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Chairman Bill's History of the Tour de France:
the 1970s

How a Newspaper Promotion Became the World's Greatest Sporting Event

Index: origins and early years | 1910s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s

This excerpt is from "The Story of the Tour de France", Volume 2. If you enjoy it we hope you will consider purchasing the book, either print or electronic. The Amazon link here will make either purchase easy.

1970.

1970 Tour details, stage results and final standings

Lévitan continued to look for more money. The 1970 Tour was about 250 kilometers longer than the year before but now those 4,369 kilometers were, counting the Prologue, divided into 29 stages. 5 days had 2 stages and, like 1969, there were no rest days. In addition to looking for revenue from cities wanting to be a start or finish point, the Tour created a new competition, which of course required a new sponsor. This time a special jersey was to be awarded to the best young rider. Even little things were not beyond the Tour in its hunt for lucre. Merckx's racing number was "51" to give publicity to a candy called "Pastis 51".

The 1970 edition was clockwise, starting in Limoges, almost in the geographical center of France. From there it went to La Rochelle on the western coast and circled northward to Brittany, eastward to Normandy and then into Belgium. It scraped the edge of Germany on the way south to the Alps, then the Pyrenees before heading back up to Paris. It was a punishing schedule but the smoldering riders wouldn't erupt into rebellion until 1978.

The public could be forgiven if they expected Merckx to repeat his 1969 Tour victory. His spring had been magnificent. Riding for Faemino, he won the Het Volk, Paris Roubaix, Paris–Nice and the Giro d'Italia. He came to the Tour sporting his new Belgian Road Champion's jersey, the only one the great man was ever able to win.

Yet, Merckx said that he was never again the rider he was in 1969. Late in the 1969 season he had a terrible crash in a derny-paced race on the velodrome in Blois, France. It was at night, under the lights. The electricity went out momentarily and both Merckx and his derny pacer crashed. The driver, Ferdinand Wambst, died and Merckx suffered a cracked vertebra. Merckx said he never healed correctly and that he always suffered back pains after the crash. Occasionally you can see photographs and movies of Merckx adjusting his saddle in the middle of a race, sometimes on the fly, as he tried to find some relief from the pain. Merckx said that before the crash, climbing was a pleasure. After it, he was always in pain.

He may have lost a little of his edge, but it didn't show in the Prologue time trial. Merckx won it.

It was the second stage from La Rochelle to Angers that is so interesting and sheds some light on Merckx's psychology and his need to win.

Local boy Roland Berland on Luis Ocaña's BIC team took off, wanting to give a little greeting to his wife, who was waiting up the road. This is a common practice among professional riders, a courtesy usually freely given. Instead of a solo trip up the road to get a quick kiss Berland found himself in the company of 7 others, including Rolf Wolfshohl and Ernesto Jotti. After a few kilometers 2 lieutenants from Merckx's Faemino squad, Italo Zilioli and Georges Vandenberghe, as well as Walter Godefroot of Salvarani bridged the gap. Because they were protecting Merckx's lead, the 2 Faeminos didn't do any work in the break. This was especially prudent since Godefroot and Wolfsholhl were 2 of the best riders in the world.

BIC's director Maurice de Meur drove up to the break and told Berland not to work too hard because that would give the freeloading Faeminos a gift of a likely stage win.

Then, Faemino's director, Guillaume Driessens, drove up to his 2 riders in the break and gave them surprising directions. He told them to pour on the gas and take the breakaway home.

Italo Zilioli, one of the Faemino breakaways, was an almost frighteningly slender rider who looked too frail to compete in sports. His lanky body earned him the nickname "Coppino" (Little Coppi). Yet, he had extraordinary power in those skinny limbs and was one of the finest stage racers of his age, having come in second in the Giro 3 times. Merckx knew what he was doing when he asked Zilioli, whose career seemed to be in its twilight, to join his team.

The break with the 2 Merckx domestiques along with Godefroot and the others leaped ahead of the field and managed to gain a gap of 6 minutes on the peloton.

The peloton reacted. The pack was strung out as the chase was engaged. But who was leading the pack?

Eddy Merckx.

He was chasing the lead group which was riding at the express direction of Merckx's team director. It was Driessen's plan to do the usual, let another member of his team take the lead and take the pressure of defending the jersey off of Merckx's shoulders. It's an old strategy. With the ensuing high speeds, Delepine, Jotti and Wolfshohl were dropped from the break. Zilioli kept hammering away with his team captain chasing. The gap fell under the pressure of the chase. The peloton spit out riders who couldn't stand the pace set by Merckx and the other teams.

At 4 kilometers to go, the gap was still 35 seconds.

Because of a crash, the 2 breakaway Faeminos were alone together with Godefroot and Berland 250 meters behind.

