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Who are the Best 20 Classics Riders in History?
By Staff
Date: 4/1/2004
Who are the Best 20 Classics Riders in History?

Who are the best 20 classical riders in history? We gave it a thought, and tried to come up with a presentable list. Itís very hard to compare cycling generations, so we limited ourselves to the 6 cycling monuments that have always retained their status and allure throughout the years, together with the world championship: Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy.

These seven most important one-day races seemed to be the best and fairest means of comparison, in our humble opinion. Some races that count as world cup races nowadays (like ZŁrich or the Amstel Gold Race) didnít have the same status in the past, while others (like the FlÍche Wallone or Paris-Brussels) were ranked among the classics some time ago, but have lost some of their grandeur and importance as time passed, both in status and UCI-ratification.

This top 20 covers a period of 60 years: from shortly before the second World War up until now. Champions from the twenties, like Alfredo Binda, Constante Girardengo or Henri Pelissier, to name but a few, have not been taken in consideration for this top 20. Which isnít to say that their merits should be minimized, but the standards were, in a prehistoric cycling age, very different. Nonetheless do we find that this top 20 gives a fine overview, it wouldnít fluctuate much if youíd use other judging criteria. If two riders won the same amount of classics we used their amount of wins in the world championship as a tie-breaker, and if they are still tied after that, the spreading and the importance of the classics they won is what made the difference. Of the two riders in this ranking that won exactly the same races, Louison Bobet and Hennie Kuiper, Bobet was ranked higher because he finished 2nd in the world championship twice.

We hope that this ranking will remind everyone who reads it of the greatness of the old (and current) champions in it, and stand in awe again of their achievements, which might have become ďcommonĒ by now. With Eddy Merckx as the absolute number one: itís only when you take a moment to go over his career again that you realize just how extra-terrestrial it all was.

1. Eddy Merckx (22)

Sometimes, when his memories are playing up again, Eddy Merckx wonders what magnificent career he could have had if there hadnít been that crash on the track of Blois, in the fall of 1969. He would never get rid of the horrible back aches that he suffered since then, and to this day he maintains that heís never quite been his old self. It says a lot about this rider; the greatest cyclist ever: he had many of these bouts of complaining, even in his greatest days.

No matter how many epic exploits Eddy Merckx had in his incomparable career, or how many times people were lost for superlatives to describe his achievements; not once did he brag about his own abilities, or diminish those of his opponents. Eddy Merckx was the champion of tempered joy. A man with extraordinary physical capacities, but most of all someone with the iron will to maximize that potential. His hunger for victories was impossible to tame, or in his own words: ďI considered each race an exam in which I needed to get a degree of proficiency."

7x Milan-Sanremo, 2x Tour of Flanders, 3x Paris-Roubaix, 5x LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 2x Tour of Lombardy, 3x world champion.

Merckx wins his first Milan-Sanremo, 1966.
Courtesy the Milan-Sanremo Site.

2. Rik Van Looy (11)

Heís oblivious to all media attention nowadays, and last December Rik Van Looy celebrated his 70th birthday with great modesty. That attitude doesnít correspond to his imposing presence within the peloton; Van Looy was like a pitbull on his bike. He would get a bite in on his opponents and never let them go. He never avoided the heroic duels with first Rik Van Steenbergen, and later Eddy Merckx, and his fighting spirit was much appreciated by the supporters.

Rik Van Looy, the only rider ever to win all 6 of the monuments, was passionate, unpredictable, and lead his team like a patriarch. He would become the prototype of the Flemish working class boy who made it to the top on strength of character. Attacking was an essential part of his racing style, and in classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix Van Looy didnít shun the harsh man-to-man battles. He brought cycling back to its basics: just pushing the pedals as hard as you can, thatís all there is to it. He never had problems motivating himself, Rik Van Looy was always up for a ride. He was a cycling amateur, in the true sense of the word.

1x Milan-Sanremo, 2x Tour of Flanders, 3x Paris-Roubaix, 1x LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 1x Paris-Tours, 1x Tour of Lombardy, 2x world champion.

Rik II. Courtesy Ronde van Vlaanderen.

3. Roger De Vlaeminck (11)

Roger De Vlaeminck must have often wondered how beautiful a palmares he could have composed if it hadnít been for that damned Eddy Merckx crossing his path. Nothing delighted the Eastern Flemish rider more than beating the greatest of all. No race is as inherently attached to Roger De Vlaeminckís career as Paris-Roubaix: he flew over the pointy cobbles like a ballet dancer, carried by tubes that he had kept for four years in a dry room of his house. Still, Milan-Sanremo seemed to charm him more than the Hell of the North, because of his own, typically outgoing, nature, and because of the infinite happiness that his Italian bosses showed after each of his (three) victories.

