The Tour de France began on this day in 1921, 1958, 1960, 1971, 1975 and 1980. In 1921, the race covered 5,484km in 15 stages, making the average stage length an astonishing 365.6km. None of them were that length, however; the shortest was 272km and the longest 482km. For comparison, the longest stage in 2012 is 220km.
|Captured in one of the Tour's most famous images, riders|
stop for much-needed refreshments in 1921
|Mottiat (left) and Scieur|
In Stage 9, by which time Desgrange had taken to penalising riders whom he considered not to be riding aggressively enough in an attempt to liven up the race, the battle ended when Scieur gained another ten minutes. Heusghem thought he had a chance to remain in contention during Stage 10 when Scieur punctured and broke with tradition by attacking, but Scieur caught him up, gave him a stern talking-to on the subject of how gentlemen ought to behave in competition, then dropped him and won both the stage and another six minutes.
|Albert Dejonghe high on Tourmalet, 1921|
Scieur lost a few minutes on the last stage, but his overall advantage was now so great that barring a serious crash his victory was never in any danger. His prize was 15,000 Francs; however, Victor Lenaers, who won the "second class" classification, had picked up more bonuses along the way and made 20,000F. Scieur entered the Tour three more times in subsequent years, but he never again finished nor won a stage.
In 1958, when the Tour was broadcast live on television for the very first time, the race consisted of 24 stages covering a total distance of 4,319km - made even more of a challenge by the organisers' decision to have no rest days. 120 riders started, split equally between ten teams: one French, one Belgian, one Italian and one Spanish while the Germans and Swiss sent a combined team, as did the Dutch and Luxembourgians. In addition there was an international team with riders from Britain, Portugal, Austria and Denmark, as well as three French regional teams, Centre-Midi, West/South West and Paris/North East. Even before the race began the French team was split by internal politics: Jacques Anquetil, mindful of the fact that Raphael Géminiani and Louison Bobet were both General Classification contenders in their own right and could, if they felt like it, easily become his greatest rivals, didn't want both of them on his team. So, he approached team manager Marcel Bidot and requested that only one of them be selected. Bidot chose Bobet; Géminiani, who had served the team for ten seasons, was packed off the Centre-Midi. He later bought a donkey, named it Marcel and presented it to Bidot to let him know that he considered him a jackass.
|Friendlier times: Geminiani and Anquetil|
The race started in Belgium's capital to mark the Brussels World Fair and, just as he would five times during his career, André Darrigade won Stage 1; then Gerrit Voorting, Gilbert Bauvin, Jean Gainche, Tino Sabbadini and Martin van Geneugden won the following five. The Italian Arigo Padovan won Stage 7 in a sprint, but judges found him guilty of "irregular sprinting" and relegated him to second - Brian Robinson was upgraded to first and Britain had its first ever stage winner. Gaul, meanwhile, was struggling. On the flat, he was an unexceptional rider and without the help of his team he was losing significant time. Most climbers don't perform particularly well in time trials, Gaul was an exception and could hold his own on a good day - he won Stage 8, which would have set alarm bells ringing for Mr Chrono Anquetil, but without enough of an advantage to get himself out of apparent danger. His rivals now wrote him off, but still he didn't care.
In Stage 9, Darrigade got away in a large breakaway and won both the stage and the yellow jersey. The rest of the French team were ten minutes down the road and, out of desperation, asked Géminiani to help catch Gastone Nencini when he threatened to put a serious dent in Anquetil's time by escaping the peloton. The exact wording of Géminiani's refusal has not been recorded, but we're probably safe in assuming it would have been quite robust.
|Enough climbing talent to make a thousand mortal grimpeurs:|
Gaul and Bahamontes
The next day, Bahamontes was back and in a big way. This time his escape worked and he was off up the mountains like an eagle, cruising to a solo win. Vito Favero was second over the line after a group sprint and won a 30" bonus which put him into first place overall, then he was second again the next day and extended his lead. Stages 16 and 17 were flat - Pierino Baffi won one, then André Darrigade won the next; but little changed.
|"The Ventoux is not like an other col"|
Gaul truly was not like any other rider, though he knew very well that even he had to respect Ventoux. However - and this is why he was different to all the riders than came before him and all those since - it was almost as though Ventoux respected him. The lower, forested slopes of Ventoux are like a hellishly over-heated sauna in June and the weird lunar terrain at the top is dry and so hot that the powerful winds feel as though they sear exposed skin, especially on le col de tempêtes ("the storm pass") near the summit where the wind blows at more than 90kph for 240 days every year and has been recorded at 320kph. That should have been the very worst of sort of place for Gaul, but as he began his methodical clockwork ascent - tick tock, tick tock, tick tock - it seemed like he rode in a personal bubble, sealed from the heat and dead air. Perhaps Ventoux knew his name and was reminded of the ancient Gauls who thought it was the home of their god Vintur, in doing so gave it its own name. More likely, it was just that for three weeks that year Gaul found the best form of his life (and, probably, the combination of drugs that worked best for him; Gaul took a lot of drugs) and briefly became the finest grimpeur that the world has ever known. Either way, he did the climb in 1h02'09", which remained a record until Jonathan Vaughters beat it more than three decades later, and he jumped to third place in the General Classification. His attempt to win the Tour had begun.