Zilioli won the stage with a furiously chasing Godefroot only 2 seconds behind the winning pair. The De Vlaeminck brothers, Eric and Roger led in the field containing Merckx 24 seconds later. Italo Zilioli was in yellow, 4 seconds ahead of Merckx.

When Merckx was asked why he had chased down his own teammates, he said he wanted to get away from Roger Pingeon and Raymond Poulidor who were having mechanical trouble. I think he wanted to keep the jersey from start to finish and had no intention of letting Zilioli borrow "his" Yellow Jersey.

Merckx also complained that with a team time trial coming up, his 2 men should not be working that hard. Driessens countered that the effect was to make the other teams with no riders in the break work hard and furthermore he was the boss of the team, not Merckx.

Perhaps Driessens was right. Faemino won the team time trial by over a minute.

On the sixth stage, Merckx got into a breakaway and took the lead back from Zilioli.

Stage 6: Merckx dishes out some big hurt on the pavé.

There was another telling incident in this sixth stage. Zilioli was still the Yellow Jersey. When he suffered a flat tire, not one Faemino rider stayed to help him. They were all up front helping Merckx. Zilioli, leading the Tour de France in the fabled Yellow Jersey, was on his own. He was a domestique of Merckx first, the Yellow Jersey second.

The General Classification after stage 6:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Walter Godefroot @ 5 seconds
3. Roger De Vlaeminck @ 11 seconds
4. Jan Janssen @ 18 seconds
5. Herman van Springel @ 42 seconds
6. Italo Zilioli @ 57 seconds
7. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 2 seconds
8. Joop Zoetemelk @ 1 minute 3 seconds

The Tour was now in the Brussels suburb of Forest in Belgium. The afternoon's short time trial produced a surprise. The champion of Spain, Jose Gonzales-Linares, beat Merckx by 3 seconds on the 7.2-kilometer course. Merckx had the Yellow, but he was denied the victory on his Belgian home turf.

The ninth stage, from Saarluis in Germany to Mulhouse back in France, produced a strange day of racing. On the Grand Ballon, the final ascent of the day, Mogens Frey and Joaquim Agostinho—both members of the same Frimatic team—broke away. Frey had escaped earlier and Agostinho had bridged up to him. They descended together and for a while traded pace, relaying each other during the final 20 kilometers. Then Frey stopped working and just sat on Agostinho's wheel. The team manager drove up and told Frey to work. Perhaps the Dane did not understand any French. In any case, Frey refused to help and stayed glued to Agostinho's wheel, keeping his nose out of the wind.

When it came time for the sprint Agostinho, thinking it would be a show sprint that his teammate Frey wouldn't contest, started to wind it out. To Agostinho's astonishment Frey started to come around him. Furious, Agostinho rode his bike to the side of the road to force Frey to go the long way around. Frey kept coming so Agostinho put his hands out to try to block him. Angry and desperate he finally grabbed Frey's jersey and managed to cross the line first.

The band at the finish line played the Portuguese national anthem in celebration of Agostinho's victory. Agostinho was sure of both his win and the force of justice and did a victory lap. The race jury didn't think that was how a race should be won and awarded the stage to Frey, relegating Agostinho to second.

Agostinho said that Frey had made signs (they didn't speak a common language) that Frey would not contest the sprint and felt cheated by Frey's cheap attempt to win the stage. Later Frey explained that he had broken away first and that Agostinho had no business bridging up to him, potentially bringing other riders along. Team owner De Gribaldy, unhappy with the mess, made the 2 share the same hotel room that night.

As one of the transition stages before the Alps, stage 10 traveled south through the limestone highlands of the French Jura in baking heat. Displaying his usual aggression, Merckx won the stage in a 4-man break. The result was to put all of the contenders except Zoetemelk (who was with Merckx) another 3 minutes back. Since Merckx had done so much of the work in the break his superiority was clear to all. Both Zoetemelk and Poulidor effectively capitulated in the press, Zoetemelk saying he would work to defend his second place.

Stage 10: The winning break with, from left to right, Joop Zoetemelk, Georges Pintens and Eddy Merckx. Guerrino Tosello's shadow can be seen just behind Zoetemelk's. Merckx won the stage.

The eleventh stage time trial was another short, flat one of only 8.8 kilometers. Merckx reversed the finish of the earlier chrono and showed that the previous day's efforts had diminished neither his strength nor his desire to win when he beat Gonzales-Linares by 9 seconds. Before the start of stage 12, which took the Tour into the Chartreuse and signaled the beginning of the serious climbing here was the General Classification:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes
3. Georges Pintens @ 4 minutes 24 seconds
4. Gosta Petterson @ 7 minutes 57 seconds
5. Herman van Springel @ 8 minutes 28 seconds
6. Raymond Poulidor @ 8 minutes 56 seconds
7. Italo Zilioli @ 9 minutes 14 seconds

Through the Alps Merckx increased his lead, first by winning stage 12 with its 5 tough climbs, then leaving most of his competition over 3 minutes behind when he came in fourth in stage 13. Merckx's lead over second-place Zoetemelk was now 6 minutes, 39 seconds.

