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Cycling’s Twenty-One Greatest Climbers

BikeRaceInfo's Best Climbers: Riders 21–17

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

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

Cycling's Greatest Climbers intro | Climbers 16–11 | Climbers 10–6 | Climbers 5–1 |

21. Philippe Thys (1889–1971)

Philippe thys

Philippe Thys after winning the 1913 Tour de France

Philippe Thys photo gallery

Belgian rider Philippe Thys was one of cycling’s most accomplished riders. He was the first to win the Tour de France three times (1913, 1914, 1920), and this in an era when riders had to perform their own repairs. This rule had the effect of allowing minor equipment failures to regularly cause crippling time losses. Thys’ three Tour wins was not matched until decades later when Louison Bobet won in 1953, 1954 and 1955, and the rule requiring riders make their own bike repairs had been abandoned.

Thys wasn’t noted as a specialist climber, but in his prime he was a formidable ascender and on a good day could, at will, drop the crème of the peloton in the high mountains.

His results aren’t showy. As Les Woodland noted in his authoritative The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France, “He was an austere man who rarely wasted effort, and rarely acted on impulse.”
Thys’s major accomplishments:

20. Vicente Trueba (1905–1986)

Owen Mulholland tells Vicente Trueba's story

Vicente Trueba
Spaniard Trueba was the first winner of the Tour de France’s King of the Mountains competition in 1933.  Nicknamed the Flea of Torrelavega (La Pulga de Torrelavega) for his small size by Tour Boss Henri Desgrange, Trueba barely weighed 100 pounds (45.5 kilograms).
Trueba’s weak spot was his descending. With no body mass and a left arm with badly damaged nerves, Trueba could be the first to a summit, but would be caught by less capable climbers on the descents. In Trueba’s day, there were no hill-top finishes, that was an innovation that came after the Second World War.  As historian Owen Mulholland put it, “Trueba wasn't a ‘complete’ rider. Time trials, sprints, echelon riding; all were necessary evils for him”. That lack of a complete racing skill set meant winning stages and races were generally beyond him. Riding as a professional from 1925 to 1940, he won a total of six races.
It must be noted that Trueba’s best Tour de France performances came in 1933 and 1934 where he competed as a touriste-routier, an independent rider responsible for his own equipment, food, lodging, repairs. Trueba did this on his own, a signal accomplishment in the face of well-run national teams.
Trueba’s major accomplishments:

Vicente Trueba monument

Vicente Trueba monument in La Cavada (Cantabria), Spain

19. Vito Taccone (1940–2007)

Vito TacconeVito Taccone in stage four of the 1969 Giro d'Italia

Vito Taccone (pro from 1961–1970) was one of the few successful professional racers of his era from southern Italy. Nicknamed the Chamois of Abruzzo for his spectacular climbing skills, the gifted rider won the prestigious Giro di Lombardia (now Il Lombardia) in 1960, his first year as a professional. But few riders have earned the dislike of fellow professionals as Taccone did. Accused of intentionally crashing other competitors, his 1964 Tour de France degraded into a fistfight with Fernando Manzaneque. He never rode the Tour again.
Still, his list of victories includes seven Giro d’Italia stage wins, two Giro King of the Mountains titles along with that Giro di Lombardia, a Giro del Piemonte, a Giro del Toscana and a Milano–Torino.
After retiring, in 2007 he was arrested for selling counterfeit and stolen clothing, a charge he denied until his death by heart attack in 2007 at 67.
Taccone’s major accomplishments:

Guido Taccone

Taccone leads a break in the 1964 Giro d'Italia

18. Jacques Anquetil (1934–1987)

Jacques Anquetil photo gallery

Jacques AnquetilI know I’m going to get heat for including Anquetil. It was said that Jacques Anquetil was a rider that could drop no one but no rider could drop him. Anquetil, the first rider to win the Tour de France five times, was the supremely tactical and strategic rider who never wasted a single watt. He generally contained his competitors in the mountains and then crushed them with a devastating performance in the individual time trials. In his prime he was always able to stay close enough to the specialist climbers who posed a threat to the General Classification. Anquetil generally ignored riders who were unable to win the overall. Because of this careful shepherding of his resources, we really do not know how good Anquetil could have been in the mountains.

It was in the 1963 Tour de France that Anquetil showed how deep his talents really went. Hoping to help the mountain goats and keep Anquetil from suffocating the Tour with his dull tactical approach, the Tour organization reduced the time trialing from 129.5 kilometers in 1962 down to 79 for 1963. The finish lines for some stages were moved closer to the final summits as well. So how did Anquetil do? In stage ten with the Aubisque, Anquetil traded pedal strokes with one of cycling’s best ever climbers, Federico Bahamontes.

It was stage seventeen that was the real eye opener with its ascents of the Petit and Grand St. Bernard, the fearsome, unpaved Forclaz with a section of 25% gradient and the Montets. Anquetil joined Bahamontes and Raymond Poulidor after the Grand St. Bernard. Though Anquetil was riding a special lightweight climbing bike, one has to give Jacques credit for staying with Bahamontes as  the Spaniard attacked and attacked Anquetil, shedding everyone (including Poulidor who, who is general credited with being a better climber than Anquetil) but Anquetil. Anquetil was able to win the stage and became the Tour leader. Though Anquetil would have been unable to accumulate the wins his did without being an outstanding climber, for this stage alone I believe Anquetil deserves to be on the list.

Anquetil’s major accomplishments:

17. Franco Bitossi (1940– )

Franco Bitossi interview | Franco Bitossi photo gallery |

Franco Bitossi

Franco Bitossi on his way to winning the 1967 Giro di Lombardia

Franco Bitossi was an extraordinarily versatile rider, being able to win the King of the Mountains and Points classifications in Grand Tours. He could climb like an angel, sprint well and was a competent time trialist.

Complicating Bitossi’s career was a problem with attacks of tachycardia, which would cause him to stop and rest (sometimes in the middle of a race), until his racing heart calmed down. He was nicknamed Cuore Matto (Crazy Heart) because of his cardiac difficulties. Still he had a full and splendid professional career that went from 1961-1978.

Bitossi’s major accomplishments:

Franco Bitossi

Franco Bitossi winning the 1967 Italian Road Championships

Cycling's Greatest Climbers intro | Climbers 16–11 | Climbers 10–6 | Climbers 5-1 |