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Who are the Best 20 Classics Riders in History? Part Two
By Staff
Date: 4/3/2004
Who are the Best 20 Classics Riders in History? Part Two

Read Part One - the introduction and the top ten best Classics riders in history.

11. Fred De Bruyne (7)

Judged on talent alone, Fred De Bruyne was the lesser of many of his generation’s peers, but he compensated that with his intelligence and strength of character. De Bruyne loved to tell stories about how he used to get up at 6 in the morning, and walk over the dawned grass in the freezing cold with wooden blocks attached to his feet, in order to strengthen them. He steeled and hardened his body. He won 5 classics during 3 golden years, but the eternally for attention craving De Bruyne never received the recognition he deserved.

Never did he get received at the village hall of Berlare, where he lived, after one of his wins. That had to do with his father’s past during the war. Fred De Bruyne suffered a lot because of that. He actually only became popular after his active career: first as a TV commentator, where he impressed more with his language proficiency than with his technical knowledge; and later on as DS of the legendary Panasonic team. An exhausted De Bruyne turned his back to cycling in 1988, and went to live in the Provence. He died six years later of the consequences of a lingering disease.

1x Milan-Sanremo, 1x Tour of Flanders, 1x Paris-Roubaix, 3x Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 1x Paris-Tours

12. Gino Bartali (7)

Gino Bartali, together with Fausto Coppi, did a lot for the pride of the Italian people. Their heroic and exciting battles gave the Italians, who had been humbled and humiliated by WWII, again pride and joy; energy and self-confidence. Gino Bartali was all willpower. Being the great climber that he was he preferred the Tour de France, where he would torture his opponents in the mountains, but he would show some grand things in the classics as well, like in 1947, when he won his third out of four Primaveras: on the Turchino Bartali was over 10 minutes behind, but he started an impressive chase in terrible weather conditions and Dantesque circumstances.

Gino Bartali was an impeccable tempo-rider. The only thing that’s really missing on his palmares, divided by the war, is a rainbow jersey. Bartali was a devout Catholic and showed his religious conviction in an almost demonstrative manner. He was buried in a monk’s habit when he passed away in July 2000, at the age of 86.

4x Milan-Sanremo, 3x Tour of Lombardy

A mud-covered Bartali at the 1947 Milan-Sanremo.
Courtesy the Milan-Sanremo site.

13. Briek Schotte (6)

A face drenched with pain, hollow eyes and wretched grimaces: Briek Schotte showed, every race again, how raw and merciless cycling can be. The West-Flemish farmer son loved the dirtier work and often romanticizes his time period, when riders still had to fit their tubes themselves and provide for their own food.

The stories he tells are full of heroism. Like of the world championship in Moorslede in 1950, where Schotte won his second rainbow jersey before an home crowd. He started out in the morning, on his bike from Waregem to Moorslede, which was about 20 kilometres, with around his shoulders a sack with food for that day: 10 slices of raisin bread, baked by his father. 10 hours later he was the new world champion. “Iron Briek”, like everyone called Schotte, felt best in rain and heavy wind. He once pulled a tube of his wheel with his teeth, because his hands were frozen numb. And he has his thoughts on the development of modern cycling: in his book he believes it is being directed too much by computers, pulse meters and team tactics.

2x Tour of Flanders, 2x Paris-Tours, 2x world champion

Albéric "Briek" Schotte, center - who competed in 20 successive Tours of Flanders. Courtesy Ronde van Vlaanderen.

14. Bernard Hinault (6)

There are few riders that demanded as much respect as Bernard Hinault did by nature. He was the prototype of the proud challenger, with his stout farmer-face and his grinning and confronting stare. When he won Ghent-Wevelgem in 1977 as a completely unknown rider, the organizers were almost brought to tears, because they thought that he had soiled their race’s beautiful palmares.

Four days later, Hinault won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It would mean the start of a golden age. The Frenchman mostly made his name in the Tour. From the moment he had won his first Tour in 1978 he became an absolute ruler who reigned, intimidated, and, if necessary, revolted. Classics were never his main goal. Even then, Hinault won 6 of them, among which Paris-Roubaix, the race that he despised, plus he won the rainbow jersey once.

But his most impressive exploit in a one-day race was in 1980 in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He started a monster solo in the rain and freezing cold, and would win the race with 9 minutes advance over the second, Hennie Kuiper. Since that day the nerve extensions of his fingers have been paralyzed. Hinault never complained about it.

1x Paris-Roubaix, 2x Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2x Tour of Lombardy, 1x world champion

Hinault in a dusty 1982 Paris-Roubaix. Courtesy Uncle Dave's Cycling Archive.

15. Louison Bobet (5)

For a long time, Bobet had been mocked, with people saying that he was too fragile a rider who was totally unsuited for the harsh craft of cycling. But because of his unlimited hunger for honour and his irresistible search for glory, the tall and proud Bobet would repeatedly prove everyone wrong. He wasn’t really considered a natural, the Frenchman would learn with his eyes from other riders.

Among other things he copied Fausto Coppi’s training sessions and his professional medical assistance. The well-off baker’s son was obsessed with the Tour, which he would win 3 times in a row. But he also won some classics, and animated and dominated several world championships: he won the world title once, and finished 2nd twice. Louison Bobet was the first real crowd favourite of post-WWII France. His fame stayed after his death, and when he died of cancer in 1983 several villages and cities named streets after him.

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

Louison Bobet at the 1951 Milan-Sanremo.
Courtesy the Milan-Sanremo site.

