Wednesday 27 June 2012

Daily Cycling Facts 27.06.12

Philippe Thys
The Tour de France began on this day in 1920, 1933, 1957, 1968, 1970, 1974 and 1979. In 1920, the race was 5,503km in length and consisted of 15 stages - 12 of which were won by Belgian riders, who also took eight of the top ten places at the end of the race. In 1919, riders faced terrible roads that had been badly damaged during the First World War; while France was still putting itself back together (the economy remained in a poor state, so the bike manufacturers once again joined frces in an organisation named La Sportive to provide sponsorship), great efforts had been made to repair the transport structure and as a result the average speed increased very slightly. There were also many more riders - only 67 started in 1919 and just 10 finished, a year later 113 started and 22 finished.

The most notable difference was Philippe Thys (his name, incidentally, is pronounced Tayce to rhyme with race): he was a non-combatant during the war and had apparently spent most of it eating, so when he raced in 1919 he was hopelessly overweight. His performance was so poor that newspapers asked why he'd even bothered to enter the Tour, before too long he began to wonder the same and went home. Later, Desgrange attacked him: "You have become un petit bourgeois who has lot his love for his bike and wasted a huge talent," he said. Stung, Thys spent the winter training hard: when he showed up on the start line in 1920 he weighed 69kg, just as he had done when he won in 1913 and 1914. He was lucky to be there because an accident at Milan-San Remo had resulted in a complex fracture to his collarbone, but he instantly became a favourite. Other popular riders were Henri Pélissier, Eugène Christophe, Jean Alavoine and Louis Mottiat.

Félix Goethals
The race set out from Paris with Mottiat winning Stage 1 to become leader but then Thys won Stage 2 - he, Mottiat, Jean Rossius, Félix Goethals and Emile Masson now had equal overall times, but since he'd won the stage it was decided that he was now leader. Pélissier won Stages 3 and 4 but without gaining significant time. While Mottiat lost time, Thys (still in yellow), Rossius, Goethals and Masson remained neck and neck after the third stage; then Thys and Masson matched one another after the fourth - and competition was dwindling: the race was run in searingly hot weather that year and, by the end of Stage 4, 65 riders had already abandoned.

It now looked as though Pélissier was to be Thys' greatest rival, and as the strongest rider in France he might well have been; however, during Stage 5 he was given a two-minute penalty when race officials saw him throw away a damaged tyre. Tour rules of the day strictly stated that each rider had to finish with every piece of equipment that he'd had with him when he started, a rule that Pélissier - with some justification - considered stupid. He complained, but the penalty remained; s he announced that he would have no further part in the race (and he didn't, until 1923 when Tour director Henri Desgrange finally needled him so much that he came back and won just to prove a point).

In Stage 6 the riders reached the Pyrenees and both organisers and fans eagerly anticipated some excitement as, other than Pélissier's tantrum, the race had been boring so far. It didn't happen: Thys rode wisely rather than bravely by staying with the main group and keeping a close eye on anyone who might turn out to be a rival, knowing full well that he had no need to increase his lead with half the race still to go. Meanwhile, Desgrange was apoplectic with fury because the riders kept finishing in a group - he always wanted the race to be about every-man-for-himself heroics, not team work and mutual assistance. Therefore, he'd have been delighted when Thys attacked in Stage 9 he got away and beat Hector Heusghem - and by doing so, he became the first rider of that year's Tour to wear the maillot jaune; introduced one year earlier, it wasn't awarded until Stage 9 in 1920. The reason for that is lost (probably, as were the reasons behind so many things that happened in the early Tours, with the loss of material when documents were transported from occupied Northern France to Vichy France during the Second World War); however, a likely reason is that the maillot jaune seems to have come about purely as a result of one of Desgrange's many whims and it simply hadn't occurred to him until that point to bring back what would become one of the most recognised symbols in sport.

Hector Heusghem
Heusghem won Stage 10, still without making up enough time to present any meaningful sort of challenge to Thys. Desgrange was now so furious that he threatened to end the race, though this may have been an empty threat intended to make the riders compete a little more aggressively (no race meant no prize money, after all) - either way, he was persuaded that it should continue. Nothing improved much, apart from Thys' advantage. Stage 11 went to Leon Scieur, the first of his career (just a year later, he won), then Thys took Stages 12 and 13 to widen the gap even further. Goethals and Rossius won the final two stages, but both had ceased to be rivals a long time ago.

Thys' overall time was 231h07'15". He therefore became the first man to win three editions and had finished top five on every single stage, been a part of every breakaway, won four stages, been second in seven others and third on one more. Heusghem was second with +57'21"; Firmin Lambot, who took third place, was another 42'56" behind Heusghem.

Honoré Barthélémy
Desgrange may not have been impressed by the race, but he was vastly impressed by how much Thys had improved since the previous year, later proclaiming him one of the Tour's true heroes and insisting that had the war not brought racing to an end for so many of his best years he'd have won five or six Tours. The French public, meanwhile, were far more impressed by Honoré Barthélémy: he'd already had several minor crashes before Stage 8, but then he had one that left him stunned, with a dislocated shoulder and covered in blood. When he stood up he found that he was also unable to bend his back. Abandon? Not a chance - Barthélémy was made of far tougher stuff than that. He took out a spanner, flipped his handlebars up the other way so he could sit upright and then carried on. When the concussion began to wear off, he discovered that the sight was not returning to one eye - a sharp stone had lodged in it and the eye had to be removed. He finished in eighth place, more than five-and-a-half hours slower than Thys but the best-placed Frenchman.

