There’s some scary shit in there. But it’s all part of the history and tradition of the race, whether you come in first or 40 minutes behind, like my first time. You get into the velodrome and go into the showers, and De Vlaeminck, Merckx, Hinault—all these legends have been in there before you, and you’re scrubbing mud out of your ears. It’s all part of the adventure.
In 1966, Paris–Roubaix became Chantilly–Roubaix, at least on the map. It moved out of Paris and off to the east to include cobbles that mayors hadn’t seen the need to resurface. And in 1968 it took in Jean Stablinski’s road through the Arenberg forest.
The Arenberg created a sensation. The British journalist, Jock Wadley, arrived in France to find newspapers predicting “only 30 at most will finish this race. Even fewer if it rains.” Another suggested riders would need a sprung saddle, padded bars and fat wired-on tires to finish in the first 10. One official said nobody would finish at all if it rained.
There were now 57 kilometers of cobbles. The 15 kilometers between Templeuve and Bachy had almost no tar at all.
Pascal Sergent wrote: “The press announced that the 1968 edition would be, without doubt, the most difficult and the most extraordinary in history and that the Queen of Classics would see a legendary winner in the style of cycling’s heroic period.”
It remained to see who it would be, for the order was changing. Where Rik van Steenbergen had had to succumb to Rik van Looy, now van Looy was also threatened. Eddy Merckx had won “his” world championship. Van Looy’s not inconsiderable pride was dented.
In 1965 Merckx had been in van Looy’s Solo-Superia team, sponsored by a margarine company and a bike maker. But he had committed the crime of threatening his boss and he moved to the French team, Peugeot. There he won Milan–San Remo for the first of seven times. But Peugeot was skinflint and its riders had to buy their own wheels and tires. It wasn’t hard to move to a new team supported by Faema, an Italian maker of coffee machines returning to the sport. And there, 1967, he became world champion.
Van Looy was grudging. When Merckx started 1968 badly, losing Milan–San Remo and abandoning Paris–Nice, he scoffed: “If Merckx is the boss, let him prove it.” The two were so wary of each other in the break in the GP E3 in Belgium that Jacques de Boever won instead. De Boever had never won a decent race in his life and never did again.
Before Paris–Roubaix, van Looy, now 35, said he was delighted by the tougher route. “It will make the legs of the young hurt,” he said pointedly.
Nerves in the peloton made the first break go at 17 kilometers. It had four minutes by Solesmes. There, riders seemed almost surprised to find cobbles. They got going just as the break began flagging. News of their weakening came back via the blackboard man and Merckx attacked, taking 13 others with him. The notable exception was van Looy.
At Coutiches, Merckx looked over his shoulder and counted. There were too many. He attacked. Only Ward Sels and Willy Bocklandt stayed with him. Of those, Sels was the greater worry. He was a sprinter of Rik van Looy’s level and sometimes his lead-out man. A little later things grew worse with the arrival of the mournful-looking Herman van Springel, whom any film director would cast perfectly as a pall-bearer. Van Springel didn’t have the same talent but Merckx was now fighting on two fronts.
Imagine, then, his relief when Sels punctured 26 kilometers from the finish. Merckx hunched his shoulders and spread his elbows in a style that was just becoming familiar and attacked. Van Springel had to sprint out of every corner to hold his back wheel. Merckx swooped past his rival at the finish by rising to the top of the banking at the finish and accelerating down and past him. He won, his right arm raised, by a wheel.
It was the beginning of the end for van Looy. Three punctures had done nothing to help his chances but the eclipse was starting. It’s not even sure what happened to him. Pascal Sergent says he was in a group sprinting for ninth place, eight minutes down. The result shows the sprint was for eighth, but that matters less than that van Looy’s name isn’t there at all. He rode just once more, in 1969, came 22nd and never rode it again.
And the Arenberg? An anticlimax. Merckx finished with barely a splash of mud on his white jersey.
There had never been a talent like Eddy Merckx’s. He is the only rider to have sent the sport into recession through his own success. Riders became disillusioned because they rarely raced for anything better than second place. Their salaries fell because sponsors saw little value in backing a team they knew would be beaten. And contract fees for village races tumbled because promoters had to pay so much for Merckx, whose simple presence guaranteed a crowd and advertisers, that there was less left for the rest. And this continued for season after season.
For him, Paris–Roubaix was just one classic among many. “I took a particular interest in my equipment,” he said, “especially if the forecast was for rain but, for me, it was a classic like the rest, with its own demands and a particular character.”
In 1970 he won Paris–Roubaix by more than five minutes. The rain fell, lightning was forecast over the northern plains, and riders fell and tore skin. Jean-Marie Leblanc, who went on to organize the Tour de France, broke his frame. Merckx left the Arenberg forest with six riders behind him. He punctured at Bouvignies, 56 kilometers from the finish, changed a wheel, re-caught the leaders and went straight back to the front. And, before long, off the front. He won by 5 minutes 20 seconds.
In second place that day—and fifth the year before—was a dark-haired, gypsy-looking man with long sideburns: Roger De Vlaeminck.
“In a country in love with Eddy Merckx to the point of servitude,” said the writer Olivier Dazat, “literally dead drunk on his repeated exploits, the showers of stones and thorns from the Gypsy constituted, along with the Mannequin Pis [the statue in Brussels of a small boy peeing], the last bastion of independence and humor, a refusal of uniformity in a conquered land.”
