Taking endurance and stamina to their very limits, professional road racing cyclists are some of the fittest sportsmen around. They’re also some of the most fiercely competitive and that has created legendary names in the cycling world, with few but the most elite riders able to conquer all three of the annual Grand Tour races held in Europe.
One trio of historic cycling legends has set the bar so high in the past, even the leading modern greats of the sport are still playing catchup. That said, the modern era of road racing has become increasingly more competitive, given the higher number of genuine top-class challengers capable of winning the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España.
The Top Three Challenge
Spanish icon Alberto Contador became the greatest cyclist of the modern era, claiming a total of seven Grand Tour event victories during the peak of his career between 2007 and 2015, yet he was still unable to break into the top three of all time. Also on seven Grand Tour wins, Chris Froome is the only currently active star of the road capable of entering the top three, and the Briton is tipped at +275 to win the 2020 Tour de France.
Should he win any of the Grand Tour events this year, starting with the Tour de France, Froome would then match the total of eight events won by Jacques Anquetil of France, who achieved his peak between 1947 and 1964. Anquetil was particularly strong in the Tour de France, which he first won in 1957 and then four times in a row between 1961 and 1964. He also won the Giro d’Italia twice and the Vuelta a España once.
So Nearly the Greatest
Ranking second in the all-time list of total Grand Tour victories with ten is Bernard Hinault, who came agonizingly close to becoming the greatest road cycle racing champion ever. Along with winning the Vuelta a España twice and the Giro d’Italia three times, he won the Tour de France five times during his illustrious career.
Race leader Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly in the green points jersey at the 1985 Tour de France. pic.twitter.com/oIvxi0mE9c
— cycling archives (@mission753) June 3, 2020
Hinault was also desperately unlucky not to become the greatest of all-time. Either side of his final Tour de France victory in 1985, Hinault finished the race in second place by narrow margins in 1984 and 1986. Hinault also focused more on the illustrious French race, rather than the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, which he won every time he entered. Had he entered those races more often, few can doubt that he’d have won more Grand Tour titles.
The Unrivalled Best of the Best
Topping the list of all-time greatest road cycle champions is the phenomenal Belgian, Eddy Merckx, who claimed a thus far untouchable total of 11 Grand Tour victories between 1968 and 1974. The most successful cyclist ever to grace the sport, Merckx won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times each, along with a single Vuelta a España triumph.
#OnThisDay 31st May 1967: Eddy Merckx took his first victory at the #Giro d’Italia, on the Blockhaus. | #AccaddeOggi 31 maggio 1967: Eddy Merckx vinse per la 1° volta al Giro d’Italia. Sul Blockhaus. #ComunqueGiro pic.twitter.com/UfUVIhPU0u
— Giro d’Italia (@giroditalia) May 31, 2020
Merckx is one of only seven cyclists to have won all three Grand Tour events during their careers, although he still holds a record that nobody else has yet matched. He remains the only cycling champion to have won each of the three Grand Tour events and the Road Cycling World Championship. Merckx also achieved a remarkable 286 individual race wins during his career, which nobody has ever come anywhere close to matching.
Cream of the Current Generation
Chris Froome is the only currently active cyclist capable of breaking into the all-time top three anytime soon. While he perhaps has another two or three years of top-level cycling left in the tank, he’s also the first to admit there’s one young star who could well beat everything he’s ever achieved, and much more.
Still aged just 23, and having won the Tour de France already in 2019, young Colombian star Egan Bernal has the potential to become the greatest ever, if he can maintain his exceptional start with more Grand Tour victories. He will certainly be worth following for years to come.
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