What's Cool In Road Cycling

The Great Battles Of The Tour!

The Tour de France; the cycling battle ground for July. One rider attacks another in the mountains, the fight to hold off a chasing group, the bunch kick, aggressive phrases are strewn all over the roads of France. 2014 will be no different, but let’s look back with the PEZ Crew on battles past.

The Tour de France starts on Saturday in Yorkshire and the talk in the (virtual) PEZ office recently has been about the great battles over the last 100 Tours. If you think about it; every stage of the Tour is or has a great battle, not just the GC men, the mountain climbers or the sprinters, but the domestique’s doing their job or the crash victim trying to limit his losses and stay in the race. I guess that’s why we love the sport and the Tour focuses the microscope on every high and low of cycling.

Asking the guys for their ‘Top Tour battles’ brought out the usual mixed bag of responses, some recent, but most from a cycling past we don’t see any more.

As always our most experienced Tour follower Ed Hood gave me a list of suggestions:
Pantani when Ulrich cracked in ’98.
Contador v. his own team mate – The Man From Plano ’09.
Fignon losing it to Lemond in the last test ’89.
Thevenet ending Merckx’s reign ’76.
Ocaña looking like he had it won then crashing ’71.
Janssen stealing it from Van Springel in the final TT ’68.
Does Floyd v. WADA count ’06?
And what about Brad v. Chris ’12?

Great list from Ed, but here are the two I tied him down too:
Melun, a south eastern suburb of Paris, the venue for the finish of stage 22a of the 1968 Tour de France.

And also the start for stage 22b a 55.2 kilometre final time trial into Paris and the finish on the famous Velodrome de Vincennes.

Two stages on the one day were common place in the Grand Tours in those days – and loathed by riders and team personnel alike.

France’s Maurice Izier takes the morning stage with two British riders in the top ten; Barry Hoban in sixth spot and John Clarey in tenth place.

The stage is set; Belgian hard man Herman Van Springel leads by a scant 12 seconds on GC from Spaniard Gregorio San Miguel with Dutchman and former World Professional Road Race Champion Jan Janssen of the Netherlands @ 16 seconds.

jan janssenJan Janssen; smartest rider in the peloton

Van Springel can test, San Miguel is a climber and no real threat, whilst Janssen is super classy, the main danger to Van Springel would appear to come from the man in seventh spot on GC – also Belgian but in the ‘B’ squad to Van Springel’s ‘A’ in these days of national squads, Ferdinand Bracke

Ferdi Bracke is the consummate stylist and ‘chronoman’ with a World Professional Pursuit title to his name and a win in the Grand Prix Des Nations – the unofficial world time trial championship back then – and two wins with Peugeot team mate Eddy Merckx in the prestigious and very fast Baracchi two-up team time trial.

Bracke is at 1:56 – but he’s the specialist, an equipment fanatic who’s obsessive about his wheels and tyres – this is his chance.

At 16 kilometres in it looks like the race is going to form as Bracke flies through with four seconds on Janssen and six on Van Springel.

van springel 1968Herman Van Springel didn’t pull on the yellow jersey in Paris

The next check is at 27.6 K and tougher than boot leather Van Springel is having none of Bracke’s nonsense; he’s in the lead with 40:45 – Janssen is back five seconds and Bracke @ 10 seconds.

With 40 K below the silks suddenly it’s Janssen ahead by 11 seconds from Van Springel and Bracke back 26 seconds – this wasn’t in the script.

By the finish the margin is 54 seconds between the Dutchman and the Belgian – Janssen has thrashed his 53 x 13 (considered huge in those days) to a yellow jersey to hang on the lounge wall along with his rainbow one.

Van Springel cries as he loses the Tour by the closest ever margin at the time – 38 seconds with Bracke third overall at 3:03.

And that’s what you call a proper Tour finale . . .
Jan Janssen Tour de France 1968Jan Janssen in yellow by only 38 seconds

Ed’s second choice:
It was 1970 when I first took an interest in cycling and pretty soon I realised that there was only one man for me – Eddy Merckx.

He looked amazing on the bike, sleek, powerful, classy – and his machines with their precise custom drilling made me drool.

Off the bike he looked like a film star – I was smitten by the man; reading everything I could about him.

Pretenders to his throne weren’t acceptable especially when they made pronouncements like; ‘I’m not afraid of Merckx!’