Ever since 1905, L'Auto had chosen the rider considered to have been the best climber and named them meilleur grimpeur after the race. However, because climbers tend to be small and light, they're often absolutely useless and getting back down the mountains again as a stronger, heavier rider will find his or her bike easier to control; so time won on the way up would very often be lost shortly afterwards and being a brilliant climber didn't necessarily carry any advantage. For the first time in 1933, organisers introduced a new competition by which points would be awarded to the first riders to the top of several peaks along the parcours (later, peaks would be categorised as 1, 2, 3, 4 and - hardest of all - Hors Categorie, with a rising point scale to match). This year was, therefore, the first in which the King of the Mountains became a part of the Tour.

Speicher, 1933
There had also been some changes to time bonuses. Prior to 1932, the winner of each stage was awarded a time bonus of two minutes or three if he finished three or more minutes ahead of second place. In 1932, this was extended - the stage winner was awarded a four-minute bonus, second place for two minutes and third one minute, each of which would then have an extra three minutes added on if the margins were three minutes. The idea was to give sprinters a chance at the General Classification because, with their larger muscle mass, they lost significant amounts of time to the climbers in the mountains - as is still the case with riders such as Mark Cavendish today, though the King of the Mountains has since been joined by the Points competition contended by the sprinters (many people without an interest in cycling fail to understand that the Tour is in fact a collection of four races - the General Classification, the King of the Mountains, the Points competition and the Teams Classification; riders also compete for the Combativity Award and, if eligible, the Youth category). This worked in the favour of André Leducq, who won a total of 24 bonus minutes during the race and thus beat second place Kurt Stöpel (who was the only German rider to have stood on the Tour's podium for 64 years, until Jan Ullrich repeated his placing in 1996) by that time plus the 3" that would otherwise have been his advantage. Fans and officials considered this unfair, so the rules were changed again - now, only the stage winner got a bonus and it was reduced to two minutes.

The race set out from Paris where it was started by the American actor, dancer and singer Joesephine Baker, who would become a French citizen in 1937 (she remained in France during the War and worked for the Resistance, later becoming the first American-born woman to be awarded the Croix de guerre medal. Among many other achievements, Baker was the first black woman to star in a major film and was later offered the unofficial leadership of the US Civil Rights moement - with which she had been deeply involved - following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, though she turned it down). There would be 23 stages covering 4,395km and, for the first time since 1912, the 80 riders headed off in a clockwise direction around the nation. 40 of those riders were independent touriste-routiers, the remainder were members of the national teams of Germany,  Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and France - the latter two were considered to have the best chance, though the Belgians were split by Flemish/Walloon rivalry. The French team, consisting of Maurice Archambaud, Georges Speicher, Antonin Magne, Léon Le Calvez, René Le Grevès, Roger Lapébie, André Leducq and Charles Pélissier, was considered to be one of the strongest ever seen at the Tour.

Maurice Archambaud won Stage 1 for France and thus took the maillot jaune, then made sure his advantage remained intact until Stage 9 when Georges Lemaire of Belgium took it. Italy's Learco Guerra - one of Desgrange's favourites for victory - won Stage 2, then Alfons Schepers of Belgium won the following day before the race reached the Alps. During Stage 3, Pélissier collided with a car and crashed; he continued but was in too much pain to keep up the pace and finished outside the time limit. As a superb sprinter and winner of thirteen stages over the course of his career, his absence was an early disaster for the team. Belgians Jean Aerts and Léon Louyet took the next two stage wins, then Guerra and Speicher took two consecutive stages each. On Stage 9, French team leader Archambaud suffered badly on the climbs and then cracked on the Col d'Allos, a 2,250m pass that featured in every Tour between 1911 and 1939 but then fell out of favour and is rarely seen now. Guerra, in second place, tried to use it to his advantage; but his attack was brought to a rapid halt by a puncture - he lost time (most of which he made up, remaining second with a disadvantage of only 23") and Lemaire took the lead.

Only seven riders finished within the time limit (+8% of the stage winning time) on Stage 10, somewhat of a surprise as it was a flat stage and because the man who set the limit by winning the stage was a virtually unknown French touriste-routier named Fernand Cornez. Desgrange extended it to 10%, but still only 43 riders made it to start the next day when the limit was again set at 10% with four riders finishing beyond it. Realising that too many had already been lost, Desgrange extended it to 15% and all four survived - though one, Ernest Neuhard, had been hit by a race official's car and would never regain the time he lost, eventually becoming lanterne rouge. Archambaud, who had regained his ability to climb, won the stage and his two-minute bonus allowed him to take back the maillot jaune. He didn't have it for long - the very next day, Speicher took it.

Georges Lemaire
Leducq won Stages 13 and 14, then the race arrived at the Pyrenees. Archambaud probably expected to move back into the lead because he was a better climber than Speicher; but while Speicher, who had finished tenth overall in 1932, was virtually helpless on the climbs and would lose significant time on the way up every col, he had mastered the fine of art of remaining just the right side of losing control of a plummeting bike on the descents and was able to regain the time and catch the peloton each time it got away. Lemaire was now in second place and could almost certainly have mounted a serious challenge, but now the split in his team put him at a serious disadvantage: he needed them to work together, but the Flemish riders rode instead for Jean Aerts. It worked rather well for Aerts in the short term because he won Stage 15, 17, 19, 20 and 21, but unfortunately he was too far down in the General Classification to rival Archambaud or Speicher and, in the long term, it cost them the Tour. This time the time bonus system worked in Guerra's favour - he couldn't catch Speicher, whose advantage remained intact all the way back to Paris, but when he won the final stage the two minutes he was awarded raised him from third to second.