"I was on a motorbike and I had to stop at Granier for a hot grog. I was so cold that afterwards it was an hour before I could start writing. I remember only a curtain of rain. A deluge without an Ark. The caravan dissolved from the moment it entered the sea of clouds that followed the pretty chalets of Chamrousse. Now we know what it means to be 'soaked to the bone.' I thought of Jacques Anquetil, whose face was becoming more and more triangular and yellow. I thought of them all, the known and the unknown, sailors carried away by the flood and who tried desperately to avoid being shipwrecked. One man escaped from the storm. Charly Gaul."
|For three weeks in 1958 - which, happily,|
coincided with the Tour de France - Gaul
took climbing to a level never seen before
"Gaul stood up on the pedals and, in the blink of an eye, he was twenty metres ahead. Then he disappeared round the next bend. The dark angel had passed; he fled in a cloud of dust." - Michel ClaretAnquetil would become the undisputed, unbeatable king of the time trial within two years, but he wasn't quite at that level yet despite his overall victory in 1957. If he'd stayed nearer the top of the General Classification, he might well have won his second Tour on Stage 23. He hadn't, though, and the morning before it was held he abandoned after claiming to be ill. Neither Géminiani nor Favero were much good racing against the clock and lost three minutes each; when Gaul won, beating Nencini by 48", the maillot jaune was his and with one flat stage left he would face no further challenges. When he rolled over the finish line in Paris (after a stage in which Darrigade collided with a race official - the rider needed five stitches, the official died eleven days later of internal injuries) he became the first Luxembourgian to win a Tour since Nicolas Frantz in 1928, and his average speed was calculated to have been 36.919kph - a new record.
|Le Tour, 1960|
Belgian rider Julien Schepens won Stage 1a and Rivière won the 1b time trial. In Stage 2 Nencini got away in a break and took the maillot jaune while Bahamontes fell ill and was forced to abandon long before the mountains where he might have won; now the contenders numbered only three.
|Anglade, with Shay Elliott in 1965|
It was also the start of a rivalry between Rivière and Nencini - Anglade saw it and, for all his faults, it worried him because he knew that Rivière would try to follow his enemy on the descents when the race reached the mountains, something that Raphaël Géminiani said only a man with a death wish would ever try to do.
Little changed - or happened - over the next three stages, then in Stage 10 the race reached the Pyrenees. Usually, climbers dislike descents because they don't have the physical mass to stop their bikes skipping about uncontrollably, examples being Jean Robic who would have bidons filled with lead handed to him at the summits to weight his bike down and Federico Bahamontes who had once been so afraid to tackle a descent alone that he preferred to lose time by stopping to wait for the other riders to catch up - he passed the time by having an ice cream and enjoying the view. A modern example would be Andy Schleck, who on a good day climbs like his countryman Charly Gaul (who wasn't scared of descents or anything else except, later in his life, himself) and looks distinctly nervous on the way back down. Nencini, however, could do both - he won time on the Aubisque and while Adriaensens worked with Jozef Planckaert to try to win it back, the beginning of the end of the Belgian team's chances at winning overall started when they couldn't catch him. Rivière won the stage, Nencini took the yellow jersey he'd lost in Stage 3.
|Roger Riviere - the bush saved him, but he would spend the|
remainder of his life in a wheelchair
Nencini was left without serious challengers. Several riders tried to make up time on the following stages but his advantage was simply too great; only withdrawal would have prevented him from winning what must have felt a hollow victory.
He won, like everybody always knew he would, but it wasn't the simple process that so many expected it to be: Luis Ocaña came very, very close to beating him and might even have won overall had misfortune not intervened. In fact, the Spaniard was so good that Merckx had done him the very great honour of declaring him a rival: all other riders were to Merckx just amusing, meaningless distractions like humans to the gods. Or flies to wanton boys, of course; he was The Cannibal and he killed them for sport.
