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A History of Living Legends... By the Numbers!

Franck Fife, AFP/Getty

Yellow Jersey winners are a rare breed, set apart even from the superhuman characters that dot the cycling landscape. They are the creme de la creme, and occupy a very select fraternity in sports -- one that even looks like an actual fraternity on the rare occasions someone bothers to round up a bunch of them for a photo. It's something that has happened a few times in history, and it's always pretty cool. There is a famous old photo from 1963 of Tour de France winners alive at the time (plus Eugene Christophe) gathered together:

1963 Tour winners

Part of the legend is that this photo doesn't seem to exist outside of one French website. Anyway, it was a nice moment for the Tour to celebrate its history, one it chose to repeat in 2002, with far more pomp and circumstance, and no less than 21 Tour de France winners, actual winners, on hand:

Former Tour de France winners

It is a remarkable photo, a remarkable moment in time, and one that won't happen much more in my lifetime... though I suspect it'll be attempted every generation or so. This photo came up in Feargal's interview with Edward Pickering regarding his new book, The Yellow Jersey Club. The photo, in fact, defines the parameters of the book by taking a look at the people who were invited to this gathering, profiling each of them in detail. I don't want to step on that book's toes here, which is good because a blog post can't really do that to a full-length book treatment of such a rich subject. But I too have been captivated by the photo and what it says about the phenomenal athletes and colorful characters that give such life to the Tour de France. And a lot has changed since that photo was taken in 2002. So much so that I thought it'd be worth a quick rundown of who the riders are, and how we might see them differently than we did 13 years ago. For more on the riders, I can only recommend you find a copy of Pickering's book.

1. Ferdi Kubler (1950)

Thirteen years later, the Swiss remains the oldest living winner of the Tour de France. One way to tell him from Hugo Koblet -- the only other Swiss winner ever, who won it the year after Kubler, and who's name isn't that different -- is that Koblet died tragically at age 39, debt-ridden and miserable, from a suicidal-type car crash, while Kubler has more than doubled his countryman's time on Earth. Now 96, he was described as "youthful and joyous back when he was a mere 83. He was known as The Cowboy for his love of ten-gallon hats.

2. Charly Gaul (1958)

Like several people on this list, the Angel of the Mountains is no longer with us. He died in 2005 of a lung infection at age 73, having lived much of his later years in self-imposed seclusion, said to have lost a lot of his memory. Such is life. But Gaul is remembered in a few ways. First, there's a cyclosportive in his native Luxembourg in his name, and his wife and daughter are said to show up sometimes. In a country the size of West Seattle, I would imagine it'd be hard to not bump into that procession in your husband or dad's honor. Also, his patented pedaling technique, using an unusually high cadence on the climbs, was something another member on this list popularized in his time. I doubt Gaul ever had much contact with Lance Armstrong outside of this photo, but their careers are tied together in this one odd way.

3. Federico Bahamontes (1959)

The Eagle of Toledo now ranks as the third-oldest Tour winner presently with us, going strong (I presume) at age 87. He's also probably gained the most in the years since the photo was taken. In 2012 a biography of him by Alastair Fotheringham was published, reviving interest in the first-ever Spanish Tour winner. Subsequently, in 2013, he was honored at the 100th Tour de France as the race's greatest-ever climber, according to a jury including the likes of Bernard Hinault, Christophe Prudhomme and Thomas Voeckler, and the honor was presented to him by French president Francois Hollande. [I should add, his presence spared us all from the runner-up, Richard Virenque, being honored. So bless you Fede.]

