Top 12?

Note: This article was first written in late 1997. Were I to rewrite it, I would be inclined to include some of the great pre- World War II names, in particular Henri Pélissier, Alfredo Binda and François Faber.

Gino Bartali rides a lap of honour after the 1948 Tour de France
A lap of honour for Gino Bartali after the 1948 Tour de France

Trying to compare riders from one generation with those of another is ultimately a fruitless exercise, akin to trying to decide whether Newton was a greater physicist than Einstein, since of course conditions change over the years and races decline or grow in importance. For example, Bordeaux-Paris is currently defunct; in the 1970's it had fairly low status, but before that it was a very prestigious classic to win, as is evident both in its illustrious list of winners, and in the marked aclaim Anquetil recieved when he won the Dauphiné Libéré and Bordeaux-Paris back to back with only 2 hours sleep between them in 1965 - a feat recently rated by the readers of l'Equipe as the sporting exploit of the century. An example of a race that has gone up in status is Paris-Nice. For many years this was simply training for most pros, a way to get from their northern French and Belgium homes to the start line of Milan-San Remo, and get some training in in the process. It was only from the late seventies/early eighties (and especially with the exploits of Sean Kelly) that this race developed a stature and value in its own right. Similarly, the Criterium Internationale is now quite a prestigious little race to win, but until 15 years ago, it was the Criterium Nationale, open to French riders only.

Another factor making comparisons awkward is that two wars caused major interruptions in the cycling calendar, so many riders have "missing years" in their palmares. Few stars of the Edwardian period survived the war to be on the start line of the first post-World War One races. In the Second War, some races did take place in the German-occupied territories, but of course, travel to these races was out of the question for most riders, even those who were not directly involved in the fighting. For example, both Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali lost six or seven years of their careers due to the war. Coppi won his first Giro in 1940, and the second in 1946; in between he spent several years as a Prisoner of War in North Africa. Similarly, Bartali won the Tour in 1938, and didn't ride it again until 1948. René Vietto was one of the most promising of pre-war Tour riders, the author of one of the greatest displays of loyalty ever seen in the race in 1934; by time he had a real chance to win in 1947, his aging legs let him down in a ninety mile time trial stage and he finished 5th overall. It seems highly likely that these three could have dominated all the "missing" Tours and Giri between 1940 and 1946. If that had been the case, I'm sure one or the other of Coppi and Bartali might have been in the exclusive 5 or even 6 Tours club. Coppi won 5 Giri (a record) even after missing the war years - how many might he have won otherwise? Six? Seven? Eight?

Fausto Coppi rides to victory in the 1952 Tour de France
Fausto Coppi alone in the mountains once more.

Even the ease of travel in modern-day Europe means that a top Italian rider is far more likely to race in Belgium (and vice versa) than was common in the days of Binda and Ronsse. In the pre-war days, the big stars tended to ride only in their home countries. Girardengo and Binda dominated Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Lombardy in the inter-war years, yet scarcely ever rode the northern classics. Similarly, Binda won five Giri but rarely rode the Tour de France. Amongst Italian riders of the time, only Ottavio Bottechia (Tour de France winner in 1924/25) raced successfully north of the Alps on a regular basis. Binda deserves his reputation, not least for his dominance of the early years of the World Pro Road Race championships, but it is hard to say how a rider like Girardengo matches up against, say, Leducq or the Pélissier brothers; even less how he compares to a modern rider like Indurain. It was not until after the war that Italian riders like Coppi, Bartali and Magni really started to take the northern classics seriously. Between 1914 and 1950, the Belgian Joseph Demuysére was the only non-Italian winner of Milan-San Remo; equally, over the same period, only the Swiss Henri Suter prevented an all-Belgian list of winners in Flanders until the arrival of Fiorenzo Magni in 1949.

Finally, there is what I would call the "Gimondi Effect". Felice Gimondi won a tremendous number of races, but how many more might he have won had his career not exactly overlapped with that of Eddy Merckx (1965 - 1978)? To a certain extent, this is a slightly meaningless statement - you could argue that if all the worlds pros, elites and 1st, 2nd and 3rd cats didn't exist, then I could win the Tour de France, but I think it does have some limited relevance. Gimondi is the most obvious rider to have suffered, but in modern times, Rominger and Bugno could fairly be considered to have had the misfortune to be riding at the same time as Indurain; Bartali at the same time as Coppi, Sarroni at the same time as Hinault and so on.

So all things considered, what would my top twelve be? Remember, this is a personal choice, and remember also that trying to compare the greats of one generation with another is pretty futile, for the reasons set out above (but that doesn't make it any less fun!)

Eddy Merckx in the Yellow Jersey at the 1969 Tour de France
Eddy Merckx in yellow for the first time.

Firstly, I'd rate Eddy Merckx above all others - I don't think there can be any doubt about this choice. Second and third I'd place Fausto Coppi and Bernard Hinault. Personally I'm an Hinault fan, but I think Coppi just shades it, firstly by virtue of having taken the Hour record and secondly because of the races he might have won had the war not intervened.

I would place Gino Bartali fourth and Felice Gimondi fifth. This is a hard choice, but I think the number of Bartali's victories, together with his "missing" years, outweigh the greater breadth of Gimondi's wins. Both of course suffered a "Gimondi effect" to some degree. For three consecutive Tour wins, a Tour-World Championship double, for being one of very few riders to have won the Tour, World Championship and Paris - Roubaix all in a career I would put Louison Bobet next; I rank him above Jacques Anquetil, in seventh place, due to the greater breadth of his victories. Despite his five Tour victories, Anquetil doesn't rank higher, because in my mind his wins were quite concentrated in a narrow spread of events. Still, the hour record, wins in all three major tours and wins in Liège - Bastogne - Liège and Bordeaux Paris as well as those nine GP des Nations victories mean that no list would be complete without him.

Rik Van Looy, Sean Kelly and Roger De Vlaeminck fill the next three positions in that order. This is another hard choice, but I'd rate Van Looy above Kelly for the world titles, including two wins and a silver medal in four years, and also for the way in 1968 he won Flèche - Wallone so as to become the only rider to have won all eight of the traditional orthodox classics (that is, Milan - San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris - Roubaix, Liège - Bastogne - Liège, the Tour of Lombardy, the Flèche Wallone, Paris - Tours and Paris - Brussels). I'd rate Kelly above De Vlaeminck since he has a better spread of victories, including one major stage race.

Next I'd put Francesco Moser, another rider capable of winning on any turf except, perhaps, in the very high mountains. Still, he got the Giro victory his talents deserved, even if it was with a little surrogate assistance from a partisan Signor Torriani and an over-zealous helicopter pilot...

Finally, I'd put Fiorenzo Magni. A sentimental choice, and because saying Indurain would be too obvious. The point is, there are a lot of riders you could say here - Garin, Pélissier, Binda, van Steenbergen, Indurain, all of whom have there supporters and detractors. I say Magni because, had it not been for him (and a little support from Nivea), maybe all this discussion would be moot anyway...

For my views on the top British riders of all time, see the top British riders page. To see who has the best record in any particular race, go to the races page.