De Vlaeminck—it’s pronounced Roshay De Vlah-mink—won 16 classics and 22 stages of major Tours. He rode Paris–Roubaix 10 times and always finished, four times in first place. The only laurels he lacked were a world road championship and, because he was only a moderate climber, a big stage race.
He had a characteristic position. He crouched low across the top tube, his hands on the brake hoods, his elbows lower than his wrists. It provided bounce, springing against the shocks. When he got going seriously, he lowered his hands to the bends of his bars and pushed his body horizontal, a cyclo-cross man turned track pursuiter. He gave, said Olivier Dazat, “the impression of gliding, of being in a perpetual search for speed, like a skier perfecting his schluss.”
The weather in 1972 was apocalyptic. It drizzled throughout the race. Water lay between the cobbles and, more treacherously, on the irregular sides of the roads, hiding missing stones, displacing others under the weight of the cars and motorbikes that preceded the riders. There could be no worse setting for the Arenberg. The break entered it at full speed as usual, riders trying to get there first to avoid piling into fallen riders.
Their speed in the rain brought down a heap of riders, including Merckx. De Vlaeminck rode on and feinted an attack where the old mining road rejoins the tar. The others matched him and he sat up. It allowed Merckx to catch them.
There was a brief hope that a local would win when Alain Santy, a northerner, got clear with Willy van Malderghem, winner of the previous year’s Quatre Jours de Dunkerque. His moment lasted until 35 kilometers from the end, when his weakness showed. Van Malderghem pushed on alone with more than a minute and half in hand.
De Vlaeminck waited. The lead stayed unchanged. Then he set off and caught van Malderghem at Cysoing, dangerously close to the end. He pressed on and crossed the line, his left hand raised, a fraction less than two minutes ahead of André Dierickx and 2 minutes 13 seconds before Barry Hoban. Merckx was seventh at 2 minutes 39 seconds.
De Vlaeminck said: “When you’re really fit, you rarely get a flat tire because you’re more lucid. I had a puncture once, in 1970, and then never again in 10 years. The other secret is confidence. I often started with the idea that I was going to win. I missed my chance once or twice but no more than that. I knew how to get ready for Paris–Roubaix. I used to ride three days of 350 kilometers a day in the week before. I used to ride Gent–Wevelgem and then ride another 130 kilometers having just changed my jersey. One year I rode 430 kilometers in a day. I needed that, that sort of training, to start the race in a good frame of mind.”
He’d got it right. In 1974 he won by 57 seconds, ahead of Francesco Moser, who had crashed.
De Vlaeminck rode now for Brooklyn, a team sponsored by a chewing gum maker owned by brothers named Perfetti. The team—he rode there with his brother Erik and with Patrick Sercu—wore a garish jersey based on the American flag. The curious thing was that for all the American connections in the name and jersey, and the image of the Brooklyn bridge, the chewing gum sold in the USA only three decades after the team folded.
And why did it fold? Because a member of the Perfetti family was kidnapped and there was no money left for a team after paying the ransom.
By now, De Vlaeminck had started training in secret. His technique was straightforward if arduous: “I used to get up at 5am. When it was good weather I went out behind a Derny with my lights on. I used to meet Godefroot to go training and I’d already ridden 120 kilometers. I used to pretend that I was tired because I’d just got out of bed and try to persuade him we should have a shorter ride together. I don’t know if I took him in but I needed to bluff the others to raise my own morale.”
Godefroot trained with De Vlaeminck because the schisms in Belgium cycling meant he never spoke to Merckx. He said of De Vlaeminck: “In the evening he’d call me to ask me if we could go out later than we’d agreed. ‘It’s not worth doing too much,’ he used to say to me. The next day, he’d get up at six, train for two hours behind a Derny, and then he’d turn up at the rendezvous as though nothing had happened. That was Roger.”
In 1975, April 13 started dull with an occasional beam of sun. It had rained the previous days, though, and the race hit a bog of wet mud when it reached the first cobbles at Neuvilly. Chaos followed. Cars got stuck in the swamp at the side of the road and motorcyclists came sliding off. Riders who stayed upright picked their way through and the field shattered. By the time the cobbles ended there were just six in the lead. De Vlaeminck wasn’t there but he came up a little later with Merckx, and then at the approach to Valenciennes, they were joined by a group including Francesco Moser.
There were four by Roubaix, all Belgian. Merckx began the sprint on the back straight. De Vlaeminck looked beaten but struggled back. He passed Merckx just before the line and won with his pedals opposite Merckx’s front tire. He didn’t even have time to lift his arm.
“It’s nice to win,” he said, “especially when Merckx is beaten.”
André Dierickx was third and Marc Demeyer came fourth.
It was the following year that Demeyer both won and started promoting another brand of chewing gum, Stimorol, from Denmark. The success that caused such an exciting advertisement on Radio Mi Amigo wasn’t a surprise; in 1975 he had ridden alone in the lead for 50 kilometers. He was a gentle giant, Demeyer. He turned professional in 1972 with almost casual disregard, spreading his contract on the roof of a car just before a race. And, equally casually he then won the race, the Dwars door België.
Demeyer spent most of his short life as lead-out man for Freddy Maertens. He could win races for himself, as Paris–Roubaix proved in 1976, but he was self-effacing by nature and happy to ride as Maertens’ knecht, closing gaps and opening sprints.
There was no greater bitterness than between Maertens and his fans and the Eddy Merckx camp. They were opposites, Maertens the near-unbeatable sprinter and Merckx the rouleur.
Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe asked Merckx if it was true what journalists wrote, that there was an anti-Merckx brigade.
“And how!” he answered. “You’ve only got to remember the names of the riders there were at Flandria: Godefroot, the De Vlaeminck brothers, Dierickx, Leman, and then later on, Maertens. They all rode against me.”
De Vlaeminck’s response was: “It’s simple: we were all against him. Even my wife! During meals with the Flandria team, Merckx was all we spoke about, from morning to evening, to work out what we were going to do to beat him.”
That was the atmosphere when Paris–Roubaix set off for the 74th time, delayed by a protest which blocked the start. It got away only after the demonstrators had deflated all the tires on the car which Félix Lévitan, the co-organizer, had been expecting to drive. He considered the situation with a mixture of anger and puzzled offense. What had he done to upset the demonstrators, beyond giving them a piece of his mind?
The Belgian civil war between Merckx and Maertens reached an armistice when both fell off at Neuvilly. Maertens abandoned the race and Merckx finished sixth at 1 minute 36 seconds. Freed from his duty to Maertens, Demeyer had a free hand.
De Vlaeminck wanted the race, of course, and tried to split it by sending away two teammates. Johann Demuynck and Marcello Osler stayed away through the Arenberg cobbles but impressed few into chasing. Guy Sibille rode alone in the lead for 35 kilometers but that threatened nobody. Who on earth was this Sibille man, anyway? He’d come third in Milan–San Remo the previous year but he’d never won better than stages in regional tours. He did, in fact, win the 1976 French national championship, but that came after rather than before Paris–Roubaix. The others could ignore him, and they did—for three-quarters of an hour.
In the end, De Vlaeminck sorted things out for himself. There were still 30 kilometers to go. He went so decisively that Merckx couldn’t go with him, his legs and will hurt by having to change bikes five times and chase back to the leaders each time. Francesco Moser was there, though, and so were Godefroot and the lightly stammering Hennie Kuiper—and Marc Demeyer.
But De Vlaeminck was overconfident. He mastered Moser’s efforts to dislodge him and no longer had to worry about Godefroot, who had flatted a tire. He led on to the track, sure he had the best sprint. But he’d ridden too hard in the last 30 minutes and he’d gambled too much on the final dash for the line. Moser came past him and then Demeyer came by them both.
“They just sat on my wheel for the last 20 kilometers,” De Vlaeminck said miserably.
On January 20, 1982, Marc Demeyer went training for 100 kilometers in the morning, then went to collect new equipment from his team manager, Bert De Kimpe, boss of a team supported by Splendor, a bike company whose sponsorship went back to 1936.
That evening he was sitting at home, doing a crossword. He never finished it. He had a heart attack and died. He was 31. He is buried in the Outrijve churchyard at Alveringem, 40 kilometers east of Ypres in West Flanders.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Author’s note: Padraig asked me if I thought there was a previous Tour edition that might have similarities to the 2011 Tour and if a look at the older race might give some insight as to what this year’s race might bring.
The 2011 Tour is a victim of Tour boss Prudhomme’s war on time trialing. With four summit finishes, yet only 42.6 km of individual time trialing and no white-road or pavé stage to lend balance to the race, it is effectively a climbing championship.
That brings to mind the 1976 Tour with it’s back-to-back eight stages of climbing plus a Puy de Dôme hilltop finish. Yes, there were 89 km of individual time trialing in 1976, but that year the mountains overwhelmed everything. Also, it featured a war between the era’s two best climbers, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe. Perhaps there is a parallel to 1976’s brutal war in the mountains in the coming match between 2011’s most prominent contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador.
Zoetemelk, the better climber that year, lost the race because of a profound tactical failure in the face of Cyrille Guimard’s brilliant management of van Impe. The only major errors that I can remember Contador committing (I’m sure RKP’s readers will remind me of others) involved his dallying in the back of the peloton and missing important moves. I doubt his new director, Bjarne Riis, will let the Spaniard sleep at the wheel in this Tour.
It may come down to a series of drag races up France’s steepest slopes, but I’m betting that given the likely even match between the two, it will be like 1976 and again come down to the rider with the greater strategic savvy. I believe that plays to Contador’s advantage.
Like Tour father Henri Desgrange wrote, it’s head and legs.
Eddy Merckx started 1976 by winning Milan–San Remo for a seventh time. He also won the Catalonian week. But that was it for Merckx in the win column for spring in 1976. He managed a second place in the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race, but only sixth place in Paris–Roubaix and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In the Giro, he came in eighth. Not able to find his usual form and needing surgery for saddle-sores, he did not enter the 1976 Tour. There would be no rematch between Bernard Thévenet and Eddy Merckx that year.
There were plenty of other fine young cannibals, however. Bernard Thévenet went to the Tour fresh off a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. Luis Ocaña, looking for another shot at glory, had come in second in the Vuelta and fourth in Paris–Nice.
Joop Zoetemelk was the odds-on favorite. He won Flèche Wallonne and had high placings in the Dauphiné Libéré, Amstel Gold and the Tour of the Mediterranean. He had been second in the Tour in 1970 and 1971 and had never finished worse than fifth.
