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Moments in time

From issue 15 • Words by John Wilcockson with illustrations from Matthew Burton

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Decades of memories from following the Tour de France

I’m always being asked, “What’s your outstanding memory from all the Tours that you’ve followed?” Right now, it would be Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome being the first Brits to stand atop the Tour de France podium. But once I think back to the 1990s, the ’80s, the ’70s and the ’60s, then more and more memories come cascading in. The strongest thoughts are for the first Tours I followed before I became a professional journalist, when I’d go to the race by bike, soaking up the atmosphere, riding the mountain passes and watching the athletes that until then I’d only gaped at in the sepia-printed pages of old cycling magazines. The first Tour I actually followed was the 50th edition in 1963. The 100th edition comes up next year. That’s a long time to be making an annual pilgrimage to the same event, but the Tour is not just any other event. It has a constantly changing cast of characters; stunning locations, both familiar and not; and memories so vivid they’ll never fade away. I’d like to share some of those moments that draw me back to France year after year ….

Chamonix, 1963 Anquetil and Bahamontes
The 50th Tour de France was on its last mountain stage through the Alps from Val d’Isère to Chamonix. The stage circled Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, in a near-eight-hour trek that crossed the two St. Bernard Passes, Petit and Grand, along with a viciously steep goat track over the Col de la Forclaz and the little Col des Montets, before making a sharp plunge into the finish. That’s where I was headed from the western side of Mont Blanc, where rain was falling and swirling clouds hid the 15,000-foot-high “White Mountain,” which on a clear day dominates every view in this part of the world.

My day began at the foot of another peak, the Col de la Croix de Fer, on which I’d watched the race the day before. I took a photo of the first group led by defending champion Jacques Anquetil, who was wearing his splendid red-white-and-blue St. Raphaël team uniform. Just behind came Spanish climber and 1959 Tour winner Federico Bahamontes, who would take the yellow jersey at the end of that day.

The battle between those two men was in our conversation when I met up with a couple of English club riders at that night’s youth hostel. In the morning, I was in a hurry to reach Chamonix before the stage arrived, so the three of us headed down the Maurienne valley in team-time-trial formation, imagining we were the French team at the 1930 Tour on this same stretch of road, chasing for 80 kilometers to save the yellow jersey of their leader André Leducq after he broke a pedal in one of two crashes descending the Galibier.

I waved good-bye to my English “teammates” at the end of the valley. They headed west on their way home as I headed east and north through Albertville, up the Arly Gorge to the ski resort of Megève, and down to Chamonix. I was following the race’s progress on my transistor radio and knew that Anquetil had encountered attacks by Bahamontes on the Grand St. Bernard and then by French rival Raymond Poulidor. When I arrived at the finish, the speaker was telling the fans under their umbrellas that Anquetil was struggling to stay with Bahamontes on the muddy path over the Forclaz.

The pair began the stage separated by three seconds, so with time bonuses of 60 and 30 seconds awaiting the first two finishers, Anquetil and Bahamontes knew that the stage winner would be wearing the yellow jersey when the race left the Alps the following day. There were no restrictions on spectators at the stage finishes in those days, so I was leaning over a metal barrier just 50 meters from the “arrivée” banner and had a clear view when Anquetil appeared through a heavy downpour, speeding home on his top gear, well clear of his rival, to win the stage and take the maillot jaune. It was in his character that the Frenchman didn’t bother to raise his arm in victory. He’d expected to win.

There was no live television back then, very few reporters and no drug controls (or even anti-doping regulations!), which meant that within a minute or so of finishing the stage Anquetil was walking alone back to the finish line to be presented with the yellow jersey. He passed within inches of where I was standing, took a comb from his back pocket and pulled it through his wet, blond hair with a smooth flourish to be ready for the cameras.

The press sometimes called him the Viking, for his angular features and cold blue eyes, but on that day in Chamonix, for me, Anquetil was a noble Greek god emerging successfully from one more battle.

