Stage 20: Megève–Morzine
In 1968, Barry Hoban became the first British rider to win a mountain stage in the Tour de France. The feat was all the more remarkable since Hoban was a sprinter rather than a climber. But when he talks about it over the phone from his home near Powys in Wales, he’s surprised that anyone should find this odd.
“In the ’60s and ’70s there were very few pure sprinters. We didn’t have sprint trains like Mark Cavendish has now. We were more like Peter Sagan; riders who can get over the mountains and finish fast,” he explains, before pointing out that he once came 6th in the Tour’s mountain classification.
Hoban’s career would eventually tally eight stages of the Tour, two stages of the Vuelta, Gent-Wevelgem (ahead of Eddy Merckx) and podium finishes in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix.
In 1968, however, his chances of winning the 19th stage seemed pretty low. The 200-kilometre stage from Grenoble to Sallanches featured four climbs, including, like today, the Aravis and the Colombière, and Hoban had no support. That year there were national rather than trade teams: “There were next to no Britons riding on the continent at the time and within the first week most of my team had gone home,” Hoban recalls.
After a rainy start in Grenoble, Hoban reached the top of the first climb, the Côte de la Tour Blanche, with the leaders.
“At the summit I just thought I’d let the bike go. I wanted to get ‘Le Point Chaud’—the Hot Spot Sprint. It was an intermediate sprint, but it wasn’t like today, where it would go towards the sprinter’s jersey. It was a separate category.
“Anyway, I got the to the bottom and I was pretty much alone, apart from this Spanish rider called [Andres] Gandarias, who was quite high up on GC. So I said, ‘Hey Andres, why do you come with me? I just want to get the sprint points. If you come with me the whole peloton will be after us.’ So he agreed to let me go and after about 20–30k I got the sprint points. I thought, that’s great.
“The next climb was the Aravis, which is knocking on 2,000m at the top. I thought, ‘If I can continue like this, maybe they won’t catch up with me before I get to the top.’
Other than seeing the intermediate times marked up on a slate carried by a motorbike, Hoban could only imagine what was going on back down the road. “I found out later; there were three specialist climbers, Julio Jimenez, [Silvano] Schiavon, an Italian, and Arie den Hartog who was Dutch. They were all chasing behind.
“At the bottom of the Aravis I had four minutes’ lead. They took one minute out of me by the time I got to the top, but I took that back plus a minute on the descent, so I now had five minutes.
“By the top of the Colombière, where there was the Prime Henri Desgrange, I was 10 minutes and 45 seconds ahead of the yellow jersey group. After that there were 40 kilometres to Sallanches and the final climb, the Col de Cordon, which was six or seven kilometres.
“I’d ridden 116k alone and I knew I had these guys behind me. I thought, ‘If I can cross the finish line first with a bit of daylight separating me from the next rider, I’ll be happy.
“So I didn’t put the big gear in, I just kept a steady rhythm and ate and drank.
“I had a six-minute lead at the bottom of the Col de Cordon, which wasn’t all that much since I had real climbers behind me. You can easily lose one minute per kilometre on the climbs. The autobus always needs to allow at least 16 extra minutes to get up the Alpe d’Huez.
“On the Col de Cordon I got into my lowest gear and after a while I was cruising along, and I won the stage with a four-minute lead.
“I won the Hot Spot Sprint, the Desgrange prize, the most combative rider prize, the mountain points, the stage and a cow…”
The cow, called Estelle, was a gift from a local farmers’ association. To the delight of the press photographers, Hoban jumped onto its back and held onto its
horns, “as if they were my latest Cinelli handlebars!” he recalls with a laugh.
Hoban didn’t bring the cow back to Paris but he kept her bell.
“Now when we have a party and we’ve had a few drinks, we might take the bell out into the garden and start ringing it. Everyone knows about it because the sound echoes around the hills.”
I wonder aloud whether he wasn’t surprised, after all, to win an epic mountain stage with a four-minute lead over some of the best climbers in the peloton, after just ‘letting his bike go’.
“I was never surprised. I knew how good I was,” Hoban shoots back.
Spoken like a true sprinter.