[We’re going to be posting some work that originally appeared elsewhere as I move my home and office from Southern California to Sonoma County. This story first appeared in Peloton Magazine—Padraig.]
In 1969 Eddy Merckx redefined the very meaning of dominance.
The Tour de France is the unquestioned king of bicycle races. Its preeminence is so beyond question that it is referred to simply as “The Tour” for nothing else can compare. Why? No one ever rides it as training for something else; when you arrive at the Tour, no matter who you are, you come with the best form you’ll have all year. It’s more all-in than a poker player can comprehend.
The Tour occupies a hallowed place in the cycling calendar and our hearts because its winner has made the measure of the greatest of champions. Win the Tour and your career is ensured. Even a stage win at the Tour de France is a career-making proposition, so winning the whole shebang is as good as hitting the Mega Millions jackpot with the only winning number.
But let’s not kid ourselves, not all Tour victories are created equal. With due respect to George Orwell, some victories are more equal than others.
Dissatisfaction, thy face is a pack finish. In the 1990s Miguel Indurain was criticized for his conservative riding. Never did you see him at the front of a small group—let alone the field—lunging for the line as a stage winner. No, Señor Indurain trounced the field in the time trials and simply marked his rivals in the mountains. Truly, it was an unbeatable formula for success, as replicable as Coca-Cola, though not nearly as loved.
Reaching back just a bit further, there was an even more frustrating victor: Greg LeMond’s third and final Tour win. Forgetting for a moment that it can be argued that EPO robbed LeMond of his fourth win in 1991, 1990 was the year of an epic tactical blunder on the part of LeMond and his Z Team. On the first road stage a four-man breakaway including Frans Maassen, Steve Bauer, teammate Ronan Pensec and Claudio Chiappucci escaped and built up a 10-minute lead by the finish. In the elaborate game of chicken that can be bike racing, LeMond expected teams not represented in the break to do the chasing, particularly those with sprinters hungry for stage wins. Even as a former winner, LeMond was foolhardy to give Bauer (fourth in 1988 at 12’ 15”) 10’ 35”. Pensec was no slouch either; the Frenchman had two top-10 overall finishes to his credit and all of France (including its media) was clamoring for another French champion; it had been five years since a Frenchman had won the Tour and this was the longest the country had gone without a victor since the 1920s.
LeMond’s mistake was in not understanding that the peloton looked at the 10-minute gap and called his bluff. Effectively 190 riders looked at LeMond and said, if you think you can claw back 10 minutes on Bauer and a Frenchman, be our guest.
What no one knew—not LeMond, not the peloton and perhaps not even the tiny Italian who would go on to be nicknamed il Diablo—Claudio Chiappucci had come of age, with the assistance of a rather innovative bit of chemistry … cough, cough.
History shows that from that day forward Chiappucci rode like a real general classification contender and gave up the jersey only after a siege-like fight with LeMond. Only the American would go on to pull back the full time on Chiappucci. The brilliant Dutchman Erik Breukink, riding for the powerhouse PDM team won two of the race’s three individual time trials but still finished 13 seconds down on Chiappucci. Chiappucci had forced LeMond to go on the defensive and work to claw back big chunks of time, working in breakaways with the likes of Miguel Indurain, gifting the other riders with stage wins while he made up time on the yellow jersey.
In Paris, LeMond pulled on the maillot jaune for only the second time in the race and when he stood on the dais, he did so without having notched a single stage win. For American fans the win was a mixed blessing. Unlike ’89 when LeMond returned from anonymity to vanquish a two-time victor—Laurent Fignon—Chiappucci was an interloper, a rider who should never have touched the golden fleece. In that, LeMond’s victory was something of a bullet dodged. We cheered, but not as much as we wanted to. We had all the urge necessary, just not the opportunity.
Nothing can take away LeMond’s 1990 Tour victory, a win that also reasonably be argued was the last clean victory for more than a generation of riders. But contrast that with some of the more surprising and dominant victories on record.