Vicente Trueba, the first ever
King of the Mountains
Sixteen mountains had been chosen for the new climbing competition, with ten points for the fastest man to the summit, nine for the second and so on down to one point for the tenth man - Vicente Trueba, a Spaniard, collected ten points on nine of them. Records for the rest of the mountains are incomplete, so it's not possible to say for certain if he won a total of 126 points, as some sources claim, or 134 as some others have it. Either way, Antonin Magne had either 81 or 78 for second place, so it was enough: Trueba, a touriste-routier and virtual unknown, became the very first Tour de France King of the Mountains.

Despite his victory, Speicher was for some reason not initially selected for the team that would represent France at the World Championships later than year; a matter of some controversy at the time. Then, the night before the race, one of the selected riders dropped out. Managers searched for Speicher and eventually heard that he'd gone to see a film, so they barged into the cinema and asked if he'd ride as a replacement. He agreed and won - the first man to have ever won the Tour and the World Championships in a single year.

In 1957, the French had an even stronger team; this time it was made up of Roger Walkowiak (team leader for the first time due to the absence of Louison Bobet and Raphael Géminiani), Jean Forestier, François Mahé, Gilbert Bauvin, Louis Bergaud, André Darrigade, René Privat, Jean Stablinski, Albert Bouvet and new domestique Jacques Anquetil. The parcours was considerably more mountainous than in recent years, which made the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes and Luxembourgian Charly Gaul favourites; the French team therefore also benefited from the race directors' perhaps not entirely consequential decision not to grant Gaul's request that he ride for the Dutch team, which was much stronger than the Luxembourg/Mixed team. Gaul was not in the best form he'd ever know, but the Dutch would nevertheless have been made far stronger by his inclusion. For a short while, it looked as though the public in France and further afield would have little chance to see their heroes in action: race organisers had a row with the national broadcaster and it began to look as though it wouldn't be on television at all. Fortunately, both parties realised that compromise was in both their interests and an agreement and figure acceptable to both was reached. Meanwhile, the Tour was looking after the radio and newspaper reporters - they had a brand new, state-of-the-art mobile media centre, paid for in part by the advertising on the riders' jerseys which had made a reappearance after 27 years of plain national colours.

Left to right: Privat, Barone, Anquetil, Bauvin, Bobet
The race set off from Nantes and riders faced 22 stages covering a total of 4,665km. Darrigade won the first stage for the second year running, and he'd do it again three more times before he retired. The next day, Privat won the stage and enough time for the maillot jaune; the race came to an end for Gaul who was feeling ill, probably because of the oppressively hot weather (Gaul was as well-known for his hatred of hot weather as he was for his ability to keep going in the most dangerous, treacherously wintry weather long after other riders had given up for their own safety). Stage 3a was a team time trial and France won, then Anquetil won 3b. Marcel Janssen of Belgium won Stage 4, but without enough time take the yellow jersey from the French; then Bauvin won Stage 5 and Anquetil gained the time he needed to have his turn in yellow. André Trochut from the Sud Quest French regional team won the next day, again without the time to challenge Anquetil.

In Stage 7, Roger Hassenforder of the Nord-Est-Centre regional team won. The French team, finding themselves for the first time without a rider positioned to defend the maillot jaune, allowed Nicolas Barone of Ile de France to take it; this was not a problem as the race was only one third done and there would be plenty of time to take it back - in fact, wasting energy trying to keep it at such an early stage might even have cost them in the long run. In fact, it came back the very next day: the Italian Pierino Baffi won the stage, Jean Forestier moved into the lead. Anquetil won Stage 9 and Bahamontes abandoned (officially because of a boil on his arm that had grown s large and painful he could no longer steer, though many people said the real reason was he was angry because Jesus Lorono had been picked as team leader instead of him); which meant that the two mighty climbers, perhaps the only men who might have wrested victory from his hands as soon as the race reached the mountains, were gone. The day after that he became leader.

Stage 15 was an individual time trial, won by Anquetil who would later become known as Mr Chrono due to his near-total domination of races against the clock - this was the first Tour time trial he ever won. Unfortunately for Gaul, Stage 16 was very much one he'd have had an excellent chance of winning by an enormous margin if only he'd still been in the race - it had all the things he liked, such as steep climbs, pouring rain, fog, hail and icy gale force winds. As other riders retreated into themselves and got on with battling for survival rather than against each other, the expected challenge to Anquetil's lead never materialised. Several riders crashed, Nello Lauredi and Stanislas Bober both suffering injuries that forced them to abandon, but the worst victims of the stage were the accredited press motorbike rider René Wagner, who had never crashed a motorbike before, and his passenger, the reporter Alex Virot. Wagner was injured and spent time in hospital, Virot was killed instantly.

So, on Stage 18 when the Tour went over the Tourmalet and the Aubisque before leaving the mountains behind, Anquetil decided that he might as well attack everybody else instead - and by the looks of his form early on in the stage he might have done some serious damage had he not missed his musette as he passed through the feeding stattion. Not much further on, he bean to run out of energy - fortunately, his team mates rallied round him and shared their own food so he avoided the bonk. At the finish line he was 2'38" behind stage winner Gastone Nencini: it was a sizable dent in his campaign rather than the crushing blow he'd hope to inflict on his rivals, but far smaller than anything he needed worry about at this late point. Stage 20 was another time trial, he won that too and took back a little time, then handed over to Darrigade who won the last two stages. On his first appearance at the Tour, Walkowiak's domestique had won four stages, worn the maillot jaune for sixteen stages, come fifth in the Points competition, fourth in the King of the Mountains and first in the overall General Classification. The cycling world sat up and took note.