Every Tour is different. Each year the cast of players changes slightly as older racers retire and new young men with fresh ambitions arrive. The route changes each year as well and with differing emphasis on flat roads, time trials or mountains, different racers can find some years suit their talents more than others. The 1976 Tour was clockwise, starting on France’s west coast, circling north up to Belgium before heading south for the Alps. There the 1976 Tour departed from tradition. Normally after one of the 2 major mountain ranges is ridden there are several transition stages before the hard climbing resumes. This year there were 5 days of climbing in the east, starting in the Vosges in stage 7 and ending in stage 11. Then there was a rest day before 3 very hard days in the Pyrenees. That was 8 days in a row of mountains. If that weren’t enough, stage 20 finished at the top of the Puy de Dôme. Importantly, 5 of the mountain stages ended with hilltop finishes. This is a huge advantage to smaller riders who don’t have the power to maintain a time advantage gained on a climb through a long descent and flat roll-in to a distant finish line. No wonder Lucien van Impe announced that he would be riding this Tour for the overall win, not his usual King of the Mountains title. Van Impe’s changed circumstances involved more than just having a race itinerary that matched his talents. His previous manager was Jean Stablinski who is often credited with having one of the finer tactical minds in cycling. Stablinski was replaced with Cyrille Guimard who had mounted a real threat to Merckx in the 1972 Tour. Guimard was so recently retired that he was still the 1976 French Cyclocross Champion. In taking over the Gitane-Campagnolo team he remade the squad so that van Impe would have better support. As we’ll see in unfolding years, Guimard not only knew how to ride and win his own race, he knew how to get others to ride and win for him.
There was a new comet in the heavens. Belgian racer Freddy Maertens turned professional in 1972. His fantastic sprinting, time trialing and overall strength let him win all but the steepest races. In 1976, the first year he rode the Tour, he won 54 races including the World Pro Road Championships and the Belgian Road Championships. His erratic career was at its peak in 1976 and 1977 before it fell off to almost nothing. Then, in an astonishing act of will, he rebuilt his career and won the 1981 World Championship.
Maertens did not disappoint Belgian fans who were unhappy with the absence of Merckx. From the gun he was on fire. He won the Prologue time trial thumping a monstrous 55 x 12 gear, and then the first stage. Then he won the stage 3 time trial, beating such accomplished chrono men as Ferdi Bracke by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, Raymond Poulidor by almost 3 minutes and Bernard Thévenet by 3 minutes, 32 seconds. When the Tour entered the Vosges mountains he won stage 7. In stage 8, he managed only second to Peugeot’s ace sprinter Jacques Esclassan.
With the riders poised to begin their days in the Alps in stage 9, the General Classification stood thus:
1. Freddy Maertens
2. Michel Pollentier @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
3. Hennie Kuiper @ 3 minutes 16 seconds
4. Jean-Pierre Danguillaume @ 3 minutes 23 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 3 minutes 31 seconds
Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Thévenet were sitting at about 4 minutes behind Maertens.
Stage 9 was 258 kilometers that had the pack ascend the Luitel before finishing at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez, the first hilltop finish there since 1952. Even sprinter Freddy Maertens made it over the Luitel with the good climbers. But when Peugeot rider Raymond Delisle opened the hostilities on the Alpe, Maertens was tossed. From then on Zoetemelk and van Impe attacked and counter-attacked each other all the way to the top with Zoetemelk getting the win by 3 seconds. Poulidor, Thévenet, Baronchelli, Kuiper and the others were what a modern military man would call “collateral damage”. They were incidental victims of a relentless shooting war between the 2 best climbers of the time. The result of the day’s brawl was that van Impe was in Yellow with Zoetemelk trailing by only 8 seconds. Maertens was third, down about a minute.
The next day was another mano-a-mano climbing fight between the 2 leaders. After ascending the Lautaret, the Izoard, and the Montgenèvre, Zoetemelk was again only able to beat van Impe and Thévenet by 1 second. Zoetemelk now trailed van Impe by only 7 seconds in the Overall. The pace was so hard 7 riders were eliminated for failing to finish within the time limit.
The third mountain stage was one of those races in which the peloton just doesn’t feel like racing. They let José-Luis Viejo ride away without being chased. His final margin of victory, 22 minutes, 50 seconds, was the Tour’s largest postwar solo winning margin. The peloton was content to rest their tired legs. Indicative of the slower pace, sprinters Gerben Karstens and Freddy Maertens took second and third places.
With the Alpine stages completed, here was the General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 7 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor @ 1 minute 36 seconds
4. Bernard Thévenet @ 1 minute 48 seconds
The first stage in the Pyrenees, the fourth mountain stage, was another odd day. Van Impe and Zoetemelk were only worried about each other. They kept an eye on each other and let Raymond Delisle, an excellent but slightly aging racer, get away. Delisle was eighth in General Classification when the stage started. When it was over, Delisle was in Yellow and van Impe and Zoetemelk were almost 3 minutes behind.
The next stage didn’t affect the standings. The big guns held their fire. The only notable event was that stage winner Regis Ovion failed his drug test and his name was stricken from the record of that stage. Willy Teirlinck was awarded the stage.
It was stage 14, the fifth of these mountain stages, that made history.
In previous Tours, van Impe had won 3 of his eventual 6 Polka-Dot Climber’s Jerseys, in the same fashion as modern riders Laurent Jalabert or Richard Virenque have done it. They would go out early on a mountain stage and scoop up the points in all the early mountains, not always worrying about getting caught and dropped on the final climb by the men seeking overall victory. The Polka-Dot Jersey was generally van Impe’s entire ambition. In later years he has said that he regrets those years in which he turned to trying for the overall victory. He thinks he might have had 10 Climbers’ Jerseys instead of his 6.
