Friday Group Ride #42

Fausto Coppi had a big schnoz. I like to think it helped him cut through the wind. His hair was notoriously neat, Brylcreemed left and right, with a razor sharp part. No wind would take purchase there. He had a strange barrel chest that housed steam engine lungs, a narrow, almost feminine waist, and a pair of bird legs you would hardly believe could generate the power that made Coppi ‘il campionissimo,’ nearly untouchable on the road between 1949 and 1952, and the unquestioned top cyclist on this big blue marble in many of the preceding and successive years as well.

If one were to take the palmares of the top five or six riders in history and set them side-by-side, it would be hard not to conclude that Eddy Merckx is number one. In this exercise, Coppi would drift down the standings somwhere between Hinault and Anquetil. But this is the stuff of paper and statistics and apples and oranges and oddly colored fish on impossible bicycles. It’s nonsense.

Coppi won the Giro d’ Italia in 1940 and set the Hour Record in ’42. He then went off to war in North Africa where he was taken prisoner and lived in a POW camp. He didn’t race again, properly, until ’46, three seasons later. That year he won Milan – San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, the Grand Prix des Nations, the Giro della Romagna and three stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the overall again in ’47. Thereafter, he won everything in front of him, Spring Classics, Grand Tours, a World Championship. He was a climber of legendary ability, his signature move being to attack on a hard climb, distance the field and finish minutes before the next rider, alone, as they say, in photo.

It is difficult to separate Coppi from the history of Italy at that time or, for that matter, from the history of professional bicycling. While he, along with great rival Gino Bartali, gave Italians something to cheer about in the bleak post-war years, he also revolutionized bike racing, developing new standards for nutrition, rest, recovery, and preparation. He was a great contributor to modern team tactics at a time when the Grand Tours were just beginning to embrace the notion of competing teams rather than individual cyclists.

I would argue that, given back those three seasons during WWII, and without the toll of disease and ill-nutrition that POW camps and wartime rationing imposed on him, he would have set a standard that Merckx would have strained to see, even from his lofty perch.

For these reasons and many others, Coppi is my favorite cyclist of all time. Though I never saw him race, perhaps even BECAUSE I never saw him race, Coppi represents the absolute apex of what it means to be a PRO cyclist. He is a man who really did transcend himself, both athletically and culturally. With Coppi there are myths and legends, because we don’t always have the concrete language to describe the things he achieved.

I could go on and on, but you’ve read all this before by other people’s hands.

This week’s Group Ride seeks to leave behind the troubling times of our current top cyclists and would-be legends. What we want to know is: Who is your favorite cyclist of all time, and why?

Rhapsodize, my friends. Wax poetic.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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20 comments

  1. Anthony DeLorenzo

    My favorite rider would have to be Sean Kelly. The quintessential hard man. One of the best classics riders but he could (and did) do it all.

    Honorable mention to Steve Bauer, my idol while growing up as a young Canadian racer. I’ll never forget the days he wore yellow.

  2. Johnny Walker Black and Red

    My favorite cyclist in my short lifetime so far is Jens Voigt. He gives it up for the team. A workhorse who can win on his own, a good guy, a family man, tough as woodpecker lips, and a guy i’d like to have a beer or 2 with if i had the chance.

    And that is probably the best opening sentence to any RKP post i have read so far.

  3. Alex

    @ Anthony DeLorenzo: I had the pleasure to meet and have a chat with Sean Kelly in Luchon during this year´s TdF. He sat beside our table to have a pizza and was extremelly friendly and good humoured, taking pics and giving autographs with a smile on the face. Incredible guy and indeed the definition of tough cyclist, if ever there was one.

    Back to the topic, I´m a big fan of Charly Gaul and Hugo Koblet. I like climbers and these guys could fly up a hill. Though I´ve not lived to see them racing (I´m only 40…), I marvel at the pics and feats of these incredibly talented, strong and hard racers.

    Gaul had this fragile side of him showing through glimpses of his personality, like a kid or something. But at the same time he was amazingly tough. I guess that´s where his nickname ‘Angel of Mountains’ came from, the pure grace and of a kid coupled with the energy and power of a superhuman creature. Of course, also from his natural talent to climb a mountain…

    But in all honesty I admire many others, Fausto and Merckx and Lance and Kelly and so many others, I guess their diversity and humanity makes cycling colourful and rich. It´s hard not to like these guys and admire them in their multiple dimensions!

  4. James

    Wow, what a tough question! There are so many to choose from. I guess my favorite would have to be Andy Hampsten. He was a great teammate on whatever teams he rode on both as a domestique and as the “number 1″. His Giro victory all of those years ago was the stuff of legend. Although I have never met the man I am told he is one of the nicest people on our planet.

