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Cycling’s Twenty-One Greatest Climbers

BikeRaceInfo's Best Climbers: Riders 16–11

November 9 note: this has a work in progess. This week I've listed the final climbers, 5 - 1.

Riders are listed in reverse order. Rider number one will be the rider in our judgement, cycling's greatest ever climber.

Cycling's Greatest Climbers intro | Climbers 17–21 | Climbers 10–6 | Climbers 5–1 |

16. Alfredo Binda (1902–1986)

Alfredo Binda photo gallery

Alfredo Binda“You know, Champion, if this man from Varese comes to Italy, he’ll beat everyone,” said an unnerved Gaetano Belloni (winner 1920 Giro d’Italia) to Costante Girardengo (Italy’s first great champion).

And so he did. Though Alfredo Binda was born in Cittiglio, near Varese, Binda grew up in Nice, France.

It was after young Binda won the Nice-Mont Chauve Hill Climb in 1923, beating many of the era’s greats, that the world realized that an extraordinary talent had arrived and Belloni had made his worried comment to Girardengo. One newspaper’s headline after Binda’s hill climb victory: A Star is Born.

Binda possessed one of the most powerful engines in cycling history. He was a fearsome climber and won many sprints not because he was so quick. Binda would just overwhelm the competition with his endurance and power. He was the first rider to win the Giro d’Italia five times, a record equaled only by Fausto Coppi, but never bettered. He won twelve of the 1927 Giro’s 15 stages and in 1929, won eight consecutive stages. The Giro management was so afraid Binda would suffocate the 1930 Giro, he was paid the equivalent of the winner’s purse to stay home.

He was the first World Road Champion, taking the title in 1927, 1930 and 1932. He could also win single-day classics, including Milano-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia and Giro del Piemonte.

Binda raced professionally from 1922 to 1936.

Binda’s major accomplishments:

Alfredo Binda

15. Raymond Poulidor (1936– )

Raymond Poulidor photo gallery

Raymond Poulidor

Raymond Poulidor in 1962

Raymond Poulidor rode the Tour de France fourteen times, finishing second three times (Joop Zoetemelk came in second six times) and third five times, earning him the nickname “The Eternal Second”. He failed to finish only twice, 1968 and 1973.

Poulidor was a physically gifted racer, one of the best climbers of his era. But his racing acumen and drive to win did not match his body’s engine.

Poulidor’s career ran up against two of the greatest riders of all time. In his earlier years he competed against cycling’s supreme tactician and strategist, Jacques Anquetil (climber #18 on our list). Anquetil was absolutely determined that he would always beat Poulidor. Poulidor’s inability to win had the counter-intuitive effect of making the French public adore him. That the French loved Poulidor so much drove Anquetil crazy. He is surely France’s best-loved post-war racer.

In later years, it was Eddy Merckx whom Poulidor could not overcome.

Poulidor had a long career and at the final lap of the 1974 World Cycling Championships in Montreal, It was 38-year-old Poulidor who attacked on Mount Royal with Merckx quickly closing the gap. The sprint was a foregone conclusion, Merckx won and Poulidor was again second.

Poulidor raced professionally from 1960 to 1977.

Poulidor’s major accomplishments:

Raymond Poulidor

Raymond Poulidor (in yellow, at last) with Federico Bahamontes at the 2013 Tour de France. Photo ©Sirotti

14. Lucien van Impe (1946– )

Lucien van Impe photo gallery

Lucien van ImpeLucien van Impe once described himself as the last Belgian to win the Tour de France.

A natural climber, in addition to winning the 1976 Tour de France, van Impe won the Tour’s mountain classification six times, a feat equaled by Federico Bahamontes and exceeded only by Richard Virenque. Van Impe said he did not go for a seventh Tour KOM title out of reverence for his friend and mentor, Bahamontes. Van Impe was also twice winner of the mountains classification in the Giro d’Italia. Like Bahamontes, van Impe usually contented himself with racing for the Tour’s climber’s prize. But also like Bahamontes, he made a serious departure from his usual ambition.

The 1976 Tour was truly different from previous editions. From my The Story of the Tour de France: “This year there were five days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage seven and ending in stage eleven. Then there was a rest day before three very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was eight days in a row of mountains. If that weren't enough, stage twenty finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, five of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes.”

So, van Impe decided to race for the Yellow Jersey. He succeeded, but not without some fireworks. His director, Cyrille Guimard, claims he threatened to run over van Impe with the team car if he didn’t attack Joop Zoetemelk at a crucial point in the 1976 Tour, and that attack was what won the race. Van Impe denies Guimard’s account and because of the friction between the two, van Impe later changed teams.

Van Impe had a robust, vigorous constitution that allowed him to start and finish the Tour fifteen times (a record equaled by Viacheslav Ekimov). Only Joop Zoetemelk and George Hincapie, at sixteen Tour finishes, have completed more Tours de France.

Van Impe raced professionally from 1969 to 1987.

Van Impe’s major accomplishments:

Lucien van Impe

Lucien van Impe climbing during the 1982 Giro d'Italia

13. Giovanni Valetti (1913–1998)

Giovanni Valetti withCostante Girardengo

Giovanni Valetti wearing the maglia rosa in the 1938 Giro d'Italia. Wearing the flat cap and pinstriped suit is Costante Girardengo.