16. Hennie Kuiper (5)

For a long, long time, Hennie Kuiper focused his career on the Tour. Only in 1981, when he was 32, did he realize that a Tour-win was above his abilities, and he changed his focus. If he had done so earlier the Dutchman would probably have had a lot more classics on his palmares. But it’s already remarkable in itself that Kuiper won 4 monumental classics and a world championship as a non-sprinter. He was a man of harsh battles for survival: the longer and more exhausting the race was, the stronger he got. Kuiper often won with an attack from the background, he was the master of tempo-riding.

His greatest win was in Yvoir where he became world champion, in 1975. Kuiper was leading alone and didn’t lose an inch to a chasing group where Roger De Vlaeminck was putting the hammer down hard, bringing it down from 25 to 10 riders along the way.  Kuiper, who also became Olympic champion in München in 1972, never became big-headed because of his successes: he was always one of the most charming riders in the peloton.

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

Hennie Kuiper wins the 1981 Tour of Flanders. Courtesy Hennie Kuiper.

17. Felice Gimondi (5)

For his entire career, Felice Gimondi lived with the frustration that he would never get the respect he deserved. The Italian with the air of importance around him won the Tour as a neo-pro in 1965 and looked to be at the verge of a spectacular career. He did assemble a great palmares, but Eddy Merckx’ presence blocked that palmares from being even more awe-inspiring. Gimondi would develop a true obsession for the Belgian’s dominance during his career.

When asked why he had to wait till he was 31 before he had won Milan-Sanremo, Gimondi once answered: “Because Merckx had abandoned that day”. But, he managed to beat Merckx once: in the famous world championship of 1973 in Barcelona. There are two Belgians in the leading group, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens, but in the sprint something goes wrong between them, and Gimondi wins the rainbow jersey, to his absolute surprise. And even though Merckx was a curse for Gimondi’s career, he’s still confronted with him every day: in the office of his insurance company there’s a huge photograph of the best cyclist ever attached to the wall.

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

Felice Gimondi. Courtesy Classic Rendevous.

18. Michele Bartoli (5)

This Tuscan has been attracted to the Belgian races for a long time. They don’t call Michele Bartoli the “Belgian Italian” for nothing. The edgy Bartoli is an absolute winner, an extraordinary stylist. In many ways his palmares aren’t in correspondence with his class, but he’s been fighting his doubting nature for his entire career. He suffered many fractures and physical discomforts because of several crashes, but he never was a champion in dealing with pain. Because of that, he didn’t get to show his talent often enough. But if he did, Bartoli did it in a devastating manner. Like in the Tour of Flanders of 1996, where he rode solo to the finish after attacking on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Or in 1997, when he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in sub-zero circumstances and with an unseen dominance.

Strangely, the 2-time winner of the World Cup has never really joined the absolute stardom in his home country. He’s said to be egocentric, and that’s also the reason why he wasn’t appointed for the Italian national team on last two world championships. Bartoli answered to this injustice twice in the same manner: he won the Tour of Lombardy a week later.

1x Tour of Flanders, 2x Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2x Tour of Lombardy

Michele Bartoli at the 2001 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Courtesy Michele Bartoli.

19. Erik Zabel (5)

There are few races that are as cut out for Erik Zabel’s capacities as Milan-Sanremo is. The German won the Primavera 4 times; led out by a team that formed a well-oiled chain in the front of the peloton after the Poggio, making sure that no one could break its shackles. And then Erik Zabel would finish it off, with speed and agility; with force and punch. But Zabel has the ability to win more classics than Milan-Sanremo.

During his career, he evolved from a flexible sprinter to a powerhouse rider who effortlessly works the bigger gears. Zabel has a very strong character. He was trained in the former DDR, but didn’t do blindly what he was told and never considered himself as the billboard of a propagandist nation. Zabel built himself a top-career by combining his Spartan discipline with the Flemish training style of his DS Walter Godefroot. He used to be short-tempered and an extremely bad loser for a long time, but he seemed to have found more inner peace with every addition to his palmares.

4x Milan-Sanremo, 1x Paris-Tours

Zabel outsprints Fabio Baldato and wins his third Milan Sanremo in 2000.

20. Walter Godefroot (4)

For more than 35 years now has Walter Godefroot been busy in the world of professional cycling. That’s strange for a man who actually wanted to be a gymnast, was pushed in the saddle against his will, and always considered himself to be a wage-rider. Walter Godefroot didn’t love the bike. He saw training as an absolute torture, and he underwent both triumphs and tragedies almost without any emotion.

There was a time where he was riding alone to the finish in the Tour of Flanders once, but got a flat on the Muur and still lost the race. Two hours later, he was sitting in his good chair, watching a tv-program. Like nothing had happened. Walter Godefroot wasn’t a sentimental man, but he could go incredibly deep in a race, to the point where he had to vomit. That’s how he managed to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège as a sprinter, a race that absolutely wasn’t suited for a man with his capacities, but where he managed to finish 5 times within the top 5.

But Godefroot was much more than “just” a sprinter. He got a kick from rolling over the cobbles in Paris-Roubaix. That he won that race only once because of bad luck is about the only thing that he regrets in his great career.

2x Tour of Flanders, 1x Paris-Roubaix, 1x Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Godefroot and Moser on the Koppenberg.
Courtesy Big Twin Cycling.

This article originally appeared in the Sport Magazine Cycling Special. Translation by Jan Janssens.

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