Stage 12: Merckx alone on the crest of the Cucheron

Stage 14 was a tough 170-kilometer ride from Gap to the top of Mount Ventoux. This was the Tour's first visit to the "Giant of Provence" since 1967, the tragic year of Tom Simpson's death. It was also Merckx's first race up the legendary slopes. Back in June he had expressed his feeling that Mount Ventoux was not a particularly difficult ascent.

It was a terribly hot day which, as in 1967, boded ill for the racers who would climb up the unprotected roads of the mountain. The stage was started late so that the riders could avoid the worst heat of the day. The Tour wanted no more Tom Simpsons.

Merckx attacked early on the climb and only Agostinho could go with him. Halfway up the mountain Merckx had about a 1-minute lead on a chase group of Poulidor, Aimar, Zilioli and Zoetemelk. 10 kilometers from the top Merckx dropped Agostinho (who claimed derailleur trouble and said he could have stayed with the Belgian) and was now out on the steep slopes alone. When he passed the monument to Simpson Merckx took off his cycling cap and made a sign of the cross. With just a half-kilometer to go Merckx cracked. Merckx could barely turn the cranks as he struggled to complete the final few meters. The man did have his limits. He won the stage followed by his former teammate Vandenbossche who came in over a minute later. The rest of the best came in starting at about 1 minute, 30 seconds. While answering questions from reporters Merckx's head slumped and he collapsed. Vandenbossche was also on the edge of foundering from the effort. Oxygen from an ambulance was brought in order to revive them. As the easiest and quickest way off the mountain Merckx rode in the ambulance down to Carpentras where the next day's stage would start. Merckx later wrote that he was hyper-oxygenated and that the rescue efforts almost caused a catastrophe. Merckx's Mount Ventoux win was his sixth stage win so far this Tour.

After the Alps and Mount Ventoux, the General Classification stood thus:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 9 minutes 26 seconds
3. Gosta Petterson @ 12 minutes 21 seconds
4. Rini Wagtmans @ 12 minutes 29 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 14 minutes 6 seconds

Merckx didn't win either of the Pyrenean stages. The first was a mammoth day that took in the Col de Menté, the Peyresourde, the Aspin and a final ascent to La Mongie, a ski station about 300 meters below the summit of the Tourmalet. The effects of his velodrome crash the previous autumn seemed to have badly affected Merckx that day. He could never get comfortable (he was also suffering from stomach troubles) and changed his bike a couple of times. Bernard Thévenet, 22 years old and riding in his first Tour, went clear with 8 kilometers to go on the final ascent to La Mongie. He held the gap and won the stage. Merckx was dropped but none of the 3 riders in front of him, Thévenet, van Impe or Vandenbossche were threats to his overall position. Even when he was having a bad day Merckx was extending his lead.

The next day the riders climbed all the way to the top of the Tourmalet. Spanish rider Andres Gandarias escaped but because the road was wet from fog he took the descent with care, allowing Merckx and a couple of other riders to make contact. With the Aubisque facing the quartet and then another 90 kilometers of descent and rolling roads to the finish Merckx decided to take it a little easier. Other riders joined them to make a big group that broke up towards the end with no effect upon the standings.

After the Pyrenees:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 9 minutes 57 seconds
3. Gosta Petterson @ 13 minutes 21 seconds
4. Rini Wagtmans @ 14 minutes 2 seconds
5. Martin Vandenbossche @ 14 minutes 52 seconds

There were 2 time trials left. Stage 20b in Bordeaux was another Merckx victory, in which he beat the other Petterson brother, Tomas, by 12 seconds. The final time trial from Versailles to Paris put the icing on the Merckx victory cake. Luis Ocaña, who had been thought to be a serious challenger to Merckx, suffered from bronchitis for the first 2 weeks of the Tour and was riding on courage and determination. In the final week he recovered enough to win a stage and get second to Merckx in the final time trial, losing 1 minute, 47 seconds over the 54-kilometer course.

For his 1970 Tour confirmation, Merckx had won 8 stages.

