Greetings PdC gang. As Andrew-Brown mentioned in Notes from the hibernating desk, I’ll be joining the contributors here at the Cafe. My name is Eric Bowen, but I’ll be posting under the handle of Peloton Legends, which is the name of my recently published book, Peloton Legends: Ranking the Top 100 Cyclists of the Modern Era. Way back when (late 2000s) I used to participate at the PdC as The Team Chef, which was my online persona at my old website called The Virtual Musette. For those of you interested in the book, it can be found at www.pelotonlegends.com (the expanded website is still under construction). If you would prefer just knowing about the scoring system (similar to the FSA Director Sportif points system) and which cyclists are on the Top 100 list without having to purchase the book, I’ll have those available on the Peloton Legends site in the next week or two. As you can guess, most of what I’ll be writing for you here is going to be primarily cycling history stuff, so without further adieu, my first article for the Podium Cafe featuring four time Milan- San Remo legend Gino Bartali.
Who are the Top 5 Cyclists?
First off, the scoring system for Peloton Legends only includes cyclists from the Modern Era of professional cycling - 1936 to present day. It’s outside the scope of this article, but there’s an entire section of the book detailing why the earlier time period, the Heroic Era, was excluded from the scoring.
I don’t suppose I’m spoiling the big reveal of the book to let you all know that Eddy Merckx ends up in the #1 slot. Here are the Top 5:
- Eddy Merckx - 418.5 points
- Bernard Hinault - 232.5 points
- Fausto Coppi - 220.5 points
- Gino Bartali - 213 points
- Jacques Anquetil.- 191.5 points
As you can see, the gap from Merckx to Hinault is not remotely close; it’s a gigantic difference of 186 points. Now, without knowing exactly how the points are assigned, you don’t have any context for the significance of that disparity. Know this: there are, on average, only 13.5 points that separate each cyclist from the #2 through #10 spots. Merckx truly was “The Cannibal.”
The Missing Years
Part of my scoring system involves assigning extra points to cyclists for what I call the “Missing Years.” These additional points were added to a cyclist’s raw score, which are all those points which were earned in the actual races that are included in the scoring system. Those Missing Years point adjustments were added to compensate those cyclists who lost two or more years from their palmarès due to injury or war. The most obvious recipients of these “bonuses” would be those cyclists whose careers were interrupted by WWII. Those names include all the following: Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Ferdi Kübler, Fiorenzo Magni, Alberic Schotte, and Rik Van Steenbergen. Again, it’s not something that will be covered here, but the math behind the calculations, and the resulting points, were included when ranking the five cyclists listed above. That said, had WWII not robbed him of his peak/prime years, I believe that Gino Bartali would have been the cyclist who ended up closest to Merckx in point totals.
“Gino the Pious” - Palmarès and Missing Years
Over the course of his amazing 19 year career, Gino Bartali amassed the following legendary palmarès:
4 Milan - San Remo
3 Giro di Lombardia
2 Tour de France
5 Additional GT podiums
9 Grand Tour Mountains Classifications
4 Season Long Competitions
4 Week-long stages races
19 Classics and Semi-Classics
Remarkably, all this was accomplished with the vast bulk of his prime years lost to WWII. Bartali’s birthdate was July 18, 1914, so he would have turned 27 in the summer of 1941. There were no editions of the Giro from ‘41 - ‘45 and there were no editions of the Tour de France from ‘40 - ‘46. Yet, after an unbelievable five year hiatus from the Grand Tours, Bartali would win the Giro again in 1946 - defeating none other than Fausto Coppi. He also won the Tour 1948, a full decade after his last victory in La Grande Boucle in 1938. It is a record gap between Tour victories that stands to this day. It’s mind blowing that he won nine (9!) Mountains Classifications between the Giro and Tour, yet did so without the inclusion of his five most productive years. Unreal.
Think about the ramifications of that last paragraph for a second. If Miguel Indurain had lost his prime years (age 27-31), he would not have won a single Grand Tour; gone would be all five of his Tour wins and both of his Giro victories. If we were to remove Merckx’s prime years, Bernard Hinault would now be occupying the #1 slot. If Hinault had his prime years removed, he’d drop out of the Top 12. I could go on and on. I’m not at all suggesting that if Bartali had competed in a full calendar of races throughout his prime years, that he’d have actually surpassed Merckx in point totals. No way. I do think he would have finished ahead of Hinault, and would have been a lot closer to Merckx. One thing I am willing to say is that I don’t believe there has been another cyclist who has equalled Bartali’s palmarès both in those years before and after their prime years.
Gino and Fausto
I know what some of you might be thinking. Yes, Gino would have been a lot closer to Eddy in point totals, but so too would Fausto Coppi. Yes, that is true, but there is one significant difference between “Ill Campionnisimo” and Gino - Gino’s Missing Years were in his prime years and Fausto’s weren’t; he was five years younger than his greatest rival. There’s no doubt that Coppi would have racked up a number of significant victories during the war years, but for the most part his displays of absolute domination didn’t occur until he hit his prime years, after 1948. In the two head-to-head Grand Tour battles between the two legends, when they were both in their peak years - the 1946 and 1947 Giro - they were very closely matched. Gino defeated Fausto in the ‘46 Giro by a slim 47 second margin and Coppi returned the favor by narrowly defeating Bartali in the ‘47 Giro with a small gap of 1’ 43”. It must also be mentioned that Fausto was fragile and very prone to breaking bones, so there’s a very good chance he would have seen some down time during the war years.
Bartali turned 34 in July of 1948, yet still won that summer’s Tour by a whopping 26’ 16” (Fausto was not present); that winning margin is the second largest of the Modern Era next to Coppi’s 28’ 17” buffer in 1952 Tour. That ‘48 Tour win would be Gino’s last Grand Tour victory, as the inevitable slow decline had finally begun. Yet, even at the age of 39, “The Man of Steel” won the prestigious Italian semi-classic, the Giro della Toscana, in 1953.
I know I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but again, it is my conviction that if Gino Bartali had been able to race a full calendar during the war years, that he would have slotted into the second spot on the Top 100 list, ahead of both Coppi and Hinault. Am I saying he was “better than” both of those guys? I’m not sure, but what I am saying is that I think he would have won more and earned more points than either cyclist. Take that for what you will.