There were a few notable differences to previous years: when the riders needed to travel the 204km from Le Touquet to Rungis during the rest day between Stages 6b and 7, they were transported by aeroplane for the first time in the history of the race. Also, there would now be points on offer for the first riders through the intermediate sprints. One thing that remained the same was the split stages. Riders hated them and had complained after five were included in 1970, yet this year there were three - Stage 1a, 1b, and 1c, 6a and 6b and 16a and 16b; the organisers' argument being that the UCI had banned stages over a certain length to try to limit the temptation to dope, though riders suspected that the fact that split stages generated more income had rather a lot more to do with it.
Merckx went after an attacking Joop Zoetemelk and was followed by thirteen others in the mountains of Alsace in Stage 2, then beat Roger de Vlaeminck in a sprint to win the stage. The riders in the break gained ten minutes over those who had stayed in the peloton - which effectively ended the chances of any of them that might have been hoping to take Merckx on.
Rini Wagtmans, Jean-Pierre Genet, Pietro Guerra, Leman and Mauro Simonetti won the next five stages, then de Vlaeminck took himself out of contention by crashing heavily in Stage 7. The next day Ocaña attacked, and he did so so savagely that a surprised Merckx couldn't respond. Zoetemelk and Agostinho launched an attack of their own so afterwards and also gained time; by the end of the stage Merckx still led, but Zoetemelk was 36" behind him and Ocaña 37". The gap between the two challengers remained intact through Stage 10 where Merckx had a puncture and lost time; allowing Zoetemelk into the lead with Ocaña in second place. On Stage 11, Ocaña attacked again and caught Merckx by surprise for a second time - Zoetemelk, Agostinho and Lucien van Impe chased, but it wasn't long until only van Impe had the strength to continue. Ocaña attacked again and this time van Impe was finished, settling for second place six minutes behind the Spaniard. Merckx was third, nine minutes behind, and years later he admitted that for a little while he gave up all hope of a third Tour victory that day. Meanwhile, the pace had been so high that only 39 riders finished within the time limit and the organisers had to extend it to avoid eliminating so many that the race would be made less interesting.
Merckx started trying to win back the maillot jaune the very next day, but his attempt was thwarted by a serious error of judgement on the part of the Molteni manager - when Joseph Bruyère punctured, the team was ordered to wait and help him back into the race. It was a kind decision, but professional cycling has no room for kindness - as the other teams well knew, because as soon as they found themselves unchecked by Molteni riders they set off in hot pursuit of Merckx. What's more, the day was so hot that the glue holding tyres onto some riders' wheels melted and they crashed, Molteni lost a few men as a result. It's harsh, but Bruyère was just a domestique and it would have been far wiser to sacrifice him; kindness meant that Merckx only took back two minutes when he could have taken much more and he would be less well-defended in the future if he needed it. The time limit had to be extended once again after stage winner Luciano Armani and the lead group reached the finish line a record one hour ahead of schedule, arriving at Marseilles to find the Tour village only half ready - the mayor was so embarrassed that he never invited the Tour to his city again.
Ocaña was still wearing yellow. Although Merckx won the Stage 13 individual time trial, he only clawed back a few more seconds and the next day the race would reach the Pyrenees. Merckx excelled at everything, but he didn't excel quite so much at climbing as he did at everything else because he was too muscular and sometimes the skinny grimpeurs could get away from him; Ocaña, on the other hand, specialised in climbing. Merckx knew then that he was going to have to use his greater bulk to make up time on the descents. The trouble was, Ocaña was good at descending too.
It rained heavily on Stage 14, but after Ocaña had matched him move for move on the way up Merckx took off down the Col de Mente at a terrifyingly high speed. It turned out to be too fast even for him: his tyres lost their grip and he slewed straight into a wall. Ocaña slammed on his brakes but, having been trying to stay as close as possible, was not able to stop in time and collided with him. Merckx was fine; back on his feet in seconds he was soon speeding away down the mountain. Ocaña had difficulty releasing himself from his toe clips but was also on his feet moments later, then had to wait while his wheel was replaced. As a result, he was right in the path of Joop Zoetemelk when he too lost control and smashed into him at full speed, followed by Agostinho and another rider. That was to be the end of the 1971 Tour for the only man who could have beaten The Cannibal and he was rushed by helicopter to hospital. Merckx became race leader by default, having been convinced by race directors Felix Levitan and Jacques Goddet not to abandon as a mark of respect, which he had initially wanted to do. Instead, he chose not to attend the winners' ceremony at the end of the stage and, the next day, refused to wear the maillot jaune.
From that point onwards, the race belonged entirely to Merckx. Van Impe and Zoetemelk tried on Stage 16 but Merckx stayed with them no matter what they did. Perhaps deciding that the best way he could pay tribute to his fallen rival was by winning even more decisively, he attacked in Stage 17 and took another two minutes. He had no need at all to win the Stage 20 time trial but he still did - and won overall with an advantage of 9'51" over second place Zoetemelk.