4. Jan Ullrich (1997)

In an odd way, Ullrich might rank right up there with Bahamontes among guys in this photo whose lives have taken a positive turn since then. On the date of this picture, October 24, 2002, Der Kaiser was suspended from cycling and fired by his long-time Telekom team for taking ecstasy and running his car over some bikes, one of the great unheard cries for help in the history of this or any other sport. Since it wasn't really a sporting offense, he was back in business in 2003, with the fly-by-night COAST-turned-Bianchi squad, and nearly -- finally -- breaking Armstrong in the Centenary Tour before Armstrong rebounded to win in the Pyrenees. Telekom then welcomed him back, coated him with the same stink they used on Cadel Evans and Paolo Savoldelli (Ullrich's replacements) and watched his career regress back to the old cycle of under-training and horrible psychological warfare with (by) Armstrong. Injuries were also taking their toll, so when Operacion Puerto came along and snuffed out his career once and for all, there was a sense of relief.

Especially for Ullrich. Now, obviously I have no personal connection to him, so take this for what you will. But every picture I've seen of him since he got some real distance from cycling shows him looking happier than we ever saw him as a racer. He had a kid, then separated from the mom, then married Tobias Sheinhauser's sister and had three more kids. He shows up in places like Munich Oktoberfest, looking heavier and happier, decked out in lederhosen. He admitted doping and didn't appeal a removal of his results from 2005, but hasn't been stripped of either his Olympic gold medal or his Tour de France win, largely because he's not an asshole like Armstrong. For a guy whose life was never really normal from the time at age 9 when he won a race and was shipped off to an East German sports academy, Ullrich now seems like the normal person he probably was all along.

5. Roger Walkowiak (1956)

Completing the Old Guy Podium is second-ranked Roger Walkowiak, age 88, who has probably seen his fame increase more than anyone else from this photo since its occurrence. It began, of course, with his name being relegated to a place of something less than honor among French cycling fans, since his lone victory came under unusual circumstances. Walko was part of a break that took 18 minutes from the peloton early on, and he succeeded in defending enough of that advantage all the way to Paris, giving the race its first "accidental winner." The lack of a stage win compounded Walko's record, and French fans' disregard for his win plagued much of his life. He slipped backward as a rider, was quickly out of cycling after 1960, opened a bar, but then got tired of the ribbing and went back to factory work. He is said to have only recently been willing to take credit for his Tour win.

But a number of things have changed around him. First, the Tour saw its centenary race (2003) and its 100th edition (2013) take place, and in the process of recalling great Tours of years gone by, several prominent people like Jacques Goddard and Bernard Hinault have honored his victory, as a testament to the many characteristics needed to win. Goddard has called 1956 his favorite edition. This coincided with an explosion of English language books on cycling, some 1500 of them on the history of the Tour de France, where "doing a Walko" has gotten new (and more fair) scrutiny. Finally, Oscar Pereiro's 2006 win gave us a new "Walko," and a new generation of fans defending the clever, unexpected winner.

6. Lance Armstrong (1999-2005)

If you can think of something useful to say here, I'm all ears. Actually, no. I'm not. I will say that he looks angry, which I attribute to standing next to Ullrich and once again not being able to find the off switch on his competitive impulses.

7. Eddy Merckx (1969-72, '74)

Last seen running from weird Americans trying to shake his hand in Richmond, The Cannibal has continued to enjoy a high-profile retirement, where he seems to hover over the sport in a way vaguely reminiscent of his riding days. He no longer has to deal with being called the "second-winningest Tour rider" now that the record for victories is back to five. He was dragged through the inevitable doping wringer back in 2007, when the UCI asked him to stay away from the world championships in Stuttgart, because we wouldn't want to sully the memories of Alexandr Kolobnev and Stef Schumacher. Merckx tested positive three times for stimulants and hasn't entirely taken responsibility for them, but it's done nothing to knock him off his pedestal as the greatest rider in history. Three books have come out on him, two biographies (Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham and Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal by Daniel Friebe), as well as a coffee table book on his magnificent 1969 season.

8. Bjarne Riis (1996)

Hm... trying to think if there's been any news about Riis in the last 13 years... Wait! I thought of a few things!

