10. Fausto Coppi
Cycling's history is one full of brilliant performances, tragic stories, brave heroes, and scandalous villains. With more than 100 years of collective experience telling the tales of two wheels, the VeloNews staff has seen the best and worst of bike racing up close. In 2013, we charged our editors with compiling their own best-of lists across a number of categories. Through a series of votes set around our sometimes contentious, often loud editorial table, we narrowed the first of these lists down to Velo's Top 10 Climbers of All Time. There are certainly deserving riders left off the final list — just as there are riders included here that some may question. No best-of list comes without some level of controversy. Far be it from us, however, to shy away from a little controversy. The greatest of all time? Fausto Coppi would probably tell you so. Even his greatest rival, Gino Bartali, couldn’t help but shower Coppi with praise: “On a bike, Fausto was like a god. When we got off he was a mortal, but when he pedaled he was supernatural. His suppleness, his form, this plasticity in motion constituted a complete spectacle. It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm of so many to see him in action.”
Coppi’s crowning achievement in the mountains came at the 1949 Giro d’Italia. In a 254-kilometer monster of a stage that would take the riders over five Cat. 1 climbs — the Maddalena, Vars, Izoard, Montgenevre, and Sestriere — Coppi attacked half way up the first. Why not?
There were 192 kilometers left, some eight hours in which Coppi stamped his authority over everyone and everything, including Bartali, his rival and countryman. Eleven minutes, 52 seconds after the stage winner rolled over the line that day, Bartali grimly came through as Coppi stood on the podium.
Tall, rather frail looking, one of the greatest cyclists of all time, as dominant in the mountains as anyone in history, “Il Campionissimo” won the Giro d’Italia five times, the Tour de France twice, and was world champion in 1953. Photo: AFP
9. Ottavio Bottecchia
He was born into poverty — a working class life of illiteracy. He found the bike out of necessity, using it to carry supplies to the front lines in World War I, and escape Austrian prisoner-of-war camps on three separate occasions.
And then cycling came to Ottavio Bottecchia, taking him from a life as a mason at the age of 27.
He learned to read and write in Italian; then he learned to ride a bike, and 10 French words. He let his legs do the rest of the talking.
In 1924, Bottecchia became the first rider to lead the Tour de France from beginning to end, while dominating both stages in the Pyrénées.
Indeed, the Pyrénées came to be Botecchia’s playground. In 1925, en route to another Tour victory, there was one horrendous stage in the border range, from Luchon to Perpignan, of 323 kilometers. Rain brought mud; mud brought out the best in the Italian. He again distanced all of his rivals by so much time that he needed only to relax until the final stage, which he won for good measure (he did the same the previous year).
Sadly, mysteriously, by 1927, Bottechia was dead, found in a roadside ditch in northern Italy while he was training for the Tour. Rumors have swirled since then, but nothing has ever been proved; to make matters more mysterious, his brother was found dead on the same roadside two years later. Photo: AFP
8. Lance Armstrong
Now we know. We know that Armstrong was doping during all of those stunning performances in the Alps and Pyrénées of the Tour de France. We know he was operating on synthetic jet fuel that took any natural gifts he had and turned them into supernatural spectacles. But, if we believe him, so, too, were all of his rivals. If Marco Pantani makes this list for his climbing panache, Armstrong makes it for his precise application of power. Upon his return to cycling after cancer, Armstrong developed a high-cadence, fury-of-legs pedaling style that baffled his opponents, and left them in his wake. He was as meticulous about his equipment choices — from gear ratios to lightweight materials — as he was about his need for control. That control came in the form of a dominating team that would methodically ratchet up the pace in the high mountains until nearly everyone was distanced. Armstrong's performances at the Tour were once legendary — from his duel in 2000 with Pantani on Mont Ventoux and “the gift” he granted him at the line, to “the look” he gave Jan Ullrich on l’Alpe d’Huez in 2001, to his comeback assault after hooking his bar in the strap of a musette bag on Luz Ardiden in 2003. Of course, each of those performances is now forever tainted by his admission to doping. But they will live on in our memories forever, as emphatic demonstrations of Armstrong's legendary climbing prowess. Photo: Joel Saget | AFP
7. Alberto Contador