Consider Bernard Hinault’s second Tour victory. In 1978 the enfant terrible showed up to the Tour and took three stages (two of the ITTs) on his way to beating Joop Zoetemelk by just less than four minutes. No one could guess that Hinault would return a year later and humiliate Zoetemelk—a talented rider who had suffered in the draft of Eddy Merckx and just when he thought his time had come, along came this impetuous Frenchman.
Hinault won seven stages including all four (four!) individual time trials—that’s in addition to two team time trials (won by Raleigh) plus the traditional prologue. Poor Zoetemelk—the best among losers—could only manage one stage win, atop l’Alpe d’Huez. Hinault would crush the Dutchman, winning by 13’ 07”. But that wasn’t even Hinault’s greatest winning margin. No, that distinction (and with it the distinction of the largest winning margin of the post-Merckx era) goes to Hinaults ’81 victory of ’76 winner Lucien Van Impe, six-time winner of the race’s polka-dot climber’s jersey.
In ’81 Hinault could only manage five stage wins, but Van Impe would finish a whopping 14’ 34” behind the Badger. One can only imagine the force of will necessary to continue to be second best even as the time gap increases with nearly each new stage. Truly, such a race defines racing for second.
As long as Hinault’s lead on second was in 1981, it still isn’t the longest of the modern era. Before we can go on to those other wins though, let’s establish just what is meant by the “modern era.” I’ve yet to see a definitive definition of just what the modern era is; I’ve seen everything from all post-World War II racing to Jacques Anquetil’s first win in 1957. I prefer to define the modern era as the period of racing ushered in with the introduction of the green points jersey in 1953.
Prior to ’53, final time gaps between first and second could frequently exceed 20 minutes. Consider that Gino Bartali’s gap to second place Briek Schotte in the ’48 Tour was 26’ 16”, long enough to cook a meal. In ’51 Hugo Koblet pwned Raphaël Geminiani with a 22’ deficit. However, the largest and last 20-plus-minute gap of the post-War era was Faust Coppi’s outclassing of Stan Ockers. Ockers might as well have requested classification as a touriste-routier, the Tour’s one-time privateer league because Coppi finished 28’ 17” ahead of the Belgian.
And then, the following year, ‘53, the Tour organization introduced the green points jersey to recognize those riders who were great sprinters but climbed like de-clawed cats. It’s impossible to say that the green jersey eliminated those huge time gaps for sure, but there can be no doubt that the race for the green jersey created another opportunity for recognition for riders and teams and in so doing, it tightened competition. Since ‘53 no rider has finished with 20 minutes or more in hand.
Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
There can be little doubt where this narrative leads, where it must lead, where stories of the intersection of greatness and cycling always ultimately lead. Two words: Eddy Merckx.
Rather than just dive in and celebrate the Belgian rider’s preeminence, let’s get a dash of tragedy, a whiff of what-might-have-been and pinch of if-not-for into this stew. Trust me, it’ll make you woozy with possibility.
Merckx was known in his career to constantly fiddle with his position, trying to get his saddle height and setback just right. He had a stable of bikes all with different seat tube angles. There’s film of him changing his saddle height during the course of a race. It’s notable because it goes against the grain of everything we’re taught about proper fit. You never change your fit the night before a race, even the week before—certainly not during one. But there was a reason why the Cannibal wasn’t comfortable on his bike.
Late in the ’69 season Merckx was in a derny race near Blois, France. In the race there was a crash. A pacer (derny rider) and his cyclist went down in front of Merckx’ pacer, Fernand Wambst. Wambst hit his head and was killed instantly. Merckx was knocked unconscious. His other injuries included a fractured vertebrae, a gash to the head and—most significantly—a twisted pelvis. It was this injury to his pelvis that haunted Merckx for the rest of his career.
“From then on,” he said of the crash, “things were never the same. My back never recovered from it and climbing, especially, never felt the same as it had before. From that moment on, the word ‘suffering’ came into my vocabulary on an almost daily basis.”
It is into the window before that injury that we will peer.
