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OK, I'll Bite: My Top 20 Grand Tour Champions


Fist off, MAJOR h/t to dees ees en drama who threw down yesterday when I asked for his/her all-time list. I debated just responding there, but I think this has some real discussion potential outside of the Nibali thread, and anyway, I'm going long-form.

My all-time top 25 grand tour winners are as follows.

1. Bernard Hinault.

well OK, wait.

1. Eddy Merckx (5 Tours, 5 Giri, 1 Vuelta).

Obviously. There's a picture of him next to the number 1 in the dictionary. At least in the integers thread. Somewhere right now, at a corporate function or a charity event, Eddy is plotting his next attack.

1a. Bernard Hinault (5 Tours, 3 Giri, 3 Vueltas).

First among non-cannibals, though that would've made a fine nickname here too. Had Hinault enjoyed perfect health, there's no telling how many grand tours he might have won. Yeah, OK, same could be said of most of the guys on this list. But he was the total package. He was a true attacking climber, handled his bike well enough to win Paris-Roubaix, drove himself mercilessly enough to win time trials, and could even sprint. I think it's debatable whether he should be here over the next guy on my list, but for me the deciding factor was his sprint win, in yellow, on the Champs-Elysées. Who does that? Who even thinks of doing that? The guy was an incredible winner. If there were a Make-A-Wish Foundation for old, healthy people and I got the call, I would totally ask to attend a best-of-three ping-pong match between Hinault and Michael Jordan. I wouldn't even have to stay to the end. The first six hours would be plenty.

3. Jacques Anquetil (5 Tours, 2 Giri, 1 Vuelta).

Not even sure where to start on Maitre Jacques, one of the sport's most colorful characters ever. Along with his impressive win totals is the fact that he never ONCE finished off the podium of a grand tour, unless you count a trio of DNFs. It's arguable he competed at a more competitive time than Hinault, with riders like Poulidor, Gaul, Bahamontes, etc. overlapping with parts of his career. But it's inarguable that he was fueled by amphetamines, so if pushed I'll stick with the Badger at #2.

4. Fausto Coppi (2 Tours, 5 Giri)

And now we enter the Eternal Debate. It's worth pointing out that Coppi also started winning grand tours (1940 Giro) before the War, so it's not like Bartali was the only guy affected. But Coppi was five years younger and when they finally started holding Tours de France again, he was only 28, whereas Bartali was 33 -- and won at age 34. Anyway, once Coppi got going again, he won almost every time he showed up in shape.

4a. Gino Bartali (2 Tours, 3 Giri)

For all his bravery and honor, Bartali sounds like a weird dude. He used to snoop around Coppi's trash to see if he could turn up evidence of doping. Wasn't Coppi's success considered evidence of doping back then?

Anyway, I don't come here to solve the Eternal Debate. For starters, I keep changing my mind.

6. Alberto Contador (2 Tours, 1 Giro, 2 Vueltas)

Speaking of unsolvable arguments... I have bumped Bert up a few notches despite my misgivings about his suspension and what it all meant. Why? Because his provocative style, along with the way he won the Vuelta in 2012, show that he is a bike racer, period. Even in this era of specialization, there's only so much you can learn from looking at your power meter.

7. Zombie Maurice Garin (8 Tours)

Truly a remarkable character in cycling history, and nobody will forget the way he won the very first Tour de France, almost won the second before being kicked out, died at age 85, then rose from the dead to win seven consecutive Tours de France beginning in 1999. That was awesome!

8. Felice Gimondi (1 Tour, 3 Giri, 1 Vuelta)

I have covered Gimondi pretty extensively this month. All told, I'd say he did a splendid job of filling the gap between Anquetil and Merckx.

9. Louison Bobet (3 Tours)

One of the least-admired figures in Tour lore, at least on the personal level. Apparently he cried sometimes and was terribly nervous and neurotic during races. Oh well. And if you don't want to give Nibali a pass, well, Bobet's three consecutive Tours coincided with Coppi's Tour career ending the previous year (in a show of dominance). The boy could climb though.

10. Laurent Fignon (2 Tours, 1 Giro)

I wasn't a fan in real time, since he was battling head-to-head with the Only American Tour Winner, but have grown to appreciate him greatly over the years. He was a fighter, a daring and aggressive rider in the mountains who could hold his own in a time trial too. Injuries and stupid equipment choices were all that stood between him and a much bigger impact on the palmares of history.

