No other discipline requires so much raw power, stamina and determination as going up a 20% gradient with 20kph. And while we love watching Pogačar, Contador or Richard Virenque, their undeniable talent and results can’t hold a candle to the total domination some other riders established on the mountains back in the golden days of cycling. While at least 20 people deserve to be mentioned when we talk about great climbers, we decided to give you the top 3 best Kings of the mountain the world has ever seen.
3. Charlie Gaul
There were so many people that could have been in this third spot. Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Luise Herrera, Julio Jiménez to mention a few. Nonetheless, the legend of the Angel of the Mountain tilted the scale in Charlie Gaul’s favour. The brilliant cyclist could have been much further ahead on this list if not for his terrible, often downright bullish demeanour.
Yes, Gaul was not a pleasant man by any means, but whether it was his hatred or burning desire to push forward, he was a genuine locomotive on the bike. His power was best shown in the 1958 Tour de France when he revealed his tactics to his competitors and still managed to fly by them and secure an impressive win, which cemented him as one of the best climbers ever. With his passion and raw strength, Gaul quickly received the nickname the Angel of the Mountain and continued to bring other riders to tears whenever a grand tour came to the mountains.
During his career, Gaul won one General Classification at Tour de France and two times at Giro d’Italia. Moreover, he was announced four times as the King of the Mountains (twice at the Tour de France and another two times at the Giro). Gaul also won 10 individual stages at the Tour and 11 at Giro d’Italia. If it weren’t for his horrible temper, he’d probably have won several times more, but his inability to play nice with anyone pushed him to always be in a bad team with little to no help from his teammates. Still, Gaul remains one of the most impressive climbers in cycling history.
2. Federico Bahamontes
The nickname “The Eagle of Toledo” should speak volumes to the talent, abilities and speed of Frederico Bahamontes. To this day, he remains one of the most popular and decorated climbers in history. He rode in an era when if you were not great, you were practically no one. During his time, he had to go head to head against Charly Gaul, whom you might remember from our previous entry. Bahamontes not only gave him a run for his money, but ultimately the Spaniard beat Gaul in 1959 to take his first and only General Classification title from the Tour de France.
As a climber, Bahamontes was simply brilliant. He won the Mountains Classification 6 times, and seven individual stage wins at Tour de France throughout his career. Moreover, he once became King of the mountains at the Giro d’Italia and twice at the Vuelta de Espana.
In many ways, Bahamontes was the total opposite of Charly Gaul. He was friendly and well-mannered, and while Gaul relied on his raw power and strength, the Eagle of Toledo transformed climbing into an art form. Bahamontes inspired generations of cyclists who dedicated their lives to reaching the Spaniard’s God-like status. Only one, however, managed to become even greater, and his name is…
1. Lucien Van Impe
Lucien Van Impe grew up watching the great Gaul and Bahamontes battle at the steep Alpe stages of the Tour de France. Being from Belgian, a land as flat as a plate, Impe had a significant handicap in his dream of becoming as great as his idols. Still, with the right motivation, anything is possible.
Lucien was simply breathtaking as a cyclist. He was a force to be reckoned with, a powerhouse. Impe completed the Tour de France 15 times in his 21-year-long career. Moreover, he finished in the top five of the grandest cycling event, the mind-altering eight times. Also, Impe won one time the General Classification and six times the King of the Mountain of the Tour. To finish off his awe-inspiring biography, he won 9 individual wins at the Tour de France, two times he became the Mountain classification winner at the Giro d’Italia and in 1983, towards the end of his long and bountiful career, Impe won the National Road Race Championships.
Impe’s signature move was to attack all mountain top finishes so he would gain significant time on his competitors. This often led him to be all alone in front. Only Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault’s mind-blowing performances at individual time trials did not allow Impe to get more than one Tour de France General Classification.
Lucien Van Impe became synonymous with the dotted jersey as he dominated not one but two generations of cyclists. He remains the most respected, well-known and beloved climber in the cycling community and, without a doubt, is an inspiration to mountain goats worldwide.
Today’s younger generation of climbers certainly has a proverbial mountain to conquer if they want to cement their names right next to the greatest from the Golden age of cycling. Still, there is no lack of talent, so we are waiting to see at least one genuinely inspiring King of the mountains in this generation. We are looking at you, Pogačar.