Stage 5: Limoges—Le Lioran
This story is not about a beginning, or an end. It’s not even about the beginning of the end. It’s a snapshot of the day before the beginning of the end.
In 1975, Eddy Merckx was trying to win his sixth Tour de France. On stage 13 he was already in the yellow jersey. He’d torn up the race from the earliest stages, and now, after a first helping of mountains in the Pyrenees, he led a ragged peloton into the Massif Central under a burning sun. Was there no way of stopping this invincible man?
Could he really win six Tours? If anyone could do it, it would be Merckx. And yet… He had ‘only’ won two stages so far, when in previous years his final tally could be as many as eight. Was he tiring? Although he dominated the time-trials, he had lost more than two minutes to Thévenet on the Pla d’Adet in the Pyrenees. He’d been struggling with his form following an illness in the spring, and despite early season triumphs in Milan-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he’d lost the Dauphiné Libéré (to Thévenet) and the Tour de Suisse (to de Vlaeminck).
And now he had no shortage of strong rivals: Luis Ocaña, Francesco Moser, Bernard Thévenet, Lucian Van Impe, Joop Zoetemelk, Felice Gimondi… But everyone was suffering. Anything could happen. It might be one of those skin-of-the-teeth, end of career victories, where an older rider is forced to use his guile as much as his legs. One thing was certain: there was no question of going out gently.
Before the Albi to Super-Lioran stage had even begun, Ocaña, in fifth place on GC, abandoned due to tendinitis. Three of his team-mates would leave during the course of the stage. The Italian rider Giovanni Battaglin, in seventh place, also bailed out, suffering from a fractured kneecap. Over the next three days his entire team would disappear.
Over 260 kilometres the narrow, sinuous road went up and down unrelentingly in the blazing heat. Van Impe, wearing the climbers’ jersey, accumulated mountain points. At around 200k, the Portuguese rider Joaquim Agostinho collided with a car, yet carried on riding.
Merckx crested the summit of the Plomb du Cantal ahead of Van Impe, Thévenet, Zoetemelk and Kuiper, with a group of 20 riders 20 seconds behind. They regrouped on the descent. Who was going to win the stage? Merckx had no team-mates, unlike Thévenet and Zoetemelk, in second and third place on GC. He couldn’t possibly respond to every attack, but who could he let go? With an eye on his rivals, Merckx finally let Belgian rider Michel Pollentier* slip away and win on the final climb to the ski resort of Super-Lioran.
At that point, Merckx might still have won the Tour. Thévenet was 1’32” behind on GC, Zoetemelk 3’54”, Van Impe 5’19”.
But it would prove to be the second to last day of Merckx’s astonishing career in the yellow jersey.
The following day, Van Impe and Thévenet had just dropped him on the ascent of the Puy de Dôme when a French spectator punched Merckx in the kidneys. He lost less than a minute to his rivals, yet was in agony crossing the finish line, barely able to breath. On the next stage he duelled with Thévenet into the Alps, finally opening a gap on the Frenchman on the Col d’Allos. A sixth victory seemed back on the cards. Then the unthinkable happened: he cracked. The pain from his injury, and the blood-thinning medication he was taking to treat a resulting inflamed liver, conspired against him. On the final 2.5k climb an incredulous Thévenet overtook Merckx, gaining almost two minutes on his rival.
At the start of stage 17 Merckx crashed and broke his jaw. Over the next five stages he could barely eat, yet there was never any question of abandoning.
Was Thévenet’s victory inevitable? We’ll never know. There are champions who fade away, others who leave on a high, and then there are those who plough on into the storm, lashed to the wheel, unable to accept that the ship is going down.
* Michel Pollentier had an impressive career, winning the Giro and the Tour of Flanders, yet it was marked by disgrace when he got caught out trying to cheat a drugs test after riding his way into the yellow jersey on the Alpe d’Huez. His trick had been to use a condom filled with clean urine, carefully rigged up with a tube, so that he could ‘urinate’ without giving the game away. The same trick proves the downfall of the ‘hero’ in the Belgian comic film, Le Vélo de Ghislain Lambert, in which Benoît Poelvoorde (of Man Bites Dog fame) plays a middling 1970s Belgian cyclist who eventually finds fame as the lanterne rouge.