11. Greg LeMond (3 Tours)

If you could package LeMond's natural ability, Fignon's cleverness and climbing strength, Tony Martin's crono bike and ... practically anyone else's health profile, you could have a ten-time Tour winner. LeMond, like Fignon, saw several of his best years stolen from him in a hunting accident and later by the advent of the mega-doping era. And by a poor choice of teammates. The potential was there for record-setting success, but we say that about once every decade or so, and in the end we usually figure out that a) cycling is cruel, and b) there's more to it than being super strong.

12. Fiorenzo Magni (3 Giri)

Possibly the toughest human ever to ride a bike, though the competition for that title is ridiculously intense. Magni gets extra credit from me as a grand tour racer for his determination, as well as his results. He held the Yellow Jersey in 1950 when he and the Italian team abruptly abandoned the race because French fans were assaulting Bartali for allegedly causing a fall with Jean Robic. Anyway, Magni, when not setting the mark for most consecutive Flanders wins, toughed out three Giro victories despite not being the most natural climber, and nearly toughed out a fourth in 1956, with a twice-broken collarbone and some bar tape held between gritted teeth.

13. Alfredo Binda (5 Giri)

It's not clear that Binda spent much time in France; all I see are two stage wins in 1930. No matter, he traded in Giro dominance, racking up 41 stages and five overall titles through a mix of climbing brilliance and speed on the lower stages. Binda's record was only recently surpassed by Mario Cipollini, who easily makes my Top 20 list of Worst Grand Tour Riders. With these early riders it's hard for a non-historian like me to say much more. Binda may have been the greatest rider of all time, for all we know. He was just too Italian to focus on the Tour.

14. Vincenzo Nibali (1 Tour, 1 Giro, 1 Vuelta)

Nibali... Nibali... name rings a bell...

15. Stephen Roche (1 Tour, 1 Giro)

This one might get shouted down, but once you dip into the two-GT winners list, distinguishing among them becomes a bit of a thankless task. I will stick with Roche, a guy who was one or two decent knees away from a brilliant career, and who had to settle for an incredibly brilliant year among an otherwise semi-brilliant career. His Giro win, taken away from an Italian on his own team, probably says more about his inner fortitude than the Tour victory.

16. Pedro Delgado (1 Tour, 2 Vueltas)

Kind of a doofus (really, who misses their prologue start time?) and shadowed a bit by a near-doping exclusion in his one Tour victory, Delgado was nonetheless a brilliant climber, and is generally regarded as a good guy. I'll say this -- he was the guy who scared the shit out of LeMond, Roche, Fignon et al. Should've done more... unless you want to unpack his incredibly weird 1985 Vuelta win, which can be used to argue that he should've done less, to hear Robert Millar tell it.

17. Charly Gaul (1 Tour, 2 Giri)

Part of a package deal with Federico Bahamontes to make the late 50s seem like the golden age of climbing specialists. Gaul actually won that 1956 Giro, through a snowstorm that put his toughness somewhere in the same area code as Magni's. OK, Magni made it through that snowstorm with one working arm. But he was 12 minutes behind Gaul. His lone Tour victory contains a slightly more summer-y version of the same story: alpine deluge, everyone falling by the wayside, Gaul somehow soldiers on to victory.

18. Miguel Indurain (5 Tours, 2 Giri)

This is essentially a placeholder, and I know some people will vociferously object to such a low ranking. But do we really know what to make of him? I don't believe it was possible for him to have won clean in those years. Does anyone? So what was he? An unusually big rider with a punishing style and unique physique, matched with the calmness of a brain surgeon? Probably, yeah. Great guy, by all accounts. Probably deserves those wins more than, say, Tony Rominger, Alex Zulle, Bjarne Riis, Chiapucci, et al. After that... I have no idea how to compare him to other riders throughout history.

19. Jan Janssen (1 Tour, 1 Vuelta)

Pretty classy rider -- considering that he was also a three-time Points winner in France and twice more at the Vuelta.

20. Phillip Thys (3 Tours)

One more for the old guys. Thys sandwiched three Tour victories around the Great War. And by "Great" we mean "not at all great." His lack of success in the Giro and Vuelta said more about their failure to be run or exist back then than it did about Thys' qualities. As to those, one of his qualities was his ability to not break his fork as much as Eugene Christophe.

OK, fire away.