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Cycling’s Twenty-One Greatest Climbers

BikeRaceInfo's Best Climbers: Riders 16–11

Tour of Flanders, the Inside Story

Les Woodland's book Tour of Flanders: The Inside Story - The rocky roads of the Ronde van Vlaanderen is available as an audiobook here. For the print and Kindle eBook versions, just click on the Amazon link on the right.

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:

  • 1924: Tour du Sud-Est; Toulon-Nice
  • 1925: Giro d’Italia General Classification; Giro di Lombardia
  • 1926: 2nd place Giro d’Italia, winning six stages; Giro di Lombardia, Giro del Piemonte, Italian Road Championships

    Climbing: Binda won nearly all the 1926 Giro’s hilly stages solo, but a crash in the first stage cost him so much time he rode as a gregario for teammate Giovanni Brunero, who won the 1926 Giro.

  • 1927: Giro d’Italia General Classification, winning twelve stages, Giro di Lombardia, Giro del Piemonte, World Road Championships, Italian Road Championships

    Climbing: Binda won all of the 1927 Giro’s stages that had notable climbs.

  • 1928: Giro d’Italia General Classification, winning six stages; Giro del Veneto, Italian Road Championships

    Climbing: The six Giro stages Binda won all had serious ascents. He came in second in all but one of the mountains stages he didn’t win.

  • 1929: Giro d’Italia General Classification, winning eight consecutive stages; Milano-San Remo; Italian Road Championships

    Climbing: Binda so dominated the 1929 Giro, the crowd at the finish line of the final stage booed him, causing Binda to weep. As in 1928, Binda won all the mountains stages but three, and came in second or third in the ones he didn’t win.

  • 1930: two stages Tour de France; World Road Championships

    Climbing: Binda won stage nine of the 1930 Tour de France with its ascents of the Aubisque and Tourmalet. The next stage he was first over the Portet d’Aspet, but abandoned during the stage.

  • 1931: two stages Giro d’Italia (abandoned while leading, after crashing in stage six); Milano-San Remo, Giro di Lombardia

    Climbing: Stages three and four of the Giro were mountainous and Binda won them both. Stage five also had challenging ascents, but Binda had to be content with third place that day.

  • 1932: World Road Cycling Championships
  • 1933: Giro d’Italia General and Mountains Classifications, winning six stages

    Climbing: 1933 was the first year for the Giro to have a Mountains Classification (GPM or Gran Premio della Montagna), calculated by using four different climbs. Binda was first over all four.

Alfredo Binda


15. Raymond Poulidor (1936– )

Raymond Poulidor photo gallery

Raymond Poulidor

Raymond Poulidor in 1962

Tour de France: the Inside Story

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:

  • 1961: Milano-San Remo; French Road Championships; third place World Cycling Championships
  • 1962: Tour de France third place in both General and Mountains classifications

    Climbing: Federico Bahamontes was riding in this Tour de France and he was first over most of the big stuff, but Poulidor had a terrific stage nineteen. The last three categorized climbs that day were the Porte, Cucheron and Granier and Poulidor was first over all of them and rode across the finish line in Aix les Bains 2 minutes 30 seconds ahead of his nearest chasers, Bahamontes and Henry Anglade.

  • 1963: La Flèche Wallonne; Grand Prix des Nations
  • 1964: second place Tour de France; Vuelta a España General Classification; Critérium National; second place Milano-San Remo; Super Prestige Pernod International winner

    Climbing: Again, as in the 1962 Tour de France, Bahamontes led over most of the ascents and Julio Jiménez won most of the climbs Bahamontes didn’t. One big exception, stage fifteen ended in Luchon and Poulidor was first over the last climb, the Portillon, and came in alone, more than a minute ahead of his nearest chaser. And there was that titanic struggle with Anquetil up Puy de Dôme, where Poulidor finally dropped Anquetil, though Julio Jiménez and Federico Bahamontes had escaped earlier and took the day’s first two places. Poulidor was third in the KOM competition, so clearly he was at the pointy part of the race in the hills.

  • 1965: second place Tour de France, winning two stages; second place Vuelta a España, winning two stages

    Climbing: In the Tour de France, Poulidor won a big one, stage fifteen, finishing at the top of Mont Ventoux

  • 1966: third place Tour de France, Critérium International, Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
  • 1968: Critérium International
  • 1969: third place Tour de France; Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
  • 1971: Critérium International, Catalonian Week
  • 1972: third place Tour de France; Paris-Nice; Critérium International
  • 1973: Paris-Nice; Grand Prix du Midi Libre
  • 1974: second place Tour de France; second place World Cycling Championships

    Climbing: 38-year-old Poulidor made jaws drop when he soared away from everyone in the Tour’s stage sixteen and came in alone at St. Lary Soulon/Pla d’Adet, almost a minute ahead of his nearest chaser, Vicente Lopez-Carril. And on the hilly World Championship course in Montreal, he was second to Eddy Merckx.

