This article is the first in another series, which also part of a greater whole – a point system which has then been used to rank the greatest of riders in the professional sport since WWII. To keep all the various articles/posts related to this theme organized, I’ve created a new link located in the Navigation section to the left which is titled The Top 25 100 Cyclists of the Modern Era. Hopefully, this will lend some cohesion to this project, which was originally only going to be several articles long, but has since grown arms and legs; it has taken on a life of its own.
For the next several articles I’ll be examining the missing years; those years that a cyclist was unable to compete due to war, injury or illness. Other ranking systems have been content to simply acknowledge these gaps in a rider’s career, and have gone no further. In light of the huge impact these missing years had on certain careers, I felt compelled to actually make adjustments to the raw scores cyclists achieved through my point system. I’ll explain the way these points were awarded, and the adjustments made, in a subsequent article. Hopefully, some of the following background material will help explain why I chose such a different path.
WWII – Gino and Fausto
WWII effectively shut down professional road racing. The Tour de France was not held from 1940-1946, and there were no editions of the Giro d’Italia from 1941-1945. Four of cycling’s greatest one day races (Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Giro di Lombardia) had all experienced interruptions lasting two to three years. Even when some of the marquee events were still held, there was never a true gathering of the world’s best. Fortunately, the greatest champions of the period did survive the war, and even managed to do so with their limbs intact, unlike so many of their counterparts from WWI.
Most professionals who had been active at the start of the war had at least five years of their careers carved away, including both Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi (photos, left and above right). Certainly Coppi’s palmares would have been far greater, but it was his greatest rival, Bartali, who was actually robbed of his best cycling years.
Gino Bartali (photo right) turned professional in 1935, and won the Giro d’Italia in 1936 and 1937. He looked well on his way to victory in his first Tour de France appearance in 1937 when he crashed while descending the Galibier, his injuries eventually forcing him to withdraw from the race while still in the yellow jersey. The following year he confirmed his place history by winning 1938 Tour, becoming the first man to win both of cycling’s premier stage races. Gino was primed to go on rampage, the likes of which had never been seen, but in a cruel twist of fate he would have to wait eight long years to taste victory in another Grand Tour. In 1939 he was prevented from defending his Tour win; the fascist Italian government opted to forego sending their riders to France. A crash in the 1940 Giro effectively took Gino out of contention (young neo pro Coppi, who Gino himself had recruited, was the eventual winner), and once again Italy would be absent from that year’s Tour de France. By 1941 war had engulfed the entire continent, and Gino Bartali’s peak years would forever be lost.
How many more prestigious races might Bartali have won, had war not interrupted his career? Certainly, he would have added more Grand Tours, Classics, and perhaps even that missing World Championship title to his long list of victories. Coppi (photo left) would have had his share of wins, no doubt, but he had just turned pro at the beginning of the war, and could well have taken a few years to fully develop. Further, he chose to wait until he was twenty-seven before even participating in his first Tour de France (in 1949, which he won). Lastly, Coppi was very prone to illness and injury; his fragile constitution was perhaps his greatest weakness. Had he raced throughout the war years, there’s probably a good chance he would have been sidelined for at least some of the time, for one reason or another. It certainly begs the question: if not for WWII, would it now be Gino Bartali, rather than Fausto Coppi, who is remembered as Italy’s greatest cycling legend?
Despite the long five year break from racing, Bartali wasted little time in reminding the cycling world that one of its great champions had returned. In 1946 Gino claimed victory in his first Grand Tour appearance since 1940, defeating none other than his former protégé, Fausto Coppi, at the Giro (by a slim 47 second margin). In 1948 Bartali would again etch his name in the record books when he became the only man to go a full decade between Tour de France victories, a record which stands to this day. By that time Gino was in his mid 30’s, and it would be his last Grand Tour victory; his best years were behind him, and Fausto Coppi’s had just begun.
This series will be continued with The Missing Years – War, Injury, and Illness, Part 2