Stage 14, 1971: Revel–Luchon, 214km.
Word spread in 1970 that Merckx had only won the Tour so easily because the opposition was weak. This was hardly true, but, nonetheless, it was a charge that upset his rivals and, in 1971, Ocaña, Thévenet and Zoetemelk all swore to make it clear there was no armistice.
The coffee-brown troops of the Molteni dominated the prologue in Mulhouse, but the difference was insignificant. The first real test was the Puy-de-Dôme. Merckx’s vulnerability showed immediately the race reached this old volcano outside Clermont-Ferrand. Ocaña won and took 15 seconds out of him. The time may not have been much but the encouragement for the Spaniard was enormous.
Warning number two: the stage from Saint Étienne to Grenoble. Merckx punctured coming down the Cucheron. There were 30 kilometres to the Col de Porte. Merckx tried to close up to the Ocaña group but got stranded at 100 metres. Thévenet won, with Guimard, Zoetemelk, Van Impe and Ocaña behind him. Merckx lost 1min. 38secs. and the yellow jersey. ‘That was a serious blow,’ Merckx says. ‘The Porte was a col I liked. I had digestive problems and so I didn’t recover properly.’
The French Press was jubilant. ‘Merckx bested in the Tour for the first time,’ it crowed. The feeling swelled to outright euphoria on 9th July. The stage from Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette would be the definitive proof of the change from god to mortal.
That morning Merckx had his suspicions. He suspected the field had watched the way he’d ridden and would start an early attack. He and his team-mates went for a 30 kilometre warm-up before the stage, to be ready for anything. But he didn’t retaliate when Ocaña attacked on the Côte de Laffrey, the first real obstacle of the day. Zoetemelk, Van Impe and Agostinho slid away with him, but Merckx decided to stick to his own tempo and see how great the damage was at the summit. ‘I had no wish to blow myself up,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t an explosive climber: I had to build up steam and I wanted to make it a long chase.’
There’d also been an unbelievable communications breakdown with the team’s management. ‘On the Laffrey there was a group 45 seconds behind me with three team-mates in it. But Driessens, the team manager [with whom relations grew worse day by day], didn’t tell me. Otherwise I’d have waited for their help and things would have turned out differently.’
The problems that confronted Merckx gave the opposition wings, Ocaña especially. The impulsive Castilian rode with oily smoothness and shed his breakaway companions off his wheel. Behind, nobody would help Merckx. The field sat grinning on his wheel. What joy to see the man who had so often belittled them now being left to wallow in his own misery.
Merckx and Merckx alone rode on the front, and he saw the gap open hand over hand. ‘Some of next day’s papers said I’d thought of chucking it in,’ he says. ‘That’s nonsense. My head was drooping from exhaustion and I began to forget about winning a third Tour, yes. But pack it in? No, never.’
In Orcières-Merlette the gap had opened to nearly nine minutes, or eight minutes, forty-two seconds to be exact. Things looked bad. Merckx, generous in defeat, praised his great rival. ‘Ocaña showed us today that he is cycling’s El Cordobes,’ he said, referring to the legendary bullfighter of the era.
Merckx had no illusions. But during the rest day at Orcières he talked to the team’s doctor, Calli, and went for a training ride with a handful of team-mates to improve his morale. ‘We devised a counter-offensive for the following day,’ he says.
Ocaña felt cocky on the morning of the 11th. Cocky enough to spend a long time talking to reporters. No one, including the Spaniard, expected the defeated Merckx to retaliate quickly, especially since the first kilometres from Orcières went straight downhill. But the flag had barely dropped when Merckx went off with a handful of team-mates and a few others – opportunists hoping to profit from the counter-attack.
‘Oh no,’ groaned the bunch.
A bitter Merckx rode behind his team-mates Stevens, Huysmans, and the crazy Wagtmans, who rode himself into the ground. It was a nightmare charge at an average 45 k.p.h. towards Marseille, the lead over the bunch constantly changing. Ocaña gathered a few of his allies around him to limit the damage. By the Vieux Port at Marseille, Merckx – who was beaten for the stage by Armani – had cut his deficit.
‘The team made another tactical error,’ he says. ‘Bruyère got dropped from Ocaña’s group and the team management let two riders wait for him. Instead, they should have stayed with Ocaña to disrupt the chase. If that hadn’t happened we’d have beaten the bunch by fifteen minutes.’
And he was upset, too, that the talented Spanish Kas team, which fell through the ice during that crazy stage, was again saved by Félix Lévitan, the head of the Tour. ‘Rules are rules,’ Merckx says. ‘All the Kas riders finished outside the time limit. But people didn’t want Ocaña to lose fellow countrymen.’
Merckx then made up for his catastrophic ride through the Alps. ‘It was clear that Ocaña was the stronger in the mountains,’ he admits. ‘But he’d already had a bad day in the Tour and it made me speculate. I decided to attack until I collapsed.’
The rivalry with Ocaña had come to a peak in the time-trial at Albi, which Ocaña had won. ‘Driessens went round protesting that Ocaña had been paced by a TV car,’ Merckx remembers. ‘I believed him and began complaining to the media. Unjustly, it turned out later. Ocaña and I were like cat and dog for months afterwards.’
The spat inspired Ocaña to make a bold prediction at the start of the Revel–Luchon stage. ‘Today I deliver the fatal blow,’ said the flamboyant Castilian, who still had a comfortable 7mins 32secs lead. In fact it was Merckx who hauled Ocaña through the fire, and tried heaven and earth to outwit his opponent.
Ocaña glued himself firmly to Merckx’s wheel. The flanks of the Col de Mente provided the backdrop for a battle of the cycling gods. The sky grew black and hellish weather lashed the summit, the ditches overflowing in the rain. With contempt for death, Merckx started the dangerous descent.
‘I knew Ocaña used an ultra-light bike for the climb and that he only had 24 spokes in each wheel,’ he says. ‘That makes the bike less stable and you pay for it on the descent.’
Merckx forced Ocaña to take deadly risks, only to make the first error himself. His bike went from under him coming out of a bend and the bars hit him in the groin. He bit back the pain and got back on his bike. A fraction later Ocaña slid on the same bend. He too survived and scrambled upright, only to be hit full-on by a flat-out Zoetemelk. And that was the end of the race for Ocaña: a dismayed De Muer, his Bic team manager, held the yellow jersey wearer to him, like Mary with Christ.
Merckx refused the yellow jersey on the podium in Luchon. He licked his wounds. ‘I was in bad pain, which the following day gave me a hard time in the stage over the Peyresourde,’ he remembers. ‘But I managed to get through the stage.’
Now, so many years later, Merckx admits for the first time that he wouldn’t have won that Tour without Ocaña’s crash. ‘It’s pure mathematical logic,’ he says.
This is an extract from Golden Stages of the Tour de France, published by Sport & Publicity and Mousehold Press.