Greatest Cyclists of All Time

Cycling is an underrated sport! It is not as popular as athletic activities that require physical contact, such as basketball, football, rugby, or boxing, among others, but it is equally exciting. Races have been held in some of the best cities in the world. Most importantly, it has given birth to some of the most popular athletes, including those listed in this short article.

Eddy Merckx

Considered by many to be the finest rider of all time, Eddy Merckx is one name that surely rings a bell for anyone who has been following cycling. Today, younger people might not recognize him as a player but would know his company, which is known for making exceptional race bikes. From sporting halls to cycling routes, Merckx remains ubiquitous in London, which proves that he is unrivaled.

Merckx was born in Brabant, Belgium on June 17, 1945. Growing up, he was always active and playing outside. He was also competitive as he participated in different sports, including table tennis, boxing, football, and basketball. As young as four years old, he was already cycling. When he was eight years old, he would often ride a bike on his way to school.

Wins and Recognitions

The track record of Merckx is hard to match, making him worthy of being amongst the best cyclists of all time. He has over 500 victories and he participated in almost 1,600 races, including non-competitive events. The peak of his career is believed to be from 1969 to 1975, where he has been winning almost 35% of the races where he was participating. He was even nicknamed The Cannibal, which was a reference to his appetite for winning.

Another notable recognition was when he was awarded a noble title by King Albert II, making him known as Baron Eddy since 1996. In Italy, on the other hand, he was a Cavaliere. He was also given the Legion of Honor Award in France in 2011.

He had 80 wins as an amateur before turning professional. He was also known as a strong climber. A proof of this is his win at the Tour de France’s King of the Mountain in 1969 and 1970.

Lance Armstrong

Only very few cyclists will have a name that has a strong recall as Lance Armstrong. He helped in elevating the status of cycling as a global sport. Throughout his career, he has been met with doping allegations, which affected his reputation. This has been a big blow in his professional career. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has eventually concluded that Armstrong indeed used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career. He did not contest the charges. As a result of the investigation, he was banned for a lifetime in all sports. He was also stripped of his former titles.

Aside from the doping allegations, Armstrong also made news because of his health. He was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer in 1996. He recovered and established the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is now called the Livestrong Foundation. With the help of chemotherapy and surgery, he was able to return to his cycling career. In 1998, he won the Tour of Luxembourg, which was his first major achievement after his cancer diagnosis. This has been followed by more years of success in road racing.

Wins and Recognitions

Despite having forfeited victories, at his prime, Armstrong was a monster on the bike. One of the highlights of his career was winning the Tour de France for seven years from 1999 to 2005. These victories helped him build his reputation as a champion cyclist.

Even when he was young, Armstrong has already been excelling in sports. He was joining swimming competitions and triathlon events. He was recruited by the U.S. Cycling Federation to be part of the team before his high school graduation. His first international recognition was when he competed at the Junior World Championships in Moscow and won the U.S. Amateur Championships.

It was in 1992 when Armstrong turned professional. He became a member of the Motorola team. In 1993, he achieved another feat when he won the world road racing.

Felice Gimondi

While there are many famous Italian cyclists, Gimondi was one with the most prolific careers. In his prime, his career was coinciding with Eddie Merckx, but Gimondi proved that he is a league of his own and deserved to be equally recognized.

Gimondi was born on September 29, 1942, in the Province of Bergamo in Italy. He died of a heart attack at the age of 76 while he was swimming on a vacation in Sicily.

Wins and Recognitions

One of the highlights of his career as a road cyclist was being one of the seven men who won the Giro D’Italia, Vuelta de España, and Tour de France. He did not only win these three prestigious competitions, but he won them three times!

Throughout his career, he had 135 wins. At 22 years, he turned professional in 1965. He entered Tour de France in the same year. During that time, it is uncommon for young riders to join the latter because it is an exhausting event that covered longer distances than the event today. On the third stage of the race, he was able to pull off a surprise win, and this was one of the first events that made him among the top road cyclists.

One of the biggest assets of Gimondi was his versatility. Many of today’s top cyclists specialize in a certain area. Gimondi, on the other hand, was well-rounded. He participated in different types of races, including those that happen on dangerous tracks. Nonetheless, he was at his best in the time trial.

Despite his wins, he was unable to surpass the performance of Merckx, who was his greatest rival. In the events when Gimondi won, it would often be because Merckx wasn’t a part of the competition. His fate has been a subject of humor in Italy.

