The Improbability of the ‘Complete Rider’

Over the weekend, Andrew Hood of VeloNews posited that the upcoming year could be the one for Fabian Cancellara to win the Tour de France. Hood’s logic is that with the emphasis on the individual time trial and the de-emphasis of summit finishes, Cancellara, the best time trialist of our generation (ever?), who can be a fairly effective climber, could, in the fashion of Miguel Indurain, vanquish a Grande Boucle of the kind we shall see in 2012. Of course, being teammates to the brothers Schleck makes this line of reasoning a non-starter; however, Hood is not the only one who thinks that Cancellara could contend for the final malliot jaune.

For what little it’s worth, I wholly agree with Mr. Hood’s assessment and nominate Cancellara as the most compete rider of the last 10 years, may be more.

He can win on most any terrain and type of race.  The diversity of his wins is unmatched by any rider in the current pro peloton.  His time trial ability is unquestionable, despite Tony Martin having the upper hand this year. He can win one-day classics on cobbles and gravel (Roubaix, Flanders, E3, Eroica). He can win where sprinters typically prevail (Milan-San Remo, flat Tour stages), and in 2011, nearly beat the sprinters on their own terms with a second at MSR, a fourth (third??) at this year’s Copenhagen Worlds, and fourth on the Champs Elysee.  He can win in the one week stage races with significant climbing (Tour de Suisse, Tirreno-Adriatico).

On Monday, Bernard Hinault celebrated his 57th birthday, and Cyclingnews paid tribute by asking if “The Badger” was the greatest of them all.  Hinault is the last rider to win in a Grand Tour, a Cobbled Classic, an Ardennes Classic and a World Championship, laying the foundation for his claim to greatness.  It also makes him the last of the complete riders, who could ride, and win, from late winter through the spring and summer into the fall in any kind of race.

Arguably, only Cancellara has come closest to matching Hinault’s swath of victories, and even he falls well short, at least so far.  Why is it that in the past 25 years since Hinault’s retirement no other rider has been able to truly take on the complete rider mantle?

The answer may lie in a strange irony.  Fitness.

Specifically, the idea that today’s pro cyclist is a fitter, stronger, more precisely honed machine than ever before.

When Francesco Moser took on the Hour record in 1984 he opened the flood gates to whole new method of scientific based training that was elevated by Greg LeMond and made the indispensable standard by Lance Armstrong.  Riders today, and not just the pros, but even we weekend warriors, can train to such specific peaks in ultimate fitness so as to time them for pre-determined goals.  To be competitive at any race on the calendar requires riders to be within one of their peak fitness windows.

The science behind this training also tells us that humans can only achieve these sustained performance peaks for a few weeks at time only two, may be three times a year at most.

While sports medicine was around in Hinault’s day, it was rudimentary by today’s standard.  It would be fascinating to look back and know whether Hinault and his cohorts raced in a perpetual state of over training or under training.  Ignorance being bliss, they raced on for nine months of the year simply because they had no reason to do otherwise.

Today, Cancellara and every other rider in the pro peloton, knows from the outset that defining specific goals necessarily requires sacrificing others.  With riders so specialized in a particular style of racing, the odds simply don’t encourage Cancellara to sacrifice the spring for the summer.

Much ballyhoo has been made on both sides of the argument for and against banning radios to improve racing.  But, if what we yearn for is a return to the halcyon days of the complete rider, then instead of banning radios, we should ban practitioners of sports medicine, nutritionists, physiotherapists and osteopaths, along with power meters, heart rate monitors and the rest.

Or, we can simply accept progress for what it is and revel in the moment that we are in, and look forward to what the future has in store, while we recall the greatness of what once was.


Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Sidamo

    Hmm, not sure. Martin has the upper hand in TTs at the moment and he can also climb better than Cancellara, so if Hood’s logic is right, Martin is the greater threat, especially as he’s not hogtied by having to look after the Schlecks.

    On another note, which is more likely; Cancellara (Worlds, Cobbles, Ardennes) wins a GT to become most complete rider of generation, or Cadel (Worlds, Ardennes, GT) wins a Cobbles?

  2. Sidamo


    Wiggins. Can TT pretty close to both Martin & Cancellara and can climb better than both.
    Cadel. Can climb better than any of the others and can TT as well as them in the latter stages of the Tour.

  3. Wielsucker

    I’d say Hushovd is similarly complete. A great finisher in hard races, very good sprinter otherwise, climbs well and TTs well (not in same league though).

    Cancellara thinks a sprint is just a short TT and mucks it up usually. Of course when he pulls off the 800m Nijdam escape it’s pretty cool.

