In its long history, the Tour De France has made legends out of many men. One inspired day in the saddle leading to the traditional two handed salute as they cross the line for their tour stage can eclipse anything else they achieve in the rest of their careers.
While it is not possible to talk about every rider who has competed for the yellow jersey, won stages or the race, most of the names below are regularly mentioned in connection with the tour and provide a spectrum of the talent that has made the race the biggest sporting event in the world.
Jacques Anquetil (1934 - 1987)
Jacques, who was born in Normandy before the war, was a rider that raced mainly for the money, picking and choosing the events for the prize on offer. He used his supremacy in the Time Trial discipline to great advantage, taking five Tours de France, in 1957 and then from 1961 to 1964. He also won six Giros and one Vuelta, the first man in history to win all three.
Because of what was seen as his lack of grit, preferring to win by Time Trial rather than fighting it out in the mountains, he wasn't a huge hero with the French public who also saw him as rather distant. His great rival during this period was Raymond Poulidor1. Anquetil was known for his love of good food. In 1964 he ate a roast lamb on the rest day instead of training, and the upset stomach caused him to be dropped early the next day. A quick bottle of champagne cured that though.
Anquetil died from stomach cancer at the age of 53.
Lance Armstrong (1971 - )
Lance Armstrong claimed seven victories in a row in the Tour De France. His story seemed like a fairy tale, coming back from cancer to win. In 2012 the American anti-doping authority published a report where 14 of Armstrong's former teammates admitted to drug taking during Armstrong's winning years and alleging that he was also involved. Armstrong, although he continued to deny it, refused to participate in a hearing to establish his guilt and was subsequently stripped of all his Tour De France wins.
In January 2013 an interview with Armstrong by Oprah Winfrey was broadcast, where Armstrong admitted to cheating, claiming he was only doing it to level the playing field as everybody was doing it. No mention was made of the clean riders such as Christophe Bassons who were bullied out of the sport by Armstrong at that time.
Fausto Coppi (1919 - 1960)
Fausto Coppi was born in Castellania, Italy, and by the age of 8 was cycling regularly as a grocery delivery boy. In 1940 he started his first Giro, as a support rider for Gino Bartali2. However, by the end of the race he was the winner, over 45 minutes ahead of his team leader. During the war he broke the world hour record, and once the war was over, Coppi, the campionissimo returned to racing, with the country split between the Bartali fans and the Coppi fans. The battle between these two rivals provided many great races, notably the 1949 Tour de France that Coppi won. He also won the Tour in 1952. Coppi suffered a lot of injuries during his career and died in 1960 after doctors failed to diagnose malaria.
Pedro Delgado (1960 -)
A Spanish hero and hot favourite in the later years of the 1980s. One of the best climbers in the world, Delgado's luck often failed him with incidents such as food poisoning and flat tyres letting him down on occasion. His 1987 race against Roche featured any number of twists, Delgado fighting through the mountains, trying and failing to get enough time in hand for the final time trial. In 1988, he dominated the race winning against Dutchman Steven Rooks. However, a doping test error almost led him to quit the race. In 1989 he finished third, spending the entire race trying to get back the eight minutes he had lost though missing the prologue start and a poor team time trial. However, the fact of him only finishing three minutes behind the winner was overshadowed by Greg Lemond's final time trial victory. He continued to fight on for the next few years aided unselfishly by his team mate Miguel Indurain. The passion of Delgado made him a favourite with fans well into the Indurain period.
Laurent Fignon (1960 -)
Laurent Fignon was never the French hero that his compatriot Hinault was. He was noticed by team manger Cyrille Guimard as a 21-year-old amateur. A 22-year-old tour winner in 1983 and again in 1984 he did not maintain that form and took only minor results for the next few years. 1989 was the year that took him back to prominence. He fought a race-long battle with Greg Lemond, only losing out in the final time trial. This failure is now more remembered than his victories. His battles with the press were almost as legendary; images of the harassed blond Parisian spitting at the intrusive press cameras were an abiding image of the tour. As well as many classic race titles, he also took the Giro D'Italia title. Even though he was never taken to the heart of the people, the image of Fignon in his Super U team colours was a common sight throughout France in the late 1980s. Laurent currently works as a tour organiser and also rather ironically as a commentator for Eurosport.
Charly Gaul (1932 - 2005)
Whereas famous Belgians are ten a penny, it is much more difficult to find anybody famous from Luxembourg. Gaul was an accomplished time-triallist and exceptional climber who used his tactic of finding a small gear and spinning it very quickly to win the 1958 Tour, as well as taking a couple of third places and mountain jerseys. He was called the Angel of The Mountains, and like most Angels didn't like the heat much. While he was near unbeatable in the cold and the wet, he struggled on the hotter days. He was also the first non-Italian to win the Giro twice.
Bernard Hinault (1954 -)
Breton3 Hinault joined the exalted five times winners' club in 1985, beating his team-mate Lemond in a race that would mark the arrival of the Americans as a force to be reckoned with in the Tour. Lemond helped him out in the 1985 race. In return Hinault was to help Lemond in the 1986 race; however, he attacked Lemond at every opportunity, making the American work hard for his win.