    My favorite story about Andy was when he was very young. A friend of mine used to race in and around Madison, Wisconsin and they had the usual Wednesday evening criterium training races in an industrial area. One night my friend is riding and some “skinny kid who looked about 12 years old” took a flyer and was never seen again until he lapped the field. My friend being totally amazed asked the others just who was that guy? They said it was Andy and he had just started hanging around the Yellow Jersey bike shop. My friend wasn’t surprised when Andy showed up in the Tour de France riding alongside Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond a few years later!

  5. dacrizzow

    Vino! completely unpredictable. could go for a breakaway at mile 2 on the third stage. and doesn’t stop racing until the end. will still shift the top ten around until it’s all said and done in Paris.

  6. todd k

    One favorite rider for me is Rik Van Steenbergen, though it is likely for a silly reason that I say this.

    I could simply reference his palmares, which reflected successes in the races I most favor: World Champion (3x) , Ronde van Vlaanderen (2x), Paris–Roubaix (2x), Flèche Wallonne (2x), Paris–Brussels, Milan – San Remo.

    I could wax poetic that because he was from an earlier time when riders had to race throughout the year both on the road and on the track just in hopes of making enough money to make ends meet. And he raced a ton throughout the entire calendar year and this appeals to my sense of what a tough man cyclist embodies and particularly because I have the attention span of a gnat I find that admirable.

    I could say that I like the fact that though he raced in the grand tours, and won many stages while doing so, the notion that he never really seemed bothered to try to focus his efforts into being GC rider makes him a less obvious choice, and I like less obvious choices, particularly in this day an age where the Tour is overly emphasized.

    I could also talk how he is a symbolic favorite of mine because he had his share of less than savory moments in and out of cycling and that his story underscores the irony at play in how we often choose to remember our sport’s history when we recall gallant honorably fought victories while we downplay or turn a blind eye to the debauchery that may be at work just below the surface.

    But really, the reason I favor him has more to do with a photo I saw once in Cycling’s Golden Age. In the photo he is off his bike standing on the roadside holding two wheels looking down the road. He has a really intense, fierce, almost desperate look on his face as though he is going to hurl those wheels at some competitor. I have no idea what he is doing in that photo. Or what he is going to do. Or even if it matters if he does anything. It kind of looks like he is trying to tighten his spoke by hand. I often wonder why he is not trying to hop on the bike behind him and I like to think it is because he is too crazed to think reasonably. In that photo Rik Van Steenbergen symbolizes to me a rider consumed by intensity. For whatever reason that notion of intensity seems a very important and necessary component of our sport.

  7. michael

    Laurent Fignon – because he was the last of the truly great all-around riders who could win from March to October. If Philippe Gilbert had been born 20 years earlier he and Fignon would have been fighting mano y mano year round.

    Moreno Argentin aka Mr Flat back – the most graceful, fluid rider I have ever seen. He was an absolute joy to watch. David Millar is the modern day rider who reminds me of him most.

    Jacky Durand – Mr. Suicide break, hopelessly outmatched and outmuscled 99% of the time. a pro on guts and determination alone, not on physiological talent. Direct descendant these days is Mr. Voeckler.

  8. David A

    I think one of my fav racers would have to be Frans Verbeek one of the real Flemish hardmen. Having lived and raced in East Flanders for awhile I heard the stories of his toughness. When he came back from stopping Pro racing and began the painful struggle back he could not even finsh 1 round of a pro kermis. He would change and ride another 4 hours and ride the next days race where he might do 2 rounds, and again the punishing rides back to top form. He put fenders on his bike and rode everyday all winter long…sleet, snow, ice cold rain all day long sometimes. What a will of iron!!! Well the rest is history if Merckx wasnt at the race, Verbeek won. I like the story about the time when he was training with a group of Pros and the pace went up and Verbeek began to half-wheel them, then sat up with his hands off the bars and rode away from everyone!!!

  9. sophrosune

    I rooted vainly year after year for Tony Rominger during the Indurain era at the TdF. I liked the surface of his style: the Mapei kit, the Colnago bikes, the bike cap. On my own rides, my mental image of myself (which btw in reality was more akin to Dick Butkus) was that of Rominger. Can’t fully explain it, but he looked cool to me.

  10. Souleur

    What a question, I mean, to Souleur its like asking ‘whose your favorite child daddy?’ For me, and my love of all things cycling, I must consider this carefully, as I have.

    And in that I defer to mentioning the many I consider ‘Giants’ of our sport.

    My nearest and dearest will remain unnamed for completely partial reasons, and the second has been named in my humble opinion. Others, have been named already, Charly Gaul who is so worthy of our consideration in history that he defined the word ‘climber’ and ‘spinner’, but also sadly defined in his exploits of dope and how it sent him into the depths of depression and hermitism that literally isolated him for years upon years. Jens, is a worthy contender, but small in so many other ways in comparison. Sean Kelly, worthy in just watching him dig himself into depths of pain and suffering that none of us would even recognize. Laurent Fignon, worthy for his life and love of a passion that he exercised such a great example of. And of course Eddy, the cannible, seems a given.