    Hinault would kill and eat them all. Total badass.

  4. Chris

    The guys listed in the comment are great riders, no question, and fairly ‘complete’ (Mayhaps not Contador – GT GC all the way).
    Cancellara is the focus of article because he wins. Wiggins, Contador? Yeh, okay, but Flanders, MSR, Roubaix, WC TT, Tour stages? Not placing high, winning.
    @Sidamo: Good point on Evans. Doubt he’ll even race a cobbled classic seriously until he’s past his peak, and then what’s the point if we’re talking about winning? Same as for Fabien and GTs. Not going to happen.
    But then, off season is for talking crap about maybes and what ifs. Fun stuff.

  5. TSH

    Close to the best piece I’ve ever read on this (or RKP) blog. Less ‘Look, I’m mates with/ride with x x x’ and more of this. Chape.

  6. Dan Haley

    You’re probably right on with the scientific fitness and training element.

    Is it possible, too, that some of the historic greats benefited from a road racing culture that more often paid deference to the ‘patrons’? The Hinault/LeMond TdF duels come to mind.

    Was there more pressure on ‘supporting’ riders not to challenge the sport’s larger figures?

  7. Alex

    So much more exciting, and better racing, when riders worked and raced all year long.
    “they raced on for nine months of the year simply because they had no reason to do otherwise.” True, they were bicycle racers, not just TdF winners (and whiners).

  8. CycloSportif

    The first thought that came to my mind while reading the “fitness” difference was that the same distinction is often drawn between Cat 3’s and Cat 1/2’s. Cat 3’s are often looking to upgrade, and Cat 3 races are total chaos and luck with a winner rarely determined by dominating strength. A Cat 3 racer must be fit enough to roll the dice many times over a season no matter the course to get multiple podiums and points – that is success. A Cat 1/2 “has arrived” and usually wants to focus peak fitness on a few races, any one of which would be glory – a different success. Not that Hinault should be compared to the Cat 3’s (or that Padraig is telling us all to race/train like one), but an interesting note created the current sponsorship-driven goals versus those when Hinault (and all greats before him) raced.

  9. Simon

    Surely if we want a return to the days of the complete rider then we should be looking at ways of getting riders racing all year round and meaning it, rather than building their season around July.

    Sean Kelly did pretty well as a complete rider too – Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, MSR, etc, not terrible against the clock and more often there or thereabouts in a bunch sprint – 3 green jerseys?

    I reckon Cadel could win a cobble – he’s done Fleche Wallonne and that stage win on the Strade Bianchi had classics written all over it. Not so sure about Cancellara suddenly turning into a climbing monster and holding onto the rest of his talent – kind of get the feeling he would be running like a highly-strung machine – fine when it all goes perfectly but losing the genius that appears when he unleashes the animal.

  10. CAT4Fodder

    Cadel could (should) have been a Classics rider. However, given he is from Australia, and given he knows what is going to garner him the most in endorsements, and prestige in the home country, he has always been targeting the TdF.

    I do not blame him, it is a fact of cycling outside of the Classics countries (Belgium, France, Netherlands, and Denmark).

    As for the training thing, I am somewhat saddened by the “targeted” training which has even entered into the lowliest of CAT 4/5 racers here in the States. It does result in the best change for a result during the year, but it means a loss of the everyday racer. I am guilty myself of getting caught into this approach, but it is sad when in certain races, 3/4 of the riders are not even really there to compete to the end, but just using it as a “training” race.

  11. Tricky Dicky

    On Cadel’s ability on the cobbles, don’t forget he finished in the front group in stage 3 of the Tour de France in 2010 when it finished in Arenburg (with Thor, Fabian, Geraint, Ryder & a sh*t-scared but lucky Andy S). I agree with others who reckon Evans is actually the most complete rider of his generation. He could win a Flanders or a PR, given the right luck and preparation. I suppose his sprint is a bit average unless it is a war of attrition, but he wins when really wants it (see Tour stage 4 and T/A stages). Don’t forget he was also the best MTB rider in the world for a while too. I absolutely hate to say it, but Valverde may be the guy who comes closest. I suppose we’ll see next year.

  12. Lachlan

    Chris Boardman talks quite a bit about how he had a particular/narrow talent that he was able to stretch and optimise in order to achieve specific goals. And I think that’s the point here. RIders today can take their basic talents, clearly assess their strengths and push those very precisely to the max in order to hit specific weight/power/aerodynamic/endurance tagets on very specific calendar dates. No one doubts Hinault would be a devastatingly formidable rider today. But very few would argue he would win anything like the number or range of races he did in his time.

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