Luis Ocaña was the man with the attitude; my amigo Dave was a Merckx man too and we were dismissive of the handsome Spaniard.

But even we had to admit that he looked pretty damn good on that drilled out orange Motobecane.

cw-ocanaThe headline story in Cycling Weekly

Eddy had won the Tour de France in 1969 and 1970 and it seemed that 1971 would be no different with him and his harder than hard Molteni henchmen blasting the team time trial prologue.

The first danger signs came on Stage 10 when Merckx dropped time to stage winner Bernard Thevenet of France – and more worryingly to Ocaña.

Stage 11 started with the yellow jersey on the back of Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk with Ocaña one second behind in second spot and Merckx fourth @ one minute.

By the finish line Zoetemelk would have dropped to second spot behind an inspired Ocaña – at an incredible 8:43 with Merckx still fourth but @ 9:46 – surely it was all over?

But as Ocaña himself said; ‘The Tour is not finished. It would be if Merckx were not in it, but a rider like him is capable of anything.’

Stage 12 and Merckx attacks on the first descent dragging a break to Marseille; 251 kilometres at 45.351 kph, a new record speed for a stage and clawing back two minutes on Ocaña.

Stage 13 is a time trial, just 16.3 K but Merckx chips back 11 seconds.

Comes Stage 14 and so does a huge electrical storm.

On the descent of the Col de Mente the road runs like a river of mud with the rock particles in the sludge making even Campagnolo’s beautiful brakes of little use.

Merckx attacks – what else would he do? – but crashes on a hairpin with visibility down to 10 yards.

Ocaña is chasing and can’t avoid Merckx laying on the sodden tar; he comes down.

luis ocana crashHospital for Ocaña

Merckx gets up and is away, Ocaña is hurt and remains on the deck a little longer, just as he’s about to get away Zoetemelk slithers into the bend with a front wheel puncture, cannoning in to the Spaniard.

Then Agostinho crashes into them, then Thevenet, then Martinez.

Ocaña is unconscious and has to be helicoptered off the mountain.

Merckx refuses to wear yellow on Stage 15 as Ocaña tells his fans to cheer for Eddy; the crash was not the Belgian’s fault.

Jump to 1:23 for the crash

Eddy rampages to the final overall win, going with breaks when he doesn’t have to and smashing his rivals by minutes in the final time trial.

Ocaña would go on to win the 1973 Tour de France, adding to his 1970 win in the Vuelta.

Years later, Dave and I would see Ocaña in action in a criterium in London; he rode with panache and looked so stylish – we had to agree he was one cool guy.

Luis Ocaña took his own life in 1994 as a result of health and financial issues – rest in peace Luis, you were one of the greats.
luis-ocanaOcaña was never the same after that crash

Chris Selden brings us a bit more up to date and into the 1990’s with El Diablo:
For me one of my favourite all time stages would have to be Claudio Chiappucci in the ’92 race to Sestrieres. It was classic Chappucci attacking early then eventually going alone with the race exploding behind him in the chase. When he crossed into Italy the tifosi went completely crazy. Word is that Miguel Indurain had to pull in all his favours to get a chase organised to limit Chiapucci’s time gain.

The best of Claudio Chiappucci

‘El Pez’ himself, Richard Pestes, brings us into more modern times, but any race on cobbles harks back to a bygone era:
A Tour standout for me was 2010 stage 3 from Wanze to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut. It was one of the most anticipated Tours in the modern era as Lance was back for another run at glory after being shown his place in 2009 by Alberto Contador, the Schlecks were at the height of their powers and Cadel Evans was World Champ – it was a big cast of heavy hitters, and Stage 3 was a battle royal over the cobblestones of Northern France, including a run through Paris-Roubaix’s Arenberg Forest.

The stage played out like a Classic, starting with the inevitable crashes that we know and love / hate as part of the Tour’s first week, with several big pileups taking down huge chunks of the peloton on the narrow roads even before they hit the pave.

Ryder Hesjedal was brilliant as part of the early break which gained several minutes, and as the lead group disintegrated as the day wore on, Ryder struck out alone with 20km to go in a balls out bid for glory – I was jumping around my living room spilling my morning coffee as the live stage played out on TV.

tdf10st03-cancellara620Cancellara and Hushovd split the race with Andy Schleck gaining time on GC

The peloton also came apart, with so many small groups on the road it was hard to keep track, and the crashes continued as Frank Schleck lost it entering a cobbled section and broke his collarbone, leaving Andy to fend for himself before the race had even really started. Andy had the cobbled king Fabian Cancellara for help though, who buried himself towing Andy clear of maillot jaune Sylvain Chavanel, Contador and Lance in what was one of the most thrilling chases I’ve witnessed.