[Postscript: Because he won two mountain stages and both time trials that year, the 1963 Tour was Anquetil’s most comprehensive victory. He would win the Tour for a fifth and final time in 1964, when I was lucky enough to see his epic duel with archrival Poulidor on the Puy-de-Dôme. A few years later, when reporting Paris-Nice, I shared an elevator and a few words with the race director. It was Anquetil. Still a god.]

Col de Porte, 1971: Merckx and Ocaña
My life as a cycling journalist began when Eddy Merckx was exploding onto the international scene. I saw him race in Spain and Belgium on my very first overseas assignment; that same year, I reported on races in which he starred in Italy and Switzerland; and I was in his hometown of Woluwé-St. Pierre when he took his first yellow jersey on the second day of his debut Tour in 1969. Merckx was always winning. It was rare to see him in difficulty, especially at the Tour, and especially on a mountain stage. But that was the story on the Col de Porte at the 1971 Tour on a stage from St. Etienne to Grenoble ….

Merckx had been wearing the maillot jaune for 10 days and held a comfortable half-minute lead on his closest challengers, Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk and Spaniard Luis Ocaña. It seemed that his powerful Molteni team was in perfect control and that Merckx was on his way to another easy Tour victory. In any case, not much was expected from this first alpine stage that ended with two not particularly difficult climbs, the Col du Cucheron and Col de Porte, in the forested limestone peaks of the Chartreuse.

It was the custom back then, before wall-to-wall TV coverage, for journalists to follow the stage in the race convoy. For a change, I’d driven ahead to picnic with a friend on the last slopes of the Col de Porte, finding a grassy meadow sheltered by pine trees from the fierce sun. After the publicity caravan passed, we heard from race radio that a dozen riders, including all the main contenders, were breaking clear on the Cucheron. It seemed like a routine move on the day before what was expected to be a more decisive stage with a summit finish.

Then came word that Merckx had punctured on the descent, with 30 kilometers left in the stage. He lost an estimated 40 seconds in getting a spare wheel, but was back into the line of team cars and catching back when a rider was dropped by the leaders. Cars were stopped from passing that rider and Merckx was unable to close the 100-meter gap that separated him from the small front group. It was a chance for his rivals to make up some time on the all-conquering Cannibal.

Within minutes, after joining the fans at the roadside, we saw the six leaders, headed by Ocaña and Zoetemelk racing toward us. They went flying up the hill, eager to gain as much time as they could on the race leader. A good minute passed before we saw Merckx, his yellow jersey black with sweat, his face contorted from the effort, riding hard at the head of a seven-man chase group. For the first time in his Tour career, the Belgian champion looked vulnerable, and though he would drop all but one of the riders with him on the technical descent into Grenoble, Merckx arrived at the finish 1:36 behind the leaders. He fell to fourth overall, now a minute behind new race leader Zoetemelk, with Ocaña in second.

[Postscript: With heavy legs from his 30-kilometer chase, Merckx was dropped the next morning on the steep Côte de Laffrey when a joint attack was made by Ocaña, Zoetemelk, Lucien Van Impe and Joaquim Agostinho. Ocaña rode away from the others with two major climbs and more than 70 kilometers to go, while a suffering but intrepid Merckx led the chase throughout with no support, and finished the stage in third place almost nine minute back. Three stages later, Ocaña crashed while trying to follow Merckx down a steep Pyrenean descent in a raging thunderstorm. The Spaniard was rushed to the hospital and the Belgian went on to win his third straight Tour.]

L’Alpe d’Huez, 1978: Hinault and Pollentier
The first five-time winners of the Tour de France, Anquetil and Merckx, both won on their Tour debuts. The same was predicted for French champion Bernard Hinault when he lined up for the 1978 Tour. Merckx had retired and the world was ready for a new star to emerge. At age 23, Hinault had already won a dozen stage races, including that year’s Vuelta a España (then held in April/May), and his main opposition looked like coming from three more experienced men: French-based Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, Merckx’s former lieutenant Joseph Bruyère and fellow Belgian Michel Pollentier—who won the previous year’s Giro d’Italia. Hinault’s task proved much more difficult than anyone could have expected ….