In 1968 there were 22 stages covering 4,684.8km. There were eleven national teams: three were French, two were Belgian and the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy and Great Britain had one team each, joined by a combined Swiss/Luxembourgian team - it would also be the last year in which national teams took part because, in 1969, the race returned to the commercially-sponsored trade teams format and has remained that way ever since - national teams were popular with the fans and, therefore, the organisers; but less so with the trade teams the riders came from and they would sometimes refuse to send their best riders to the Tour because their trade team received so little of the glory following a win; this being the reason that Faema held Eddy Merckx back from representing Belgium in 1968.

The polka dot jersey was first seen at the Tour in 1968
For the first time, the race ended at the Vélodrome de Vincennes (more correctly known as the Velodrome La Cipale) in Paris; the Parc des Princes velodrome, which had hosted the last finish line of every single earlier Tour, was old and outdated and in the process of being demolished to make room for the Périphérique - the rubble from the venerable old track that had seen so many important events in cycling history was transported a short distance away and used to create the foundations of a new football stadium.

A new jersey was introduced to mark out the leader of the new Combination classification, who would be determined as the rider who was doing the most well in the General Classification, King of the Mountains and the Points competition (seen as a contest for the all-rounders, the Combination never really became popular and was abandoned not many years afterwards). The eye-searingly ugly multi-coloured Combination jersey, incorporating various elements of all the rest, had not yet been thought up; instead the Combination leader wore a white jersey emblazoned with what the French term a macaron - an elaborate confection or pattern. The polka dot jersey (maillot à pois rouges) wouldn't come into being until 1975 when Chocolat Poulain (a firm which wrapped its products in polka dot packaging) began sponsorship, in 1968 the leader of the competition also received a macaron to add to his normal team jersey. Finally, the Points competition jersey also underwent a change: having been green ever since the competition was introduced in 1953 (because that was the corporate colour of its first sponsor, a manufacturer of lawn mowers), it turned red at the request of a new sponsor. This would not last - the following year it returned to green and has remained so ever since.

Raymond Poulidor
Following the death of popular rider Tom Simpson as a result of dehydration and exhaustion at least partially brought about by drugs, organisers had been forced to introduce anti-doping tests following each stage and billed the race as "the clean Tour." However, test procedures had not moved on a great deal over the last two years since Raymond Poulidor became the first rider ever tested at the Tour when he was stopped in his hotel by laughably amateurish testers. It's also fair to say that, at that time, neither the Tour nor the UCI had even begun to suspect just how much of a problem for the sport doping would become - after all they, the riders, the majority of the sponsors and a great many fans were well aware that since the dawn of cycling, cyclists had used drugs simply to make the sheer effort required to survive an event such as the Tour (never mind win it). It's also fair to say, with hindsight, that a large percentage of those who claimed to support tests were merely paying lip service.

The first eleven stages were not especially interesting as riders took turns to win and swapped the yellow jersey back and forth until Stage 5a when the Belgian Georges Vandenberghe took it, then kept it until Stage 15. In Stage 12, the riders reached the Pyrenees and finally things began to liven up a little; Poulidor lauched a ten-man break towards the end of the stage and succeeded in getting them over the line with a 2'30" advantage over the main group. Since several of the riders considered most likely to challenge him were in that group - including Lucien Aimar, Jan Janssen and Herman van Springel, it can be seen as indication that the wildly popular Pou-Pou had at least a reasonable chance at winning the victory that Anquetil (who had ridden his last Tour two years ago) had prevented him winning for so long.

It was not to be. Stage 15 fell on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, and the French were determined to win. Roger Pingeon, who had sworn to support Poulidor at the start of the race, was given permission to attack from 200km to go - if it went wrong, he'd exhaust himself and possibly have to retire from the race. If it worked, it would be one of the most glorious stage wins for years. By the time Pingeon reached 50km to go, he was leading the peloton by thirteen minutes and showing no signs of stopping. Poulidor decided then that now the remaining distance was so reduced, he had the strength to join his team mate: the most popular riders in France, crossing the finish line together on Bastille Day, was worth the risk. He attacked; but yellow jersey Vandenberghe, van Springel, Aimar and Janssen responded immediately and went after him. This was dangerous - to catch Pingeon, Poulidor needed to set a very high pace; but by doing so he risked leading his team's main rivals right into a place from which they could most easily ruin the French plan. He'd have been better off giving up, returning to the peloton and hoping they did too; but instead he tried to outpace them. Then, disaster - the rider of an official press motorbike lost control and knocked him to the ground - face covered in blood, Poulidor finished the stage; after a very painful attempt to continue the next day he lost more than nine minutes, then on Stage 17 he called it a day and went home. In 1969, when the trade teams returned, they brought Merckx with them and Poulidor's chances were lost forever.