Final 1970 Tour de France General Classification:

1. Eddy Merckx (Faema-Faemino): 119 hours 31 minutes 49 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Mars-Flandria) @ 12 minutes 41 seconds
3. Gosta Petterson (Ferretti) @ 15 minutes 54 seconds
4. Martin Vandenbossche (Molteni) @ 18 minutes 53 seconds
5. Marinus "Rini" Wagtmans (Willem II) @ 19 minutes 54 seconds
6. Lucien van Impe (Sonolor) @ 20 minutes 34 seconds
7. Raymond Poulidor (Fagor-Mercier) @ 20 minutes 35 seconds
13. Italo Zilioli (Faemino) @ 26 minutes 17 seconds

Climbers' competition:

1. Eddy Merckx: 128 points
2. Andres Gandarias: 94 points
3. Martin Vandenbossche: 85 points

Points competition:

1. Walter Godefroot: 212 points
2. Eddy Merckx: 207 points
3. Marino Basso: 161 points

The gap to second place was "only" about 13 minutes compared to the huge 18 minutes he had inflicted the year before. Although Merckx said he was nervous the entire Tour, feeling as Magne had almost 2 generations ago that the race wasn't won until the last pedal crank was turned, he rode the 1970 Tour differently. He wasn't consumed with the rage that had propelled him to tyrannical excess in 1969. British writer J. B. Wadley noted that after the Mount Ventoux stage Merckx had basically ceased his offensive efforts. If he had been so inclined he could have easily taken more time out of Tour freshman Joop Zoetemelk. By winning the 1970 Giro and Tour, Merckx joined the very exclusive same-year Giro-Tour club. The only other members at the time were Coppi and Anquetil.

1971. 1971 Tour de France results

The layout of the 1971 Tour was a very substantial departure from those of previous years. First of all it was shorter, much shorter. In fact it was the shortest Tour since 1905. At 3,585 kilometers it was much like current Tours which fluctuate between 3,300 and 3,600 kilometers. Given the 760-kilometer reduction in distance from the previous year it is no surprise that the 1971 Tour was raced at a then-record speed of 37.29 kilometers per hour, almost 2 kilometers per hour faster than 1970.

The Tour continued to push the limits of what the riders could tolerate when it crammed 3 stages into the first day of racing after the Prologue. There were 2 rest days but there were 3 long transfers, one of which was done by air for the first time. It was a weird, almost figure-eight route starting in Mulhouse and then zigzagging in and out of France going to Switzerland, Germany, Belgium as it headed northwest. Then it struck due south for the Massif Central and Puy de Dome, followed by the Alps, the Pyrenees and then Paris.

Merckx changed sponsors and now wore the famous brown Molteni jersey that most racing fans associate with him. The core of Belgians that he assembled was remarkable for their talent and power. Herman van Springel (who had just won the Giro), Joseph Bruyère, Julien Stevens, Victor van Schil and Rini Wagtmans were superb riders who had in past years or could now command leadership on other teams. Not surprisingly after the 1970 Tour, Italo Zilioli moved on to another team, Ferretti, and had 2 major race wins in 1971, Tirreno–Adriatico and the Trofeo Laigueglia.

Merckx had won 52 races the previous year, including his only Belgian championship. His 1971 spring would have been a wonderful career for almost any other top pro. I'll list a few of the races he won before the Tour: Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, Het Volk, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Dauphiné Libéré, Midi Libre. Over the entire 1971 season he disputed 124 races and won an astonishing 54 of them, culminating in winning the world championships in Mendrisio. It was during the 1971 Tour that Merckx acquired the nickname "The Cannibal". It came from the daughter of Christian Raymond, a rider on the Peugeot team, who thought that was how Merckx rode, devouring the competition. The world agreed and the name stuck.

Who was there to challenge the man who was winning almost half the races he entered, who had crushed the competition in 1969, and after gaining an insurmountable lead halfway through 1970 just stopped riding offensively and cruised to Paris? The one man who thought he could topple the great Belgian was Luis Ocaña. Champion of Spain his first year as a pro, he had enjoyed an excellent spring in 1970 (winning both the Dauphiné Libéré and the Vuelta) and was thought to be the man to give Merckx trouble that year, but bronchitis slowed the delicate Spaniard.

Ocaña's 1971 lead-in was quieter, with a second in the Dauphiné and thirds in Paris-Nice and the Vuelta. The Dauphiné foreshadowed what was to come. Merckx had held the lead from the starting team time trial to the final stage, an individual time trial. Ocaña had been able to drop Merckx in the mountains, on the Granier to be specific, but bad weather on the following mountain, the Forclaz, kept him from "finishing him off". As we will see, the past is prologue.

The other man with the physical strength to challenge Merckx, Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, lacked the fire, drive and confidence to try seriously to attack and beat him.

There were other fine riders. Bernard Thévenet put his wonderful talent on display with his stage 18 solo win at La Mongie the year before, his first as a pro. In the Dauphiné he was third to Merckx and Ocaña, 1 minute, 43 seconds back. In a very short period of time he had come very far.

Lucien van Impe had moved up from twelfth in 1969, his first Tour, to sixth in 1970. His admiration and affection for Bahamontes, the great Spanish climber, shaped his ambitions. What van Impe cared most about was climbing. Given that he grew to be the finest climber of his age he always ended the Tour with a high placing. But men who have the King of the Mountains prize as their goal usually fall a bit short of claiming the overall win.