Along for the ride were World Champ, Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovd, and Geraint Thomas, all hacking out big chunks of time on GC. They caught Hesjedal, but he hung on to join the 6-way sprint, with Hushovd taking the win.

Interestingly, Bradley Wiggins finished 8th on the stage, while Armstrong lost 2 minutes on his way to a 23rd place in Paris, although he lost that later.

Mark McGhee shows his Scottishness and plumps for Robert Millar’s battle against gravity with his win in 84:

Cor Vos ArchivesBritains only KOM in the Tour de France

Sticking to my usual Scottish theme, I’ll go for the 30th anniversary of Robert Millar’s stage win at Guzet-Neige in the year that he surpassed Tom Simpson to become Britain’s most successful Tour rider, a feat not bettered until Sir Brad took the overall. Still the only native English-speaking rider to win the Mountains competition and the highest placed ‘British born’ Tour rider.

robert-millarMillar on the way to his stage win

Gordon Cameron takes us back to the days of live radio commentary, black and white film and reading about the Tour in the next day’s/weeks newspaper, the 50’s:

1951: Charm vs. The Chasers
Ah, the ’50s … cycling’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ when the fans neither knew, nor cared to ask too many questions, about cycling’s more morally dubious outlying regions. The 1951 Tour saw the greatest post-War names gather to chase the yellow jersey. Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Gino Bartali, Fiorenzo Magni, Stan Ockers … and Hugo Koblet.

oblet and coppiTwo class riders: Koblet and Coppi

With the Pyrenees looming, stage 11 should have been a routine 110 miles from Brive to Agen. The field rolled along sedately. Koblet launched a counter-attack on a descent and joined a lone French rider to no panic. When Koblet quickly dropped him there was mild interest. The Swiss groover was still 130+ kilometers from home and just over a minute ahead. But this was to be no mano a mano battle.

What should have been a completely one-sided pursuit race turned instead into one of the bravest battles ever. The lone ‘pedaller of charm’ slicing through the air as a star-studded chase scrambled to bring him back. A solo battle against the Tour peloton, against common sense, against reason. Koblet held them off for about four hours, cruised over the line in Agen and … pulled out his cologne to spruce up, a comb to fix his hair, and watched the time tick round to the 2’35” he put into the field.

One of the greatest solo rides ever, a raging against pain and logic. If you don’t know about Koblet, look him up. He was probably the coolest and most stylish rider to ever turn the pedals.

kobletKoblet on his own in the mountains

This just leaves my own thoughts:

The battle between Alberto Contador and the Schleck brother came to mind, Lance and his battle with a plastic bag and Floyd’s battle to regain the yellow jersey, but I also have to go back in history. First up; the battle between Perdo Delgado and Stephen Roche in 1987, the commentary from Phil Ligget still makes the hairs rise on my arms. Race leader Delgado attacked on the La Plagne to distance himself on his biggest rival, Roche. The Irishman waits and then hammers up the mountain to finish only 5 second behind the Spaniard and save his Tour aspirations.

“It’s Roche…It’s Stephen Roche!”

My second choice takes us back to the Tour of 1964 and the fight between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme. OK I’m not old enough to have seen the stage; I hadn’t even started school at that time.

anquetil-et-poulidor-620Shoulder to shoulder action in 1964

That stage was a battle between a hard man from a family of country labourers (Poulidor) and the more elitist, Norman upper class, cool, emotionless Anquetil. The pair fought shoulder to shoulder until Anquetil cracked, but he knew he could allow Poulidor 56 seconds to keep his yellow jersey. His calculating mind also told him he would beat Poulidor in the time trial before the finish in Paris. Anquetil’s attitude didn’t bring him many fans, but it did bring him five Tour wins, Poulidor was a hero with no tour wins or even one yellow jersey in fourteen Tour starts.

Back to this year’s Tour de France; let’s hope there are more battles to keep us entertained through July and looking at the start list we shouldn’t be disappointed. There should be some great battles in the sprints, mountains and of course the overall. Vive la Tour!

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