Since the first edition of the Tour de France in 1903, each decade has been almost dominated by one champion. For the general public, the bicycle race Tour de France rhymes with the names of the famous cyclists Christopher Froome, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Miguel Indurain. Unless you are an aficionado or have been keeping track of the Tour de France for more than three decades, you may not have heard of the six following cyclist stars and champions.
6 – Greg LeMond
Californian-born Gregory LeMond (1961-) won the Tour de France thrice, in 1986, 1998 and 1990. Since Lance Armstrong’s seven wins were declared void by the UCI (the governing body for cycling sports) in 2012, Greg LeMond is the only American national, and along with Australian Cadel Evans, the only non-European cyclist to have won the Tour de France. His record is not limited to the Tour however as LeMond also won the UCI’s World Championships in 1983 and 1989 and finished second in 1985. His talent as a cyclist is even more remarkable considering he was shot in a hunting accident in 1987. Still, his injuries did not prevent LeMond from proving himself as one of the best cyclists in the world in the following years when he won the Tour and World Championships.
LeMond is a keen opponent of drug use and voiced several times his concern regarding the performances of sportsmen such as Armstrong or Contador. He retired in 1994 and was later inducted into the USA’s Bicycling Hall of Fame. LeMond remains a key figure of the Tour in France since it was he who beat the last two French winners, Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault.
5 – Bernard Hinault
A.k.a. “the Badger”, Bernard Hinault (1954-) not only won the Tour de France five times but was also the world’s leading figure of bicycling between 1975 and 1986, having won dozens of victories in numerous competitions, including the 1980 UCI’s World Championships. Hinault triumphed in his first-ever participation in the Tour in 1978 and repeated the success the following year.
In 1980, the already famous Hinault added to his record of achievements a win in the Giro d’Italia but a knee injury forced him out of the Tour de France later that year. The injury did not stop the Badger, however. He was back on the saddle in 1981 and won the Tour, then again in 1982 when he also finished first in the Italian Tour.
The next two years were more complicated, Hinault had to go through knee surgery and could not beat his teammate Laurent Fignon in both 1983 and 1984. He made a final triumphant return in 1985, winning once more both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. Hinault finished second in the 1986 Tour and put an end to his professional career. He then returned to farming but remains to this day a prominent figure in bicycling.
4 – Philippe Thys
Going back in time, Belgian Philippe Thys (1889-1971) left his mark in the history of the Tour de France by being the first to win the race three times. He was only 23 years old when he finished first in 1913, repeating the deed a year later. The war that plunged the world into darkness for four years sadly deprived Thys of what would most certainly have been his best cycling years as the race was cancelled and Thys served in the French army. His third and final victory in the Tour happened in 1920. Although it was not the last of his successes in official competitions, Philippe Thys did not win the Tour in the later races.
The editions of the Tour de France between 1912 and 1922, with the exceptions of the war years, were all won by Belgian champions. A domination that culminated with Thys setting a record that would take 33 years to equal (until Louison Bobet won the Tour three times in a row in 1955).
3 – Jacques Anquetil
The 50’s and 60’s were dominated by French cyclists who brought back home 11 victories. Louison Bobet (1925-1983), who was mentioned above, and Jacques Anquetil (1934-1987) are the names to remember. In the early 50’s, Anquetil had already proved himself a formidable cyclist by winning several against-the-clock races.
In 1957, “Master Jacques” as he was nicknamed, triumphed in his first Tour de France. He won the Giro d’Italia in 1960.
After three years without a French winner, Anquetil made a brilliant comeback. This success was not enough, however. He reiterated this feat in the next three editions of the Tour de France. Not only did he break Thys’ and Bobet’s record of winning the race three times, he set two new ones with his five victories, including four in a row.
Of course, Master Jacques had his eyes on other competitions as well. He finished top of the Tour of Spain in 1963 and won the Giro d’Italia a second time in 1964. He thus became the first bicyclist to win the three most important Tours. Jacques Anquetil is also remembered for his opinions, as he admitted to using performance-enforcing drugs and was an advocate of the practice. In 2013, Israel recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations for his conduct during the war.
2 – Gino Bartali
Born in Italy, Gino Bartali (1914-2000) is remembered for the longest lapse between two wins in the Tour de France. Gino’s fame started reverberating outside of Italy when he won the Giro d’Italia two times in a row in 1936 and 1937. He made his debut in the Tour de France that same year and his performance was impressive. However, a fall seriously tinted his health and was forced to abandon it before the final stages. Bartali came back to the Tour de France in 1938 and proved right all those who praised his racing skills in 1937 by winning.
He was the second Italian to win the Tour after Ottavio Bottecchia in 1924 and 1925. After the cancellation of internal championships during WW2, Bartali’s achievements continued when added a third Tour of Italy to his victories in 1946 and then a second Tour de France win in 1948. Gino Bartali also used his skills on a bicycle for the greater good during World War 2. In 1943, he left the army, disillusioned by the fascist ascendancy in the military. His profound Catholic piety fashioned a close relationship with several bishops who were hiding Jews from the government.
Bartali thus carried messages on his bicycle to the anti-fascist network and the Holy See. He used his fame to avoid suspicion but was eventually arrested in late 1943, but he escaped trial thanks to the difficult situation the Italian military authorities faced in the war.
1 – Eddy Merckx
The “best Belgian athlete of the 20th-century and”, the fourth “greatest Belgian”, Eddy Merckx (1945-) is one of the best cyclists in history and remains to this day the most titled cyclist with 625 victories. Merckx won 11 eleven grand Tours in his 14-year-long professional career. His first victory in the Tour de France was in 1969, he then won a further four times, from 1971 to 1974, thus matching Anquetil’s record.
Along with the Tour de France, Merckx has five Giro d’Italia victories (1968, 1970, 1972-73-74) and triumphed in the 1973 Tour of Spain. The second half of the 1970s witnessed Merckx’s drop in performance and he retired from professional racing in 1978. He never left the bicycling world, joining several sports governing bodies and he became a sports consultant for several channels in the following years.
As the first winner of the Tour de France in 1903, Maurice Garin deserves a special mention in this top 6. Garin was born in 1871 in Italy, close to the French border.
At 15, he worked in France as a chimney sweep. He bought his first bicycle in 1889. It cost two months of his salary. He won his first official race six years later. He participated in the second Tour de France in 1904 and although he technically finished first, he was downgraded after it was ruled that he broke several rules.
The first editions of the Tour de France were not as peaceful and well-organized as they are today. Cyclists were often bullied by spectators; trees were put down to slow them down and cyclists sometimes resorted to the use of cars to cheat. The four first cyclists of the 1904 Tour de France were all disqualified for their poor sportsmanship.
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