His professional career started in 1974, the same year that Merckx won his last race, and by the time he finished in 1986, he had 28 stage victories in the Tour de France, as well as victories in the Giro, Vuelta and numerous one day races. Along with Merckx, Hinault is one of the only two men to have won all three of the major competitions in the Tour.
A great time-triallist, climber and sprinter and fierce competitor, he was nicknamed The Badger, not because he was small and furry, but because he battled to the end and was at his most dangerous when backed into a corner. Now retired, he works as an official in the Tour de France.
Miguel Indurain (1964 -)
Big Mig was an example of the perfect athlete. He had overcome serious heart complaints as a child to have possibly the most physically adapted body for cycling. His lungs were so big they displaced his stomach, leading to the trademark hump in his back - while cycling, his rest pulse was 28 beats per minute. A superb time-triallist, he used this as a foundation for his five tour wins, the first rider to take five consecutive tour titles. Although he had a massive frame, he was able to climb with the best in the race giving him an almost invincible aura. His wins from 1991 to 1995 could easily have included 1990 when he selflessly gave up his overall position working for team leader Delgado. His other weakness was the cold. His large body was more susceptible to changes in temperature and that cost him the 1996 Tour. Indurain was also a fairly able sprinter, having a number of high placings in his early career and narrowly missing out on a couple of World Championships. He also won a couple of Giros and other major stage races.
Greg Lemond (1961 -)
The World Junior Road Race Champion of 1979 was the man who changed the face of modern cycling. He took up cycling as fitness training for downhill skiing, but by 1981 was a professional with Cyrille Guimard's Renault team. He came to prominence by taking the 1983 World Championships. His battle with teammate Hinault in the 1985 tour set him at odds with the French press, which did not improve when he became the first native English-speaking Tour winner the next year. A wrist break in 1987 led to some time off, and things took a big turn for the worse when his brother-in-law shot him while hunting, and almost killed him. Lemond finally got back in 1989 with the little ADR team, and found himself battling against Fignon for the race win, much to most people's surprise. Lemond was always looking to innovate and his aerodynamic advances altered the way people have ridden time trials ever since. The best time-triallist of his time, he beat Fignon in 1989 to win and he took the 1990 Tour on the last time trial after spending the whole race trying to gain back time lost to a breakaway on the first stage. Lemond's success gave him massive marketing clout and he knew his, taking a big money contract and altering the financial structure of sport.
By the nineties, he was struggling to get his fitness back, and he was finding it harder and harder to recover; this was diagnosed as related to the lead shot that still remained in his body and was poisoning him. His career highlights also include another World Championship win outsprinting Sean Kelly and Dmitri Konyshev to the title.
Eddy Merckx (1945 -)
Regarded as the greatest cyclist of all time. Although in 2004, Lance Armstrong passed the record of five tour victories that Merckx held along with Anquetil, Hinault and Indurain, as an all round rider Merckx has yet to be equalled.
Born in Meensel-Kiezegem, Belgium, Merckx's desire to win got him the nickname of 'The Cannibal', something he lived up to by recording 525 career wins. The fact that he achieved his five Tour De France wins, five Giro wins, while competing in the full year long season marks his cycling achievements out from modern riders like Indurain and Armstrong who base their whole year's riding on winning the Tour. Merckx remains the only man to have won the points and overall title in all three grand tours.
Merckx retired in 1977 and continues to be a public figure in the world of cycling.
Marco Pantani (1970 - 2004)
The ups and downs of Pantani's career are as steep as the mountains he thrived on. A hugely talented climber, his light weight of 57kg allowed him to fly up the hills. His bald head and prominent ears earned him the nickname Elephanto though he preferred The Pirate. He took third place in the 1994 tour, but an accident with a car on closed roads left him with a broken leg in 1995. He came back with a third place in 1997 before winning in 1998. Drug scandals, victimisation by the Italian press and the judiciary left him a bitter man, and he died of a drug overdose on Valentine's Day 2004.
Stephen Roche (1959 -)
The Dublin rider was the first and so far only Irish winner of the tour. Professional since 1980, he had done well in previous Tours, but without the big names of Lemond and Hinault the stage was open for him in 1987. His race was an epic contest between himself and the great climber Pedro Delgado, the climax being Roche's comeback from being dropped on the climb to La Plange, a ski resort in the Alps. Delgado had escaped from Roche on the climb and everybody was expecting him to create a big enough cushion for the upcoming time trial. Roche had other ideas and produced a loss-limiting ride that left him collapsed at the finish with an oxygen mask. Roche was a far superior time-triallist and went on to win the Tour. In the same year he achieved the Triple Crown of World Championship and Giro, only the second man to win all three in the same year.