Zoetemelk, Pollentier and Bruyère all beat Hinault on stage 12, a 52.5-kilometer time trial to the top of the Puy-de-Dome mountain, and going into the Alps, Bruyère held the yellow jersey by 1:03 over Zoetemelk, 1:50 on Hinault and 2:38 on Pollentier. That picture changed quickly when Bruyère bonked and fell out of contention on the second-to-last climb of stage 14, the Col de Luitel, with the finishing climb to L’Alpe d’Huez still to come.

Pollentier, wearing the polka-dot jersey, sprinted for the mountain prize at the Luitel summit and, with Hinault and Zoetemelk both reluctant to chase, the Belgian climber gained a minute on the narrow, acrobatic descent. And with the wind behind him in the valley, Pollentier, incredibly, soon had a three-minute lead.

That was when, with several other press cars, we stopped at the roadside and dropped in line behind Pollentier, half-expecting that this might be the day’s (if not the Tour’s) winning move. We drifted back to see the small chase group, where Zoetemelk still had a couple of teammates to help, while Hinault had just one. The two leaders were clearly waiting for L’Alpe d’Huez before chasing Pollentier—who reached the base of the finishing climb still two minutes ahead.

We watched Pollentier, in his ungainly, elbows-out, contorted climbing style, negotiate the Alpe’s first steep hairpin bends before overtaking him and heading to the finish. The riders in the chase group split completely on the climb and finished in ones and twos, with Hinault reaching the finish 50 seconds behind stage-winner Pollentier and Zoetemelk a further half-minute back.

After Pollentier crossed the line at 4:10 p.m., and after three presentations on the podium as stage winner, the King of the Mountains leader and race leader, we saw him leave the finish area at 4:35 in his yellow jersey, riding his bike back down the hill as the final stage finishers arrived. What happened next was later recounted by Pollentier’s first-year team director, Fred De Bruyne. “I was told that Pollentier had left by bike, something I couldn’t fathom. I assumed that in his excitement at taking the maillot jaune he’d forgotten about the drug test,” he said.

The five riders selected for tests had to report to the small anti-doping trailer within an hour of the finish, so De Bruyne went looking for Pollentier at their team hotel, the Castellan et des Cimes, but he’d already changed into dry clothes and returned to the finish. “On reaching the trailer,” De Bruyne continued, “I congratulated Michel and sat down. On my left was [French rider Antoine] Gutierrez, trying to provide a specimen for the doctor, while Pollentier was in the other corner.  Suddenly, the doctor cried out, ‘What are you doing?’ to Gutierrez. I saw there was a small plastic tube in his hand. He was confused and tried to say the tube had been in his pocket. I was overcome with astonishment ….   About a minute later, panic returned when the doctor pulled down Pollentier’s shorts and revealed this plastic tube ….  ‘Michel,’ I cried. ‘What are you doing? You have no need to fuck up like that?’”

On researching the drug testing performed at that Tour, we discovered that riders selected for testing were routinely bypassing the rules by not giving their own urine, but filling the test tubes with clean urine from rubber bulbs secreted under their armpits and pumping it via a plastic tube taped down their back and under the crotch. No one had tested positive for the first two weeks of the Tour, mainly because the presiding doctor was not enforcing the UCI rule that stated that tested riders had to lift their jerseys to the chest and lower shorts to the knees before filling the test tubes. That evening at L’Alpe d’Huez, a new doctor had taken over who did impose the rule—and so discovered Gutierrez’s illicit tube, and then Pollentier’s.

At that point, we only knew that the two riders emerged from the trailer about an hour and 45 minutes after they went in, assuming they’d had trouble providing enough urine. That’s not unusual after a near eight-hour stage on a hot day in the mountains. There were no press conferences for stage winners or race leaders back then, so radio reporters were waiting back at the Hotel Castellan to interview Pollentier, who bounded up three flights of stairs to join his teammate Freddy Maertens, the green jersey, in room 32.