There were 4 major climbs that day. On the second, the Portillon, Luis Ocaña attacked. Ocaña was no longer the dominating rider he had been in the early 1970s, but he was not to be ignored. Cyrille Guimard, van Impe’s director, told van Impe to go after him. Van Impe was reluctant: Guimard and van Impe did not completely agree on tactics and goals that year. Guimard told van Impe that if he didn’t go after Ocaña, he would run him off the road with his car.
Van Impe took off and caught Ocaña on the Peyresourde, the day’s penultimate climb.
Zoetemelk didn’t chase him. He may have thought van Impe was chasing some Climbers’ points and not really going after the overall lead. And surely by now Ocaña was nothing more than a shell of his former self. Instead Zoetemelk sat on the wheel of the man whose Yellow Jersey was threatened by the attack, Raymond Delisle. Normally this would be an astute strategy, forcing the leader to defend his position. It would have been astute except that Delisle could not close the gap. In fact, Delisle was exhausted and eventually lost over 12 minutes that day. Up the road, van Impe and Ocaña were flying.
Ocaña did the hard work on the flat road leading to the final climb, towing van Impe. Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk had never helped him in his struggles with Merckx. This was a tough bit of pay-back.
On the final climb, the Pla d’Adet up to St.-Lary-Soulan, van Impe jumped away from Ocaña and won the stage and the Yellow Jersey. Zoetemelk came flying up the hill, going faster than van Impe, but it wasn’t good enough. He was 3 minutes, 12 seconds too late.
The Ocaña/van Impe/Zoetemelk attacks shattered the peloton. 45 of the remaining 93 riders finished outside the time limit. Peter Post, the manager of the Raleigh team asked on behalf of the riders that the Tour management waive the elimination rule for the stage. They did.
The new General Classification with van Impe back in Yellow:
1. Lucien van Impe
2. Joop Zoetemelk @ 3 minutes 18 seconds
3. Raymond Delisle @ 9 minutes 27 seconds
4. Walter Riccomi @ 10 minutes 22 seconds
5. Raymond Poulidor @ 11 minutes 42 seconds
The final day in the Pyrenees, even with the Aspin, Tourmalet and the Aubisque, didn’t change the top of the standings. The lions had to digest their kill.
The stage 17 time trial showed that van Impe was a more rounded rider than one might expect. Ferdi Bracke won it but van Impe was able to beat Zoetemelk by more than a minute. That put Zoetemelk 4½ minutes behind the Belgian climber with only one more chance to take the Tour leadership, the stage 20 climb to the top of Puy de Dôme. Zoetemelk won the stage, beating van Impe by an unimportant 12 seconds. Impressive, but to no real effect. That moment of careful, conservative calculation on the road to St.-Lary-Soulan cost him the Tour. Zoetemelk was the better climber that year, but van Impe had the tactical genius of Guimard to give him the needed push.
Thévenet had been losing time and at stage 19 he finally abandoned, weakened by hepatitis.
Lucien van Impe won the Tour, beating Zoetemelk by 4 minutes, 14 seconds. It was his only Tour victory and he remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. To this day, he is troubled by Guimard’s remarks that van Impe would not have won the Tour without his encouragement and threats. Van Impe says that Guimard talked to him as if he were a child, and after the 1976 season, van Impe changed teams.
Freddy Maertens won 8 stages in the 1976 tour, equaling the record set by Charles Pélissier in 1930 and Merckx in 1970 and 1974.
And Raymond Poulidor? He finished third, 12 minutes, 8 seconds behind winner van Impe. This was the fourteenth and final Tour de France for the 40-year old Poulidor. He abandoned only twice and finished with 3 second and 5 third places. In all those years of riding the Tour from 1961 to 1976 he never spent a single day in Yellow, not one. Poulidor’s 8 times on the podium is a record. Zoetemelk, Hinault, Ullrich and Armstrong each accumulated 7, and Anquetil, Merckx and Garrigou 6.
Celestino Vercelli, riding with G.B. Baronchelli, Walter Riccomi and Wladimiro Panizza on the SCIC-Fiat team, talked to us about the 1976 Tour: “This was the year the Cannibal Eddy Merckx stayed home. This Tour was won by van Impe. Every stage of this Tour was very, very hard. Just to get an idea of the difficulties we faced, in Bordeaux, in incredibly hot weather, we raced 3 stages the same day. In the evening in the hotel (hotel is a big word for the place we stayed), we slept in big rooms together. I was running a high temperature, I was very tired and hot. I don’t have words for that day on the bike.
“When we were riding the Pyrenean stages, the asphalt melted. You can imagine the huge difficulties we faced riding in the mountains in the soft asphalt. In the descent the situation was better with the tires holding the soft road very well. The big problem was the difficulty in removing the asphalt from our legs in the evening.”
