Who are the best Classics riders of all time? Here’s my take on the riders who experienced great success in the world famous Monument races.
Eddy Merckx (1965-1978)
It goes without saying that Merckx is one of the greatest cyclists of all time. I put him above the other multiple Tour De France winners due to his all-round brilliance. Primarily known for his glistening Grand Tour career, Merckx also holds the record for the most Monument wins. His 19 victories include a record seven in Milan-San Remo, the first of which he won in 1966 aged 20. He also dominated his home classic- Liège-Bastogne-Liège- with a record five victories. In Merckx’s era the sport was less specialized and this allowed him to excel in nearly every race he entered. He showed he could climb, time-trial and sprint as well as anybody in his era. Merckx was also a tough rider who overcame his fair share of crashes and injuries. This toughness helped him to three excellent Paris-Roubaix wins. He is one of three men to win all of the Monuments, and the only to win them all at least twice. Merckx really is a rider to admire, he could win all sorts of races and his decade-long dominance in the Classics should never be overlooked.
Achievements: 7 Milan-San Remo victories, 2 Tour of Flanders victories, 3 Paris-Roubaix victories, 5 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victories, 2 Giro Di Lombardia victories.
Roger De Vlaeminck (1969-1984)
There is something about Belgians and the one day Classics. In the early days there was Fred De Bruyne and Rik Van Looy, more recently the brilliant Tom Boonen. However, Belgian dominance was never greater than in the 60s and 70s and alongside Merckx was a brilliant cyclist by the name of Roger De Vlaeminck. With 11 Monuments wins, he sits one place behind his compatriot on the all-time list. De Vlaeminck emerged late on in Merckx’s career and in 1977 became the third man to win all the Monuments. He will be remembered most of all for his brilliant displays on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, winning the race an astonishing four times in six years. For his first victory, in 1972, he led home his rivals by nearly two minutes. Later in his career, De Vlaeminck became teammates with rival Francesco Moser which made adding to his haul a hard task. Even so, his dazzling performances in the race earned him the deserved nickname of ‘Monsieur Paris Roubaix’.
Achievements: 3 Milan-San Remo victories, 1 Tour of Flanders victory, 4 Paris-Roubaix victories, 1 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory, 2 Giro Di Lombardia victories.
Fabian Cancellara (2001-Present )
Swiss superstar Fabian Cancellara is not only a wonderfully gifted time-trialist, but a highly successful Classics rider. Known for his power and strength, ‘Spartacus’ has worn the Yellow Jersey in the Tour De France on numerous occasions. However, his biggest successes have come in the spring where he has won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix three times each. The races are scheduled a short time apart but Cancellara has completed doubles in both 2010 and 2013. His first Paris-Roubaix win came in 2006 where he showed his time-trialling prowess to break away from his rivals. Second in 2006 was Tom Boonen, who has become Cancellara’s great rival in the years that followed and the pair have won seven of the last nine editions of Paris-Roubaix. Who is a better Classics rider comes largely down to preference. My vote goes to Cancellara due to the style of riding- his brilliant solo effort in the 2013 Tour of Flanders is well worth a watch. The 33 year-old has seven monument wins to his name and could still add to that tally.
Achievements: 1 Milan-San Remo victory, 3 Tour of Flanders victories, 3 Paris-Roubaix victories.
Sean Kelly (1977-1994)
Ireland’s Sean Kelly is one of the most accomplished riders of all time. Kelly was an intelligent sprinter and his fast-finishing brought him many Grand Tour stage wins. During the 1980s Kelly went from strength to strength and developed into a capable climber with a tough mentality. Throughout the decade, he won a variety of races and became a dominant force in the Classics. His fine record stands up against the all-time greats, with the Tour of Flanders being the only Monument that eluded him. Kelly was arguably the best cyclist in the world in the mid-1980s and would have been feared by his rivals from mainland Europe. By 1989, Kelly had moved to a Dutch team full of talented riders. Having not won a Monument race for a number of years, Kelly claimed a memorable victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège ahead of his teammates. The Irishman loved to ride from the front and put his rivals under pressure, knowing that if anybody stayed with him he could rely on his final sprint.
Achievements: 2 Milan-San Remo victories, 2 Paris-Roubaix victories, 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victories, 3 Giro Di Lombardia victories.
Paolo Bettini (1997-2008)
Paolo Bettini has a relatively modest tally of five Monument wins (tied 16th on the all-time list) but was one of the best cyclists of a highly competitive era. As well as his successes in the big five, Bettini won back to back World Championships and the Olympic title in 2004. One of the Italian’s first wins was Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2000. This victory marked the start of Bettini stepping out of the shadow of Michele Bartoli, a leader of the Mapei Team at the time. More success followed in Liège in 2002, Bettini stuck to team-mate Stefano Garzali on the climbs and out-sprinted him at the end. There was no hard feelings between the two Italians, as they both crossed the line with hands raised in celebration of the team’s 1-2. After winning the Olympic title in a two-man sprint, the Tuscan enjoyed consecutive Giro di Lombardia wins in 2005 and 2006. Curiously, Bettini never rode Paris-Roubaix suggesting the hellish cobbles did not suit him. However, it is not uncommon for riders to favour certain Classics and return to them every year. Bettini retired in 2008 but remained in the sport as the Italian national coach until 2014.
Achievements: 1 Milan-San Remo victory, 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège victories, 2 Giro Di Lombardia victories.