Bernard Hinault

Not many French cyclists can rival the achievements of Hinault. He has 147 total victories, enough to earn him recognition as one of the best bikers in the world. He was born on November 14, 1954, in Brittany, France. He has three siblings and his parents were farmers. When he was young, they would often be helping on the farm come harvest time. He was described by his parents described him as hyperactive.
Hinault’s introduction to road racing was through his cousin. They would ride weekend races using a shared family bike. He was 15 years old when he was rewarded a bike after passing his exams. He used it to travel to school in his college years.

Wins and Recognitions

It was in April 1971 when he received his racing license and entered his first event. In that year, he joined 20 races and won 12 of them, which showed how he was off to a good start. In 1972, he joined the over-18 race. In his second season racing as an amateur, he won 19 races, which was another proof that he is deserving to be named one of the best cyclists. He joined the military and was unable to race until 1974. When he returned to racing, he once again made a name for himself by winning his first event. The next season, he turned professional.

Unsurprisingly, the professional career of Hinault was filled with many wins. He won in Vuelta a España and Tour de France in 1978. He has another tour victory in 1979. Meanwhile, in 1980, he won Giro d’Italia. He had a knee injury, which forced him to drop from Tour de France. In the next year, he won Tour de France one more time.

In many articles written about the best cyclist ever, Hinault is one name often mentioned. Some are even noting that he was better than Armstrong and Merckx.

Sean Kelly

Born on May 24, 1956, Kelly is another great addition to our list of the most popular pro bike riders. He made a name in the 80s and quickly became one of the favorites among cycling enthusiasts. He turned professional in 1977 and retired in 1994. In a span of fewer than two decades, he amassed notable achievements that gave him his reputation as a cycling legend.

Wins and Recognitions

He started his professional racing career at the Étoile de Bessèges. The event lasted six days and he finished tenth after the first day. A year after, he had his first experience of Tour de France and he ended up winning one stage.

In the 1980s, he continued winning some of the most coveted medals in prestigious tournaments. He had nine wins at The Monuments. Another highlight of his successful career was winning Paris-Nice for seven consecutive years. The latter is a professional cycling stage race that takes place over eight days. In 1989, Kelly had his first win at the UCI World Cup. He also won other events, including Milan – San Remo, Grand Prix de Nations, and Criterium International. Even in smaller tours, he participated and won. Another feather in his cap was his two bronze medals at the World Race Championships in 1982 and 1989. When the FICP Rankings, now UCI World Rankings, was first introduced in 1984, Kelly ranked No. 1.

Gino Bartali

Born on July 18, 1914, in a small village in Florence, Italy, Bartali grew up in a poor Tuscan family. His father worked as a day laborer while his mother has been embroidering lace. He had two older sisters and a younger brother.

More than just being a popular Italian cyclist, Bartali is also recognized as a war hero. He used his cycling career as a cover, which allowed him to pass through different cities while carrying different documents. This has helped hundreds of Jews who were seeking refuge at that time.

Bartali has an irregular heartbeat, Because of this, when he joined the Army during the war that broke between Italy and France in 1940, he was assigned as an army messenger. He was suing his bike most of the time, which also gave him the chance to train while being on active duty in the military.

Wins and Recognitions

While Bartali has a lot of recognitions to be proud of, he was most notable for winning the Giro d’Italia three times and Tour de France twice. He was compelled by the Italian Cycling Federation to join Tour de France in 1938 and he won. He was not given honors when he returned to Italy after the competition as a result of his unwillingness to recognize the fascist regime at that time.

Outside of cycling, one of his most meaningful awards was the Righteous Among the Nations in Israel in 2019. The award was given to non-Jews who have made significant efforts to help the Jews during the second Holocaust. This honored his contributions during the war.

Fausto Coppi

As you would have noticed by now, Italian cyclists are amongst the best in the profession. Coppi joins the likes of Gimondi and Bartali, among others. Born on September 15, 1919, in Castellania, Italy, he had poor health growing up and showed dismal interest in schooling. He would often skip lessons when he was young and spend his time riding a bike instead.

He was 15 years old when he had his first race. Even without any formal club affiliation at that time, he secured the top spot. A part of his winning was a salami sandwich! In 1938, he had his racing license and also won his first event.

