Posted in Cycle

The followers of Wiggle have spoken. We asked our 740,000 Facebook followers and 79,000 followers on Twitter who is world’s greatest cyclist of all time. Now we have the answer.

So, no point messing about with preambles – here is your top ten of the greatest cyclists ever, ranked from your votes.

1. Eddie Merckx

By quite a long chalk, the most voted for cyclist as the greatest of all time is The Cannibal, Eddy Merckx. With an unequalled 11 Grand Tour wins, conquering all five Monuments, and three World Championships (plus a whole lot of other victories and feats to his name), Eddy is the most respected and probably most frequently quoted cyclist of all time.

Among his contemporaries he was more than just respected, he was feared – even by his teammates. In his book, Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal, Daniel Friebe interviewed Vittorio Adorni, who rode alongside Merckx at his zenith and revealed much about the intensity of his competitive edge: “Anquetil [once considered the greatest] appeared without warning, as silent and deadly as a dagger in the back. His pedal stroke was ‘soft’, ‘velvety’. He arrived with a murmur. He was gone with a whoosh.

“Here was the difference between ‘Master Jacques’ and Merckx… You heard Merkx. Felt him… Not the normal whirring of pedals and wheels but a thudding through the atmosphere.”

2. Lance Armstrong

Image courtesy of Wikicommons from user Hase.

To some he remains an icon while to others he’ll forever be a cheat, but whatever you think of Big Tex’s legacy and how he achieved it there’s little disagreement that what he created he also destroyed. He took professional cycling to a mainstream audience it had for too long failed to reach before undoing all he had helped it achieve. It’s a legacy some believe still taints the sport. But before being stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles and ousted from the sport’s pantheon, Lance inspired an entire generation of cyclists to take up life on two wheels (including one Geraint Thomas!). When you put that alongside his inarguably huge contribution to cancer charities, is he somewhat redeemed? Well, that’s up to you.

3. Beryl Burton

Image courtest of Wikicommons by Brian Townsley.

She won more than 90 domestic championships, held seven world titles, and set numerous national records, but her most iconic achievement is arguably her record for the 12-hour time-trial, which exceeded the men's record for two years. It was only surpassed by a female rider for the first time in 2017 – some 50 years later. The Leeds rider never turned professional, never had a formal coach, and yet many of her times remain beyond the reach of even pro riders on carbon bikes benefiting from much of today’s technology.

“I remember one day I rode to Hull and back, about 130 miles,” she once said. “I always made sure I was back in time to cook Charlie’s [her husband] dinner, and I stood for about three hours after that, ironing.” – not sure even Eddie Merckx could manage that. 

4. Marco Pantani

Image courtesy of Aldo Bolzan under Wikicommons licence

Take probably the greatest climber of all time, mix in a tragic end by alcohol and cocaine abuse, add police investigations, throw in rumours of mafia-related interference, and you have one of the most compelling stories in sport. The Pirate’s exceptional life has been told through myriad books and documentaries, but despite the controversies that surrounded him he remains revered for his achievements and natural charisma. One of the rock stars of his era, his attacking style and risk-everything approach is unlikely to be replicated, much like his achievements.

5. Miguel Induráin

Image courtest of Wikicommons by user ta_do.

At 6’1’’, and not slight of build, Big Mig’s moniker was certainly earned. The youngest rider ever to win the Spanish amateur national road championships, he would go on to be the only cyclist ever to win five Tours de France consecutively (Armstrong aside). Physically, Induráin was a different breed. Tests by the University of Ferrara found his resting heart beat was 28 BPM – less than one beat every two seconds; his lung capacity was 7.8 litres compared to the average six, and his blood took seven litres of oxygen around his body per minute, compared to the usual three to four. But despite his biological exceptionalism, he remained humble: “Merckx remains the greatest cyclist of all,” he once said. “He dared to strain his body to the extremes. When I was racing I thought: 'They are legends, I'm just Indurain.' I will never think I'm like Merckx or Hinault.”

6. Sean Kelly

Image courtest of Wikicommons by user Bontemps.

In a sport marked by exceptional toughness, it takes something truly special to standout as one of its toughest. During his career from 1977 to 1994, King Kelly won nine monument classics and 193 professional races while becoming known as a rider in possession of true grit. The Irishman worked as a bricklayer and helped out on his father’s farm before being offered his professional contract, incidentally while driving a tractor. It’s this hardened upbringing in rural Ireland that many credit as the source of his mental and physical fortitude as well as his nothing-to-lose mentality. A true all-rounder and an exceptional talent, Kelly easily deserves his place in the top ten.  