  • 1976: third place Tour de France

Raymond Poulidor

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

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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:

  • 1971: Mountains Classification and third place General Classification Tour de France
  • 1972: Mountains Classification and fourth place General Classification Tour de France; second place Tour de Romandie; third place Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré

    Climbing: The Tour’s eighth stage had the Tourmalet, Aspin and the Peyresourde. Van Impe was first over the Peyresourde, but finished second in Luchon, one second behind Eddy Merckx. Stage twelve ended at Orcières Merlette (a hilltop finish), where van Impe won solo, 3 seconds ahead of Joaquim Agostinho and more than a minute in front of Merckx. And then in stage fourteen-b, van Impe led over the final big ascent, the Granier, to finish with the front group of eight in Aix les Bains

  • 1973: fifth place Tour de France; second place Tour de Romandie

    Climbing: Luis Ocaña and José-Manuel Fuente didn’t leave much for the others that Tour, but van Impe was first to the hilltop finish at Pyrenees 2000 in stage twelve-b.

  • 1975: Mountains Classifications, third place General Classification and two stage wins Tour de France; Tour de l’Aude General Classification, winning two stages

    Climbing: This Tour de France was the scene of a terrific battle between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx, who had been attacked by a spectator while he was ascending Puy de Dôme in stage fourteen. Van Impe escaped and was first to the top of Puy de Dôme that day, finishing 14 seconds ahead of Thévenet.

  • 1976: Tour de France General Classification, second place GP du Midi-Libre

    Climbing: The Tour’s stage fourteen had four major climbs. Luis Ocaña attacked on the second one, the Portillon. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe's director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn't go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car. Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day's penultimate climb. Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St. Lary-Soulon. Van Impe jumped away and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey.

  • 1977: Mountains Classification, third place General Classification Tour de France; second place Tour of Switzerland winning two stages; third place Critérium du Dauphiné

    Climbing: Van Impe decided to try for a General Classification win in 1977. After winning the stage 15b timed hill climb up the Avoriaz, he was in third place, 33 seconds behind leader Bernard Thévenet. The next stage he was first over the final climb, the Montets, and finished with the twelve leaders in Chamonix. It was in stage seventeen things went wrong. He went clear and was first over the Glandon and tried to win the hilltop finish at L’Alpe d’Huez. He was being fiercely chased by Bernard Thévent and Hennie Kuiper, but near the top, a follow vehicle hit him, ruining his chances for the stage victory and probably overall victory.

  • 1979: fifth place Vuelta a España
  • 1980: fourth place Tour of Switzerland
  • 1981: Mountains Classification, second place General Classification Tour de France

    Climbing: Historically, van Impe seemed to do well on the Plat d’Adet ascent and 1981 was no exception. He was first to the top, and being a hilltop stage finish, won the Tour’s fifth stage, 27 seconds ahead of Bernard Hinault. He was first to the top of several other big climbs in the 1981 Tour, but wasn’t able to lead over the crest of any other final stage climb.

  • 1982: Mountains Classification, second place General Classification Giro d’Italia; third place Tour of Sweden

    Climbing: The 1981 Giro’s stage twenty-one was a recreation of the historic 254-kilometer Cuneo-Pinerolo stage where in 1949 Fausto Coppi has displayed such incredible superiority. It was a monster with the Maddalena, Vars, Izoard, Montgenèvre and Sestriere ascents. Van Impe led over the final three climbs and finished with the front group.

  • 1983: Mountains Classification, fourth place General Classification Tour de France; Mountains Classification Giro d’Italia; Belgian Road Championships

    Climbing: In the 1983 Giro van Impe led over many of the big climbs and in stage thirteen was first over the Consuma and Capezzano ascents, winning the stage. In the Tour, van Impe won the stage nineteen timed hill climb up the Avoriaz, beating Stephen Roche by more than a half-minute.

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:

  • 1935: fifth place Giro d’Italia
  • 1937: second place Giro d’Italia
  • 1938: Giro d’Italia General and Mountains Classifications, winning three stages

    Climbing: Gino Bartali was ordered by the Italian government to skip the Giro to prepare for the Tour de France, which Bartali won in 1938. In the 1938 Giro d’Italia Valetti was first over the Bracco in stage four-a, and then soloed in to La Spezia almost two minutes ahead of the first chasing group. Stage seven-a was a timed hill-climb and Valetti had the best time up the Terminillo, a minute ahead of Giordano Cottur. Proving he had terrific climbing chops, in stage fifteen Valetti was first over the Fugazze and rode alone to the finish in Recoaro Terme with a lead of almost two minutes. By the end of the Giro, Valetti’s lead over second place Ezio Cecchi was almost nine minutes.

