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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Vicente Trueba, the first ever
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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).