Roger De Vlaeminck was a loner in the peloton, a free spirit that worked off a diabolic training schedule, a morning person who got up at 6 every day, and someone who knew that if one were to achieve something in life, he had to oblige the less pleasant tasks as well. De Vlaeminck often seemed a harsh and vengeful person, but it didnít need much to touch him in the deepest of his heart. But he never showed those feelings, always hiding them behind a mask of toughness.

3x Milan-Sanremo, 1x Tour of Flanders, 4x Paris-Roubaix, 1x LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 2x Tour of Lombardy

De Vlaeminck at the 1973 Milan-Sanremo.
Courtesy the Milan-Sanremo Site.

4. Fausto Coppi (10)

Judging on his ability alone, it would do him very wrong to rank him only as fourth in this top 20, of course. He is undoubtedly the rider that closest approached Merckx in terms of completeness. This legendary Italian achieved his greatest successes in the Giro (5 victories) and the Tour (2 victories). But ďjustĒ winning wasnít good enough for this butcherís son, it had to be done in style, with grace and allure. That also went for the classics that Coppi reigned in, like Milan-Sanremo, the race which had an almost mythological importance to him.

Coppi, the liberal thinker who stood out against the choking morality of the church, moved the crowd not only with his sportive battles, but also because of his stormy liaison with the mysterious lady in white. His life story resembles a Greek tragedy, and would later on be played in the opera and have a play, a musical, a documentary and a film based on it. But Coppi (deceased in 1960) was, above all, a brilliant rider with an unusually large lung capacity, and a maniac when it came to material and working with advanced gearing systems. His name will always remain a legend.

3x Milan-Sanremo, 1x Paris-Roubaix, 5x Tour of Lombardy, 1x world champion

Coppi after his 1949 Milan-Sanremo win.
Photo by Gazzetta dello Sport.

5. Sean Kelly (9)

When Sean Kelly made an end to his career in 1994, he had won every classic at least once, except for the Tour of Flanders. But he did finish in second place three times in the Flemish classic. Itís a good illustration of the immense class of this Irish farmer boy who lived in Belgium during his glory years, and won the green jersey 4 times.

Sean Kelly was an anti-hero in many ways, he didnít like all the fuss that usually surrounds great champions. Kelly never presented himself as one of the leaders of the peloton either, but instead dragged along the reputation of being a gold-digger. The fact that he stretched his career unnecessarily long, until his 38th year, is for many of those critics the ultimate proof of his greediness. But Sean Kelly was first and foremost a hard worker who lived an ascetic life during his 18 pro years, which consisted mostly of training, sleeping and racing.

Thatís how he became one of the best post-WWII riders in history, thatís how he made the most out of his strong and flexible body. He made a good amount of money in his career too, ďBecause,Ē Kelly said once, ďa true champion is also a good banker.Ē

2x Milan-Sanremo, 2x Paris-Roubaix, 1x LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 1x Paris-Tours, 3x Tour of Lombardy.

Sean Kelly at the 1986 Milan-Sanremo, which he won.
Courtesy Uncle Dave's Cycling Archive.

6. Rik Van Steenbergen (8)

Rik Van Steenbergen should have won a much more impressive number of classics than the 5 that are on his palmares, with the abilities that he had. But the Antverpian, deceased in May 2003, didnít really seem fixated on gathering a palmares as beautiful as possible; one big race every season was enough for him. Van Steenbergen would unscrupulously scratch Paris-Roubaix off his season schedule if he had won Milan-Sanremo or the Tour of Flanders earlier that season. Instead, heíd ride a richly endowed expectance race on the track of the city of Roubaix.

There was nobody that could convince Van Steenbergen, the rider with the biggest sports heart ever, to change his way of thinking. He was stubborn and willful, and rode 12 months a year. Because if he didnít race, heíd go insane. Thatís why Van Steenbergen didnít quit until he was 42. In his chest of drawers were 3 rainbow jerseys. Rik Van Steenbergen was, most importantly, a charismatic man who never elevated himself above the common man. It didnít seem to damage his popularity at all, when he made a brief excursion into a shadier world after his career. Van Steenbergen was content to see that the thread with his own myth hadnít been cut quite yet.

1x Milan-Sanremo, 2x Tour of Flanders, 2x Paris-Roubaix, 3x world champion

Rik I at Ronde van Vlaanderen. Courtesy Ronde van Vlaanderen.

