Ah, the joy of cycling. Few sports can give you more of a buzz, but who isn’t a bit of a sucker for an exhilarating downhill ride? With the wind in your hair and the fresh, grass-scented air in your lungs, cycling isn’t just a sport; it’s an experience.
That said, cycling is constantly keeping you on your toes. For every downhill cruise, there’s an arduous climb that sorts the amateurs from the pros, demanding huge tenacity. Check out the finest pro cyclists ever – gritty go-getters with iron legs, steel wills and superhuman lung capacity.
The hot favorite for the 2012 Tour de France, Cadel Evans was born in 1977 in Katherine, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Today, Evans still divides his time between Australia – a town in the state of Victoria – and Switzerland.
Evans is modest about his sporting background. He did a bit of swimming, soccer and cricket, he says. He also mucked around with horses a bit and was once kicked in the head and put into a coma by one.
Evans humbly admits that it is “strange” that he evolved into a professional athlete. “Physically,” he says on his website, “I am completely unsuitable for almost all Australian school sports.” Almost all require you to be big and fast like a rugby full back. In his photographs, although he looks solid, he does not seem remotely athletic, but Evans is.
After turning to full-time road cycling in 2001, he inexorably progressed up the ladder, finishing second in the 2007 and 2008 Tours de France, known as one of the hardest bike rides. He became the first Aussie to win the UCI ProTour (2007) and the UCI Road World Championships in 2009. Then, he won last year’s Tour de France, riding for BMC Racing Team, after two Tours characterized by lousy luck. At 34, Evans was among the race’s five oldest winners ever. Even more admirably, he goes in for philanthropy, supporting the beleaguered people of Tibet.
Widely seen as the best road bicycle racer the world has ever witnessed, Eddy Merckx was born in Belgium in 1945 – the year the Second World War ended. In a pro career stretching from 1965 to 1978, he racked up 445 victories in 1,585 races. At his height, between 1969 and 1975, Merckx won some 35-percent of the races he entered. Wildly, because of his ravenous hunger for success, Merckx was nicknamed “the Cannibal.” Merckx won the Tour de France 5 times in 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and 1974.
The French bike magazine, Velo, branded him, “the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known.” Likewise, the American publication, VeloNews, called him, “the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time.” The Cannibal was unstoppable.
After retiring from racing in 1978, Merckx opened a bicycle factory near Brussels that builds custom bicycles, including those for several professional teams. Few figures in any sport fully embody achievement more than Merckx.
Born on November 14, 1954, Bernard Hinault’s riding feats have been bested only by Eddy Merckx. Going by the nickname, “the Badger,” because of his feisty style under pressure, Hinault was the complete cyclist. Hinault could climb, sprint and time-trial as well as anyone, and his record of 10 Grand Tour victories is only eclipsed by Merckx’s 11 Grand Tour victories.
“Hinault’s career had all of the ingredients required to make the case of being the greatest rider of all time. He was a history maker. His towering personality and brusque charisma bestrode the sport for almost a decade,” says Cycling News.
Hinault may well have been the most talented cyclist ever. He had the sense to bow out at the height of his career, retiring in 1986. His last race was a cyclocross race five days before his 32nd birthday. To this day, he retains his tough temperament. When a protester jumped onto the podium at the end of stage 3 of 2008′s Tour de France, in front of winner Samuel Dumoulin, Hinault lunged forward and pushed the protester off.
Less famous than the other figures in this list, Miguel Indurain is nonetheless an extreme high-achiever. Born in 1964 in Navarre, Spain, Indurain remarkably won the Tour de France five consecutive times from 1991 to 1995. That feat in extended endurance made Indurain only the fourth person to win the event five times, and the first to win five in a row.
Cyclists are usually sinewy, skinny types. In contrast, Indurain was solid. He stood 1.88 m (6 ft 2 in) and 80 kg (176 lbs), hence, his nickname, Big Mig. You could call him Superman because Indurain had better physiology than his fellow athletes. For instance, in his heyday, his resting pulse was a lizard-low 28 beats per minute.
In 1997 he declared that he had made the “long and deeply meditated decision” to retire despite his belief that he could still win a sixth Tour. “My family are waiting,” he said.
These days, Indurain still rides and hunts wildlife.