Final 1976 Tour de France General Classification:
1. Lucien van Impe (Gitane-Campagnolo): 116 hours 22 minutes 23 seconds
2. Joop Zoetemelk (Gan-Mercier) @ 4 minutes 14 seconds
3. Raymond Poulidor (Gan-Mercier) @ 12 minutes 8 seconds
4. Raymond Delisle (Peugeot) @ 12 minutes 17 seconds
5. Walter Riccomi (SCIC) @ 12 minutes 39 seconds
1. Giancarlo Bellini: 170 points
2. Lucien van Impe: 169 points
3. Joop Zoetemelk: 119 points
1. Freddy Maertens: 293 points
2. Pierino Gavazzi: 140 points
3. Jacques Esclassan: 128 points
Excerpted from Bill and Carol McGann’s The Story of the Tour de France, Volume II. You can find both volumes here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
[Editor's note: Bill and Carol McGann recently published the first in their two-volume history of the Giro d'Italia. I haven't had time to actually read it yet, but I recall from previous conversations Bill's assertion that the Giro has been a consistently surprising race though its history. He's given us the opportunity to run an excerpt here, and for those of you unfamiliar with his previous work, this is a terrific example of his ability to connect dots to paint a portrait of the time. Herewith, we present you with the 1967 Giro in less than 3000 words.]
1967. What a field assembled for the fiftieth Giro d’Italia! After years of being an Italian race, the Giro was once again an international competition. There was Motta with Rudi Altig and Franco Balmamion as gregari; there were Anquetil, Bitossi, Taccone, Francisco Gabica, Eddy Merckx, Ferdi Bracke, van Looy, Adorni, Gimondi (who suffered a terrible spring and had real doubts about his condition), Wladimiro Panizza, Silvano Schiavon, Zilioli, José Pérez-Francés, Vicente López-Carril and Roger Pingeon to name some of the outstanding stage racers of this or any age who assembled to start at Treviglio, south of Bergamo. There were past and future world champions Marino Basso, Jean Stablinski, van Looy, Merckx, Harm Ottenbros, and Gimondi, and future World Hour Record holders Ole Ritter, Ferdi Bracke, and Merckx.
Belgian Eddy Merckx was riding his first Grand Tour. He turned pro in 1965, just short of his twentieth birthday. He had already won 80 amateur races, including the World Road Championship (at nineteen). His first year as a pro riding for Solo-Superia with the imperious and difficult Rik van Looy was an unhappy one and in 1966 he switched to Peugeot where he would spend two years. It was in the black-and-white-checked kit of Peugeot that Merckx entered the Giro, riding with Ferdi Bracke and Roger Pingeon. Merckx’s spring was simply wonderful with wins in Milan–San Remo, Gent–Wevelgem and the Flèche Wallonne.
In 1967 Anquetil didn’t have to deal with the poisonous relations between Ford France and Ford Italy since Bic, which at that time made only pens, now sponsored him and his core of capable domestiques.
At 3,572 kilometers, the 1967 Giro was the shortest since 1960. It had 23 stages (two half stages crammed into the last day) for an average stage length of 155 kilometers, close to current Giro lengths.
Torriani had planned to kick off the Giro with a nighttime race through Milan but the stage had to be cancelled when anti-Vietnam war protestors filled the streets.
After five stages of good hard racing, the Giro arrived at Naples for a transfer to Sicily. Michele Dancelli was the leader with Pérez-Francés second at thirteen seconds. So far the best riders were sitting towards the top of the standings but no large gaps had appeared.
Stage seven, ending atop Mount Etna, broke the peloton into bits for the first time. Climbing and sprinting ace Franco Bitossi was first to the top of the volcano. Coming in about 20 seconds later, Motta was the first of the contenders, followed by Merckx, Gimondi, Zilioli, Pérez-Francés, Adorni and Pingeon. Anquetil, Altig and Balmamion were a further twenty seconds back. Dancelli remained in pink for another day.
Racing resumed on the mainland the next day, where the mountainous roads of Calabria were too much for Dancelli. He lost over five minutes, making Pérez-Francés the Pink Jersey with Aldo Moser second at just three seconds. Just three seconds, that’s gotta hurt.
The next test was the hilly stage twelve, starting at Caserta and finishing with a climb to Block Haus, an old German fortification sitting over 2,000 meters high in Abruzzo. At this point Pérez-Francés was still the leader with everyone who mattered but Anquetil within 73 seconds of the Spaniard.
At the start of the Block Haus climb the riders had already spent almost seven hours in the saddle with the Macerone, Rionero Sannitico and Roccaraso ascents behind them. The leaders were together and ascended the steep climb at a good pace. With two kilometers to go, Zilioli unleashed a devastating attack that only one rider could match, young Merckx. For Merckx, this was unknown territory. He was reaching the end of two weeks of nearly continuous racing and faced yet another week to go. Was Merckx a man for the Grand Tours or a single-day rider in van Looy’s mold? The world was learning. He said about that moment, “I still felt good. I hadn’t ridden many mountains before so I kept following, but when Italo Zilioli attacked with two kilometers to go, I felt good enough to chase.”
Yes he did. After sitting on Zilioli’s wheel for a kilometer he lit the jets and bounded for the summit with such power and speed that Merckx’s win at Block Haus in the 1967 Giro became one of the enduring legends of the Giro. It was Merckx’s first Grand Tour stage win.
Zilioli wasn’t left far behind, though. He came in at 10 seconds, Pérez-Francés (still in pink after Block Haus) at 20 and Anquetil at 23.
Merckx’s brilliant ride moved him up to third place, 30 seconds down.
For all the hard racing that had occurred, going into the 45-kilometer stage sixteen individual time trial at Verona the gaps between the riders at the top of the standings remained razor-thin:
1. José Pérez-Francés
2. Aldo Moser @ 18 seconds
3. Eddy Merckx @ 50 seconds
4. Silvano Schiavon @ 53 seconds
5. Italo Zilioli @ 1 minute 3 seconds
6. Gianni Motta @ 1 minute 13 seconds
The time trial, ridden on a cold and rainy day, was won by Danish neo-pro Ole Ritter. Ritter’s performance left Anquetil incredulous. He said that Ritter’s pace of 47.3 kilometers per hour would have been good enough to break the World Hour Record.
