By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian




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Your Campionissimo

In our December 2008 feature article we asked our readers to express an opinion of which riders in the modern era have risen to the exalted level of Campionissimo. The response was tremendous and the arguments put forth clearly illustrated that our readers have great knowledge and passion for our sport.

Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi xxx The Reader's Nominations and Comments

CyclingRevealed’s Nominated riders well worth your consideration

Perhaps surprisingly, the list of riders nominated by our readers is fairly short. Clearly Eddy Merckx stands head and shoulders above everyone as an obvious candidate for the exalted title of Campionissimo.

Merckx was notorious for his voracious appetite for victory. His tally of 525 professional victories is the most of any professional rider. But it was not just the quantity but also the quality of the races that he claimed. Central to the Merckx story is the style of his racing. When Merckx lined up he was there to win and his raw aggression to crush everyone earned him the very appropriate nickname of “the cannibal”.

Sean Kelly and Bernard Hinault emerged as clear reader favorites for the campionissimo accolade. It is no coincidence that both riders were very much from the same mould as Merckx.

Sean Kelly

Bernard Hinault

Greg LeMond

Lance Arstrong and Marco Pantani

“The New Cannibal”
“King Kelly” as he was often known, had much in common with the Merckx racing mentality. Sean Kelly raced all year, every year and he raced to win every race that he entered. Early on in his career the fans gave him the ultimate homage when they nicknamed him “the new cannibal”. He frequently unleashed such fury that he left his fellow competitors speechless. Perhaps the one of his most famous exploits was towards the end of his career at the age of 36 when he won the 1992 Milan - San Remo [YouTube: Milan-San Remo 1992] . On the final climb of the Poggio, Moreno Argentin launched a devastating attack which gave him about 15 seconds advantage over the chasers at the summit. Many years earlier Kelly had said that if you have 100 meters advantage at the top of the Poggio, then you will win. In 1992 he demolished that theory himself when he descended the Poggio like a mad man in pursuit of Argentin. The riders that were with Kelly at the top of the Poggio did not have the nerves to stay with the reckless Kelly. With about one kilometer to go Kelly caught a disbelieving Argentin. Argentin was no slouch when it came to sprinting, but to beat Kelly in that moment was impossible. That day Argentin was left speechless at Kelly’s ride. In fact after Italy’s favorite son had been vanquished by the flying Irishman the whole of San Remo fell strangely silent. They had witnessed a true campionissimo in action!

During his professional career Kelly won 193 races including a Grand Tour and nine ‘Monument’ classics. His sprinting prowess earned him four Tour de France Green Points Jerseys and four Vuelta Green Points Jerseys. Initially a pure sprinter, he evolved into great climber and time trial rider which led to his 1988 Vuelta GC victory.

I was fortunate to witness the cannibalistic nature of Kelly’s racing at a post-Tour criterium in 1986. That year he had already won Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix along with a whole string of other races. At the time I was living in Germany near Stuttgart which was holding it’s annual professional criterium around the park and square of the city center Schlossplatz. Dignitaries like Kelly are signed up for such races  to draw the crowds who want to see a great Tour rider in action. Along with a collection of international stars, the field included the cream of Germany’s pro elite riders. Typically such races are orchestrated to showcase the big stars and then have one of the local heroes win the final sprint. In text book fashion we were treated to an exciting race that dutifully followed the script until about four very short laps to go. Suddenly Kelly was in there bumping and grinding for position. The last couple of laps would have paid homage to a ‘monument’ such was the intensity of the racing. Coming out of the last bend it was all Kelly as he nearly burst every vein in his body with the effort to take out that victory. It was truly an incredible sight. Over the years many accused Kelly of being a money grabbing mercenary. Yes, he was out to grab every penny that he could but at his core it was the mentality of a winner, and more importantly campionissimo, that drove him relentlessly toward every race finish line.

The Flying Badger
A picture that for me epitomises Bernard Hinault’s fighting nature is not even a racing picture. These days Hinault is part of the Tour de France organisation and is to be seen every day on the podium supervising the awards ceremony. In 2008 some protesting farmers had been out on one stage trying to disrupt the race. Later that day one of the protesters appeared in front of the podium and was just about to jump up on the podium when Hinault spotted him. There is a great photograph of Hinault, horizontal, in mid-air between the podium and the protester, arms outstretched and with his hands targeting the protesters shoulders. Like so many riders in the peloton had discovered, that hapless protester quickly learnt that you do not mess with Hinault!

Hinault was a hard man in the mould of Merckx and Kelly. He was known as “the badger” because, like the animal, he had the reputation of not letting go of his prey. Like Merckx and Kelly, Hinault was a prodigious winner and his illustrious record includes 10 Grand Tour victories, 5 monuments and a World Road Race Championship.

