The Tour de France, since its inaugural race in 1903, has consistently proven to be the pinnacle of professional cycling. It has borne witness to several extraordinary champions, whose triumphs, struggles, and rivalries have shaped the race’s rich history. Let’s revisit ten of the most iconic Tour de France past winners, spread across more than a century of gripping competition.
1. Maurice Garin (1903)
The first-ever winner of the Tour de France, Maurice Garin, dominated the inaugural edition of the race in 1903. He won 3 out of 6 stages and finished nearly 3 hours ahead of his closest competitor, Lucien Pothier, in an event far more gruelling than today’s race.
Known as ‘the Chimney Sweep’, was born in Italy but became a naturalised French citizen in 1901. Prior to his Tour de France victory, he was already a successful cyclist, with wins in Paris-Brest-Paris and Bordeaux-Paris. His first Tour victory in 1903 was overshadowed by disqualification in the following year due to alleged cheating, a controversy that has since become part of Tour lore.
2. Philippe Thys (1913, 1914, 1920)
Belgian cyclist Philippe Thys holds the distinction of being the first rider to secure three Tour de France victories. His tactical prowess and remarkable physical endurance brought him successive victories in 1913 and 1914, and a triumphant return in 1920.
Philippe Thys’ victories were built on his ability to endure long stages, some over 300 km, which were characteristic of the early Tours. Known for his smart race tactics, Thys is often credited with being the first rider to use a strategy of saving energy for critical parts of the race, an approach that would become a staple of Tour racing.
3. Antonin Magne (1931, 1934)
Magne, known as ‘The Monk’ for his quiet and solemn demeanour, claimed the yellow jersey twice, in 1931 and 1934. The Frenchman defeated esteemed rivals like Rafaele di Paco and Giuseppe Martano through his consistent performances and excellent time-trialling abilities.
Apart from his Tour de France victories, Antonin Magne had an illustrious career which included wins in the French National Championships and the prestigious ‘Monument’ Classic, the Milan-San Remo. Magne also mentored another Tour de France champion, Louison Bobet, further cementing his legacy in French cycling.
4. Gino Bartali (1938, 1948)
Italy’s Gino Bartali’s victories are particularly notable for their ten-year gap – the longest between Tour de France wins. Despite the fierce competition, including a rising star Fausto Coppi, Bartali’s tenacity and strength saw him triumph, securing his status as one of Italy’s greatest cyclists.
Gino Bartali was not only an exceptional cyclist but also a war hero. During World War II, he worked with the Italian resistance, using his training rides as a cover to carry messages and documents. His 1948 Tour de France victory is also credited with helping to quell civil unrest in Italy, demonstrating the cultural impact of his cycling career.
5. Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-1964)
Jacques Anquetil, the first cyclist to win the Tour de France five times, was renowned for his time-trialling prowess. His key rivals included Raymond Poulidor, with their battle during the 1964 Tour being one of the most memorable in the event’s history.
Jacques Anquetil was a master of the time trial, earning him the nickname ‘Monsieur Chrono’. His cool demeanour and calculated racing style often contrasted with the passionate and aggressive riding of his rivals. Anquetil also had success in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, making him one of the few cyclists to win all three Grand Tours.
6. Eddy Merckx (1969-1972, 1974)
Belgian Eddy Merckx, widely considered one of the greatest cyclists of all time, won the Tour de France five times. Known as ‘The Cannibal’ for his insatiable appetite for victory, Merckx often triumphed over skilled competitors like Roger De Vlaeminck and Luis Ocaña.
Beyond the Tour de France, Eddy Merckx’s list of achievements is astonishing, with victories in all five ‘Monument’ Classics and multiple World Championship titles. Renowned for his aggressive, attacking style, Merckx also holds the record for the most stage wins in Tour de France history, with an astounding 34 victories.
7. Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985)
Bernard Hinault, another five-time winner, is one of the ‘Greats’ of French cycling. Hinault’s career was marked by his rivalry with Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond, especially during the 1985 and 1986 Tours.
Bernard Hinault, known as ‘The Badger’ for his fierce competitiveness, was a versatile cyclist who could excel in both mountains and time trials. Like Merckx and Anquetil, he too won all three Grand Tours. Hinault now works closely with the Tour de France organisation, a role that allows him to remain influential in the sport.
8. Greg LeMond (1986, 1989, 1990)
Greg LeMond, the first non-European winner of the Tour, is best remembered for his 1989 victory, where he beat Laurent Fignon by a mere 8 seconds in the final time trial on the Champs Élysées. His comeback after a near-fatal shooting accident makes his victories even more remarkable.
Greg LeMond’s victories paved the way for non-European riders in the Tour de France. He was known for his innovation and is often credited with popularising aerodynamic time trial helmets and triathlon handlebars in professional cycling. After his cycling career, LeMond has remained active in the sport, advocating for clean competition and anti-doping regulations.
9. Miguel Indurain (1991-1995)
Spain’s Miguel Indurain dominated the early 1990s, winning five consecutive Tours. Known for his calm demeanour and extraordinary physical abilities, Indurain overcame rivals like Claudio Chiappucci and Alex Zülle in his impressive run.
Miguel Indurain was known for his stoic persona and incredible physical ability, including an extraordinary lung capacity and low resting heart rate. He was particularly dominant in time trials but could also hold his own in the mountains. Indurain’s string of five consecutive victories set a new benchmark for consistency in the Tour de France.
10. Chris Froome (2013, 2015-2017)
Chris Froome, a four-time winner, was a dominant force in the 2010s and the most recent of the Tour de France past winners to make this list. His victories were defined by his fierce rivalry with Nairo Quintana. Froome’s journey from a humble background in Kenya to Tour de France stardom makes his achievements particularly compelling. It might have been 5 in a row if not for a crash before the cobbles on a Paris Roubaix-style stage in 2014.
Chris Froome’s journey to Tour de France success started in the high-altitude landscapes of Kenya and South Africa, where he developed his immense endurance. His tactical acumen and time-trialling prowess, combined with his impressive climbing abilities, made him one of the most complete riders of his generation. Despite a severe crash in 2019, Froome’s determination and resilience have seen him return to professional racing, a testament to his character.
While each of these Tour de France past winners has carved their unique paths to victory, they share a common trait – an indomitable will that enabled them to conquer one of the most gruelling races in the world. Their stories, rivalries, and victories continue to inspire and will forever be etched in the annals of the Tour de France. A usual book to explore more of the Tour de France past winners is the Official History of the Tour de France.