Indeed. Ritter would go on to break the Ferdi Bracke’s World Hour Record in 1972 and then Merckx would break Ritter’s record later that year.
The results of the stage:
1. Ole Ritter: 56 minutes 59 seconds
2. Rudi Altig @ 1 second
3. Ferdi Bracke @ 2 seconds
4. Jacques Anquetil @ 6 seconds
5. Felice Gimondi @ 38 seconds
There were three notable poor performances: Adorni was about two minutes slower than Ritter on a course that a couple of years ago would have been just right for him to crush the opposition. Merckx lost 2 minutes 49 seconds and Motta gave up 3 minutes 17 seconds. Merckx was a freshman who had never before faced the third week of a stage race and was not yet a complete rider. But Motta was the defending Giro champion and was now out of the top 10.
The new General Classification:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 53 seconds
3. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 59 seconds
4. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 2 minutes 16 seconds
There were two major consequences of this time trial. Anquetil was now in pink, and Motta’s Molteni team bosses decided to break Balmamion’s chains of servitude to the faltering Motta. Balmamion was now free to race on his own account.
The next stage came after a rest day. Balmamion got into the winning break that included Silvano Schiavon, Gabica, Panizza and Massignan. The 3 minutes 43 seconds they carved out of the peloton put Schiavon in the lead and moved Balmamion up to fifth place, only 2 minutes 29 seconds behind. He had done more with less in past Giri.
Stage nineteen left Udine for a hilltop finish at the top of the difficult Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb. The weather was dreadful that day with rain, snow and fog. At the beginning of the ascent Wladimiro Panizza was three minutes ahead of the field and he looked to be headed for the win. His director, fearing a stiff fine, did all he could to keep the tifosi from pushing the diminutive climber up the hill. Just as he closed in on the summit, Panizza was suddenly passed by a slew of riders, most of whom possessed only a fraction of his climbing skills.
How did this happen? With two kilometers to go, the chasers were struggling in miserable weather on the stiffest part of the climb. The gradient at that point was almost fourteen percent. The riders had, in a moment of collective moral failure, grabbed on to the team cars and were towed up to Panizza. Gimondi was first across the line because, as sportswriter René de Latour noted, “he had the fastest car”. Outraged, a furious Torriani wouldn’t let the fraudulent result stand and annulled the stage. La Gazzetta writer Bruno Raschi called it “le montagne del disonore”.
Bic, Anquetil’s sponsor, decided that they weren’t interested in winning the Giro. Believable reasons don’t seem to be forthcoming; non-believable ones abound. Anquetil says that his domestiques stopped getting their paychecks and understandably, most of them abandoned. Denson says that he was told that the riders were being pulled from the Giro to save them for races later in the season. Since the Tour was to be contested by national teams in 1967, this excuse really makes no sense. Another hypothesis is that this was a move to allow Anquetil to have an excuse for losing. But Anquetil wasn’t giving up, so this seems illogical as well. Nonetheless, Anquetil raced for Bic until the end of his career in 1969 which says to me that there was something terribly complicated going on behind the scenes and Anquetil took the explanation to his grave.
By the start of stage twenty Anquetil was down to only two helpers, Lucien Aimar and Jean Milesi. Fending off the combined attacks of the Italians with just these two gregari would be an extreme physical challenge. Realizing the necessity of having more legs on his side he tried to form an alliance (that means paying them money) with some of the Spanish riders. He failed, blaming it on his sponsor’s parsimony. In fact, the Spaniards had already allied themselves with the Italians, making Anquetil’s situation even more difficult.
Stage twenty was the tappone, going from Cortina d’Ampezzo to Trent taking the riders over the Falzarego, Pordoi, Rolle and Brocon ascents.
Anquetil had bad luck early in the stage, getting two flats. Next, on the descent of the Brocon, Merckx, Gimondi, Adorni and Motta got away from him. After a desperate and impressive chase (look who he was trying to catch!) he finally regained contact. Further up the road Adorni, Gimondi, Michelotto, Balmamion and Pérez-Francés managed to put about a half-minute between themselves and Merckx/Anquetil group. Still, Anquetil had done more than stave off catastrophe, he had recaptured the lead. It was a brutal day and Anquetil had gone very deep.
With two stages to go the race was still extremely tight and the General Classification now stood thus:
1. Jacques Anquetil
2. Felice Gimondi @ 34 seconds
3. Franco Balmamion @ 47 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni @ 1 minute 40 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés @ 1 minute 55 seconds
6. Eddy Merckx @ 2 minutes 4 seconds
Stage 21 was hilly with a major climb, the Tonale. Originally the Stelvio was the stage’s planned ascent but bad weather forced the organizers to look elsewhere. The Gavia was proposed as a replacement but it too was snowed in. The Tonale was pronounced usable and put into the race route, though the riders would still have to contend with an energy-sapping cold rain. Gimondi’s powerful team set a high pace during the ascent, and near the top, Motta and Gimondi attacked, dropping Anquetil and Merckx, now paying for his youthful expenditure of energy during the first two weeks. With the aid of teammate Aimar, one of the sport’s finest-ever descenders, Anquetil regained contact. It was here, after the Tonale, that the 1967 Giro was decided.