Jan Janssen
The German Rolf Wolfshohl had earned the maillot jaune after Stage 16 and kept it through the next, but then Spanish Gregorio San Miguel took it on Stage 18, the second day in the Alps. Pingeon, now the leader of the French team, launched a blistering assault that day and was the first man to the top of the Cols du Granier, Cucheron and Porte before crossing the line solo with a lead of 2'35" on second place Aimar and nearly 4' on Janssen and van Springel. He was still behind them in the General Classification: had he have been able to keep riding like he did that day he'd have been almost guaranteed to win overall, but nobody can perform at that level for long. The British rider Barry Hoban won the next day after a superb ride over Arabis, Colombiere and Cordon, but van Springel won time and took the yellow jersey. He kept it as the race left the mountains in Stage 20, then through the last two flat stages and all the way to the final stage, 22b. When the stage began, Janssen was 16" behind in third place overall - an extremely uncomfortable situation for the Belgian rider, because although he was known for his ability against the clock Janssen was good too. In the end, Janssen won it by 54"; giving him a 38" advantage overall. He hadn't worn the maillot jaune once in the race, but the Netherlands had its first Tour winner.

Eddy Merckx had been kept away from the Tour by his Faema team in 1968, then in 1969 he won by almost eighteen minutes. In 1970, he returned and won again with an advantage close to thirteen minutes, also winning the King of the Mountains and second place in the Points competition. Some riders appear, win everything in spectacular style, then burn out and vanish as rapidly as summer hoverflies, but the world sensed that Merckx was something different and this had not prevented him becoming the easy favourite (winning Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Nice, the Giro and the National Championships helped, of course). However, he was not team leader - that job still belonged to Guillaume "Lomme" Driessens.

The race covered 4,366km that year and there was a prologue and 23 stages. Five of them were split into parts A and B - the riders hated split stages and often complained at their inclusion, but the organisers said they were necessary because UCI rules banned stages above a certain length in an attempt to reduce riders' temptation to dope. However, each split stage consisted of a short road race and a time trial and, in each case, even the combined total didn't make for a long stage. A little more digging revealed that split stages made more money for the organisers in broadcasting rights, which the riders didn't feel particularly happy about, but split stages remained a part of the Tour for many years to come. A few days before things got under way, the Frimatic team became one of the very first to voluntarily remove one of its riders due to doping - Paul Gutty was revealed to have failed a test at the French Nationals; he was replaced by René Grelin.

Merckx won the prologue, a 7.4km time trial at Limoge. In Stage 1 numerous riders attempted to escape, some alone and some in groups, but Faema wouldn't allow any of them to get away. Cyrille Guimard won the next day but  Merckx stayed in yellow. On Stage 2, an escape had more success. None of the riders involved were judged likely to cause problems and, since Faema's Italo Zilioli was the most promising rider among them, Driessens gave him and team mate Georges Vandenberghe his blessing and they went off in search of a stage win (Zilioli got one, too). Merckx was not happy, because he'd been dreaming of wearing yellow all the way to Paris. Driessens is almost forgotten now in comparison to Merckx, but he then proved why he was team leader - after Merckx had tried to go after them and tired himself, Driessens called him back. Did he see, now, that he could have had an easy time of it while other teams used valuable energy trying to prevent Zilioli taking the yellow jersey that Merckx, if he saved himself now, could so easily take back later when it mattered? Merckx saw, and when Faema won the team time trial the next day he also saw how they would control the rest of the race.

José-Antonio Gonzalez-Linares
The race settled into the rhythm of the first week with the General Classification contenders watching with amused indifference as the domestiques and also-rans fought one another for anything they could grab while the chance to do so was still open. Merckx was back in yellow at the end of Stage 6 and the end of the week, to prevent him becoming bored, Driessens let him win Stage 7a. He learned two more lessons that day, the first of them planned and the second completely by chance: after winning 7a he hadn't the strength to beat José-Antonio Gonzalez-Linares in 7b, where he could have won far more time. Merckx learned to save his legs for when he could do most damage. It rained heavily in Stage 7b and Roger de Vlaeminck, who was desperate to win time, over-reached himself and crashed hard on a corner. Merckx saw him lying the road, just before he was taken away in an ambulance, and learned that it's better to take risks only as a last resort. With de Vlaeminck out, Joop Zoetemelk became leader of the Mars team.

Frimatic team mates Joaquim Agostinho and Mogens Frey got away in the mountains of Stage 9 and worked together for many kilometres. Near the end, Frey started drafting behind Agostinho and refused to do his share of the work, which Agostinho assumed meant that he was being given the win - but then as the finish line drew near Frey tried to sprint past him. Agostinho grabbed his handlebars and forced him to stay in second place, crossing the line first as he rightfully deserved. Nevertheless, interfering with another rider is against the rules; the judges disallowed it and Frey was awarded the win. The next day, Merckx got away again. He won the stage after only three riders, including Zoetemelk who jumped to second place in the General Classification, could follow. This revealed to Merckx that Zoetemelk had the potential to be a rival; Zoetemelk disagreed, telling journalists that as far as he was concerned Merckx stood head and shoulders above all other riders in the world.

Merckx won Stage 10 and the 11a time trial, then took Stage 12 too. During Stage 13 the team heard that directeur sportif Vicenze Giacotto, who had built up the team around the Belgian star, had died of a heart attack and Merckx became even more determined to win so that the victory could be dedicated to him. On Stage 14 he learned another lesson, one that many cyclists - including Ferdy Kübler in 1955 - have learned over the years: the Ventoux is not like any other col. He was the first to the finish line at the top, but the effort of getting there was so great that as soon as he arrived he fell to the ground unconscious. The mountain was reminding the world that even though Merckx was the most powerful cyclist to have ever lived, it was far more formidable.