Jan Ullrich (1973 -)
Jan is possibly the most talented rider in the current field if he is able to utilise it. Although dogged by weight problems, the German has never finished lower than second place in the Tour de France, where he has ended up five times until 2004 where illness led to his fourth place finish. He came to prominence in 1996 where he followed his Team Leader Bjarne Riis where even Indurain couldn't follow, to a seemingly untroubled second. He won the next year following Riis' loss of form. He finished second to Pantani in 1998 when his weight problems in the close season coinciding with a tour that suited the climbers. Although he missed the 1999 and 2002 tours, he has finished behind Armstrong in the other races he has taken part in. Ullrich does not possess the ability to change pace to break people on a mountain that Armstrong and Pantani do, but he makes up for it in sheer power and is a superb time trial rider, winning two World Titles, as well as being very quick in a sprint when he needs to be, taking the Olympic title. Ullrich also has won the Spanish Tour.
Lucien Van Impe (1946-)
Belgian, Van Impe rode in 15 Tours de France, just one off the record. Although he won the 1976 race, and was second once and third three times, it is for his exploits in the mountains that Van Impe is remembered.
He was unfortunate to have to compete against both Merckx and Hinault at their prime, so as a pure climber4, had to make do with a then record six King of the Mountain Jerseys. Van Impe's win in 1976 was remembered for the stage when he launched an attack that by the finish left 43 out of the 95 other riders outside the stage time limit, forcing the officials to bend the rules to let them back in. He also managed 12 stage wins.
Joop Zoetemelk (1946 -)
Joop goes down in the annals of Tour history for having the grit and determination to start and finish a record 16 Tours de France. His professional career overlapped both Merckx and Hinault and so only claimed one Tour Victory, in 1980 when Hinault abandoned the race, though he has finished second a record six times. He also won a Tour of Spain, the World Championships and was still winning major classics into his forties.
Djamolidine Abdoujaparov (1964 -)
When the Eastern Bloc riders were allowed into the Tour after the fall of the Berlin wall, nobody really noticed the first name out of the gates for an all Soviet team. The Little Man from Uzbekistan (or The Tashkent Tornado/Terror) was the most fearsome sprinter for the early part of the nineties. His ability to make his bike swerve and skew in a bunch sprint was infamous, causing any number of incidents. The major one for which he will be remembered is when he swerved himself into a giant coke can at the Paris finish, taking down a fair few competitors with him. It may be surprising that in 1994 the Tour gave him a Fair Play award, one of only two riders to be awarded them. He also has 9 tour stage wins and 3 times has won the green jersey competition. His last stage win came when he wasn't at the height of his powers, so joined a breakaway on a hilly stage, disappearing off the front some distance from the line when it became clear that nobody else would work because he was by far the strongest sprinter. His career ended with ejection from the Tour for high white blood count in 1997, to the sadness of many fans of exciting racing and the relief of journalists everywhere.
Mario Cipollini (1967 -)
Born in 1967, and a pro from the age of 20, the Lion King is one of the most flamboyant and fashion conscious of the modern riders. The greatest sprinter of his generation, if he is to be believed, he makes sure he has a pair of shorts to match whatever colour prize jersey he wears. Preferring to be on a beach, rather than on climbing a mountain, he doesn't regularly finish the tour, but was a strong bet for stage wins in the first week.
Sean Kelly (1956 -)
A professional since 1977, Kelly held the record of four green points jerseys on his professional retirement in 1994. He rode 15 tours and was a very talented all-rounder, able to compete on the climbs, time-trialling and with the big sprinters. It's been suggested that if he had concentrated less on the Green Jersey he may have won the Tour, having been a winner of the Vuelta. He also won a large amount of classics.
Erik Zabel (1970 -)
Berliner Zabel is one of the all time greatest sprinters. Between 1996 and 2001 he picked up six consecutive Green Jersey victories. Backed up by his T-Mobile or Telecom team he always seems to be there or thereabouts at the end of a stage.
Luis (Lucho) Herrera (1961 -)
Along with Fabio Parra, Luis Herrera was one of the first prominent Colombians to race in the Tour in the mid eighties. A devastating climber, he won the King of The Mountains titles twice, in 1985 and 1987. He is one of the only people to have won the climbers competition in each of the three major tours. His limited abilities on the flatter roads meant he was never a real contender, but his exploits on the climbs of the tour inspired a new generation of cyclists from his country. Herrera retired in 1992, and was kidnapped in his home country, but such was the outcry and size of the manhunt, his captors let him go pretty quickly.
Richard Virenque (1969 -)
The French housewives' favourite rider, he broke the previous record of six King of The Mountains jerseys in 2004 when he attained his seventh. Possibly not the outright best climber on the toughest climbs, Virenque normally makes up enough points on the slightly more gentle climbs, often with a lone break as the race enters the mountains, to maintain his lead as the climbs get bigger.
He finished on the podium twice before the Festina5 scandal broke, and after two years of protesting innocence, he admitted to doping in 2000 and spent a year suspended. However he came back after the trial aiming to prove himself, and has succeeded in adding more stage victories to his CV. Virenque announced his retirement in 2004.