When the Tour next began on this day, four years later in 1975, Merckx was back and hoping to become the first man to win six times, though he claimed he wasn't because then people would expect him to win even more - if that was indeed true, it seems odd that he'd earlier made it clear to his Molteni team that he wanted to ride the Tour rather than the Giro d'Italia, which was their first choice. The race did not go according to his plans.
|Cees Priem, winner of Stage 1a, seen winning|
Stage 13 in 1980
Merckx's claims that he didn't especially want to win seemed even more unlikely to have been genuine when he started the race, because he rode in a highly aggressive manner right from the gun. Immediately, however, there were signs that his reign was coming to an end - Francesco Moser trounced him in the prologue time trial and then matched him all the way through Stage 1a, which was won by Cees Priem after their high pace split the peloton into two. In Stage 1b he again set a high pace, but this time Raymond Poulidor and Bernard Thevenet (whose attendance had also been unsure due to a case of shingles) stayed with him.
The race settled down for the next few stages, as it tends to do on the long flat stretch through Northern France; then Merckx asserted his authority by beating Moser in the Stage 6 individual time trial and took the yellow jersey. Moser responded by winning the next stage, then Barry Hoban won the eighth and final Tour stage of his career - which would be the record for a British rider until Mark Cavendish beat it by winning Stage 19 in 2009.
Gerrie Knetemann won the flat Stage 12, then in Stage 13 the race reached the Massif Central where Michel Pollentier (who would win the Giro two years later, then the year after that got caught trying to fool a dope test using a plastic tube connected to a condom filled with somebody else's urine hidden under his armpit and thus gave away a method that had reportedly been used by a great many riders for a great many years) won.
Stage 15 followed after a rest day and was even more dramatic: a Bianchi team car went over a cliff and fell 150m; incredibly the occupants were not badly hurt. Later on, Thevenet dropped Merckx who seemed too tired to do anything about it - the Frenchman won the stage by two minutes and started the next day in yellow. He won by the same margin the next day and extended his overall lead even further - had Merckx met his match?
|Bernard Thevenet, the man who beat Merckx|
(image credit: Ken CC BY 2.0)
Thevenet beat Merckx by two minutes and forty-seven seconds, and another chapter in cycling's history came to an end.
Five years later, in 1980, a new one had begun - some of the characters from 1975 were still around, but a new king had arisen in the shape of Le Patron Bernard Hinault. The old Combination classification made a reappearance, but this time it was an extra prize offered by the TF1 television network and known as the Grand Prix TF1 - as an unofficial prize, there was no jersey. Meanwhile, a new rule stated that the last rider to finish each stage between Stages 14 and 20 would be eliminated from the competition - this was a response to Philippe Tesnière and Gerhard Schönbacher who had spent much of 1979 in a private competition to be lanterne rouge, which guaranteed almost as much media attention and lucrative post-Tour criterium contracts as winning. In their attempts to be the last rider over the line before the time limit, they'd stopped only just short of resorting to track stands and everything had become rather silly. The Spanish teams had decided to concentrate on their own Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, that year; likewise the Italian teams had put all their effort into the Giro d'Italia. Both teams had therefore kept many o their riders away - there were a few Spaniards, but Francesco Moser was the only Italian in the race.
|Ti-Raleigh on their way to winning the team time trial, 1980|
Ti-Raleigh won the Stage 7a team time trial, then 7b went to Jan Raas, 8 to Bert Oosterbosch, 9 to Raas again and 10 to Cees Priem. Tendinitis or not, Hinault was a good enough time trial rider to win back the maillot jaune in Stage 11 even though he came fifth behind Zoetemelk - who, only 21" behind in the General Classification, felt a renewed confidence. Knetemann won Stage 12, then the Tour reached the Pyrenees for Stage 13 - and Hinault was not on the start line, having decided the night before that his pain was too great. Zoetemelk became race leader by default, but the next day he refused to wear the yellow jersey.
|High in the Pyrenees, Zoetemelk in yellow|
Riders born on this day: Greg LeMond (USA, 1961); Jonny Clay (Great Britain, 1963); Pat Tolhoek (Netherlands, 1965); Liam Horner (Ireland, 1943, died 2003); Leo Marchiori (Canada, 1898, died 1949); Luis Santamarina (Spain, 1942); Maximilian Levy (Germany, 1987); Jerzy Głowacki (Poland, 1950); Ludovic Zanoni (Romania, 1935); Jack Heid (USA, 1924, died 1987); Kensley Reece (Barbados, 1945); Andrzej Bek(Poland, 1951).