The prologue of the 1971 Tour was an 11-kilometer team time trial, the first time the team format was used in a prologue. Merckx and his squad of Italian-sponsored Belgians won it convincingly, beating second-place Ferretti by 1 minute, 48 seconds and Zoetemelk's Flandrias by 2 minutes, 16 seconds. The times didn't count towards the individual General Classification with only time bonification in play for the top placing teams, but the results did make clear that the peloton could probably expect another caning from Merckx and his team.

Eddy Merckx leads his Moltenis to a convincing prologue win.

With the Prologue victory, Merckx started the 1971 Tour in Yellow.

The next day was the grueling 3-split-stage ordeal. The first, 62 kilometers to Bâle in Switzerland, ended with all 130 riders finishing together. Coming in twentieth, Wagtmans was the best-placed of Merckx's Molteni riders who were all sitting at the top of the classification standings after the team time trial and therefore got to wear the Yellow Jersey for a few hours. On the second leg of the day Merckx captured enough intermediate sprint time bonuses to regain the lead by 4 seconds over his teammate van Springel. The 3-stage schedule was so hectic that some riders hadn't finished the second stage of the day when the third was starting. During that final stage Merckx captured another bit of bonus time and extended his lead by another second.

Stage 2, 142 kilometers going from Mulhouse to Strasbourg had one climb, the Firstplan which began at kilometer 42. The pace up the mountain was fiercely fast with Zoetemelk cresting the top with a 10 second lead over Spanish super-climber José-Manuel Fuente. Another 10 seconds back a group of 20 had formed, containing most of the Tour hopefuls including Merckx, Thévenet, Ocaña, Roger De Vlaeminck and Gosta Petterson. On the descent they came together, less Fuente, who had two flats. The break of über-riders pushed their advantage home. By kilometer 107 their lead over the chasing peloton was 6 minutes, 30 seconds. At Strasbourg where the sprint was to be contested in the velodrome they were 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead. Absolutely determined to make his mark early in the Tour and demoralize the opposition, Merckx took terrible chances on the track to gain the time bonuses in play. Especially desirous of beating Roger De Vlaeminck he had van Springel lead him out, and beat his Belgian rival by a few centimeters.

For all but the 15 riders who made it to Strasbourg with Merckx the Tour was over. There would be no possibility of gaining over 9 minutes on all the talent that had been in that break. Aimar missed the move and was made a domestique of van Impe by team manager Jean Stablinski. There were many other fine riders who were now either reduced to helping higher placed teammates or riding for stage wins or other minor competitions: Joaquim Agostinho, Cyrille Guimard, Ferdi Bracke, Franco Balmamion, José-Manuel Fuente and Rolf Wolfshohl.

The Cannibal edges out Roger de Vlaeminck for victory in stage 2 in the Strasbourg velodrome.

As the Tour circled around northern France and headed towards the Massif Central Merckx rode aggressively and used his team hard in order to maintain his slim 37 second lead over third place de Vlaeminck (second-place van Springel was a Merckx teammate). While Merckx was riding each stage as if it were a 1-day classic, Ocaña was lying low. Jacques Anquetil had been advising the Spaniard and his counsel was predictable. Ocaña was not to waste any energy and was to wait for the mountains. Prudence and traditional stage race tactics said that there was no point in getting into a watt-burning contest with Merckx on the roads leading to the hills when the stakes were so low.

Before stage 8 and the ascent of the Puy de Dôme the General Classification was very tight:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Herman van Springel @ 26 seconds
3. Roger De Vlaeminck @ 37 seconds
4. Gianni Motta @ 40 seconds
5. Gosta Petterson @ 42 seconds
6. Joop Zoetemelk @ 44 seconds

It was on stage 8, a 221-kilometer day that ended on top of the Puy de Dôme, where the first fireworks of the Tour were shot off. We've encountered the Puy de Dôme before. It was there that Anquetil and Poulidor had their immortal encounter in 1964 and the 1971 ascent was almost as historic.

Merckx started the stage in his normal way, spending energy as if there were no Tour tomorrow. No careful calculations, no clever tactics, no subtlety. As usual Merckx just put the peloton under relentless pressure. There was nothing more than sheer power needed to crush the other riders Merckx-style. That entire day Merckx had been leading and attacking: hounding the field, chasing anything that tried to get away, trying to break the morale and the resolution of the peloton.

In the thick fog on the ride to the summit of the Puy, first Thévenet attacked. Then Luis Ocaña, riding in the select group that had been able to stay with Merckx, accelerated. He got a gap. Merckx could not go with him. The gap grew. Still Merckx was helpless. Unable to counter the move, he watched the Spaniard ride away.