  • He kept running a team, which went on to become the highly successful CSC outfit, which then lost its best guys to a Luxembourg vanity project named after a cat because Riis got hooked on golf, but then his team got awesome again after importing Alberto Contador.
  • He admitted to having doped in 1996, after everyone around him let the cat out of the bag already. His teams also saw some admissions, like Tyler Hamilton's, to the effect that Riis encouraged doping.
  • He sold the team to Oleg Tinkoff in order to improve public goodwill toward the team. Or make some cash. I think I'll go with the cash.
  • Now he wants back in. Or so "they" say.

In sum, he probably was having more fun when this photo was taken than in the subsequent years, or a lot of them at least.

9. Bernard Thevenet (1975, '77)

Not one of the more interesting guys on the list. He rode, he doped (back in the quaint, mostly-amphetamine days), he won, he lost, he received the Legion of Honor. I dunno, he seems like an OK bloke. Oh and he was Stephen Roche's DS in 1987, which is about as cool as anything on his palmares. The only thing that's changed for Thevenet is that he's the race director of the Criterium du Dauphine now, as of 2010 when ASO took over.

10. Laurent Fignon (1983-84)

We thought we could feel Fignon's pain, as of 2002. We knew all about the heartbreak he experienced in the 1989 Tour de France. We read his autobiography from 2010, We Were Young and Carefree, where he admitted to minor doping offenses but mostly hearing his retelling of his career made us relate to him more. We mostly cheered his attempts to help Paris-Nice survive, until ASO stepped in and assured its continuation, and his other activities in the sport where lesser men would have maybe wanted to stay away. He kept his pride, reminding people that he was not the guy who lost on the Champs-Elysees but who had won there, twice.

But we couldn't feel what was really happening inside him as cancer grew and spread, and took him away from life, from his family, from his country and from cycling at the age of 50. He knew more pain than we thought he did.

11. Greg LeMond (1986, 1989-90)

One thing the organizers of this photo never once considered was putting the two Americans anywhere near each other. On this day, LeMond was persona non grata to Lance and his followers, having already begun to question whether Armstrong was succeeding in an ethical manner. Unfortunately for Greg, Trek, the company he hired to make LeMond Bicycles, was deeply in bed with Lance, and according to LeMond they stopped trying very hard to market his bikes once he started questioning Lance (and "weakening the Trek brand"). Being in bed with Lance ultimately weakened the Trek brand a lot more than LeMond's comments could have, but hey. Anyway, they parted ways and LeMond is now making bikes under his name with Time. And of course, LeMond is now universally recognized as having been an early whistleblower, right about everything, and a victim of Armstrong's generally destructive nature, as well as child sexual abuse. If there's a constant in LeMond's life, it's turbulence.

LeMond has also been the subject of Richard Moore's wonderful Slaying the Badger book and the related ESPN documentary, concerning what is now frequently described as the greatest Tour de France ever (1986). It's not the greatest Tour even among LeMond's victories -- 1989, thankyouverymuch -- but that's like choosing between a fantastic espresso and a glass of Westvleteren 12. Anyway, if in 2002 he was viewed as a bit of a loose cannon, now he's more of a lovable... loose cannon. And a smart one too.

12. Bernard Hinault (1978-79, '81-82, '85)

Hinault the person is both utterly fascinating and one of the least interesting people in cycling. He's the same guy now as he was when he was a rider -- in interviews for Slaying the Badger he proceeded on his terms, spoke matter of factly about his exploits, and seemed utterly uninterested in questioning anything that went down in, say, the 1986 Tour. At least that was the impression I got. He always seems to be operating with absolute certainty about what is to be done, be it in a race, on the farm, or when a protester foolishly jumps on stage at a podium presentation.

And that's about all that's new with Hinault -- that whatever phase of his post-racing life he felt was to be dedicated to farming is now over, and he's an ASO dignitary, appearing all over France at events from Le Tour to amateur events (ask Broerie). Slaying the Badger has made a difference in how he's perceived, but is there even the slightest chance that he cares? Nope.