If you’ve been watching cycling for the past decade, you’ve seen two versions of Alberto Contador. Both versions love to take flight in the mountains, but only one has been able to so freely soar above all others. In the days when, it is safe to assume, he was battling against a peloton of dopers, against those who were using artificial means to enhance natural abilities, Contador was virtually unrivaled when the road slanted skyward. Searing accelerations were followed by consistent, nearly incomprehensible speed. If anyone — think Michael Rasmussen at the 2007 Tour de France — was capable of clinging to the Spaniard’s rear wheel, a subsequent barrage of lightning would surely follow. Of course, it’s possible that this ability was not just a function of natural talent but also a result of what coursed through his blood. Nevertheless, “El Pistolero’s” physique, his mentality, his penchant for climbing made him unstoppable. He is one of only five riders to have claimed each of the three grand tours, often using his superior climbing skills to distance all comers. He has won on the feared Anglirú. He has taken victory atop Plateau de Beille. He crushed the competition on Mount Etna. Since his suspension for testing positive for clenbuterol, Contador is a different rider. There is no better example of that than the 2013 Tour de France. Still, for years now, his status as the untouchable man of the mountains has been tarnished. No longer can he bolt from the remains of the world’s best climbers; still, he tries. No longer do his attacks have the same pop; yet, he gives it a go. His victories are fewer and farther between; nevertheless, he is feared and respected as one of the most dangerous riders in the world. Photo: Joel Saget | AFP
6. Andy Hampsten
You’ve likely seen the poster: a snow-covered Andy Hampsten grinding his way over the Passo di Gavia, his tires snaking a thin ribbon of black into the white asphalt, his eyewear more ski goggles than sunglasses. His wins were numerous, but Hampsten cemented his legend on a single day: Stage 14, Giro d’Italia, 1988. A mere 120 kilometers from Chiesa Valmalenco to Bormio. When many others could ride no further given the diabolical change in conditions — some having to be cut from their frozen kits — the North Dakotan turned Coloradan put in a sensational performance alongside Dutchman Erik Breukink to capture the lead of the Giro (he didn’t win the stage). He had dealt with such conditions before, in his adopted home state, and though he may have looked like a boy, he proved he was a true strongman. The first to attack the climb, Johan Van der Velde, eventually finished more than 45 minutes back. Hampsten went on to solidify his lead, and take the maglia rosa, the first and only by an American man in the race’s prestigious and lengthy history. He would claim two Tour of Switzerland titles, and a stage at Alpe d’Huez in 1992, but would never repeat his grand tour title. Photo: Cor Vos | VeloNews.com
5. Luis "Lucho" Herrera
Every once in a while, a cyclist follows a rags-to-riches trajectory that captivates a nation. The Colombian Luis Herrera was one such rider, a precursor to his modern-day equivalent Nairo Quintana. Born into poverty, his natural talent bolstered by the constant climbing and high altitude of his home country mountains, “Lucho” initially caught the eye of the world at the Coors Classic in Colorado. But it was in his debut performance at the Tour de France in 1984 during which he planted the flag of Colombia squarely among the sunflowers of a July summer. When all eyes looked toward the brewing duel between Bernard Hinault and his former understudy Laurent Fignon on l’Alpe d’Huez, Herrera glided away. His victory on the stage made him an instant national hero. He received a call from the president of Colombia that evening, congratulating him on the win — the first in Tour history by an amateur and a Colombian — and the honor he brought to the nation. Two more stage victories at the Tour came in 1985. Both came in mountain stages, of course. A third was his for the taking; instead, he gifted it to compatriot Fabio Parra. Herrera became a more complete rider as his career continued on, so much so that he won the Vuelta a España in 1987, besting Fignon and Pedro Delgado in the process. He then scared eventual winner Stephen Roche at the Tour with his climbing prowess. “When Herrera wants to go, there’s nothing any of the rest of us can do about it. On the climbs, he’s in a class of his own,” Roche said. Unfortunately, Herrera never had a strong team to support him. Regardless, he took his second king of the mountains jersey in 1987 and fifth overall at Le Grand Boucle. Photo: AFP
4. Marco Pantani