Joop Zoetemelk and Joaquim Agostinho, sensing the Belgian's tiredness, also managed to escape. Ocaña crossed the finish line at the top of the old volcano alone. Zoetemelk followed 7 seconds later. Then Agostinho came in 13 seconds after Ocaña. Then Merckx, another 2 seconds later. This was a revelation. Perhaps Merckx did not have a bottomless well of energy. The effect of the day was to bring the real contenders to within striking distance of the Belgian.

The new standings:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 36 seconds
3. Luis Ocaña @ 37 seconds
4. Gosta Petterson @ 1 minute 16 seconds
5. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 58 seconds

Walter Godefroot wins stage 9 in St. Etienne. Just behind him is Wilmo Francioni of the Ferretti squad.

On stage 10, the first day in the Alps, Merckx punctured descending the penultimate mountain, the Cucheron. His follow car was delayed and he was stuck waiting for help while Thévenet, Petterson, Ocaña and Zoetemelk rode away. He never caught them. Merckx came in 1 minute, 36 seconds behind the day's 4 leaders. Thévenet won the stage and Zoetemelk took the Yellow Jersey. Ocaña was now only 1 second behind Zoetemelk in General Classification. Merckx's stage 8 and 10 performances were like throwing chum into a tank full of sharks. They sensed the possibility that the great man might be vulnerable.

The next day, stage 11, had 2 important climbs: the Côte de Laffrey—with stretches of 13% gradient—and the ascent to Orcières-Merlette.

Stage 11: Ocaña attacks!

On the Laffrey, Ocaña, Zoetemelk and van Impe took off with the instigation of an attack by Agostinho. Merckx gave chase. Ocaña was aware that Merckx was having digestion problems that day and felt this was the time to attack.

Ocaña wins stage 11, almost 6 minutes ahead of second place van Impe.

On the final climb up to Orcières-Merlette, Ocaña was alone, having dropped his fellow breakaways many kilometers earlier.

Behind, Merckx begged the peloton to help him chase but Merckx had spanked them all once too often. With the exception of his teammates, Merckx received virtually no help from a peloton that was enjoying his distress. Understanding the situation, Merckx hammered away. He caught Agostinho and Zoetemelk, but Ocaña was on fire. He flew up to the summit, increasing his lead with every pedal stroke. When the stage was over, van Impe had lost almost 6 minutes to Ocaña. Merckx came in third, 8 minutes, 42 seconds after the slim Spaniard. Both Merckx and Ocaña had put in magnificent performances. But it was Ocaña who carried the day, having been away alone for 60 kilometers.

The day was ridden so hard and so fast that if the Tour had enforced its rules for elimination cutoff times only 39 riders would have remained in the Tour. By relaxing the rule only 3 riders were booted, but one of them was the very excellent Belgian racer Walter Godefroot.

While vowing to fight on, Merckx was gracious about Ocaña's victory, saying "Today Ocaña tamed us all." He called Ocaña's ride extraordinary and that even if he had been feeling well, the new Ocaña would have been the superior rider. Recognizing that Ocaña had reached the "peak of his physical powers" he very realistically conceded, "given the lead that Luis Ocaña has I don't see how, at the moment, the Tour de France could possibly slip through his fingers. It's virtually impossible for me to make up the deficit, unless I find new strength from somewhere or unless he performs very badly. But I don't want to think about that, I don't believe it will happen."

We asked Celestino Vercelli, riding the 1971 Tour on Franco Balmamion's SCIC team about the day and if Merckx intentionally let the other riders break away. He said, "No, no, Merckx never let anybody break away!! But that day...we don't know.... The start was on an upgrade and he wasn't that brilliant in the beginning. Maybe he was still warming up and his adversaries, Ocaña, Agostinho, Zoetemelk noticed that and decided to break away immediately...Maybe he didn't expect such a early breakaway from the others, or maybe he just wasn't prompt enough for that uphill start. Anyway it was a hard-fought stage, Merckx was behind and therefore the leading group never slowed down! I don't remember now how much Merckx lost at the end...He took it badly, but not because he wasn't helped...with those hills it wouldn't have changed things that much if the group had tried to help him. He did take it badly because it had never happened to him to be behind and lose so much time. Usually he was the one who was 9 minutes in front of the others!"

The General Classification after stage 11: one can understand Merckx's glum assessment. How could one hope to pull almost 10 minutes from the flying Spaniard?

1. Luis Ocaña
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 8 minutes 43 seconds
3. Lucien van Impe @ 9 minutes 20 seconds
4. Gosta Petterson @ 9 minutes 26 seconds
5. Eddy Merckx @ 9 minutes 46 seconds
6. Bernard Thévenet @ 10 minutes 8 seconds

The twelfth stage was another strange chapter of this spectacular Tour. It was a transition stage after the Alps. From the gun Merckx's teammate Rini Wagtmans took off. Merckx, Aimar, Armani, Huysmans and 4 others joined him. For the next 250 kilometers, the lead group pounded away with all they had.