When the reporters asked Pollentier why he took so long at the drug control, he said, “Going up Alpe d’Huez was so hard on me that I pissed down my pant leg ….  That’s why I had so much trouble satisfying the doctor’s requirements.” But everything’s all right now? “Yes, I suppose so.” Do you suppose, or are you sure? “Well, the doctor told me I might have not urinated enough, but that’s all. As far as I know it’s all going to be okay.”

But it wasn’t. A half-hour later, race director Félix Lévitan, looking more somber and gray than usual, walked into the press room—which was set up in the little, ark-shaped Notre Dame des Neiges church. With co-director Jacques Goddet at his side, Lévitan read from a prepared statement, telling us that race leader Pollentier had been caught in flagrante delicto trying to defraud the anti-doping control, and that the race jury had decided to invoke a new UCI rule that fined Pollentier 5,000 Swiss francs and gave him an immediate two-month suspension. In other words, for the first time on the Tour’s then 75-year history, the yellow jersey was thrown out of the race.

The next day was a rest day, and I joined a handful of other reporters to get Pollentier’s side of the story. We all gathered on the balcony to his hotel room, in the sunshine, and listened to this mild-mannered young man say how he felt that he and his team were being victimized. His roommate Maertens said, “They’ve all been after us for some time because we’re a bunch of small-time Belgians who get in the way.” To which, Pollentier, whose yellow jersey was in the corner of the room, added, “You see that maillot jaune there, why don’t you just  deliver it to Hinault. It’s his, and that must be what some of them have been wanting all along.”

[Postscript: After Pollentier’s disqualification, Zoetemelk inherited the yellow jersey with a 14-second lead on Hinault. That gap remained the same until the stage 20 time trial of 72 kilometers from Metz to Nancy, which Hinault won, beating Zoetemelk by more than four minutes and going on to win his first Tour. Pollentier, whose urine sample from L’Alpe d’Huez actually tested negative, raced for six more years, winning the 1980 Tour of Flanders and finishing second and third at the Vuelta.]

Col de Granon, 1986: LeMond and Hinault
It was frigid standing in the thin air atop the near-8,000-foot summit of the Col de Granon on July 20, 1986, waiting for the leaders to arrive at the finish of stage 17. We already knew that the stage was going to be won by a Spanish adventurer, Eduardo Chozas, not a danger on GC, who’d broken away early on the 190-kilometer stage through the Alps and began this final climb more than 10 minutes ahead of the rest. What was still unknown was the destiny of the yellow jersey.

As he had been for more than a week, defending champion Bernard Hinault held the lead with a 34-second margin over his American teammate Greg LeMond, with the elegant Swiss rider Urs Zimmermann in third, almost three minutes back. That looked like changing on the second of stage 17’s three climbs, the Col d’Izoard, when Zimmermann accelerated on the steepest section, marked by LeMond, and Hinault couldn’t follow. The French superstar, in the final Tour of his career, later said he was having knee pain, but it was not a major concern—he would win the next day’s stage! Of more significance was the race-long battle of nerves Hinault had engaged with LeMond. And because, as part of my work as editor of Winning magazine, I was working with a Belgian writer on a daily diary with the French champion post-stage at his and LeMond’s team hotel. The tension between the two teammates was obvious, and their battle of nerves was growing by the day.

So when Hinault fell back on the Izoard, we felt that his bad patch was as much due to mental fatigue as anything physical. As for LeMond, after threatening to quit the Tour the day before because of his teammate’s bellicosity, he was totally motivated to grab the yellow jersey. This was LeMond’s third Tour. On his debut, he’d placed third to teammate Laurent Fignon. Then, in 1985, he placed second after being stopped from displacing team leader Hinault from top spot. And now, entering the ninth week of his impeccable Tour career, the young American was desperate to win the race.