He was doping. He was artificially enhanced. He was not unique in that regard among his peers in the peloton. And though drugs may have coursed through his veins, nothing he could have taken would have created potential, flamboyance, and panache in the quantities that Pantani displayed. At the 1994 Giro, as a neo-pro climbing specialist, he did what any 125-pound climbing specialist would hope to do on the world’s stage: he attacked with fury. He rode away from the pink jersey-clad Evgeni Berzin, Claudio Chiappucci, and the seemingly invincible Miguel Indurain, among others, to claim the first monster mountain stage that year. It was a just a hint of things to come. The next and biggest mountain stage included the 48 hairpins of the Stelvio, the ultra-steep Mortirolo, and a final grind up Valico di San Cristina. It would be a seven-hour day in the saddle. Pantani would cruise from the Mortirolo all the way to the line. He clawed to second on GC, ahead of Indurain, and remained there through the finish in Milan. At his first Tour, he claimed he was there “only for familiarity.” But you didn’t keep a mountain goat from champing at the bit. He attacked on the first big climb in the Pyrénées, nearly taking the stage; he was outdone by an on-form Indurain. So, he attacked the very next day, taking three minutes on the Spaniard. A few days later, L’Alpe d’Huez loomed, and Pantani pounced, taking even more time. It wasn’t until the next year, however, that “Il Pirata” took his first of eight career stage wins at the Tour. Pantani was called a tragic hero, a genius even. He would win the Giro-Tour double in 1998. The following year, he was embroiled in EPO controversy. His audacity in the mountains from then on came in fits and spurts, but he never could return to the summit of the cycling world. His climb to the top was swift; his death due to cocaine overdose in a hotel, alone, at 34, was even swifter. Photo: Patrick Kovarik | AFP
3. Federico Bahamontes
He was timid in a pack, often drifting from the back of the peloton on flat stages. He was frightened by even the mildest of descents. He was eccentric and erratic, speaking in the third person about himself, abandoning races on a whim.
Federico Bahamontes had one weapon: he could soar in the mountains. In 1958, the “Eagle of Toledo” met his match in the “Angel of the Mountains,” Charly Gaul. Still, he won two stages at the Tour de France that year.
Then, the improbable occurred. After joining the squad of the aging Fausto Coppi in 1959, Bahamontes became a complete rider. He found himself in breakaways. He passed on chasing mountain points so that he could win summit finishes. And he out-climbed everyone, even beating Gaul by almost a minute and a half in a 12.5-kilometer time trial.
Bahamontes became the first Spaniard to win the Tour de France that year and he was the King of the Mountain, a feat he repeated five more times at the Tour. Photo: AFP
2. Charly Gaul
There are two things that Luxembourg does not have: high mountains and a deep pool of cycling talent. Nevertheless, in the days of national teams, Luxembourger Charly Gaul rode above the din of team politics to become one of the defining climbers of his generation.
Give Gaul a cold, wet, snowy day in the mountains and he was untouchable. If the weather was the opposite, so too was his form, as he often wilted into obscurity. He pioneered a high-cadence climbing technique that others could not comprehend, let alone imitate.
Because of his penchant for climbing, Gaul focused almost exclusively on the tours of France and Italy. At the 1956 Giro, he erased a 16-minute margin to race leader Pasquale Fornara in a single, 14-kilometer climb to the summit of Monte Bondone. As the snow began to fall, and temperatures began to plummet, riders fell by the wayside — some, literally, into roadside ditches. In the final four kilometers he was all alone; by the finish he was in the lead. Though he looked unscathed on the bike, he later needed to be cut from his jersey; he confessed he didn’t remember the last three kilometers of the climb. An instant legend. The “Angel of the Mountains.” Photo: AFP
1. Lucien Van Impe
He just wanted to be king. Lucien Van Impe may have won the Tour de France in 1976, but it came on the back of his efforts to claim the king of the mountains title he so loved. It was a title he would win six times at the Tour, tying him for the all-time mark with Federico Bahamontes. Could he have grabbed more? Van Impe said that out of respect for the man who he credited with launching his professional career, he stopped at six. The Belgian never showed more ambition than when he was riding for the jersey he felt best fit his slim shoulders. That’s not to say he repeatedly failed to have high placings. In fact, Van Impe did much the opposite, taking six top-five results in addition to that lone grand tour victory. His season, even his life, revolved around climbing with the gods come July. He would start his season slowly, forgoing the dangerous spring races to hone in on Alpine glory. Six times the king. Van Impe the Tour king came home in 1976 to his newly painted house — it was a translucent yellow, obscuring a layer of white with red spots. Photo: AFP
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