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Cycling's greatest ever hardmen

David Kenning
17 Feb 2017

A dozen greats from across the ages who made their name with guts and drive

Gino Bartali

Aged just 22 when he first won the Giro d’Italia in 1936, Gino Bartali’s illustrious career might have been even more glorious if it hadn’t been interrupted by the Second World War.

Like many Italian riders of the time, he was regarded as lacking the temperament to win outside the temperate conditions of southern Europe, but disproved this by winning the 1938 Tour de France.

Having abandoned the previous year due to injuries caused by falling over the side of a bridge into a river, he returned to the race with renewed determination and won, largely thanks to a dominant performance on stage 14, a 214km epic covering three mountain passes over 2,000m.

Although the war affected his racing career, it didn’t stop him riding his bike, and he showed remarkable courage by cycling great distances to deliver messages to the Italian Resistance, as well as hiding a Jewish family in his cellar.

He went on to take his third Giro d’Italia victory in 1946 and a second Tour de France in 1948.

Fausto Coppi

It’s almost impossible to separate Bartali and Coppi, the two greats of their era and fierce rivals, so we’ve included them both.

In fact, many regard Coppi as the greatest cyclist of all time, a more rounded performer on the bike than Bartali, and with a record that may even have matched that of Merckx if it hadn’t been interrupted by the war.

He was simply the strongest man on two wheels, battering rivals into submission but doing so with panache.

And he did it in every kind of race, from the one-day Classics to the Grand Tours, and over every terrain, from the Flanders cobbles to the high summits of the Alps and Pyrenees.

When Coppi decided to attack, riders and spectators alike knew it was effectively race over – at the 1946 Milan-San Remo, he attacked with a small group just 9km into the 292km race and went on to win by over 14 minutes, riding away from his rivals on the Turchino climb and leaving them gasping in his wake.

Such was his dominance that in 1952 Tour de France organisers had to increase the prize money for second place incentivise others to race against him!

Wim Van Est

Although his palmarès looks modest compared to some on our list, Wim Van Est did win Paris- Bordeaux – an epic 600km feat of endurance that saw riders setting off from Bordeaux at 2am and racing for over 14 hours.

However, he’s mainly remembered for events of the 1951 Tour de France. A breakaway victory on stage 12 had seen him become the first Dutchman ever to wear the yellow jersey but it was what happened the following day that has ensured his lasting fame.

As the race headed into the Pyrenees, the young and inexperienced Van Est strugled to keep up with the climbing specialists.

Chasing to catch up on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque, he overcooked a bend and plunged 70 metres into a ravine.

As if it weren’t incredible enough that he survived the fall unscathed, he then used a chain of tyres to climb back up to the road and attempted to continue racing until team bosses forced him to abandon and go to hospital!

Charly Gaul

While some riders thrive in cold, wet conditions, none have positively revelled in them in quite the same way as Charly Gaul.

Despite his frail physique and boyish looks that earned him the nickname ‘Angel of the Mountains’, Gaul was as tough a climber as cycling has ever seen, as he demonstrated on stage 20 of the 1956 Giro d’Italia – a 242km mountain epic that would see riders baffling through freezing temperatures, driving rain and fierce headwinds for over nine hours.

Starting the stage 16 minutes down on race leader Pasquale Fornara, he made his rivals suffer from the start with relentless attacks.

By the start of the final 14km climb of Monte Bondone, he held a five-minute lead as snow began falling heavily.

Gaul ploughed on, and by the time he reached the summit, he had not only extended his lead, he had secured overall victory.

It was a day that, according to French sports newpaper L’Equipe, ‘surpassed anything seen before in terms of pain, suff ering and diffi culty.’ Just 43 of the original 89 starters finished the stage.

Eddy Merckx

With a list of race wins – 525 in total – that sets him high above any other rider in the history of the sport, it’s easy to see why Eddy Merckx is regarded as the greatest pro cyclist of all time.

It wasn’t just that he had more natural ability than his rivals, it was as much down to his insatiable appetite for victory.

When criticised for not giving anyone else a chance, he said, ‘The day when I start a race without intending to win it, I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror.’

This ferocious determination – which earned him the nickname ‘The Cannibal’ – is exemplified by his performance in the 1974 Giro d’Italia.

Still recovering from a bout of pneumonia that had affected the early part of his season, Merckx was soon losing ground to main rival Jose Manuel Fuente.

But on the 200km stage 14, riding in appalling conditions, he attacked from the start and by the finish, Fuente was 10 minutes down.

Merckx went on to win not only the Giro that year but also the Tour de France and World Championship.

Roger De Vlaeminck

The French have a word flahute to describe the hardest of the cycling hardmen.

Tricky to define but easy to recognise, the word describes those riders – usually Belgian – who thrive in the famously harsh conditions of one-day Classics racing in Flanders.

Riders who just keep going whatever the road throws at them, shruging off hardship and suffering.

You won’t see them sitting in the shelter of the peloton, they lead from the front, grinding their rivals into submission with relentless, leg-sapping pace over any terrain – bone-juddering cobbles, knee-deep mud, lung-bustingly steep bergs…

The term has been used to describe many great riders over the years but if there’s one who deserves the label more than most, it’s Roger de Vlaeminck, who earned the nickname ‘Monsieur Paris-Roubaix’ for his unrivalled record in the toughest of the one-day races, winning it four times and never finishing lower than seventh place in 13 attempts.

To see De Vlaeminck in action – along with many of his fellow flahutes – check out the classic film A Sunday In Hell, covering the 1976 edition of Paris-Roubaix.

Bernard Hinault

A famous image from the 1984 Paris-Nice race saw Bernard Hinault grabbing a protesting shipyard worker by the throat and swinging a full-blooded punch at his head.