That desire was apparent when LeMond easily stayed with Zimmermann as they descended the Izoard into Briançon, headed up the valley that leads to the Galibier, and then took the right turn at Serre Chevalier onto a narrow, switchback climb that ends at the 7,916-foot (2,413-meter) summit of the Granon. The blond Zimmermann, who’d won the rugged Dauphiné Libéré and Swiss national championship right before the Tour, later said this was the best form he’d ever felt on a bike. LeMond, hamstrung by team protocol, could not work with the Swiss; otherwise, he would likely have gained much more than the three minutes he eventually took on Hinault that day.

That was confirmed by the comparative freshness of LeMond after he finished the stage on that lofty mountaintop and slipped on the yellow jersey to become the first American to lead the world’s greatest bike race. It was a magic moment in Tour history. While the exuberant LeMond celebrated, many of the other riders arrived at that remote, rocky peak in a state of collapse from the lack of oxygen, the cold air and the grueling six hours of riding over three alpine passes.

One of those suffering the most was Scottish climber Robert Millar, lying fourth overall and wearing the polka-dot jersey, who was gasping for breath for long minutes, sitting on the ground, propped up by a metal barrier. Another was French rider Joël Pelier, who was given an oxygen mask by the race doctor before he revived; and he didn’t start the next day.

After the Granon finish, Hinault and LeMond took a short helicopter ride with their Canadian teammate Steve Bauer across a deep valley to reach their hotel at Montgenèvre—where, later that night, we talked with the deposed champion. Hinault, whatever he felt about dropping from first to third place behind LeMond and Zimmermann, was in fighting mood. He confided that he’d go on the attack the next day over the Galibier on a stage that finished at L’Alpe d’Huez, saying he had to get rid of the Swiss rider. But what he really wanted, it was obvious, was another yellow jersey.

[Postscript: Hinault did attack the next day, dropping Zimmermann on the descent of the Galibier but, after help from Bauer, LeMond broke away with Hinault over the Croix de Fer to finish the stage together at L’Alpe d’Huez, more than five minutes ahead of third-place Zimmermann. Hinault never scored another maillot jaune, nor a record sixth Tour de France victory.]

1993, Lac de Madine: Induráin and Rominger
Miguel Induráin was at the height of his powers. He’d won the Tour (and the Giro) for two consecutive years and was about to start the first long time trial of another Tour that would put him in line for a hat trick of overall victories. But the rising Swiss star Tony Rominger, who was a better climber than Induráin and almost his match in time trialing, was a strong contender after winning that spring’s Vuelta a España.

Not many actually believed that Rominger could challenge the dominant Spaniard in this 59-kilometer time trial around the man-made lake of Madine in northeast France. He had an early start because he’d lost three minutes with his Spanish team in the team time trial. And so when we elected to follow Rominger, a couple of hours before Induráin’s start, ours was the only press car to do so.

As soon as we slid in beside his Clas-Cajastar team car, we could see that the Swiss was on a good day. Rominger had a beautifully aerodynamic position on his time-trial bike, and it was no great surprise the following year when he twice shattered the world hour record with distances of 53.832 and 55.291 kilometers. On this stormy afternoon in July 1993, he was easily the fastest to the first check point (with Induráin still to come), and we were starting to believe that he could beat the Spaniard for the stage win.

But then, on a flat stretch of road before the course’s main climb, the Swiss rider hit a fierce, sudden thunderstorm. Hailstones were battering the roof of our car as Rominger almost slowed to walking pace when powerful wind gusts blasted him on the wide, open road, while torrential rain battered his taut body. It’s hard to figure out how much time he lost because of that storm, both during it and recovering from it, but two minutes wouldn’t have been a bad estimate. The later starters, including Induráin, raced in damp, calmer conditions, but Rominger still managed to place fourth on the day, 2:42 behind Induráin—who went on to defend his Tour title.

[Postscript: Rominger finished ahead of Induráin on every mountain stage of that Tour and went on to beat the race leader in the final, 48-kilometer time trial by 42 seconds. As a result, the Swiss rider ended the Tour in second place, less than five minutes behind the champion. Rominger never won the Tour, but went on to win the 1995 Giro d’Italia, leading it from start to finish. Today, he’s a rider agent for stars such as Cadel Evans.]

From issue 15. Buy it here.