By the time Eddy Merckx took the start of the ’69 Tour, he was already a bona fide destroyer of ambitions. He had a grand tour victory to his credit, the ’68 Giro d’Italia. He was the ’67 World Champion. He was a three-time winner of Milan-San Remo (including the ’69 edition), this even before taking his first start at the Tour de France. His spring had also included victories at Paris-Nice, the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Don’t feel bad for him at missing out at the Hell of the North—he’d taken Paris-Roubaix the previous year.
At the Giro that year Merckx was leading the race when following the stage finish at Savona he returned a positive test for a stimulant. The test came amid a cloud of suspicion. Merckx immediately proclaimed his innocence, though nearly all cyclists do that following a positive test. However, the circumstances were more than suspicious. Papers were informed before he was and the random control that netted him came the day after a rival had offered to pay him in exchange for throwing the race. Merckx refused. There was doubt about the way the sample was handled and Merckx even pointed out that the stage in question had been easy for him, not the sort of stage he would ever have needed amphetamines to survive. Eventually, the UCI cleared his name, but he didn’t finish the Giro and carried his race-leading form—and anger into his next rendezvous, the Tour.
Eddy Merckx was arguably the finest cyclist never to have ridden the Tour de France. That is, until he rolled out for his prologue on June 28. The 10km race was won by German rider Rudi Altig. Though Altig had won the ’62 Vuelta, he was best known as a track rider and was a pretender to the throne of the yellow jersey. His was a slim 7-second lead over second placed Merckx, and even that was aided by the fact that Altig had ridden later in the day than Merckx (who went first) when the early headwind had calmed.
Altig must have known his time in the lead would be brief. The following day featured the first of the race’s double stages. The day began with a 147km (91 mi.) road stage won by Marino Basso, followed by a brief, 16km team time trial. Merckx’ Faema won the contest, but in yet another example of the Tour organization’s meddling with time gaps, the time differences in the race didn’t count toward the general classification. The first three teams were awarded time bonuses and Merckx, by virtue of his of his team’s win, pulled on the yellow jersey. It was to be the first of 96 days in yellow, a record that stands to this day.
However, Merckx was smart and knew not to get comfortable wearing the jersey. The next day was a 182-kilometer flat stage; his teammate Julien Stevens won the stage and then took the jersey into the first mountain stage in the Vosges, north of the Alps. Tactically, it was a brilliant move. It rewarded a valued teammate, gave the team yet another stage win and continued exposure for the sponsor thanks to the yellow jersey and yet it eliminated the need to do any work to protect the jersey. All the benefits and none of the work.
Stevens gave up the jersey to Désiré Lortet who had the misfortune of taking the jersey the day before the first mountain finish, up the climb of the Ballon d’Alsace in stage 6. Merckx struck here, taking the stage, the yellow jersey, the green points jersey and even the mountain points competition; they did not yet award a polka dot jersey for this, but the competition was marked. What no one knew was that even though this was only the sixth stage of the race, it was the beginning of a very long end.
Merckx would give up the green jersey to rival Roger De Vlaeminck the next day, but he would only hold the jersey for two days before returning it to its rightful owner, the Cannibal. Similarly, Joaquim Galera would step into the lead of the mountains competition for two days, but slipped from the lead the same day De Vlaeminck surrendered the green jersey.
It should be mentioned that the ’69 Tour was cruel by any standard. That year featured a whopping 11 mountain stages. Merckx took yellow on the second of a string of eight mountain stages only broken by a 9km individual time trial that preceded a 137km mountain stage on July 6 (stages 8a and 8b). Naturally, Merckx won the ITT, but because of its length he only added two seconds to his lead.
For stage 9, Roger Pingeon took off on a daring breakaway with Merckx and while the Belgian gifted the French rider with the stage victory, their gap was such that from that day forward Pingeon was really the only rider in reasonable contention. Let’s clarify that: Felice Gimondi, having just come off a win at the Giro and Jan Janssen, last year’s Tour victor were both down more than five minutes. As this was Merckx’ first Tour, there might have been people thinking that either rider might turn things around, youthful intemperance was rarely rewarded in a grand tour.
