I can't really say anything about the past, since I've been only following cycling since let's say the mid nineties. Back then I was a big fan of Museeuw, more because he was the Belgian hero at that time than anything else. I was too young to put other riders' performance into perspective, so I missed out on some other legens of that time (Bartoli, to name one). The first climber/GT rider that really moved me was Marco Pantani. He was so graceful and almost mythic, I always looked forward to seeing him race. I've never been an Armstrong fan, so I always rooted for his challengers: Basso, Beloki, Vinokourov - all except Ullrich
If I had to make a list of fairly recent racing favourites of mine, this would be my choices:
Axel Merckx: It was almost impossible for him to live up to his fathers legacy, especially since he did not nearly have the same amount of talent. But he took it with pride none the less and always rode with his heart, a true professional. His epic stage win in the 2000 Giro after riding into a ravine was truly unforgettable.
Oscar Freire: The phenomenon. A very humble, almost wary rider, but with a palmares 99% of the peloton could only dream of. So much more than just a sprinter.
Tom Boonen: Obviously. Despite his turbulent private life, he's still Belgiums biggest cycling champion and one of the best classics riders of the past few years. Strenght, speed, stamina, grinta, humility ánd arrogance, he has it all.
Philippe Gilbert: Belgiums number 2. Full of fighting spirit, always up for the attack, agressive riding style and the ability to finish it off as well. The peloton needs more gutsy riders like him, that rather die trying than do nothing.
Fabian Cancellara: What a monster. probably the biggest engine in the peloton. Just as bold and straightforward as Gilbert. This years spring campaign was neutered without him.
Alberto Contador: Gives me the same feeling as Pantani back in the days. Probably the best climber in the peloton, with a beautiful style, panache and always the intention to attack. His recent stellar improvement in timetrialling not only makes him the best GT rider around, but it makes me frown as well. But for now, I'll just give him the benefit of the doubt.
Frank Vandenbroucke: In his 1998-1999 glory period. Seriously. The epic battle with Bartoli and Boogerd in 1999's Liège, his impressive Avila win in the Vuelta, breaking both wrists in the world championships and still finishing 7th. Not to mention his excentric personality and extreme self confidence. Too bad he was as weak as Pantani...