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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