13. Lucien Aimar (1966)

Nobody on this list is more unknown to me than Aimar, and I don't think that's on me. The climber from the Var region along the Mediterranean near Italy was a one-time winner who left cycling in 1974 and started the Tour Méditerranéen, a short stage race in February which tended to finish near Aimar's hometown with a climb up Mont Faron. The Tour Med lasted until 2012 under Aimar's leadership, but since he passed the baton the race has fallen into difficulty, and was canceled this year as it struggled to pay its debts.

14. Felice Gimondi (1965)

One of the odd Tour winners in those years post-Anquetil and pre-Merckx, The Phoenix was a legitimate star by the time he was done, twelve years later. But in 1965, riding his first Tour, he stunned Raymond Poulidor and the rest of the Tour -- including, probably, his own team, who only added him to its roster late in the process. Gimondi would go on to be the rider us Nibali fans would like to see him become -- not only winning all three grand tours but Paris-Roubaix, the World Championships, MSR and Lombardia.

And Gimondi has hardly spent any time away from the sport. He managed Gewiss-Bianchi and Mercatone Uno, including Marco Pantani, albeit after the fall. There's a gran fondo in his honor. Bianchi made a FG Lite frameset for years. Oh, and best of all, apparently there's a music CD called "Gimondi e il Cannibale," about god knows what, but probably the 1969 Giro d'Italia won by Gimondi when Merckx was kicked off the race for doping, which was not at all suspicious. Nope.

15. Lucien Van Impe (1976)

Yet another character, this time from the void between Merckx and Hinault, whose life we fans don't tend to dwell on very much. Van Impe was a model of consistency, finishing the Tour almost as much as Joop Zoetemelk. He might also be the cleanest rider in the photo, along with LeMond? Who knows. As of this photo he held the record for most maillot-a-pois successes, but subsequently lost that to Richard Virenque. He also took up a spot in the car, directing Unibet in their frustrating existence, followed by Accent Jobs-Willems Verandas.

16. Stephen Roche (1987)

The only Irish Tour de France winner wasn't enjoying his happiest connection to the sport at the time of this photo, since he spent the early 2000s battling with authorities in Italy who were convinced he had taken EPO at the end of his career, when Dr. Conconi was working with the Carrera team. That process never went anywhere, though the suggestion remains a stain on Roche's honor, despite protestations of innocence from Roche. Who knows.

Anyway, although he was divorced in 2004, Roche has remained connected to the sport through the exploits of his son Nicolas as well as his nephew Dan Martin. He still rides, runs a cycling holiday business in Mallorca, and even completed the New York marathon in 2008. Best of all, he published his autobiography Born to Ride in 2013, describing the horrors of his Giro/Tour double, including threats of violence traded with Roberto Visentini and a moment where he passed out for 45 minutes on the climb to La Plagne, woke up and reassured his fans that he was OK, "but I don't think I'm ready for a woman tonight."

17. Joop Zoetemelk (1980)

The "Eternal Second" is known more for just that, finishing second at the Tour, which he did a stunning six times, a feat that is no less impressive even though he finished the race a total of 16 times. Zoetemelk was always around, lasting until the age of 40 and picking up a rainbow jersey at 38. So it's a bit amazing that in retirement he isn't seen much. Zoetemelk tested positive a few times, so the last couple decades might not have welcomed him as fervently as he had been accustomed to. Still, three years after this photo he was voted the greatest Dutch cyclist of all time and a statue of him was erected in Rijpwetering. Two books are out about him, including a Dutch language edition called Joop Zoetemelk, Een Open Boek (take a guess at the translation) which discusses his cycling life and personal life, including his strained relationship with the family of his late wife. His Tour de France records for most starts and finishes were broken by George Hincapie, though Hincapie's results have been partially scrubbed, so maybe Joop is #1 again? He owns a hotel and restaurant in France.

18. Pedro Delgado (1988)

Perico is one of those guys who looks better and better as time passes. Literally, in that he seems to have barely aged ten minutes since his riding days, and looks fit enough to hammer up the Pyrenées right now. And figuratively, insofar as the thing we liked least about him seems almost quaint in retrospect. Delgado won the Tour while Greg LeMond was still recovering from a variety of physical problems and struggling to return to the sport, but he was no default winner. The Spaniard was a fearsome climber, a solid cronoman, a renowned gentleman and... a man with a very curious relationship to the Tour.

