People love to rank things as it creates order and clarity. Having a mathematical formula quantifying value tends to attribute a feeling of truth to the output. However, the actual truth is that any attempt of ranking the best riders in cycling history is pointless. Pointless, but useful...
For years I've been keeping my personal all-time rider ranking up to date. Yes, I plead guilty to his universal urge of finding a formula to put reality into boxes. I'll explain the rationale behind my points schema below. If you prefer to skip the boring part, sharpen your knife and proceed to the King of the Echelon All-Time Rider Ranking immediately. In true count-down style, I've already published spot 101 to 300 and I'll be revealing the top 100 bit by bit over the next couple of weeks. As there is no debate possible about who's the greatest cyclist ever, you can already see who tops the list.
Rankings are pointless
It's pretty much impossible to compare professional cyclists across generations. Cycling, just like any other sport, went through a huge evolution in terms of professionalism:
teams are managed like small companies with professionals in each domain
bike technology: steel was replaced by carbon fiber; changing gears by flipping the back wheel became tapping a button on the brake levers.
science: dietetics, aerodynamics, advanced training schedules, measuring biological parameters, ...
The pursuit to yield a better result from training led to riders focusing more on training quality than training quantity and entering fewer races.
In 2021, Tadej Pogacar finished his season counting 56 race days. In the 1970s, 120 race days per year were no exception. Eddy Merckx even added some sixdays during winter.
Back then, every rider basically competed in every race. Nowadays, riders focus on the races that suit their characteristics best: you're either a sprinter, a classics rider, or a grand tour rider. Unless you go by the name of Wout Van Aert of course.
More than 100 years of professional cycling clearly doesn't offer a balanced basis for comparison. Additionally, each attempt to create a ranking suffers from personal bias. Being Flemish, I'm a huge fan of the big one-day classics. So my points schema is potentially skewed in favor of one-day riders. If I would have been Spanish, I had most likely attributed more weight to stage races.
Rankings are useful
So why should we care about these types of rankings at all?
Because they carry more than a century of history of our beloved sport.
The richness of cycling is rooted in its traditions. The importance of a race is measured by the number of times it was organized. Rankings will get you a free ticket to a journey of discovery.
Either you'll see certain names for the first time or you'll be surprised why a rider ranks that high. Did he have a long career, a lot of podiums? Was he a lethal finisher with a high win ratio? Did he focus on a specific type of race or was he an allrounder? In which era and against whom did he compete?
I was born in 1981 and from a young age, I was exposed to the world of cycling through family and media. When I started the creation of my rider hall of fame about 20 years ago, I could say most of the riders with a considerable (post-WWII) honors list at least rang a bell. Yet, in the top-100, I did end up with riders I had never heard of. Italo Zilioli, anybody?
Eventually, the points don't matter. During your discovery, you'll assess the achievements of riders based on your own convictions and preferences. Some of you will post a comment saying rider X should rank above rider Y. Or that the points schema doesn't make a lot of sense.
And you're totally right; in fact, these schemas are always incorrect. But in the meantime, it fuels discussions online, among friends in pubs, in families... How dead would a sport be if people had stopped debating about it?
Races & Points Schema
I started with the observation that, since the 1990s, the wave of specialization in cycling led to riders focussing either on one-day races or on stage races. The premise on which the whole points schema is built is that a Grand Tour (GT) is approximately worth 2 classics (or 1 classic and 1 world championship (WC).
The reasoning is that winning 2 GT's in one season is very rare as it has only happened twice since the Giro-Tour double of Marco Pantani in 1998. Winning 1 GT obviously happens every year and therefore could be considered the maximum repeated achievement.
The corresponding maximum repeated achievement in one-day racing would be a double classic win or a combination of a classic and a WC in one season, which occurred 11 times in 20 years (winning 3 of them only happened once since 1975).
World Championship Road Race
Olympic Games Road Race
Il Lombardia (ITA)
Ronde Van Vlaanderen (BEL)
Amstel Gold Race (NED)
Clasica San Sebastian (SPA)
Flèche Wallonne (BEL)
Cyclassics Hamburg (GER)***
E3 Harelbeke (BEL)
Giro del Piemonte (ITA)
Giro del Veneto (ITA)
Giro dell'Emilia (ITA)
Giro del Lazio (ITA)*
GP Montreal (CAN)
GP Québec (CAN)
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (BEL)
GP Frankfurt (GER)***
Strade Bianche (ITA)
Tour De France (FRA)
Giro d'Italia (ITA)
Vuelta a España (SPA)
Critérium du Dauphiné (FRA)
Tour de Romandie (SUI)
Tour de Suisse (SUI)
Volta a Catalunya (SPA)
Vuelta al País Vasco/Itzulia (SPA)
4 Jours de Dunkerque (FRA)
BeNeLux Tour (BEL/NED)
Critérium International (FRA)*
Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (BEL)*
Semana Catalana (SPA)*
Grand Tour Stages & Classifications
Tour de France Green Jersey (FRA)
Tour de France Polka Dot Jersey (FRA)
Tour de France Stage (FRA)
Giro d'Italia Stage (ITA)
Olympic Games Time Trial
World Championship Time Trial
GP des Nations (FRA)*
(*) Defunct races
(**) Paris-Bruxelles is called Brussels Cycling Classic since 2013, but most people in Belgium keep using the old name.
(***) The German races apparently love name changes (because of sponsorship). Cyclassics Hamburg was originally named HEW Cyclassics, then became Vattenfall Cyclassics, and nowadays goes by the name Bemer Cyclassics. GP Frankfurt is best known as the Rund um den Henninger Turm Frankfurt but became Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn Frankfurt a couple of years ago.
Points distribution per race type
GT supplements; 21 stages per GT
Most of the races do not require any explanation; they are the most prestigious and competitive races on the cycling calendar. However, some of them do not seem to fit in there from the present day's perspective. Although they were heavily targeted in the past (with famous winners), they've lost their shine over time due to various reasons: budget, calendar changes, ... This would apply to Paris-Tours, 4 Jours de Dunkerque, and Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. I did, however, keep their points valuation as if they still were in their heydays.
Since the mid-2000s, a fair amount of these races ceased to exist:
GP des Nations (2004)
Midi Libre (2004)
Züri-Metzgete (aka Championship of Zurich) (2006)
Giro del Lazio (2008); short comeback in 2014 as Roma Maxima.
Giro del Veneto (2012); revived in 2021 though.
Criterium International (2016)
Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (2017); became a one-day race (Brugge-De Panne Classic) so I withdrew then from the ranking.
In order to compensate for these, I looked at newer races with high-quality participants. Hence the addition of:
BeNeLux Tour (2005); previously known as Eneco Tour and Binckbank Tour
Strade Bianche (2007),
GP Québec (2010),
GP Montreal (2010)
As the top-100 is yet to be revealed, take a shot at guessing who the top-ranked riders could be. Or post your personal top-10 in the comment section.
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