Luis Ocaña won Stage 17 and Bernard Thévenet won Stage 18, the first Tour stage wins of either man's career. Ocaña would be one of the very few riders to challenge Merckx a year later (and as Merckx himself admits, he might have beaten him had a crash not ended his race) and Thévenet would finally bring his reign to an end in 1975. Merckx won the time trial in Stage 20b, then another in Stage 23, but the race had been his for a long time.

Eddy Merckx had so much talent that he would have been the most successful rider the world had ever seen no matter what. However, the lessons Driessens taught him in the Tour de France of 1970 transformed him; he no longer relied on his sheer power and skill to win races, he could ride tactically and strategically, too. Therefore, he became magnitudes more dangerous that he would otherwise have been.

In 1974, the Tour covered 4,098km in 22 stages. Four of them were split, two into a road race and an individual time trial, one into a road race and a team time trial, one into two road races. There was also a prologue, run as an individual time trial. Stage 2, which was run as a 164km circuit race, took place in Plymouth, United Kingdom - the first time that the Tour had ever crossed the channel and, because of the logistics involved in transporting the riders, bikes and infrastructure there and back, the complaints of the riders and the general indifference of the British public, the last until 1994 (when it returned, for one stage from Dover to Brighton and another around Portsmouth, it was hugely popular and vast numbers of people turned out to watch).

The Tour visited Britain for the first time in 1974
Eddy Merckx didn't enter the Tour in 1973 and he arrived in 1974 after failing to win a single victory at the Spring Classics. He had won both the Giro and the Tour de Suisse, then undergone surgery on his perineum just five days before the start of the race; due to the absence of Joop Zoetemelk (seriously ill with meningitis) and Luis Ocaña (who had abandoned the Tour de l'Aude after crashing, then had his contract terminated for failure to communicate with team managers), he nevertheless remained the favourite. Bernard Thévenet was there but did not have good form after several crashes at the Vuelta a Espana, but it was widely expected that Raymond Poulidor (now aged 38) would do all he could to beat Merckx whenever possible, even though he had little chance of an overall win.

Merckx won the prologue in Brest, but with an advantage of only 6" over second place Jesús Manzaneque and 8" over third place Joseph Bruyère, his Molteni team mate. Stage 1 ran from Brest to Saint-Pol-de-Léon and was won by Ercole Gualazzini; Bruyère was 1" behind him for second, Merckx sixth with +25", and so Bruyère took the maillot jaune.

Only a couple of hundred people in
Britain would have known who
Henk Poppe was in 1974 - he didn't
thrill with his stage win as a result
The stage in England was problematic all the way - everything had been arranged months beforehand, but customs officials appeared to know nothing about it and, finding themselves saddled with an unexpected situation, responded by becoming as officious as they possibly could. Thankfully, it turned out that race director Jacques Goddet had forgotten to pack his passport, which provided some much-needed amusement for the riders following their customs ordeals. The venue also left much to be desired - in France, to be selected as a stage town is considered an enormous honour and local authorities spend a fortune resurfacing roads and sprucing everything up for the cameras; Plymouth seemed uncertain what it had done to become victim of this huge, bizarre foreign madness (it was the British terminal used by a new ferry line sailing to and from Roscoff, the company thinking that bringing the Tour across would be a good way to advertise themselves) and authorities just wanted to get it over and done with as soon as possible, ideally with no disruption to daily life. Therefore, the race was held not on roads following a route designed to show off as many of Plymouth's charms as possible, but on an unopened bypass. The British were in those days not in love with cycling and so, other than cyclists and a few curious locals, there were not many spectators (what's more, only a small part of the Caravan had bothered making the trip - with the tradition of throwing massive amounts of free stuff to the crowds, it would have been about the one thing that persuaded people with no interest in the sport to attend) and so the riders didn't put in much effort, allowing little-known Henk Poppe to win a bunch sprint. If the French customs officials on the way to Britain had been awkward, their British counterparts on the way back were positively malevolent and apparently found the idea of large numbers of bikes being transported about the place during the world's largest bike race highly suspicious; several teams were stopped and had their belongings and equipment searched. Riders, used to be waved straight through when the Tour visited mainland European countries, were not all impressed at the hold up. That, then, was the last Britain saw of the Tour for twenty years.

Back in France, Patrick Sercu won Stages 3 and 4 (it's his birthday today, incidentally) while Merckx picked up sufficient bonus time to win back the yellow jersey. Gerben Karstens was second and became convinced that Sercu and Merckx were helping one another (Sercu rode for the Brooklyn team, but they were both Belgian and partnered up to race six-day meets during the road race off-season. It should also be pointed out that this wasn't the first time they'd been accused of helping one another, and Kastens wasn't the first to say so). Angry, he stormed off right after the stage - and forgot to attend a dope test, receiving a ten-minute penalty as a result once he'd remembered and rushed back, getting there just a little too late. Having been second in the General Classification, he registered a protest with officials but was unsuccessful. Usually in a situation such as this, the peloton would be quietly pleased that circumstances had removed a potential rival; but things were different this time. For a start, they were yet to accept tests as part of the fabric of professional cycling and still hoped they'd go away, secondly they were angry that on the previous stage the UCI testers had also demanded that Régis Delepine be penalised for the same reason, despite his excuse being rather a good one: he was unconscious in hospital after crashing on the finish line (they didn't get their way). Cyrille Guimard, president of the Riders' Union, informed the organisers that enough was enough and if Sercu's penalty wasn't removed the riders would strike. Since there was no alternative, his penalty was removed. He came 24th on Stage 5 but collected enough bonuses to become race leader, then back the yellow jersey in Stage 6a before Molteni won the 6b team time trial and Merckx won Stage 7, placing himself back into the lead.

