Part 2: Coup de Grâce
Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to four remarkable moments in the history of la Grande Boucle.
Puy de Dôme, 11 July 1975
Seven years without a French maillot jaune was one thing, but this had been seven years without so much as a meaningful contest. The Tour was supposed to be Anquetil and Poulidor, The Midi and the Uplands, Burgundy, the Loire and the Auvergne. It was a celebration of French culture, French values and French history. It was what – and who – France aspired to be, three weeks of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Everyone understood that was the whole point of it; cycling as a means of asserting local, regional and ultimately national identity. It was the great metaphor, and those invited to participate had an obligation to respect the fact. Vive la République, vive les vacances and, as a consequence, vive Le Tour.
And yet. And yet.
The reign of terror had reached its nadir in ‘74. Merckx had won the Tour, his fifth, just as they’d known he would. That wasn’t necessarily his fault, because people like him found it almost impossible to lose bike races. Merckx was a dreadful loser, but now even the winning seemed to have become pejorative. These days there was almost a gratuitous quality to his victories, something approaching malevolence. Objectively he hadn’t needed to win eight stages, and he should have known better than to rub their noses in it at Orléans. He hadn’t needed to win in Paris either, and the Tour certainly hadn’t needed it. Somehow though, the more he won the more insecure he seemed to become. It was like an addiction with him, and it rendered the whole thing joyless, inhumane. He was a great rider, but he made the Tour de France feel… cold.
Sanremo, Amstel, Catalan Week, Flanders, Liège. One calendar month. Here we go again.
He smashed the climbers on the cobbles, took the jersey at the time trial and then, notwithstanding a puncture, consolidated it at another. He’d only just turned 30, for Christ’s sake. This could go on for…
Then, like most all dictatorships, it ended just as violently, abruptly and dramatically as it had begun. He had become the law that day on the Aubisque but now here, six years on, young Thévenet lay siege to his dominion. He’d ridden away from him at the Dauphiné, but Merckx had been recovering from flu then, and nobody had truly dared believe it. Here though, in the crucible, Thévenet discovered that he could be held in the first instance, wounded in the second. Suddenly Merckx had become Zoetemelk; mortal, temporal, friable. Suddenly Thévenet understood, and suddenly there was light.
Thévenet surged on the Puy de Dôme and so too, emboldened, did the scavenger Van Impe. Merckx parried, but he was old now. The moment belonged to Thévenet, and to France. They rode away from the old cycling.
When a roadside partisan delivered a right-cross to his ribs, the world turned its back. By the time he crossed the line, Thévenet had denuded him of 34 seconds, 34 absolutes. The following day he bore his teeth on the Allos, but he was weakened and bewildered now. On Pra Loup Gimondi, his spirit made mean by a career grovelling in his wake, gleefully twisted the knife. The old tyrant was coming apart and, as Thévenet reacquainted France with the maillot jaune, the Tour de France was coming home.
Two days later a man-on-man duel on the Izoard, and the coup de grâce. Merckx, pathetic in the way they all are, blamed the body shot he’d received on the Puy de Dôme. “The medicine – he whined – the medicine…”
With Thévenet’s accession, Merckx failed to overhaul Jacques Anquetil’s record of five Tour de France wins. Subsequently Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain would each win five, Lance Armstrong an unprecedented seven.
Mere numbers perhaps, but one is highly indicative. By the time Thévenet delivered the dénouement on the Izoard, Eddy had led for 96 days across six Tours de France. In effect, of the 138 days he’d spent at the Tour, almost 70 per cent had seen him in yellow. By comparison the great Hinault managed ‘just’ 75 days, Indurain and Anquetil 60 and 50 respectively. Even Armstrong, utterly dominant as he was, only held the maillot jaune for 83 days.
Image: Cor Vos