In an era when the complaint is that racing is too controlled, it wasn’t so long ago when riders could still win Tour de France stages after epic solo breaks. And by epic, we’re not talking about chipping off from a disintegrating breakaway with 40 kilometres to go, we mean riding 234km alone.
Such was the feat pulled off by Castorama’s Thierry Marie between Arras and Le Havre on stage six of the 1991 Tour de France. Marie, who had already won the prologue in Lyon, attacked 25 kilometres into the stage and ploughed on west towards the Channel coast. It looked like an act of a deluded masochist.
Yet there was (some) method in Marie’s madness. The maillot jaune had been worn by Rolf Sorensen of Ariostea, but the Dane had fractured his collarbone in the finale of the previous day’s stage and hadn’t started in Arras, meaning no team was willing to commit to a chase – and Marie made good his escape.
“There was nothing premeditated about the move,” Marie recalled to France Bleu TV in 2015. “I took a bit of a chance, because you really pay for that sort of effort afterwards. There had been an intermediate sprint and the front of the race had stretched, there were some gaps, and I attacked. I turned round and looked back and I saw Bernard Hinault – who was driving some guests – make a gesture like I was crazy and I did think it was a bit of a suicidal move. I had actually attacked a couple of days earlier, on my own and then sat up, but this time I was heading for home ground, in Normandy, and there was no way I could sit up this time, so I kept going.”
Marie – who spent six hours on his own – had plenty time to contemplate his move and his motivations. In 1986 his then Systeme-U team mate Dominique Gaigne had ‘stolen’ the Tour’s yellow jersey from his back the day before the race was about to traverse Normandy between Liévin and Evreux in an inexplicably treasonous move.
“I was sharing a room with Dominique and the night before he said he was going to win an intermediate sprint, take the bonus seconds and the jersey from me. I was stunned and we sprinted it out, but he was quicker than me. The thing was the Tour was going through my village the next day, I would have had the yellow jersey, in front of my family, but, no….”. Thus, at the end of stage three, won by Davis father-of-Taylor Phinney, Gaigne was awarded the maillot jaune and the next day it was Gaigne, not Marie, who rode across Normandy in yellow. Unsurprisingly, there would be no place for Gaigne in the Systeme-U team at the end of the season.
Five years later Marie was spurred on by that bitter memory and stuck to his task, aided by a mostly favourable wind and disinterested bunch. At mid-stage his lead reached 22 minutes, though that was never going to last, as Marie faltered and the bunch sped up. It was only after he crested the summit of the final small climb, with eight kilometres to go, that he knew he was going to win. “They were riding at 45kph and I was only doing 30kph, but I had just over four minutes, so…”.
Being 1991, there were no in-ear race radios or GPS, so time checks were less frequent and accurate, but at a certain point, Marie heard Castorama team boss Cyrille Guimard’s voice on the team car radio. ‘Make sure he thinks of the maillot jaune! He needs to win by 48 seconds!’ crackled out the window of the car driven by assistant DS Bernard Quilfen.
In front of a crowd whipped up by fellow Norman voice-of-the-Tour Daniel Mangeas, Marie crossed the line with 1-52 to spare before Histor’s hulking Remig Stumpf pipped Carrera’s Tashkent Terminator Djamolidine Abdoujaparov for second. Nobody noticed, because Marie had just soloed 234km, the longest distance to a stage win in the post-war period. He was Norman, he had taken the maillot jaune and he rode for a French team too – days don’t get much better than that, but Marie was so exhausted he had to be held up while he was interviewed live by host broadcaster France 2. “I got the hunger knock in the finale,” explained Marie through gulps of air, “it was atrocious… but now I’m…delighted.”
So, Marie would – finally – get to wear the maillot jaune on his local roads, losing it after a time trial in the region two days later and going on to finish that Tour over two hours behind Miguel Indurain.
But with prologue wins in the Vuelta (1986), Giro (1992) and Tour, Marie ended his career with a unique leader’s jersey collection – as well as making solo break history.