7. Johan Museeuw (8)

Thereís no rider in this gallery who was formed in the same climate of self-protection as Johan Museeuw was. No rider that, after years of a relatively anonymous career, discovered such amazing mental characteristics within himself than this Western-Flemish man. Johan Museeuw chose the way of gradualness. Thatís how he came to be the best classical rider of this generation, with 2 victories in ZŁrich and one in the Amstel Gold Race and Hamburg on top of that.

Museeuw depends on an iron will and the ability to keep stretching his personal limits - like in his very first race outside of Belgium, as an unknown amateur in the Tour of Austria. Museeuw finished the first stage 30 minutes behind the winner, alone and numb with cold, crying on his bike. But he didnít abandon. In the same manner he would continue to break down barriers during the remainder of his career.

And to think that Museeuw started his pro career full of doubts and hardly ambitious: he told himself he had two years to show some potential, or heíd go working in his fatherís garage instead.

3x Tour of Flanders, 3x Paris-Roubaix, 1x Paris-Tours, 1x world champion

Museeuw at Ronde van Vlaanderen. Courtesy Ronde van Vlaanderen.

8. Francesco Moser (7)

He wasnít really a climber, or a sprinter, or a time-trial specialist. Francesco Moser was good at everything. What he lacked in tactical insight heíd make up with his unimaginable fighting spirit. The Italian, outside of the race a charming and very approachable man, seemed to be made out of solid granite. How often hasnít he proven that in Paris-Roubaix, the attrition war that he won three times in a row, and where he finished both 2nd and 3rd twice. He steamed over the cobbles with that typical grimace of his, and never did he take advantage of the work of others.

Francesco Moser, who would also break Merckxí 12 year-old world hour record in the fall of his career, was a phenomenon. But even more than for his imposing palmares, Moser will be remembered as the man who introduced several novelties: he was a pioneer for modern cycling, with his scientific finds and technological aptitude. His exploits were always looked upon as controversial, in a time where pulse meters were still a rarity in the peloton. But soon the rest of the peloton took to his way of training.

1x Milan-Sanremo, 3x Paris-Roubaix, 1x Paris-Tours, 1x Tour of Lombardy, 1x world champion.

Moser on the pave. Courtesy Moser Cycles.

9. Jan Raas (7)

A leader, very explosive and owner of a pair of turbo-thighs, Jan Raas was one of the absolute leaders of the peloton in his days. In his time at Peter Postís famous Raleigh team, he personally re-divided the team strategy. He was the exponent of the divide-and-conquer strategy, cooperation and organization are the words that made his career what it is now. Jan Raas was a training fanatic, even if he wasnít exactly passionate about cycling. He linked that character to great insight; he studied his opponentsí bike positions, his head was like some sort of database where he stored information on just about every rider in the peloton.

In that way the Dutchman made himself an impressive career, with the world title before his own supporters in Valkenburg as its climax. And apart from the top classics he also had 5 wins in the Amstel Gold Race, the most important Dutch race. He withdrew himself from cycling after a long period as manager of the Rabobank team, without giving a reason for his departure. Typically Raas: emotions never were his forte.

1x Milan-Sanremo, 2x Tour of Flanders, 1x Paris-Roubaix, 2x Paris-Tours, 1x world champion.

Jan Raas at the 1970 Milan-Sanremo, which he won.
Courtesy the Milan-Sanremo Site.

10. Moreno Argentin (7)

Itís a bit strange that Moreno Argentin, the Italian prince of the one-day races, never won Milan-Sanremo. Once, in 1992, he only just missed out on it, when Sean Kelly rocketed past him in the descent of the Poggio. Itís the only real void in Argentinís career. He was a rider who always had a sense of refinement about him, on and off the bike. He wasnít someone who could stay focused for an entire season; that was too much of a mental burden for him to carry.

Argentin planned his goals with a frightful precision. The Ardennes were his favourite terrain, and there wasnít a race in the world that suited Argentinís capacities better than LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge. He won the worldís oldest classic 4 times, with his ability to accelerate several times on a climb and then stay clear on pure power until the finish line. Those victories didnít always get the respect they deserved in the Italian press. Likewise in 1986, when he took his career to another level in Colorado Springs and won the world championship. Because of the time difference there was very little interest and feedback from Italy. It didnít really bother Argentin, as he had a thorough dislike of any kind of idolatry.

1x Tour of Flanders, 4x LiŤge-Bastogne-LiŤge, 1x Tour of Lombardy, 1x world champion

Argentin at the 1990 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Courtesy Ronde van Vlaanderen.

This article originally appeared in Gazet van Antwerpen. Translation by Jan Janssens.

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