All-time Greats: The 5 Best Cyclists in History

Eddy Merckx

Eddy Merckx

There is no doubt who sits at the top of any list of the greatest cyclists in history. Merckx, a road racer from Belgium who was born in 1945, holds more professional victories than any other cyclist. He won the Tour De France and the Giro d’Italia five times each, holds three world championships, and won the so-called "Monument" races (high-level, one-day cycling races) a record 19 times -- including each race at least twice, the only rider to ever do so.

Merckx is one of only two cyclists to hold the so-called "Triple Crown" -- to win the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Championship in the same year. In 1984, he set the hour record -- the distance for riding in one hour -- at high altitude in Mexico City.

The record stood for twelve years before falling to Francesco Moser, who used a specially-designed bike for aerodynamics. In 2000, the Union Cycliste Internationale changed the rules for the mile record, requiring a traditional bike to be used, and in the same year Chris Boardman beat Merckx’s record by just 10 meters. However, his ride was conducted at sea level. The mile record was again beaten in 2005 by Ondrej Sosenka, who has faced doping allegations.


Bernard Hinault

Bernard Hinault

The French racer Bernard Hinault is the second most decorated cyclist of all time. Born in 1954, he holds the second most Grand Tour victories (ten, after Merckx) and the second most Tour de France stage wins (28, after Merckx). He is one of only four cyclists who have won at least five Tour de France victories, and holds the distinction of being the only cyclist to have finished either first or second in each Tour de France he participated in (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1986).

Fauso Coppi

Fauso Coppi

A generation earlier, one of the greatest cyclists in history was making his mark. Born in 1919, Fausto Coppi was an Italian cyclist who captured the minds of the nation in the post-war years. He won a total of seven Grand Tours despite the 5-year break in competition that occurred as World War II raged across the continent.

Known as the Campionissimo (the superlative champion), Coppi was a legend in his day. He was the first rider to win both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in the same year (1949) and did so again in 1952. Coppi is known as one of the most dominant cyclist in history, and won major races by incredible margins. He won the 1949 Tour de France by nearly 11 minutes over a teammate, Gino Bartali. Other riders were far behind.

Jacques Anquetil

Jacques Anquetil

The second Frenchman on this list is Jacques Anquetil, who is undoubtedly one of the greatest in history. Born in 1934, Anquetil was the first racer to win the Tour de France five times in a career. In the 1961 Tour de France, he took the yellow jersey (which connotes the overall leader of the race) on the first stage and held it through the entire race.

As a time-trial specialist, Anquetil began racing young. At Grand Prix des Nations, the unofficial time-trail world championship of the time, he won the top prize at 19 years of age. In 1956, Anquetil broke Coppi’s hour record, riding 46.159 kilometers in 60 minutes.

Anqeutil went on to win the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia once, and the Vuelta a Espana once. This puts him in third place in total Grand Tour victories, with eight (behind Meckx and Hinault). His 1962 average speed on the Tour de France wasn’t bested until 1981. A controversial figure in France, Anquetil was seen as a distant, somewhat cold-hearted competitor. The public generally favored his 1964 Tour de France rival, Raymond Poulidor, who was associated with hard work and humility.

Lance Armstrong?

Lance Armstrong

Any list of the greatest cyclists is history will be controversial, and many would question whether Armstrong deserves a place. Regardless of your opinion, the facts are important to know.

Lance Armstrong won a record seven consecutive Tours de France between the years 1999 and 2005. At this time, he was acclaimed as one of the greatest cyclists in history. His recovery from testicular cancer before his Tour de France victories became an inspirational story around the world and led to the creation of the Livestrong brand

Rumors about alleged doping (the use of performance-enhancing drugs) followed Armstrong for much of his cycling career, but in 2010 an official investigation was opened on the case. However, the case was dropped in early 2012 without much explanation.

Later that year, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) officially accused Armstrong of using EPO (a substance that is injected to increase the efficiency of the respiratory system) and other banned drugs. In August, USADA formally removed all of Armstrong’s competitive victories since 1998 and issued a lifetime ban from sports that use the World Anti-Doping Code (a sort of global sports treaty that bans doping).

In January, 2013, Armstrong went on TV and admitted to doping for much of his career. In the interview, he said, "My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike, but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw. That desire, that attitude, that arrogance."

Did I miss anyone? Who do you think belongs (or doesn't belong) on this list? Let us know in the comments.