On July 9, during the 198km stage 11 through the Alps from Briancon to Digne. Let’s just cut to the chase—Merckx won it with Gimondi in tow, and while Gimondi would win the next stage, Merckx was right there. By this time he was seven minutes in the lead and held an unassailable lead in the points, mountains and combination classifications. Oh, and that combination classification was yet another that didn’t carry a jersey, but Merckx had led it for the entire race, since the end of stage 1a.
Following two uneventful flat stages the second time trial of the Tour was contested in stage 15 on July 13. The ’69 Tour had not a single rest day. Even so, Merckx put a minute or more into all of his rivals in that day’s 19km contest.
The very next day was the first of two mountain stages in the Pyrenees. Merckx would lose the stage to Raymond Delisle, but finished fourth, losing no time to rivals. The next day was a day the Tour won’t soon forget, though.
Stage 17 was a classic Pyrenean odyssey. Riders rode an incredible 214km over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque. Merckx waited until near the top of the Tourmalet to make his move and while he pulled clear of his competition, his lead at the top was slim at best. The genius of Merckx was to use his slim gap as a springboard to an even bigger lead on the descent. Clear of the others, he dropped like a hawk on a field mouse and finished the descent with a minute in hand.
Once informed of his gap he figured he should keep pedaling, even though he was nearly 150km from the finish. Why wouldn’t he? What would you do if you were Eddy Merckx?
History shows that Merckx finished in 7:04 and even if the entire peloton had been level on time with him at the beginning of the stage, he finished it with a bigger lead than Lance Armstrong ever amassed in his seven wins. A group containing three Tour greats—Gimondi, van Impe and Joaquim Aghostino—rolled in at 14’ 49”.
With five stages (one of which was double) remaining in the race, Merckx had placed victory irrevocably out of reach for all other riders. Not only did Merckx win the stage and tighten his grip on the three other competitions, his Faema team took the lead in the team competition for the fourth—and final—time.
Merckx sat in the bunch for the next two flat stages, presumably recovering his formidable strength. On the Tour’s final mountain stage, which finished atop the extinct volcano of Puy de Dome, the lanterne rouge, Pierre Matignon, escaped on a long, solo break. Had Merckx the benefit of a race radio, this infraction wouldn’t have been permitted. It is reported that Merckx didn’t learn the time gap of Matignon until his lead was too great to overcome. So Merckx did the only thing he could do: he drilled the peloton to the point that the last rider holding his wheel was Raymond Poulidor. Merckx put in a final acceleration at 500 meters to dispatch Poulidor and finished second on the stage.
Two more flat stages (21 and 22a) led the peloton to a finish it’s unlikely anyone was thrilled to contest. As it would in ‘89, the ’69 Tour finished with a time trial. Unlike ’89, where Fignon and LeMond were locked in a death match, stage 22b of the ’69 Tour was something of a formality. Unless he was shot, run over by a bus or carried off by buzzards, there was no chance he would lose so much time in the time trial that the top spot on the general classification would change. Without exaggerating, it can be said that Merckx could have ridden the 37km time trial on a 3-speed and while he would have finished last on the stage, he would still have won the Tour with minutes in hand.
Of course, Merckx didn’t ride the stage on a 3-speed. He rode it like it was the last race of his life. He put a minute into Poulidor and 74 seconds into Pingeon, further distancing second place.
The final GC was nearly comic:
- Eddy Merkcx—116h 16’ 02”
- Roger Pingeon @17’ 54”
- Raymond Poulidor 22’ 13”
- Felice Gimondi 29’ 24”
- Andres Gandarias 33’ 04”
Add to this the fact that Merckx mopped up each of the other competitions. He won the green points jersey, the mountains classification, the combination classification and his Faema team won the team classification as well. He won seven of the 26 stages (counting split stages). Not since Coppi had put 28 minutes into Ockers had anyone amassed such a lead in the Tour and Merckx did it after the introduction of the green jersey. His lead goes down as the largest amassed following the introduction of that competition.
To this day, not another rider has managed such a sweep, not Hinault, not Indurain, not even Armstrong. Don’t hold your breath.
Special thanks to Bill McGann, whose “The Story of the Tour de France, Vol. 2” was indispensable in my research.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International