Wins and Recognitions

At 20 years old, Coppi won his first Giro d’Italia in 1940. This was also his first major recognition as a professional road biker. In 1942, he had another highlight of his career when he beat the world record for the longest distance cycled in an hour. He did this in Milan where he cycled 45.798 kilometers. He held that record until it was broken in 1956 by Jacques Anquetil, another cycling legend.

In 1949 and 1952, he won Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in the same year. Overall, he had five wins at the Giro d’Italia, a feat he shares with two other cyclists. Another record in his career was winning Giro de Lombardia five times. More so, he won Milan San Remo three times. He also won the World Championships in 1953.

Miguel Indurain

At 6’1”, Indurain gained the nickname Big Mig. He was born in a small village in Villava in Pamplona on July 16, 1964. He had three sisters and one brother, who was also a professional cyclist. He had his first bike when he was ten years old, but it got stolen when he was 11. He had to work with his father in a field, and as a reward, he got his own bike.

From nine to 14 years old, Indurain has engaged in different sports, including football and basketball. It was in 1978 when he joined his first race. It was an event for unlicensed riders and he took home second place. After his second race, he was competing every week.

Wins and Recognitions

He turned professional in 1984, which was also the same year when he participated at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. One week later, he had his win as a professional, in a time trial at the Tour de l’Avenir. A year after, he had his debut at Vuelta a España. He also joined Tour de France later that year, which he continued doing for 11 years.

Overall, he won Tour de France for five years from 1991 to 1995. He was one of the only five people to have won the latter for five consecutive times, which is one reason why he deserves his inclusion on our list of the best professional bicycle riders of all time!

Jan Ullrich

A German road bicycle racer, Ullrich had a legendary cycling career. He has Olympic medals under his helm. Amidst the glitz and glamor of his career, he was not spared from controversy. Like Lance Armstrong, he has been a subject of doping allegations and investigations. He admitted to doping, shortly after the revelation of Armstrong. In 2018, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after assaulting his neighbor in Mallorca.

As young as nine years old, Ullrich has been racing and winning in his hometown. He attended a sports school in Berlin, which provided the training that made him one of the most famous cyclists in the world.

Wins and Recognitions

Despite the doping scandal, it is undeniable that Ullrich has a solid reputation as a cyclist. It is such a shame that has been stripped of many of his recognitions. Nonetheless, he had a solid run from his amateur to professional career.

In 1993, Ullrich won the UCI World Championships. In the same year, Lance Armstrong took home the win for the professional category in the same event. He turned professional in 1995. In the same year, he became the time trial champion. This was followed by a series of wins in professional tournaments, including Vuelta a España, Classica de San Sebastian, and Tour de France.

Out of all his achievements as a famous cyclist, the most notable is perhaps his medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. However, after his doping investigation, he was stripped of his Olympic medal, as well as other recognitions he earned for himself throughout his professional career. At one point, he refused to return his medal, asserting that he wasn’t the only one he took performance-enhancing drugs in the Olympic event

Jacques Anquetil

Wrapping up our list of the best cyclists in the world is a French national. He was born on January 8, 1934, in Normandy, France. His father was a builder and they worked on a strawberry farm growing up. He was four years old when he was given his first bike, an Alcyon. He would then be riding the bike twice a day, and this started his love for cycling.

Wins and Recognitions

While he has a lot to be proud of as a top cyclist, one thing that made him most notable was his record of being the first person to have won the Tour de France five times. His first win in the tournament happened in 1957, a time when national teams have been participating in the event as opposed to commercial teams.

Another highlight of his career was when he became a part of the French national team and participated in The Grand Prix des Nations. They did a 100-kilometer time trial in the 1952 Summer Olympics. The team took home the bronze medal.

Throughout his cycling career, Anquetil has been incessantly pitted against Raymond Poulidor. Even if Anquetil has beaten Poulidor in the Tour, the latter remained more popular. Their fans have been wildly divided. The rivalry between the two was even the subject of a study conducted by two sociologists. They recognized how Tour de France has caused a massive division in society. They even coined the term Poulidor Complex as a result of the study of how the duel of two popular cyclists had implications in society.

Conclusion

Who is the greatest cyclist of all time? This is a difficult question to answer! It is almost impossible to come up with just one name since a lot of sportsmen have established their names in this field. Those mentioned above are some of the most notable. They have built a global reputation that remained solid through the years, even if they are no longer in the spotlight.