So much for solidarity – the protestor learned the hard way that you don’t stand between the man known as Le Blaireau (The Badger) and victory, however worthy your cause may be.

But it wasn’t just his fiery temper that earns Hinault his place in our list – he was pretty fearsome on the bike, too, as he showed in the 1980 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Conditions on the day were tough, with heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures, and by 70km into the 244km race, 110 of the 174 starters had abandoned.

Driven on by his pride as team leader, Hinault refused to give up and with 80km to go, launched a kamikaze solo attack.

If his rivals thought he’d tire, they’d underestimated his desire – he won the race by nearly 10 minutes, despite his hands being so numb with frostbite that two of his fingers were left permantly damaged.

Sean Kelly

Photo: Flickr

Now better known as a softly spoken TV commentator, Sean Kelly’s gentle demeanour belies a ferocity on the bike that made him the world’s top one-day race specialist in his heyday.

Brought up in rural Ireland, he left school at 13 to work on the family farm and later as a bricklayer before turning to cycling.

It was perhaps this tough working-class upbringing that instilled in Kelly characteristics more typically associated with the Belgian hard men of the 70s.

Indeed, Kelly is regarded by many as an honorary Flandrian, with a blend of gritty determination and sheer brute strength that could see him beat any of his rivals on his day, whatever the conditions.

His physical and mental fortitude brought him multiple victories in four of the five Monuments – the longest and hardest one-day races in cycling.

Although he was too heavily built to compete in the high mountains, he overcame this through sheer strength of personality, beating many strong climbers to take overall victory at the Vuelta a España in 1988 – a remarkable achievement.

Andy Hampsten

Raised in North Dakota, Andy Hampsten was no stranger to extreme winters, something that was to help him on the infamous stage 14 of the 1988 Giro d’Italia.

A mountainous 120km with the fearsome Passo di Gavia as its final showpiece, it nearly didn’t go ahead thanks to heavy overnight snowfall and appalling weather conditions on the day.

Riding through heavy rain on muddy roads, Hampsten and his 7-Eleven team set a strong pace early on in the stage to soften up his rivals before launching his attack on the early slopes of the Gavia, taking a small, select group with him.

Dropping them one by one as the narrow road twisted skywards, he was eventually riding alone, snow gathering in his hair and ice forming on his legs.

While others stopped at the summit to put on extra layers, Hampsten pushed on to maintain his advantage on the icy descent, eventually finishing second on the day but taking the overall race lead and holding on to it to become the Giro’s first American champion.

Johan Musseuw

Known as the Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw was widely regarded as the finest one-day Classics rider of his generation, with a particular penchant for the cobbled roads of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, winning both races three times.

Fans adored him for his determined and powerful riding style that was reminiscent of great Belgian heroes of the past such as Roger de Vlaeminck, but a horrific crash in the 1998 edition of Paris-Roubaix left him with a shattered le kneecap.

After infection set in, doctors threatened to amputate his leg but remarkably, a year later Museeuw was back on the bike, riding to third place in the 1999 edition of the Tour of Flanders.

In 2002, he achieved a historic third win at Paris-Roubaix. In a race beset by typically grim Flanders weather, Museuuw showed his class with a dominant display, launching a solo a ack with 40km to go and entering the Roubaix Velodrome caked in mud but over three minutes ahead of the field.

Tom Boonen

The natural successor to Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen served as the great man’s apprentice in the early years of his career but has since gone on to surpass the achievements of the master and become one of the all-time greats in his own right.

Like Museeuw, Boonen possesses fierce determination, immense power and a killer finishing sprint that has carried him to many memorable victories.

In 2005, a late solo attack saw him win the Tour of Flanders for the first time, to which he added victory in Paris-Roubaix a few weeks later, clinching the win in a three-man sprint.

Famous for their cobbles, mud, hills, wind and rain, these are the races that mark out the true hard men of the sport and Boonen’s won them a total of seven times – more than anyone else in the history of cycling – along with many more victories in the minor one-day Classics, and the World Road Race Championship in 2005.

Now entering his 16th year as a pro, he’s determined to add to his record before retiring.

Geraint Thomas

When the going gets tough, the Welshman comes into his own, with notable rides including his gritty victory in the 2013 Commonwealth Games road race.

Combaring the kind of grim weather you’d associate with the Spring Classics, he broke away from the peloton to charge to a memorable solo win.

Despite a reputation for falling off, it takes a lot to keep him down, as he showed at the 2013 Tour de France, where he played the role of chief domestique to Chris Froome.

A bad crash on the very first stage let him lying at the side of the road in agony, fearful that his Tour was over almost before it’d begun.

But he gritted his teeth, got back on his bike and rode through the pain to finish the stage, before being rushed to hospital where a scan revealed a fractured pelvis.

Many riders would have abandoned the race there and then, but not Thomas, who endured three more weeks of agony to ensure Froome won his first yellow jersey.

G, along with everyone else on our list, we salute you!

The subs bench

Eight other legends who we just couldn’t leave out…

Tom Simpson: First Brit to win the Tour of Flanders, died tackling Mont Ventoux.

Freddy Maertens: Tough Belgian sprinter and Eddy Merckx’s fiercest rival.

Rik Van Looy: This Belgian was first to win all five Monuments.

Joop Zoetemelk: Dutch tough guy who finished Tour de France a record 16 times.

Andrei Tchmil: Russian cobbled Classics specialist.

Tyler Hamilton: US winner of a mountain stage of the Tour despite a broken collarbone.

Alexander Vinokourov: Kazakh-born double winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Ian Stannard: Tireless Brit domestique and double winner of spring Classics opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

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