When the attack occurred Ocaña had been in the back, signing autographs. A chase was organized. Hour after hour the 2 groups relentlessly hammered away. Merckx was out to teach Ocaña a lesson and take back some serious time. Under the hot southern French sun the lead fluctuated between 1 and 2 minutes. Luciano Armani out-sprinted the others in the Merckx group after what was effectively a 5 hour, 25 minute super-intense team time trial. Cyrille Guimard led in the Ocaña-Thévenet-Zoetemelk group only 1 minute, 56 seconds later.

Merckx had taken back 2 of the 9 minutes he needed to win the lead back from Ocaña. But at what a huge cost in effort! The racers had ridden so fast that they showed up in Marseilles an hour earlier than the most optimistic projections for the stage. There was no one at the finish to greet the racers. It was the fastest stage to date in Tour history, 45.351 kilometers an hour.

Celestino Vercelli remembers that day very well. "We arrived in Orcières-Merlette and then we had a rest day. The day after there was another incredible stage, the twelfth, from Orcières-Merlette, in the Alps, to Marseille. It was 300 kilometers long, with 20 kilometers of downhill and then 280 kilometers in the Reno Valley. Merckx was quite furious about the previous stage and so he decided to break away with 5 or 6 teammates right away, in the first 20 kilometers. Some other riders followed them and the group immediately gained several minutes. He needed to recover the 9 minutes he lost and he meant to do so by arriving in the valley with several minutes' lead with a good group of about 8 riders. This way it would have been very difficult for the rest of the peloton behind to catch them in the 280 kilometers of the valley. What happened instead is that during the descent they went so fast that when they braked for the turns the brake pads overheated the rims. The glue holding the tubular tires to the rims melted and their tubular tires came off the rims. This happened to 2 or 3 of Merckx's teammates and so they could not help him anymore in the valley. And by the way...this also happened to me!! Otherwise I would have been in the first 10 riders at the end of that stage. This happened much more often to the big riders like me, because we had to use the brakes more heavily. Because of this Merckx lost some riders along the way who would have been a fundamental help to the plan.

"In the 280 kilometers of flat road he personally pulled the group for 250 kilometers on his own! And of course the peloton behind him went very fast. There were all of Merckx's adversaries who were very motivated to catch him. They all worked together for that. It was basically Merckx alone against all the others. And despite that they never caught him. If he had not lost his teammates on the descent he would have been in Marseille at least 10 minutes before his adversaries and he would have recovered all the time from Ocaña.

"Another thing I remember about that day is the terrible heat. I remember the sound of the cicadas for all of the 300 kilometers. We went so fast that when we arrived in Marseille there was no television there to broadcast our arrival because we were so early! So the arrival was never filmed. At that time they usually showed only the last part of each stage on TV and we arrived before they could start doing that! In the 10 years I was a professional this never happened again."

The next day's 16.3-kilometer individual time trial did little for Merckx. He was able to slice off 11 seconds plus the time bonus from Ocaña's big lead. At this point Ocaña was still 7 minutes, 23 seconds ahead of Merckx in the General Classification.

Merckx time-trialing to victory in stage 13. Ocaña would retain the Yellow Jersey.

This would be settled in the Pyrenees.

Stage 14, from Revel to Luchon, took in the Portet d'Aspet, the Col de Menté and the Portillon. Ocaña knew Merckx was tiring and planned to leave the Belgian and everyone else on the Portillon.

Near the summit of the Col de Menté, a powerful, violent rainstorm with blinding hail struck. The Menté's roads turned to dangerous, potholed mud. The riders could barely see their way. Merckx, knowing that he had few peers in a descent, took off down the dangerous, partially washed out road. Ocaña and Cyril Guimard, his companions over the crest of the mountain, were able to descend with him. Presciently, Ocaña's director, Maurice de Muer warned Ocaña against descending with Merckx.

4 kilometers down the mountain, Merckx crashed, taking Ocaña with him. Merckx fixed his chain and was back riding in a flash.

Not so Ocaña. He needed a new wheel. Ocaña's team BIC service car parked to take care of him. Zoetemelk came careening down the mountain. He swerved to avoid the BIC service car and slammed into Ocaña instead. Then, Joachim Agostinho came flying down the hill and also hit Ocaña.

Ocaña, in a coma, was taken away in an ambulance. Jose-Manuel Fuente won the stage. Merckx followed in 6½ minutes later with van Impe, Aimar, Zoetemelk and Vicente Lopez-Carril.

Ocaña later fully recovered, but his Tour was over. Merckx was again in Yellow. In deference to the fallen Spaniard, Merckx refused to wear the Yellow Jersey until the day after.

