It is widely claimed that the Tour De France is the most gruelling sporting event on the planet. To be chosen to ride in the tour is one thing, and to finish it is an outstanding achievement but to win it is the greatest triumph a professional road cyclist can earn. In this article I have chosen the riders that throughout the tours 108 year history have earned that triumph and have proven themselves to be the greatest and most decorated cyclists to have won the tour and claimed the infamous yellow jersey in Paris.
Tour De France Winner – 1949, 1952
Italian rider Coppi, probably the greatest cyclist the country has ever produced is perhaps better known for his 5 wins in the Giro d’Italia yet his overall prolific career saw him win the Tour De France twice. It is fair to say Coppi dominated the post WWII cycling circuit claiming titles throughout a devastated Europe and lifting the hopes of many Italians as he did so. Coppi’s name in the cycling hall of fame was secured when he became the first cyclist to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour De France, regarded the two toughest tours in the sport, in the same year (1949). Adding to the exceptionality of Coppi was his fragile physical state that comprised of a delicate skeleton and brittle bones and throughout his career suffered around 23 serious bone fractures from falling off the bike. Despite these setbacks Coppi remained able to race year after year until his retirement in 1954, aged 35.
Tour De France Winner – 1957, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964
One of the most prolific French riders to win the Tour, Anquetil became the first ever cyclist to claim the tour five times. 1961 was Anquetil’s crowning year in the tour as he wore the yellow jersey for the whole 22 days of the tour as he was in the overall lead for 20 of the total 21 stages. Anquetil proved himself to be an unbeatable time trialist in his years of dominance although this lost him favour with spectators as he wasn’t always prepared to push himself in the mountain stages. For someone who claimed he was a road cyclist for the money he was by all measures an exceptional talent.
Tour De France Winner – 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974
For many fans and experts alike Merckx is unarguably the greatest road cyclist ever. His distinguished career has notched up multiple victories in every major tour and race and he was, for a time, simply unbeatable. When it came to the fight for the yellow jersey in particular, Merckx’s prowess was so fierce that he’d seem to have the tour won before even showing up. The record books were simply re-written by Merckx as he now claims the most stage victories in the Tour de France – 34, most days wearing the yellow jersey – 96, and most career victories by a professional cyclist – 525. And that is merely a selection of the cyclist’s accomplishments. What specifically made Merckx as recognised as he is today is the willingness to enter every race and every tour he possibly could. Whilst other riders would only enter the Tour de France, Merckx would often enter the Tour, Giro and Vuelta amongst other one day races and series, which became a representation for his love of cycling and the adulation he has received from fans of the sport.
Tour De France Winner - 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985
Yet another 5 time winner, Hinault followed on from Merckx’s unrivalled success in the Tour in the early 70’s. Similarly to Merckx, Hinault proved himself as an all-round cyclist able to sprint, time trial and climb the mountains of the Pyrenees and Alps. If it wasn’t for Merckx, Hinalut would certainly be the Tour’s most prolific cyclist gaining a total of 28 stage victories in the tour throughout his career. However, he is the only cyclist to ever win every grand tour (Tour, Giro, Vuelta) at least twice. Hinault, aka ‘The Badger’ contested the Tour de France with great American rider Greg Lemond, as the two battled each either particularly fiercely in the 1986 Tour de France.
Tour De France Winner - 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995
For the first half of the 1990’s Miguel Indurain, like the previous riders above dominated the Tour single-handedly. Five consecutive victories in the Tour was a record for the Spaniard who also picked up an Olympic gold during his distinguished career. Similarly to Anquetil, Indurain’s speciality was within the time trial where his solo style of riding came into fruition. Indurain’s meteoric rise to the top of the cycling world is one that is surprising bearing in mind he had serious heart problems as a child. However, medical problems were overcome and Indurain is often seen as a model for the perfect cycling athlete physically, particularly for having lungs so massive they displaced his stomach!
Tour De France Winner – 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005
A personal favourite of mine and millions more, Armstrong’s outstanding and unrivalled record in the Tour De France is one to be admired. Not least, due to the back story of Armstrong who suffered from testicular cancer in the early stages of his career. With a total of seven tour wins Armstrong topped the record of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain who all achieved five tour wins. The physical pain and suffering during his cancer treatment readied Lance for his comeback to cycling in 1998 to prove he had the physical toughness to overcome his past illness. His success in the tour reflects the respect that Armstrong gives it as he focused his whole season on just riding the Tour de France and aiming for triumph. Armstrong’s success at the Tour has risen many questions over doping allegations aimed at him by experts and former team mates, however, to this day he has never tested positive for a banned substance. Riding all the way up until his retirement in 2010, the fairy-tale career of Armstrong is widely regarded as propelling the sport of cycling to newer and higher levels.