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Heroes of the Giro: Maglia Rosa Rumble...Merckx vs Binda!

You want numbers? We've got the best numbers! Huge ones!

The Pope meets the Messiah
The Pope meets the Messiah

Thursday we celebrated Alfredo Binda as part of the spotlight on Giro stage winners, since he was one of the all-time greats, statistically speaking, and by any more thoughtful measure the runaway all-time best in stage success. But Binda has competition of a more direct type when it comes to the most precious statistical achievements in Giro d'Italia history -- wearing the Maglia Rosa.

Binda is one of three riders, along with Fausto Coppi and Eddy Merckx, to bring the maglia rosa home five times, and that is the most meaningful statistic of all. But there isn't a whole lot we can learn about such statistics that we don't already know. So here's a variation on the theme: number of days in pink.


Tied for fifth, with 42 days in pink, are two of history's most celebrated riders, Maitre Jacques and Gino Il Pio. Bartali owns three Giro titles, to two for the Frenchman, and seven KOM classifications, which is a rather hefty number. Great riders, but for this review they are too far off the pace.

Giuseppe Saronni

Saronni owns 48 days in pink, a respectable number for a guy who specialized in one-day events and the Giro d'Italia. He started 13 Giri in the post-Merckx era of dispersed excellence... but only one Tour de France. I didn't see him race much but his mix of sprint wins (Milano-Sanremo, and the Goodwood Shot for the '82 Worlds) and Giri suggest he was a poor-man's Valverde type, on whom you wouldn't bet your life over three weeks, though sometimes it all worked out.

Francesco Moser

The Sheriff won three consecutive editions of Paris-Roubaix, a truly remarkable record in any era, and one completely at odds with this discussion, and yet he lies third in history with 50 days in the maglia rosa. He also owns a single Giro victory, albeit one that is widely considered to have been engineered by the organizers for him to win.

Alfredo Binda

Now we are getting serious. Binda spent 65 days in pink, clearly a cut above Moser's totals as well as the others. Let's come back to him in a moment.

Eddy Merckx

The all-time leader, in yet another of those "probably will never be broken"-type of Merckx records, is the Cannibal with a whopping 77 days in pink. Combined with his five overall titles, you'd probably just put him ahead of Binda and be done with it. But not so fast.

Merckx vs. Binda

Bindologists will jump in here and say aha! Binda raced in an era when the Giro consisted of as little as half as many stages! So doesn't his record mean more? Let's dive into the numbers, but with a few caveats. Each rider has a few additional complaints. Binda was paid to get lost in 1930 so someone else could have the spotlight. That's 15 days in pink that were taken off his plate, in his prime. He was less dominant in 1931, and things happen, so you can't just put, say, 12 more days on his total (which incidentally would put him level with Merckx), but you can't say he wouldn't have strengthened his case.

Merckx, meanwhile, skipped the 1971 Giro in his prime, by choice I believe, which arguably offsets Binda's choice (he could have said no to the money). And then there's the 1969 Giro, when he was tossed off the race after stage 16, while in the maglia rosa, for what is now considered a pretty suspicious doping charge that was later overturned. That's worthy of a whole separate post, but let's stick to the numbers and what they mean.

Binda's statistics: 142 stages raced, 65 days in pink, 46% of stages with lead

Merckx: 179 Giro stages raced, 77 days in pink, 43% of stages with lead

Nearly even. Slight edge to Binda. What about peak years? Both guys watered down those percentages with a few later efforts that weren't as successful. Let's look at their five best years (each with one race skipped in the middle, and also subtracting the Savona incident edition).

Binda 1927-33: 70 days of racing, 52 days in pink. 74% rate of greatness.

Merckx 1968-74:  109 days of racing, 71 days in pink. 65% rate of awesomeness.

Incidentally, Merckx led the '69 Giro for six stages of the 16 he raced in, a below-peak rate, though he was probably about to put the hammer down. He very well may have added 23 more days of racing and 13 more days in pink to his total, a 56% rate. So either way '69 brings the percentage down... but a sixth Giro win would have been the all-time record.

In both sets of data Binda is slightly above Merckx. So who is your all-time Giro great by pink jersey collections?

The case for Binda: He raced in an era where there were fewer stages; had they run 23 stages in 1927, you can bet Binda would have been in pink for 23 days. In '28 and '29 you could add several more days had they run a modern course, since he took over in week 1 and never relented.

The case for Merckx: 77>65. Pick any sport and two guys who have the same success rate. Would you rather have the guy who does it for four months a year or for six? Rates say how good they were but the win totals are what they are too. Ultimately it's nearly impossible to compare the 1920s to the modern era of cycling, but palmares are palmares.

I'm going with... Merckx. He was a foreigner who embraced the Giro like no foreign champion before or since. Yes, he raced for Molteni, Faema and Fiat, so that had something to do with it. But the Giro was a stepping stone to Tour de France success, not the main focus of his season, and yet he was still incredibly successful. Binda raced the Tour only once, and dropped out, which isn't directly on point but does emphasize that the Giro was his season. Also, the Savona thing robbed him of cracking 80 days in pink and a sixth title, which would have settled the matter decisively. Sure, it was a doping thing, and Merckx had a few positives in his career, but lord only knows how Binda prepared himself, and it doesn't seem worthwhile to get sucked into the vortex of old-timey doping speculation.

So yeah. It's Eddy for me. And ye?