7. Marianne Vos

Image courtest of Wikicommons by user

The first of the active riders on the list, Marianne Vos continues to shine as one of the sport’s greats. In fact, her list of achievements is so long it has its own dedicated Wikipedia page. Not only has she dominated on the road, but her victories in cyclo-cross, track, and mountain bike set her apart as an exceptional talent. At 33, the Dutch cyclist’s career looks to have many years of further success ahead. A consummate professional and respected for her conduct off the bike just as much as her achievements on it, Marianne’s positive legacy is surely a welcome one.

8. Chris Froome

Image courtesy of Wikicommons by user Jaguar MENA.

In the battle of Froomey versus Wiggo, it’s Chris who emerges champion among Wiggle followers. The Kenyan-born, South African-educated British passport holder’s rivalry with the Belgium-born and London-raised Sir Bradley Wiggins lit many a fire under the coals of le Tour. But it was the sight of him running up Month Ventoux in the yellow jersey in 2016 that will stay in the minds of many when they hear his name. A climbing and time trial specialist who made ‘Osymetric’ a household name among cyclists, developed the ‘supertuck’, and gave awkward cyclists with sticky-out limbs everywhere some hope, Chris Froome remains a master of the sport.

9. Peter Sagan

Image courtesy of Wikicommons by user s.yuki

Currently the poster-boy of cycling, Peter Sagan has won fans and adoration for his showmanship, exuberance, and frankly odd moments that make him just as entertaining as he is successful. “I just like to say garbled nonsense…,” he once told an interviewer, “Cryptic is cool and it just adds to my mystique”. His off-the-bike antics certainly are cryptic, just like the time he wore a gladiator helmet while standing on a gym ball during lockdown for no reason. “For me cycling is a boring sport, and as a fan I only watch the last five kilometres,” he said in another of his headline-grabbing remarks. Did it hurt his popularity? Not a bit of it. One of the most naturally gifted cyclists on the tour he’ll likely remain one of its most popular.

10. Mark Cavendish & Fausto Coppi

Photo of Mark Cavendish: Mogens Engelund

Photo of Mark Cavendish: Valentino Petrelli

Tenth spot on our list is shared by The Manx Missile Mark Cavendish and The Heron Fausto Coppi. Both also shared a talent for the sprint, with Cavendish regarded as one of the best of all time. That’s where the similarities end, however. Indeed, Coppi probably had more in common with Sean Kelly, leaving school at the age of 13 and using the bike as a means to escape a tough life - out of the frying pan and into the fire, some might say. Cavendish, on the other hand, relatively cruised into life as a pro rider compared to Coppi’s hardened route to the big leagues. From the beginning of his career Cavendish turned heads (and probably left a lot of sore necks) with his ferocious sprinting ability. His aggressive style secured his fan favourite status even though his recent career has been dogged by illness. The Missile’s explosive power, however, could yet make a return.

Honourable mentions

Geraint Thomas

Being known by a single name is a sure sign of fame, but to be known by a single letter – that’s something else. G’s success on both road and track make for an extraordinary list of achievements, while his down-to-earth manner have ensured his popularity among cycling fans. Incidentally, Geraint told us in our Lunchtime Live interview earlier this year that his biggest inspiration was Lance Armstrong.

Sam Hill

Sam Hill’s legendary status on the full squish is unsurpassed. Being consistent in a sport where crashes and equipment failures happen almost every race is quite a feat, but Sam’s incredible skill and bravery have secured him a wealth of titles, including the past three UCI Enduro World Series overall wins, surely qualifying him for MTB GOAT status.

Bernard Hinault

Image courtesy of Wikicommons by Marcel Antonisse / Anefo. 

With 147 professional victories, and a frequent wearer of the yellow jersey, The Badger is revered as one of the great ‘patrons’ of professional cycling, exerting his influence on races both physically and with the power of his authority among other riders. Indeed, he once referred to himself as “a general”. “I could have been a warlord,” he told L’Equipe in 2003, “I would have waged war to win castles and land if I'd been born in the Middle Ages”. To this day he remains the last French winner of the Tour de France, but his impact on the sport is far from waning.

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Damien Whinnery's picture
Damien Whinnery
Published on: 14 Aug 2020

Fascinated by fitness, serious about sport, and joyous about the gym