This is my selection of riders who took on the mountains and reached the top as champions. Here’s five of the best climbers in cycling history.
Lucien Van Impe (1968-1987)
To many, Van Impe is the greatest climber of all time. The title of ‘greatest climber’ will be forever debated but expect Van Impe to challenge for the top spot in every list. The Belgian had a fantastic career; he completed the Tour De France on fifteen occasions, finishing in the top five a staggering eight times. He did, in fact, win the Tour once but that is not for what he is best remembered. He is known as a man who won the King of the Mountains jersey six times. Van Impe was a pure a climber and is synonymous in cycling circles with the iconic polka-dot jersey. There are many brilliant pictures of Van Impe riding out of his saddle in a distinctive style. Van Impe would often attack on mountain top finishes to gain time on his rivals. He rode against both Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault and would have won more than one Tour had it not been for their superiority in individual time trials. He was the best climber of his era and the worthiest of winners of the King of the Mountains competition.
Achievements: 1 Tour De France overall win, 6 Tour De France mountains jersey wins, 2 Giro d’Italia mountains Jersey wins, 11 Grand Tour stage wins
Alberto Contador (2003-Present)
The controversial selection. No rider in last twenty years has danced on their pedals quite like Alberto Contador. The Spaniard has an incredible turn of speed on even the steepest of climbs. He really stands out as the one great climber from the post-Armstrong era. After impressing when he won the 2007 Tour De France, he became the best rider in the world in the years that followed. By the end of 2008 Contador had become one of the only riders in history to win all three Grand Tours. He was just 25. In 2009 he confirmed he was the best with a dominant second Tour De France win. Lance Armstrong had returned as a looming rival but Contador simply blew him away. In his stage 15 alpine win Contador showed the peloton who was boss with a brilliant attack 6km from a summit finish. Contador is yet to hit the heights of 2009 again, but showed his obvious ability with two brilliant Vuelta wins. Rivals, such as Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, have emerged in recent years but they all know that on his day Contador has the ability to leave them behind. Even as his dominance has subsided there remains an unmatched audacity in Contador’s approach to the mountains.
Achievements: 2 Tour De France overall wins, 2 Giro d’Italia overall wins, 3 Vuelta a España overall wins, 2 Vuelta a España combination classification wins, 8 Grand Tour stage wins
Gino Bartali (1935-1954)
Gino Bartali is thought of as one of the first brilliant climbers. He immediately came to mind when I was in the process of compiling this list. What was harder, however, was choosing between Bartali and his great Italian rival Fausto Coppi. Bartali’s career was split by the Second World War and he is also remembered for his noble efforts during wartime. Bartali dominated the Giro from 1935 to 1940, winning the race twice and the mountain jersey five times. After the war, he added two further Giro mountain classification wins for a record seven titles. Coppi emerged as a worthy rival in 1940 and the two shared wonderful duels on the steepest of Italy’s roads. Coppi edged out Bartali on more than one occasion but the Tuscan continued to climb brilliantly. Bartali had success outside Italy, winning the Tour De France twice. He won three back-to-back mountain stages in the 1948 Tour; a feat that has never been repeated. Bartali was a tough, relentless rider and inspired many great Italian climbers such as Claudio Chiappucci and Marco Pantani.
Achievements: 2 Tour De France overall wins, 2 Tour De France mountains jersey wins, 3 Giro d’Italia overall wins, 6 Giro d’Italia mountains jersey wins, 29 Grand Tour stage wins
Luis Herrera (1981-1992)
Luis Herrera was a rider who simply loved to climb. As an amateur in 1984, he dominated the Tour De France slopes and impressed all those around him. With all the big names watching, Luis Herrera launched an attack on Alpe d’Huez and left them in his dust. It was a massive shock, a relatively unknown Colombian upsetting the French giants of the race. The following year, Herrera returned to the Tour and won another two stages impressing on the climbs again. Between the years of 1985 and 1989 Herrera won all the Grand Tour mountain jerseys – becoming only the second man to achieve this feat. He won the Vuelta outright in 1987 and became the first South American winner. Herrera’s professional career was relatively short but he will be remembered as a man who took on the slopes and won. He possessed a trait of all great climbers – the ability to cycle through the pain barrier and tame even the steepest of gradients.
Achievements: 2 Tour De France mountain jersey wins, 1 Giro d’Italia mountain jersey win, 1 Vuelta a España overall Jersey win, 2 Vuelta a España mountain jersey wins, 8 Grand Tour stage wins
Federico Bahamontes (1953-1965)
‘The Eagle of Toledo’ is perhaps the most iconic nickname in pro cycling rivalled only by Pantani’s ‘Il Pirata’. The moniker belongs to Federico Bahamontes – one of the most popular and decorated climbers of all time. He was another pure climber who provided plenty inspiration to the following generations. Like Van Impe, Bahamontes won the Tour de France mountains jersey on six occasions and was the first rider to complete a sweep of the Grand Tour climber’s classifications. He competed against greats such as Charly Gaul and Jacques Anquetil beating both riders to Tour success in 1959. The Spaniard made climbing an artform and would often ride to his own rhythm giving little attention to the race going on around him. His flamboyance has perhaps been celebrated more since his career has ended and he is remembered fondly as one of the greatest cyclists of all time.
Achievements: 1 Tour de France win, 6 Tour de France mountain jersey wins, 1 Giro d’Italia mountain jersey win, 2 Vuelta a Espana mountain jersey wins, 11 Grand Tour stage wins.