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VN Archives: How cycling’s legends match up

The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our…

The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 48th birthday. With 48 years worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love.

The January 17, 2000 edition of VeloNews magazine included a fun thought experiment by Kip Mikler: What would happen if cycling legends past and present faced off to see who was really the best in their respective specialties? Here is that article in its entirety, complete with illustrations by Dave Brinton.

Okay, okay. So Merckx is the man of the millennium. The numbers don’t lie: complete domination. But here’s a question for you: Who pins it fastest on the nasty steeps of the Les Gets downhill course in France: the Cannibal or Palmer? Well, yeah – Palmer has two Budweisers down before Merckx gets out of the woods.

How about this one: Same course, Pantani versus Anne-Caroline Chausson? We know Pantani’s not afraid to let it go on the paved descents, but remember: To make it out of the start house, you first have to be able to negotiate the chairlift; and can the Pirate really lift a bike that outweighs him? Baldy loses.

But those are mismatches. What we need here is neutral ground. Steel-cage death matches are effective for last-man-standing kinds of contests, but ours is a world of bikes, so let’s consider the following match-ups between some of cycling’s greatest legends of the last century. Since some are now retired, fat or dead, think of them, for this exercise, in their prime.

Race Across America: John Stamstad versus Ottavio Bottecchia

In a real race across America — left to right, whatever gets you there fastest — it’s a classic showdown between two of cycling’s most endearing, mysterious personalities of the 20th century: Stamstad versus Bottecchia. A dirty hippie of the 1990s and a dirty hippie of the 1920s. Never before have two of cycling’s greatest practitioners of the art of suffering come together in such a classic showdown. In front of a worldwide television audience tuning onto the riveting psychodrama via satellite, Stamstad and Bottecchia each choose their own particular brand of suffering. Stamstad, off-road racing’s first ultra-endurance legend, insists on steering clear of pavement the entire route. And, in a nod to corporate partners Spam and GU, he eats only precisely measured packets of chocolate and, um, meat food products.

Meanwhile, Bottecchia, the aching hero of 1920s Tours de France, takes a liking to the American Interstate system; but his sadly outdated machine and penchant for cheap truckstop wine seem to give him a self-destructive edge. European viewers can only shake their heads as they watch the man with the Woody Woodpecker face penalize himself with sad technical snafus. Why, they ask, does he continue to patch his own rubber, every hour or so, while Stamstad gains time with a direct route through the crucial Rocky Mountain region?

Stamstad carries a substantial lead into the heartland of America, but his “as-the-crow-flies” route has him bogged down in Midwest cornfields, while Bottecchia digs in with a tailwind on 1-70 and passes Stamstad in the Indiana night.

Entering the final stretch, however, Stamstad makes time in the Kentucky backwoods near his home. He runs out of GU in West Virginia, but a local, peddling roadkill jerky, gives Stamstad what he needs to refuel and win this epic, timeless battle.

Street sprint No.1: Nelson Vails versus Mario Cipollini

America’s favorite sprinter from the 1980s versus the world’s favorite sprinter with ’80s hair. Vails explodes off the line, but Cipollini reels “the Cheetah” in quickly. In the end, however, it’s the street element that does Cipollini in. Distracted by a short skirt and a long set of legs sticking out of a cab door, the Italian lays it down, taking Vails out with him. Both bikes end up twisted and messy; and while Cipollini stands up, brushes himself off, and walks toward the legs, the streetwise Vails, a former bike messenger, pulls the proper tools out his trusty courier bag, readjusts the bars and wobbles across the line first. Should have known: A cheetah’s always faster than a lion.

Street sprint No.2: John Tomac versus Marty Nothstein

In his prime, Tomac had the smoothest spin that the docs who measure this kind of thing have ever seen. Nothstein, it’s clear, isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to win. And, as in most competitions containing the word “street,” there are no rules here.

An integral component of the street sprints is the top-fuel-dragster-inspired “Christmas tree” start lights. Tomac — used to this procedure from dual-slalom racing — leaves Nothstein in the dust at the start. But once the behemoth trackster from Pennsylvania gets his fixed-gear machine up to speed, he reels Tomac in, and it’s bump-and-run from the midway point to the finish.

Fifty meters to go, Nothstein lowers the shoulder and edges Tomac toward the gutter. Big mistake. Tomac, who in addition to having a blinding spin, also knows how to handle the machine, bunnyhops onto the sidewalk. Nothstein’s disc wheel grinds the curb, and his SuperBike crumples beneath him. Even with those Farmer John tires, Tomac wins.

The head-to-head hour: Paola Pezzo versus Jeannie Longo

Sadly, the outcome of this super-hyped Beauty and the Beast showdown on a specially built velodrome at Madison Square Garden is tainted by a freak occurrence just hours before the start. While rolling around the track under the watchful eye of Gary Fisher, the 1996 Olympic mountain-bike champion is assaulted by a mysterious intruder bum-rushing the track and swinging a club below the knees of Pezzo’s sparkle pants.

Two members of Longo’s entourage are arrested, but the French intimidator denies any involvement, claiming she has nothing to do with “those imbeciles ….”

The Iron Horse Classic: Fausto Coppi versus Ned Overend

Nearly 30 years after the first IHBC, started after Tom Mayer decided to race a steam-powered locomotive piloted by his engineer brother Jim from Durango to Silverton, this classic showdown between two timeless legends unfolds in the San Juan mountains. Like ghosts of cycling past and present, Coppi and Overend separate themselves from the field immediately. Before leaving Durango city limits, each is out of the saddle, unfazed by the 5,500 feet of vertical coming their way.

With elegant style, Coppi leads over the first of two 11,000-foot passes, but Overend matches each pedal stroke, refusing to fade. As has been the case in several Iron Horse races in the last decade, weather moves in on the final climb. At the last neutral feed station, before the final climb, the snow blows sideways, and the duo disappears up the road. All radio communication is lost, and the drama is thick as spectators at the Silverton finish wait to see who will come out of the storm first.

It’s Coppi, and not by much. Crossing the line, the two fall into the arms of emergency aid staffers, Overend mumbling something about an illegal feed taken by Coppi from “a lady in white …”