The big stain on his honor is his probenicid positive test during the late stages of his 1988 campaign, where he escaped punishment on a technicality and is recognized as the winner to this day. But the substance didn't show up in other tests, and given how doping exploded after Delgado's peak years this seems relatively minor in hindsight. If nothing else it's a little bit of a break for a guy who didn't receive many, or make his own, in his career. In 1983, during his first Tour, he was a shocking second overall and stalking Fignon for the lead, when he drank a spoiled milkshake and lost 25 minutes on the next stage. In '84 he crashed out. In '85 he did well, finishing sixth overall. In '86 he abandoned when his mother suddenly died. The next three years he finished once on each podium step, including the incredible title defense of 1989, when he lost 2.40 by showing up late to start his prologue, then suffered a horrible sleepless night and lost another 4.23 in the next day's team time trial, on the verge of abandoning. In Paris he ended up third overall, 3.34 back of LeMond and Fignon. It was probably his best-ever Tour performance, from day 3 onward.

Nowadays Delgado has defected over to the media, working as a commentator on cycling for Television Española, and has even put out a book on his life from inside the peloton as well as the commentary box. Best of all, there's a band in Scotland named the Delgados in his honor.

19. Marco Pantani (1998)

Like Armstrong, there is little to add here, except that he looks pretty good for a guy with scarcely more than 18 months to live. He was still a relevant cyclist, though his Tour days were over, and his riding career would be done by the following summer, when he exited the sport to seek psychiatric help for depression and cocaine addiction, the combined forces which would take his life in February of 2004.

Despite such a short timeline following this photo, the subsequent 13 years have seen a raging battle over his cycling legacy. Some have sought to prove that he was murdered with a forcible dose of cocaine. Others simply tell his story, in numerous books, films and even the odd song. Monuments have been erected in his memory at the Mortirolo, Colle Fauniera, Col du Galibier and in Cesenatico. Nobody can seem to let go of him, even long after his death.

I personally have undergone a transformation of my opinion of him. I always just thought of him as a major doper, of which there is evidence, and as a guy who basically committed suicide with drugs, not worthy of such endless celebration and teeth-gnashing. Now, I see him as a truly beautiful cyclist in his style and ability, one who seems to have given in to the doping culture that was so inescapable in those days, but with a sadness that never left him. When that culture sacrificed him on the altar for the sins of the entire enterprise, he was spiritually broken and lost the will to live. Nothing he did with his centrifuge and syringes could justify the misery he endured as a result. The punishment didn't fit the crime.

20. Jan Janssen (1967)

The second ever Dutch winner is another one of those old school guys who hasn't changed hardly at all since retirement. He runs a bicycle manufacturing company still, and puts in his miles as well. Janssen has been around at races periodically, including the 2015 Tour Grand Départ in Utrecht, where he and Joop received the Legion d'Honneur. The Jan Janssen Classic takes place every year in Wageningen. Janssen also survived a bout with cancer in 2014.

21. Miguel Indurain

Considering how turbulent the last 13 years have been, the fact that I have next to no updates on the life of Big Mig is itself another great victory for him. Indurain was the greatest rider of the 1990s, a decade awash in EPO, and rode for a team that was as tied to systematic doping as any other, but so far we're left to just draw our own conclusions. Indurain is present at races on occasion, but spends little time speaking out on any matter, and just seems like a guy who would prefer to maintain his privacy. Why? That's for you to decide.

Not pictured: Roger Pingeon (1967)

The only living Tour winner not in the photo, Pingeon had a conflict that day. I could act incredulous about this but given that he's French and lives in Ain, I'm guessing it was a pretty serious conflict or he'd have been there. Pingeon is still around but retired from 23 years of commentating on cycling, which was his post-riding career.