Stage 8 was split into two road races, one of 136km and one of 152km. Cyrille Guimard won the first, Sercu the second; then in Stage 9 the Tour reached the Alps. Merckx won 9 and 10, but in both cases was surprised by Poulidor who, nine years his senior, attacked so hard on the steepest sections of the parcours that the Belgian couldn't follow. It was sad that, when both stages finished in a bunch sprint, Pou-Pou simply couldn't equal the Cannibal's explosive power and came third. On Stage 10, Merckx became prey to a superbly engineered example of tactics from the KAS team when Vicente Lopez Carril escaped. Since it was an important stage and the Spaniard was high enough in the General Classification for a good time to make a big difference, potentially even changing the likely outcome at the end of the race, Merckx had no choice but to chase. Unfortunately, he was in the second group, accompanied by KAS riders Gonzalo Aja and Francisco Galdos. Aja was also doing well in the General Classification - which put Merckx in a very awkward place: he could either let Carril win the stage and time, or go after him and let Aja and Galdos draft behind him having a relatively easy time of it until the decided it was time to sprint past him and take the stage. But, he was Eddy Merckx; so he gave chase and relied on sheer power to beat them in the final sprint.

Carril, who died less than a year later from a heart attack (Willy Voet lists his death in Breaking The Chain, but says - rightly - this is not proof of doping) won the next day before the Alps were left behind; then Jos Spruyt (who led the race over Mont Ventoux - Merckx, perhaps remembering what the mountain had done to him in 1970, seemed content to watch), Barry Hoban, Jean-Pierre Genet shared the three stages before the Pyrenees between themselves (and Cyrille Guimard tested positive for the banned drug piperidine after Stage 13, due to a knee injury this would be his last Tour). Once there, the race encountered two dramatic incidents: in the first, a large crash forced Galdos to abandon (Mariano Martinez of La Redoute-Motobecane fell right in front of Merckx, but the Belgian somehow avoided him - he had bags of luck as well as skill). The second took place late at night, after the stage - six team cars and press vehicles were blown up by a left-wing Basque separatist organisation called the Internationalist Revolutionary Action Group. The vehicles were badly damaged, fortunately the riders were all in their hotels sleeping, the mechanics were hard at work in the hotel garages and the managers and soigneurs were busy doing whatever it is they do overnight during the Tour (which they'd probably much rather we didn't know about); however, when the bombers released a statement informing all Spanish riders that if they didn't leave the race immediately they'd be considered conscious representatives of Franco's Fascist government and legitimate targets for assassination, many of them were afraid and seriously considered going - officials persuaded them to continue with promises of increased police presence with a motorbike carrying armed officers assigned to any Spanish rider who escaped solo. Carril, who was at the time Spanish road race champion, refused to wear his national jersey for fear that he might be too tempting a target. Merckx won, but on Stage 16 Poulidor escaped again and this time was successful, beating Carril by 41" and gaining his first stage win for nine years. Merckx was fourth at +1'49"; Poulidor, Carril and Michel Pollentier all took time from him and Poulidor took more, moving into third place overall, when he came second behind Jean-Pierre Danguillaume on Stage 17.

Danguillaume won again the next day, unchallenged by the favourites who remained near Merckx and watching him like vultures for any sign of weakness. There were none; with no more mountain stages and two time trials, both of which he was almost certain to win, he'd as good as won. In the first, Stage 19b, he won by 2". Then he won the 21a 113km road race by 1'25", so it didn't matter at all that Pollentier beat him by 10" in the last time trial. He had no need at all to win the final stage, 22, but he did.

Despite having undergone invasive surgery less than a week before the start, Merckx had now equaled Jacques Anquetil's record five Tours. He also won the overall Combativity award and was  second in the Ponts competition and the King of the Mountains. He'd won eight stages to bring the total for his career to 32, beating the previous record (set by André Leducq in 1935) by seven, and he was the first man to have won the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France in a single year. Later that same year, he became World Champion and was thus the first of only two men to have ever won cycling's most prestigious prize, the entirely unofficial Triple Crown for which there is no trophy, podium nor money. Merckx was a superb climber (Merckx was superb at everything), but he never excelled quite so much in the mountains as he did everywhere else. This year, he'd been outwitted by another team and twice embarrassed by a man who, in the world of professional cycling, was old. After so many years in which he was unbeatable, cracks were starting to show - in 1975, Thévenet returned and brought the Merckxian Era to an end.

By 1979, Merckx had retired and the peloton had a new boss - and this one, who came to be known as The Boss ("le Patron") - was almost as good as Merckx had been. He was Bernard Hinault, and he would one day become the only man to have won all three Grand Tours at least twice.

Alpe d'Huez
Riders had been grumbling about split stages for years and in 1978 they decided enough was enough and threatened to strike after being stirred up and motivated (or perhaps forced) by Hinault. Organisers relented, there were none in 1979. There were also changes to the team time trials - previously, they hadn't affected an individual rider's General Classification placing unless he won time bonuses; now the result counted towards the overall outcome. For the first and, to date, only time, the riders faced two Alpe d'Huez summit finishes and they would be watched by a potentially huge new audience, because for the first time in its 76 years the Tour was broadcast in the USA.

