five consecutive occasions.
Add two Giri d’Italia, a world ITT crown and you can see why the Spaniard is considered one of the true greats of the sport.
Miguel Indurain on his way to the 1993 Tour de France crown.
Indurain was known for his strong time trialling ability and he used this to pick up two Giro d’Italia titles.
Weighing 80kg, Indurain was not your typical Grand Tour contender.
Mario Cipollini amassed 191 professional victories in his career and yet he is perhaps best known for his extravagant fashion exploits. The best sprinter of his generation would often sport custom-made kit, which resulted in him being fined thousands of Swiss Francs by the UCI.
However, “Super Mario” was undeniably one of the legends of the sport, winning 42 individual stages of his home Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, while also adding 12 Tour de France stages.
In 2002 Cipollini won Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem and became the world champion. Cipo would often skip mountain stages in Grand Tours in favour of lounging on the beach (he never finished a Tour de France) but did win the points classification at the Giro on three occasions.
Cipo winning a stage of his beloved Giro d’Italia.
Cipollini had a number of extravagant skinsuits made for time-trials which he was often fined for.
Cipollini won the World Road Race in 2002 and raced the Giro in the rainbow bands.
Possibly the best classics rider ever, Tom Boonen won Paris-Roubaix four times and the Tour of Flanders on three occasions. Add to that semi-classic wins such as his five E3 Harelbeke crowns and it is clear Boonen was a true master of the cobblestones.
Boonen’s success did not end there though. He won six Tour de France stages as well as the points classification in 2007, and also won the world championships in 2005.
Boonen winning his fourth Paris Roubaix in 2012.
Boonen in the national champion colours climbing the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen during the 2010 Tour of Flanders.
He won the World title in 2005 and had a season in the rainbow jersey.
Boonen was also a bunch sprint specialist and took a number of sprint victories in his career.
If Tom Boonen is not the best-ever classics rider then that title could very well belong to Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss’s modern-day rivalry with Boonen was the talk of every classics season and the pair shared intense battles with both coming out on top on different occasions.
Cancellara won Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders three times each, four world time trial championships, one Milan-San Remo and two Olympic gold medals in the individual time trial. Cancellara also used his time trial skills to deliver eight stage wins and multiple stints in yellow at the Tour de France. A true modern day classics legend.
Cancellara was a powerhouse on the cobbles and at his peak won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix in 2010.
Cancellara celebrating his 2013 Tour of Flanders win. He would go on to win one more crown in 2014.
Cancellara was also one of the best against the clock. In his final time trial of his career, he won Olympic gold in Rio in 2016.
Cancellara had stints in the yellow jersey throughout his career. He defended it bravely in the first mountain stage of the 2012 Tour de France but would end up losing it to eventual winner Bradley Wiggins.
The only current rider on our list, Marianne Vos well and truly deserves her spot due both to her achievements and her versatility as a rider. Arguably the finest cyclist of her generation, Vos has won three world championships on the road, seven in cyclocross and two on the track, as well as two Olympic gold medals.
Vos has dominated women’s cycling since her first road world title at the age of 19, back in 2006. Vos has won the biggest race on the women’s calendar, the Giro Rosa, three times and has picked up 20 stage wins along the way. Virtually every race she turns up to she is a favourite and her incredible palmares means that even though she is still a professional, she is already a legend.
Vos winning her second road title in her homeland of the Netherlands in 2012.
Vos is also a highly successful cyclo-cross rider and has won seven world championships.
Vos is the current European Road Race champion.
Vos has won the Giro Rosa three times and amassed 20 stage wins along the way.
Who have we missed? Who would you include on this list?