    So, since those have been mentioned, if I may inject a couple into the conversation for consideration.

    One, Big Mig. 5 time Tour winner, spaniard, defined an overall GC’r for a generation. An ambassador of that generation that made pinarello and banesto cool, not to mention a TT position on a steel bike w/campagnolo goodies that made me as a young rider inspired. And the least of which, Migs choice of eyewear and just the way he would don his cycling hat was quinessential ‘cycling’ and exuded ‘PRO’ for years to come. And to a lesser, yet humble greater, was his ability to lead as THE GC’r, yet represent kindness, generosity and just goodness to his fellow riders in the eschalon. They had a reverence for him in that, and for that, I choose him.

    Others that deserve mention and for which could in my minds eye make a case as ‘greatest’ is, yes, Pantani, il Pirata. Rest in peace and celeste salute.

    And yes, one must recognize Lance as having an impression, for lesser or more, on cycling. We wouldn’t be objective otherwise fella’s.

    The Badger, Bernard Hinault, 5 time winner, and impressive leader to this day in the TdF, thank you my friend.

    Alfredo Binda, Felice Gimondi, Louison Bobet, Checco Moser, Rik Van Looy all Giants in history that we should recognize.

    For them all, today I ride for you.

  11. Lachlan

    Greg Lemond, for one very simple reason – his 1989 Tour made me a cyclist.

    I can appreciate others style, or tactics, or talent, but no one else made me care so much : o )

  12. Dan O

    Picking just one cyclist is tough and my vote may change depending on the day asked. For today, I’ll throw a monkey wrench into the Red Kite Prayer gear box and suggest a mountain biker. That mountain biker would be John Tomac.

    During the mountain bike racing boom of the ’90s, Tomac was impressive as hell – winning cross-country and downhill races – as well road racing for Team 7-11 and Motorola. His battles with Ned Overend (another legend) were epic. Tomac’s decending skills changed the way XC was raced.

    The photos of Tomac racing the drop bar factory Yeti were bad ass and still a cool refection of that period. The ’90s were the golden age of XC racing for sure.

    On top of all that, every interview I’d heard or read with Tomac, he comes across the total down to earth, normal guy. An icon for the sport of cycling – road, dirt, whatever the surface.

  13. Bikelink

    Don’t have a favorite cyclist, I’m (almost) afraid to admit. I’m not that familiar with the riders prior to the ‘current’ era (I’m 40, too). I’d have to say #1) someone in the pre-epo era, and #2) a classics rider (though sure amphetamines help with those one day races)…(like Robot, it seems easier to me to pick someone I haven’t seen race during my life). The grand tours just seem to have so little day to day drama (sure drama *some* days). I’ll pick a fictional character, the racer in “The Rider.” Started riding too late in life, lives for racing, doesn’t win the race, will come back another day to live and die on the bike for a day.


  14. Author
    Robot

    @All – Well, this was an interesting exercise. Some really good and interesting answers. Two things surprised me. First, no Lance. I thought SOMEONE would brave the storm and pick the Texan. But, no.

    Second, only Soleur mentioned Hinault, and then, only in a list. The Badger is, for sure, a prick, but he was a prick with real panache, real fire, and a big hunger for the attack. He might be second on my list. He’d be vying for that spot with Sean Kelly.

    Kelly, to me, is the opposite of Coppi. If Coppi was smooth and reserved and preternaturally talented, Kelly was the epitome of the hard working pro. Love his style. Love his sprint. Love his long, long seasons filled with race-winning effort.

  15. Dale

    Greg LeMond. As a cyclist not a retired cyclist, because as a retired cyclist he’s a train wreck. He wasn’t the first American to ride in the Tour but he absolutely controlled the race for years. LeMond, with class, let Hinault win in ’85 because he was riding in support. The following year the Badger broke his promise to ride in support of LeMond by taking a big race lead, Greg eventually torched him. And how about the year he won the Tour on the last day in a TT just edging Fignon. Remember that hideous John Tesh music that CBS played during coverage back then? Good Times.

  16. J

    Gino Bartali. Amazing racer, but even better human. To risk one’s very life to spirit Jews out of Italy, right under the Nazis noses? No greater love, than to lay down one’s life for his fellow man.

  17. David A

    @Robot-I read an account of Sean Kelly crashing and splitting his eyebrow or forehead open. He told the medic to clean it out and sew it up on the spot with no numbing agent or pain killer what so ever, and thats what he did. I also remember another PRO having leg pain because of the efforts and difficulty of the parcour in a Tour, (a team mate) he said that Kelly had crashed and taken most of the skin off his back from road rash, but would turn the light out and sleep lkie a baby everynight. He said it made him ashamed that he had even mentioned the leg pain!!! Hard-core PRO

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