The new standings:

1. Eddy Merckx
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 2 minutes 21 seconds
3. Lucien van Impe @ 2 minutes 51 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 4 minutes 46 seconds

Stage 15: Fuente riding to victory

Stage 15: And here's van Impe chasing, about a half minute behind Fuente at the end of the stage.

Spanish climbing great Juan Manuel Fuente won the stage 15 finish at Superbagnères.

And Jean-Pierre Danguillaume wins stage 18.

The next day, Tuesday July 13, was the shortest road stage in the history of the Tour. The terrible weather that had been the cause of Ocaña's misfortune continued to harass the riders during the 19.6-kilometer climb to Superbagnères. Fuente was one of that small group of riders that included Ocaña and Roger de Vlaeminck who never felt daunted or oppressed by Merckx's excellence. Their challenges to Merckx's reign make for some of the finest racing of the era. After a couple of hard attacks Fuente went clear of everyone 6 kilometers from the summit. Thévenet and van Impe were also able to break loose and finish a half minute after Fuente. Zoetemelk and Merckx were another 30 seconds adrift. Now van Impe was in second place, 2 minutes, 17 seconds behind. Even though Fuente had won 2 stunning solo back-to-back stage victories, he had lost too much time in stages 12 and 13, both times needing special dispensation from the judges to continue the race because he had finished outside the time limit.

The following day, Wednesday, the riders were asked to perform superhuman duty with a split stage day that started with a big ride in the Pyrenees. In the morning the riders had to climb the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque. The major result of this last day of climbing was to end Thévenet's threat to the Overall when he lost almost 4 minutes to Merckx. Both Zoetemelk and van Impe, rather than gain time, lost a few seconds. Without Ocaña, Merckx was back in control. In the afternoon they had to ride another 57.5 kilometers. Van Springel won the short stage in a 2-man break. Merckx along with van Impe and Zoetemelk were part of a chasing group of 11 who were able to put another 13 seconds between themselves and the field. Merckx was now riding a race of redemption knowing that his performance was being viewed through the lens of Ocaña's absence.

Before the start of stage 17 Merckx visited the now recuperating Ocaña. Horrible though the accident and his injuries had originally appeared, he ended up with only bad bruises and lacerations and was already recovering. The stage was a mostly flat course that ended in Bordeaux. Not content with owning the Yellow Jersey, Merckx wanted a firmer hold on the green sprinter's jersey. Merckx held a 5-point lead over Cyrille Guimard whom Merckx also remembered as one of the riders who helped Ocaña stay close to him in the lightning-fast stage into Marseille. Looking for an opportunity for a grand exploit when Raymond Riotte attacked with 65 kilometers to go, Merckx and 3 others joined him. Riding like, well, Merckx, Merckx drove the break to a lead of 2 minutes, 26 seconds over the first chasers. The main field with most of the former hopefuls finished 3 minutes behind. By winning that stage Guimard's hopes of Green were over, Merckx had the points competition locked up.

There was only the final day's individual time trial which Merckx easily won.

Final 1971 Tour de France General Classification:

1. Eddy Merckx (Molteni): 96 hours 45 minutes 14 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Mars-Flandria) @ 9 minutes 51 seconds
3. Lucien van Impe (Sonolor) @ 11 minutes 6 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet (Peugeot) @ 14 minutes 50 seconds
5. Joaquim Agostinho (Hoover-De Gribaldy) @ 21 minutes

Climbers' competition:

1. Lucien van Impe: 228 points
2. Joop Zoetemelk: 179 points
3. Eddy Merckx: 136 points

Points competition:

1. Eddy Merckx: 202 points
2. Cyrille Guimard: 186 points
3. Gerben Karstens: 107 points

Yet, if that tragic moment hadn't occurred on the Col de Menté.... My personal feeling is that Ocaña was riding a superb, tactical race and showed that he had the power and endurance to beat Merckx. Only once did he let his ego get ahead of him, when he decided to follow Merckx down the mountain and that error cost him the race. Merckx himself has expressed his distress at Ocaña's unfortunate accident, "Whatever happens, I have lost the Tour. The doubt will always remain." But really, there is no doubt. The best man, the one with the lowest elapsed time in Paris, won. Fortune has always played an important part in the Tour.

1972. The story of the 1972 Tour de France has been moved to the 1972 Tour results page.

1973. The story of the 1973 Tour de France has been moved to the 1973 Tour results page.

1974. The story of the 1974 Tour de France has been moved to the 1974 Tour results page.

1975. The story of the 1975 Tour de France has been moved to the 1975 Tour results page.

1976. The story of the 1976 Tour de France has been moved to the 1976 Tour results page.

1977. The story of the 1977 Tour de France has been moved to the 1977 Tour results page.

1978. The story of the 1978 Tour de France has been moved to the 1978 Tour results page.

1979. The story of the 1979 Tour de France has been moved to the 1979 Tour results page.

<--the 1960s | the 1980s-->

Bibliography