Hinault was the favourite; not least of all because, not counting the prologue, there were four individual time trials and he was virtually guaranteed to win them all (which he did). He had also won last year, his first Tour. Meanwhile, Joop Zoetemelk - who had been second last year and was one of the very few riders capable of challenging Merckx, was widely considered to be the man most likely to give him problems.

Unusually, the race started in the Pyrenees. Gerrie Knetemann won the prologue with Zoetemelk taking third and Hinault fourth, both 4" behind him, then René Bittinger sprinted away from Jean-René Bernaudeau to win Stage 1. Stage 2 was an individual time trial, won as expected by Hinault with a 10" lead over Zoetemelk for the maillot jaune. He won Stage 3 too, but this time couldn't gain time - on that stage, the British rider Paul Sherwen (who now presents British, American and Australian Tour de France TV coverage) finished after the time limit following a crash and should therefore have been eliminated from the competition. When judges heard how he had ridden solo for a vast distance in an attempt to remain in the race, they waived the rule.

Joop Zoetemelk
Stage 4 was a team time trial, won by the legendary Ti-Raleigh led by Knetemann. After Stage 5, the first plain stage, Hinault remained in yellow but had lost time, his lead over Zoetemelk being reduced to 12". Hennie Kuiper lost a lot of time due five punctures, which he says were caused by one of his Peugeot-Esso mechanics fitting the bikes with the wrong sort of tyres for the parcours - had he have been 31" faster, which is entirely feasible, he'd have become new leader. Jan Raas won the stage, then Jos Jacobs won Stage 6, Leo van Vliet won Stage 7 and Ti-Raleigh won another team time trial in Stage 8. Stage 9 was raced on the notoriously difficult cobbled tracks of Paris-Roubaix. Zoetemelk escaped and, the exact same moment he responded,  Hinault punctured, which several other riders took as an opportunity to attack. Then he was stopped by protesting strikers a little further on. Fortunately, the strikers decided that doing as the riot police ordered and leaving a gap for the riders to get through was a good idea, because Hinault was now seething with anger and was the kind of man who was more than happy to wade into a crowd with his fists flailing - three years later, when a mob of striking shipbuilders tried to disrupt Paris-Nice, Hinault was straight off his bike and punched one of them in the face (the "victim" seem rather pleased to have been punched by the great Hinault). He also hated Paris-Roubaix, so the cobbles didn't improve his mood, nor did another puncture 10km from the line and by the time he finished, 3'26" after Zoetemelk and now second place in the General Classification with a disadvantage of 2'08", he was on the point of exploding. "There are some riders who will suffer plenty after what has happened today," he announced - and some riders will not have slept peacefully that night. Meanwhile, Jacques Anquetil was impressed by how hard Hinault had fought to limit his losses and declared the Breton his favourite to win.

Jo Maas won the unimportant tenth stage between Roubaix and Brussels, then Hinault had another puncture in the Stage 11 time trial. He had to wait in front of an abusive crowd of Dutch fans while it was fixed, but his anger made him faster and he slashed his disadvantage to 1'32". Christian Seznec, Pierre-Raymond Villemiane and Marc Demeyer won the next three, then there was another time trial in Stage 15. This time, Hinault was unstoppable: as others got into difficulties with terrible weather on the difficult mountainous parcours, he scorched his way through the 54km and beat Zoetemelk by 2'37", ending the day back in yellow and with an advantage of 1'48". Zoetemelk won Stage 18, which started and finished on the Alpe d'Huez and was intended to cross Izoard before the route was altered shortly before the riders set out, taking back 47" but unable to snatch back the maillot jaune. With third place Hennie Kuiper 21'23" behind Zoetemelk overall, the race was now between just two men - but with five plain stages and one time trial to go, the odds were massively in Hinault's favour.

Hinault seems to be rather impressed by Zoetemelk's
nerve after he dared attack on the last stage
Dietrich Thurau and Serge Parsani were allowed to win Stages 19 and 20 because they were both far down in the leadership and it no longer mattered. There was no change between Hinault and Zoetemelk at the end of either stage, the gap remaining at 1'58". Then the time trial arrived and Hinault extended it to 3'07". Knetemann won Stage 22 and things at the top stayed the same, as they did after Stage 23 despite Hinault winning. Usually, the last stage of the Tour is an almost ceremonial occasion in which the riders mug it up for the fans and press before composing themselves for the final, glorious approach to the finish line. One that doesn't happen, or at least happens so rarely that it's become an unwritten rule, is that the leaders are not attacked. 1979 was different - Zoetemelk had come to the race with the best form of his life and he wasn't going to give up his best ever chance at winning until there were no chances left - he attacked Hinault, but Hinault outclassed him in a sprint to the finish line. Later, it was announced that Zoetemelk had tested positive for doping and he was penalised 10' - so Hinault won by 13'07".

Cyclists born today: Dennis Vanendert (Belgium, 1988); Harm Ottenbros (Netherlands, 1943); Paul Wellens (Belgium, 1952); Patrick Sercu (Belgium, 1944); Kent Bostick (USA, 1953); Otto Männel (Germany, 1886); Wes Wessberg (USA, 1939); Erminio Suárez (Argentina, 1969); Markus Zberg (Switzerland, 1974); Geir Dahlen (Norway, 1960); Marc Thompson (USA, 1953); John Boulicault (USA, 1906, died 1985); Taylor Phinney (USA, 1990); Ivan Beltrami (Italy, 1969); Günther Schumacher (West Germany, 1949); Livio Isotti (Italy, 1927, died 1999).

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