Marcello Mugnaini attacked and escaped first. Then Gimondi, who had Anquetil right behind him, stormed off. The Frenchman couldn’t hold his wheel. Having drawn down his reserves too far the day before, Anquetil didn’t have the strength to go with Gimondi’s powerful move.
Mugnaini won the stage, finishing in Tirano with a couple of other riders who weren’t in contention. As Mugnaini was almost a half-hour down in the General Classification, his win and time gain had no effect upon the standings.
But 62 seconds later Gimondi crossed the line, alone. It was 4 minutes 9 seconds before Willy Planckaert led in the Anquetil group. Gimondi remains proud of that masterful attack and sustained escape. It earned him the maglia rosa and pushed Anquetil into second at 3 minutes 35 seconds. The question that has been asked over the years is, why didn’t the other Italians give chase? That Anquetil was out of gas and had almost no one to help him is well understood. But why not Balmamion, who was one of the outstanding riders of the day, and given his excellent time trial in stage sixteen, was in excellent condition?
He and the other riders who were on Gimondi’s level seem to have let the man from Bergamo simply ride away with the Giro. They just let him go.
A photographer was there to catch that moment when Gimondi jumped away. There is a grim-faced Anquetil five yards off his wheel with Balmamion just behind Anquetil with Adorni to his right and Motta close by and another ten or so riders all in a small pack sitting on Anquetil and Adorni. The explanation usually given is a deal was hatched among the Italians to make sure one of their countrymen won the race and Gimondi was the chosen beneficiary of this plot. Advocates of this view also say that Anquetil was paid a significant sum of money to let someone else win. There are still whispers in Italy of a briefcase with fifty million lire used to buy the acquiescence of the santa alleanza degli italiani (holy alliance of Italians). We’ll never know.
Anquetil’s situation was catastrophic. What could he do now? The final stage was split into two half-stages. In the morning the Giro would climb to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the shrine of cycling, just north of Milan. It was impossible to believe an exhausted Anquetil could take four minutes out of Gimondi with his powerful Salvarani team protecting him during those 140 kilometers. In fact, it went the other way. Balmamion rode beautifully to get second place in the stage, dropping all but Aurelio González. He gained enough time to take second place in the Overall away from Anquetil.
Anquetil had said it would be 100 riders against 1. It wasn’t quite true, but with no team to defend him, he was helpless.
And long after many observers had written off Balmamion’s chances, the double Giro winner had turned in a sterling performance and might have won the race. Did he agree to let Gimondi win? Was there an agreement? Who knows? Balmamion was third in the Tour that July and became Italian Road Champion.
Merckx went on to win the World Road Championship that fall.
Final 1967 Giro d’Italia General Classification:
1. Felice Gimondi (Salvarani) 101 hours 5 minutes 34 seconds
2. Franco Balmamion (Molteni) @ 3 minutes 36 seconds
3. Jacques Anquetil (Bic) @ 3 minutes 45 seconds
4. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor) @ 4 minutes 33 seconds
5. José Pérez-Francés (KAS) @ 5 minutes 17 seconds
6. Gianni Motta (Molteni) @ 6 minutes 21 seconds
9. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot) @ 11 minutes 41 seconds
1. Aurelio Gonzales (KAS): 630 points
2. Vittorio Adorni (Salamini-Luxor): 150
3. Wladimiro Panizza (Vittadello): 140
1. Dino Zandegù (Salvarani): 200 Points
2. Eddy Merckx (Peugeot): 178
3. Willy Planckaert (Romeo Smiths): 176
Reflecting on the 1967 Giro, Gimondi recalled, “The 1967 Giro started badly for me because I was suffering from bronchitis. At first, I had trouble staying with the main challengers, but later in the race I grew stronger. I had a great duel with Jacques Anquetil and managed to eventually drop him on the mountainous stage to Aprica [stage 21 that continued on to Tirano, the Aprica being the final major difficulty] and took the maglia rosa. It was a great Giro because of the rivalry between me and Jacques.”
About the race-fixing stories, Zilioli said, “I heard about those rumors, but as far as I know there was no pro-Gimondi alliance. I think instead that Balmamion, who was in good shape, was not careful enough. He could have followed Gimondi more closely during the race.
“Anquetil ‘played the dead rider’ and perhaps Balmamion did not sense the race strategies as they were unfolding. On the other side I also think he was not helped to become the new Italian Champion. He was never favored and he never favored anyone in his career.”
That fall Anquetil went to Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome and beat Roger Rivière’s eleven-year-old World Hour Record by 150 meters. He would have brought it to 47.493 kilometers, but he refused to submit to a drug test, so the ride was never certified by the UCI. The 1967 Giro was Anquetil’s last Grand Tour ride and he would only have two more major wins, the 1968 Baracchi Trophy with Gimondi and the 1969 Tour of the Basque Country. For fourteen years he had, like the other professionals of his era, raced about 235 days a year. It was a magnificent career in which he was the first five-time Tour winner, the first French winner of the Giro and the first man to win all three Grand Tours.
I like Tom Simpson’s explanation as to why Anquetil was such a prolific winner, “Jacques simply tries harder than anyone I have met. In a time trial you can hear him catching you, you don’t have to look round, there is this hoarse sound of breath being drawn in gulps, and then he’s past you. Then it’s like being in a thunderstorm, with the sweat simply pouring off him as he goes by.”