In a career that sparkles with legendary exploits it is impossible to pick out his greatest ever ride. But one ride that surely shines as something truly special was his win in the 1980 Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. That year a raging snow storm greeted the riders at the start line and within an hour over half the field had abandoned. The survivors, and especially those attacking, represented the cream of the professional peloton. On the way back to Liege Hinault countered a two man attack and eventually forged on alone in the Arctic conditions. His immense sense of pride and knowing that he was writing history drove him forward. He finished a massive 9m 24s ahead of second placed Hennie Kuiper of Holland. Such a ride had not been seen since the heroic period of the early 20th Century.

At the other end of the spectrum Hinault is also remembered for his single minded hunger for personal victory in a very negative fashion. By 1985 Hinault was getting close to the end of his career. However his management team had convinced him to make another try at a Tour victory. On his team was a new and highly talented rider by the name of Greg LeMond who could have eclipsed the great champion, but he was ‘convinced’ to support Hinault instead. Hinault manipulated LeMond, as he did everyone else, and duly won the 1985 Tour. The next year Hinault and LeMond again started the Tour in the same team. This time Hinault claimed that he was riding to return the favour and thus help LeMond win. Hinault’s approach was to viciously attack their primary rivals in an effort ‘to wear them down’. LeMond suspected otherwise and eventually was forced to chase down his own team mate on the Alpe d’Huez where he had gained a lot of time. The bad blood between Hinault and LeMond at that time was made very public and caused quite the scandal.

The Shot Heard Around the World
Greg LeMond can be credited with introducing the New World into the European elite pro peloton. He was a rider like Merckx and Hinault who had the raw desire and the inbred talent to do it all. He was the first non-European to win the Tour (in 1986). Although he won three TdF’s and three World Championships (one in the U23 category), he never claimed a major classic. On several occasions he almost clinched victory in a monument but his overall tally of wins cannot match the likes of Coppi, Merckx, Kelly and Hinault.

In 1987 LeMond, while at the peak of his powers, was accidently shot and seriously injured in a hunting accident. This was a shot heard around the world and although he survived many believed that his cycling career was now over. But in 1989 he came back to ride the Tour. LeMond, astonishingly, was in Yellow by stage 5. Almost from that moment on the rest of the Tour was a thrilling duel between him and Laurent Fignon as they took turns in Yellow. The final stage in Paris was a 24.5km time trial and Fignon held the Yellow Jersey with a 50 second advantage over LeMond. Conventional wisdom dictated that it was impossible for LeMond to breach that gap. But breach it he did in one of the most astonishing stages of any Tour. He beat Fignon by 58 seconds and thus won the 1989 Tour de France by a scant 8 seconds (which is still the closest margin ever).

As conclusive confirmation of his return to the top, just a few weeks after his 1989 Tour victory he won the World Road Race Championship in a thrilling sprint against none other than Sean Kelly.

LeMond claimed his third and final Tour in 1990. After that he cited health issues, possibly connected with his hunting accident, for declining race performances. He retired from racing in 1994.

Without the shooting incident it is possible that LeMond could (as he himself claims) have won the Tour at least five times. Also he may well have enriched his record with several ‘monuments’ wins. However none of that was to be but as our readers pointed out, LeMond is at the very least America’s own campionissimo.

An Unlikely Pair
It is interesting that many readers spoke of Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani almost in the same breath. The common denominator of course is that both had ruled the roads at the very highest levels and both have personalities larger than life. As one reader so eloquently put it, both riders had a tremendous ability to solicit passion, respect and style from their fellow competitors and fans alike. Unfortunately neither man has a resume that can get anywhere near those of Merckx, Kelly or Hinault.

Even since his tragic death Pantani is able to garner great reverence even against other riders who have considerably more significant results to their name. The truth is that Pantani possessed a fantastic ability to climb and that his exotic character, immortalised as ‘The Pirate’, endeared him to legions of fans.

While Pantani will never ride again, Armstrong has astounded the world and returned to racing after three years of ‘retirement’. In our December Campionissimo feature article we suggested that part of the motivation for Armstrong’s return is precisely to address his legacy. Compared to the most popular reader campionissimo candidates, Armstrong can ‘only’ claim seven TdF’s (which of itself is truly astounding) and one World Road Race Championship. No ‘monuments’, Giro, Vuelta or other major classic. In 2009 Armstrong plans to ride at least two monuments as well as the Giro and possibly the Tour one more time. If he wins one or more of the monuments and also adds the Giro to his record then the discussion about his candidacy for campionissimo will become very interesting.

A Rich Legacy
Our readers pointed out numerous other riders with astonishing career records. High on the list were Erik Zabel (as sprint campionissimo) and Johan Museeuw (as classics campionissimo). As you leaf through the pages of cycling history it is astonishing how many great names leap out. It will be future generations however that will determine who the campionissimo from our times are. But in our own time we applaud your Campionissimo.



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