In all likelihood, Giovanni Valetti is the greatest rider you never heard of. He won the Giro d’Italia twice and came in second once, engaging in titanic battles with Gino Bartali. Valetti was one of the few riders who could take on and beat Bartali when his was in his prime. World War II probably robbed Valetti of several productive years. He was unable to repeat his 1930s successes after the war.
Valetti rode as a professional from 1935 to 1948.

Valetti’s major accomplishments:

Giovanni Velatti

Valetti (left) winning the Terminillo hill-climb in the 1938 Giro d'Italia.

12. Julio Jiménez (1934 - )

Julio Jimenez

Julio Jiménez in stage sixteen of the 1967 Tour de France.

Like many good climbers, Julio Jiménez was hampered by poor time trialing skills, a failing that prevented him from winning several big ones. But he did accumulate a nice list of wins, including ten Grand Tour stage victories and six Grand Tour King of the Mountains titles.

A good example of how his being an incomplete rider hampered his career was the 1964 Vuelta a España. After winning the fourteenth stage, Jiménez was the GC leader, ahead of Luis Otaño by 28 seconds and well in front of Raymond Poulidor, who was sitting in sixth place, down 3 minutes 17 seconds. Stage fifteen was a 65-kilometer individual time trial, which Poulidor won, earning him a 1-minute bonification. Jiménez was sixteenth that day, 5 minutes 20 seconds slower than Poulidor. That made Poulidor the leader and pushed Jiménez down to fifth place, 3 minutes 3 seconds behind Poulidor. And that’s how they finished the 1964 Vuelta.

In 1964 Jiménez was leading the Giro d’Italia after winning the hilly second stage. He held the Pink Jersey for eleven days, but team leader Jacques Anquetil told him to relinquish the lead temporarily to allow the team to rest and let others take the burden of controlling the peloton. Jiménez refused the advice and now says that’s why he finished fourth. But it was at the stage thirteen time trial that Jiménez lost the lead.

Jiménez raced professionally from 1959 to 1969.

Jiménez’ major accomplishments:

11. José-Manuel Fuente (1945–1996)

José-Mnaule Fuente

José-Manuel Fuente in the maglia rosa shaking hands with Enrico Paolini during the 1974 Giro d'Italia.

José-Manuel Fuente had a short but spectacular career, but it coincided with the era of cycling greats Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocaña. He was absolutely unafraid to challenge them, making for some of the most exciting racing ever. He won the Vuelta a España twice and was the Giro d’Italia’s King of the Mountains for four successive years (1971–1974).

One of Fuente’s most famous exploits was his climb to Block Haus in the 1972 Giro d’Italia. From The Story of the Giro d’Italia: “Now came the much anticipated stage four’s 48-kilometer morning half-stage with its hilltop finish at Block Haus. It was here in 1967 that Merckx had sent shock waves through the cycling world when he dropped Adorni, Zilioli, Anquetil and Gimondi in his first Giro.

“The climbing started just before the little town of Pretoro, the pack splitting almost immediately. Fuente’s KAS team began probing and sending men up the road. Merckx didn’t take the bait, knowing that it was Fuente he had to watch. With fifteen kilometers left, Fuente rolled the dice and off he went, leaving Merckx protected by only one teammate and surrounded by six good-climbing KAS riders.

“The day would not be a replay of stage three. Fuente flew to the top, not bothering to look back at the damage he had done. Merckx and Motta came in 2 minutes 36 seconds later, while Gimondi lost almost four minutes. Bitossi, who had won the climber’s crown three times (1964, ’65 and ’66) lost over seven minutes. Fuente had blitzed the mountain so fast that in those seventeen kilometers of climbing, twelve riders were eliminated because they had lost more than fifteen minutes, the time cutoff mandated by the rules. Because Basso, Patrick Sercu and Dino Zandegù were among the squalificati, the bunch sprints for the rest of the Giro would not be the same. Fuente was now the leader. Merckx said that Fuente was ‘virtually unbeatable on a short stage with a mountain finish’. He also warned, ‘The Giro isn’t over yet.’” Merckx went on to win the 1972 Giro with Fuente second, 5 minutes 30 seconds behind.

Fuente’s 1974 Giro was heartbreaking. He took the lead in stage three and looked to be strong enough to withstand Eddy Merckx's assault, but in stage fourteen Fuente famously forgot to eat, ran completely out of energy and lost more than ten minutes. From there, Merckx, despite a ferocious fight from Giambattista Baronchelli, was able to remain the leader (by only 12 seconds) all the way to Milan.

Kidney trouble forced Fuente to retire in 1975 and it was kidney disease that killed him in 1996 at the young age of 50. 

Fuente rode professionally from 1969 to 1976.

Fuente’s major accomplishments:

Jose-Manuel Fuente

Fuente climbing the Stelvio Pass in the 1972 Giro d'Italia

Cycling's Greatest Climbers intro | Climbers 17–21 | Climbers 10–6 | Climbers 5-1 |