Why did Pierre attack on this stage of all stages, with this monstrous mountain ahead of him? If his goal had previously been the lanterne rouge and the financial security it brought, what kind of gamble did he make, what kind of cosmic pact with St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes?
I could only suppose that he was fed up with the beating Merckx had been dispensing, wanted to salvage some dignity after the punctures, the 15-minute penalty (at a time when doping had been illegal only for two years, still considered routine and rarely punished) and the bad luck.
That something in him had snapped, and he’d taken his meagre stack of chips and put them all on number 20, to hell with the consequences. And when he knew that Merckx was coming, could he feel the hot breath on his heels? Did he feel at his lowest and most vulnerable the moment just before he realised he was safe? How did he travel through that dark night before the glorious dawn at the finish above?
Watch the race footage and you can see Pierre escape, an extra bottle stuffed into his back pocket, cap worn high, brim bent. Despite what the papers said in tribute afterwards, he looks an untidy rider. He struggles with the bike – stomping on the pedals is his default position in this clip.
We cut away and cut back and his cap has gone, revealing dark, tightly curled hair. His face is young and worried. The camera pans down to his rider number: 88. The Puy hoves into view, squatting over the monochrome landscape, and now Merckx is chasing in his HD-monogramed yellow jersey, the hound behind the fox, other riders trailing behind him.
While Merckx sails through they are labouring; it is pig hot. The tarmac is melting beneath them. Back with capless Pierre and the extra bottle in his middle jersey pocket is gone too. He is discarding everything, stripping himself bare.
They’re on the lower slopes, instantly recognisable by the steep rock wall on the riders’ right and Paul Gutty, Matignon’s teammate, has joined Merckx, who is pulling Poulidor up the hill. Felice Gimondi is behind, alone, as is Roger Pingeon of Peugeot-BP… nope, he’s there with Gimondi, who looks desperately like he might cry. He is going to pull past him. Little matter: they are both in trouble and will finish well back, Merckx’s pursuit of Matignon yet another nail in the coffin of their Tour.
Poulidor, though, is a sucker for punishment on this climb and stays with the chase. A fat man in a white vest and slacks runs up the hill clapping Merckx and now Poulidor is getting dropped (it is his turn to lose an improbable amount of time in a short distance on the Puy: 37 seconds in 600 metres) while Gutty still rides next to Merckx, desperately willing Merckx backwards.
“I knew the steep slopes of the Puy well enough,” Gutty said afterwards, “to know that even the best lead can melt like snow if you tire and lose hope of victory.” Gutty is bluffing, taking a lesson from Maître Jacques on these same slopes five years back and staying level, trying to psychologically damage Merckx.
And where is Matignon in all this anyway? Two fat ladies, 88. The cameras are sticking with Merckx – it is not worth wasting precious celluloid on Matignon, the back of the race, even when it’s at the very front. Why watch the lanterne rouge when Van Den Bossche and Pingeon are coming up on Poulidor, passing him, cleaving to the cool shadows in the lee of the hill, and I wonder as I sit forward, straining for, hoping for, a view, if Matignon is going to be denied the public recognition of his glory.
But no: the film cuts to a static expanse of empty road at the finish line and a head swinging around the corner, rising, revealing a body heaving from side to side, a motorbike with aerials and a commissaire riding in a Citroën DS (what class). And Matignon glances behind as the Citroën peels off, sees there’s nobody there, raises a hand in triumph, swerves and almost falls off.
He’s exhausted, his head rocks to one side. Tries to loosen his toe straps, can’t, is swallowed into a crowd of well-wishers who hold him up, won’t let him fall. Two fat ladies. Bingo.
Matignon has 85 seconds on Merckx, who has chased him all the way up the infernal spiral and who finally breaks free from Gutty once Matignon is safe. Merckx cruises in, serene and displeased; Gutty, five seconds back, is doubled over in pain. Van Den Bossche is next, overtaking Pingeon at the last, while Pierre is kissed by his trainer and given a commemorative plate by a man with a severe fringe and a pair of Ray-Bans.
If looks could kill, Merckx’s would flatten the crowd, raze the vegetation, incinerate the film in the camera. He knows he has missed a trick at one of the most prestigious finishes. He flips up the brim of his cap, paces back and forth like a lion in a cage, scowls. He is terrifying. The former Tour winner Antonin Magne calls this Merckx’s only mistake in the 1969 Tour.
“Never have I suffered so much on a bike,” said Pierre. “I couldn’t see clearly in the final kilometre, and several times I was tempted to get off, but I shook myself out of it, saying to myself: ‘Come on, one last effort. This time luck is on your side.’”
“I don’t know how I found the strength to finish. I zig-zagged on my bike, my head hurt terribly.”
Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard is published by Random House on April 17.