  • 1939: General Classification and second in Mountains Classification Giro d’Italia, winning three stages

    Climbing: The 1939 Giro d’Italia was the race the Italians had been waiting for, a real duel between Valetti and Bartali while both were in top form. Valetti won the stage six-b timed hill climb up the Terminillo, beating Bartali by 21 seconds.  Valetti took the lead in stage eleven, but had to relinquish it to Bartali in stage fifteen, which went over the Passo Rolle. Bartali had bad luck two days later in the next stage, even though he was first over the day's major climb. Valetti retook the lead and kept it all the way to Milan.

Giovanni Velatti

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


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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:

  • 1962: Spanish Mountains Championships
  • 1963: Vuelta a España King of the Mountains
  • 1964: Spanish Road Championships; Vuelta a España King of the Mountains
  • 1965: Tour de France King of the Mountains, also winning two stages; Vuelta a España King of the Mountains; Spanish Mountains Championships

    Climbing: In the 1965 Tour, Jiménez roared away in the first big day in the mountains, stage nine with the Aubisque and Tourmalet. Jiménez was first over both and came to the finish line in Bagnères de Bigorre almost three minutes ahead of his nearest chaser. He repeated the process in stage seventeen when his was first over the Porte, Cucheron and Granier before rolling into Aix les Bains alone, 1 minute 39 seconds ahead of Frans Brands, his closest pursuer.

  • 1966: Tour de France King of the Mountains, Giro d’Italia fourth place General Classification, winning two stages

    Climbing: In the Giro he dominated the second stage, leading over the Nava and Monesi ascents, winning the stage. He did it again in stage fifteen, being first over the Brescia Maddalena and winning the stage alone, 30 seconds ahead of Gianni Motta.

    Stage sixteen of the 1966 Tour went over the Croix de Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier. Jiménez led over the last two climbs and beat Jacques Anquetil into Briançon by 2 minutes 25 seconds. The next stage he was first over the Montgenèvre and Sestriere ascents, but was caught and passed by a group led by Franco Bitossi.

  • 1967: Tour de France second place General Classification and King of the Mountains

    Climbing: In stage ten of the Tour de France Jiménez was first over the Télégraphe and Galibier, I’m guessing he had Felice Gimondi for company. The two finished together in Briançon, Gimondi taking the stage while nearest chaser Poulidor was almost three minutes back.

  • 1968: Giro d’Italia second place King of the Mountains and winning two stages.

    Climbing: Though Jiménez was nearing the end of his career, he was still able to lead over the two big climbs in stage nine of the 1968 Giro, the Bondone and Vetriolo and then win the stage.


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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:

  • 1971: Giro d’Italia King of the Mountains, winning two stages; two stage wins Tour de France

    Climbing: Fuente won stage two of the Giro d’Italia with its hilltop finish at Sestola Pian del Falco. In the 1971 Tour de France Fuente rode a terrific stage fourteen with ascents of the Portet d’Aspet, Menté (where race leader Ocaña famously crashed out) and Portillon. Fuente led over all three and won the stage, finishing more than six minutes ahead of Merckx. Fuente won the next stage with its hilltop finish at Superbagnères as well, crossing the line alone, 26 seconds ahead of Lucien van Impe.

  • 1972: Vuelta a España General Classification, King of the Mountains; Giro d’Italia King of the Mountains, 2nd place General Classification, winning two stages

    Climbing: in the Giro, Fuente won that famous stage to Block Haus. In stage sixteen he led over the Foscagno and Eira ascents though Merckx won the stage. The next stage finished atop the Stelvio, which Fuente also won.

  • 1973: Giro d’Italia King of the Mountains; Tour de France third place General Classification, second place King of the Mountains; Tour of Switzerland General Classification, King of the Mountains, winning two stages

    Climbing: The Giro’s nineteenth stage was Fuente’s, pure and simple. The day had four big climbs: the Valles, San Lucia, Giau and Tre Croci. Fuente was first over all four and won the stage, finishing alone, more than a minute ahead of his nearest chaser, Francesco Moser.

  • 1974: Vuelta a España General Classification, winning two stages; Giro d’Italia King of the Mountains, fifth place General Classification (held Pink Jersey stages three–thirteen), winning five stages

    Climbing:  In the 1974 Giro d’Italia Fuente led over stage three’s final climb, the Faito and rolled across the finish in Sorrento first, a half minute ahead of Francesco Moser. That gave Fuente the maglia rosa. In stage nine with its finish at the top of Monte Carpegna, Fuente was again first, reinforcing his overall lead. He did it again atop Il Ciocco at the end of stage eleven-a. Though Fuente lost his lead in stage fourteen, he led over Monte Generoso and won stage sixteen, finishing a half minute ahead of Felice Gimondi. Stage twenty had a hilltop finish at Tre Cima di Laverado. Fuente won the stage, almost a half-minute ahead of Giambattista Baronchelli.

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