1968-1975 Days of the Cannibal

1968 TOUR DE LA SANTE

It started, symbolically, in Vittel – the spa town synonymous with the water bottled there (that has, coincidentally, been one of the partners of the Tour since 2001). The directeurs and the riders, realising that heads could no longer remain in the sand after the Simpson tragedy, declared they’d be happy to submit to federal controls rather than police raids.

Whether it was teams being careful, or the shadow cast by the awful events on the Ventoux, the Tour was so dull that for the first – and only – time the journalists covering the race went on strike. They boycotted the first 70 km of the Bordeaux-Bayonne stage in protest at the badly constructed parcours, accusing Levitan of having ‘les yeux uses (worn out eyes)’.

But it had it’s fair share of incident – a positive test (Jose Samyn, the first man ever excluded from the race for doping), a broken nose for Poulidor (who was never braver than in this race, fighting to keep his Tour hopes alive), another exploit from Pingeon (193 km on the road to Albi) and a top 10 going into the final stage – a time trial into Paris – that contained 2 former winners (Aimar and Pingeon), the world hour record holder (Bracke), a former World Champion and 3 time Green Jersey winner (Janssen), and the man who would win the Points jersey in this race (Bitossi). They were all within 3′ 38″ of each other and any of them could, theoretically, win the race.

It was Janssen that did it, becoming the first Dutch winner by taking the Maillot Jaune for the only time in Paris. Bitossi took the Green – or, for one year only Red – Jersey and the new classification, the Combination Jersey. He was also 2nd in the King of the Mountains classification – an astonishingly consistent and complete performance.

National teams were on their way out. The prologue was now a firm fixture of the race, thus neatly slipping an extra time trial into the race under the nose of the UCI who had rules about these things. Rest days were back in – despite Goddet’s desire to make the race ‘inhumane’. Doping could no longer be ignored and the first baby steps towards proper testing were in place. Rules on hydration were changed in a tacit acknowledgement that dehydration was dangerous and possibly lethal as opposed to a display of strength, endurance and suffering. Apart from some tinkering around the edges the race had finally found its modern format. And the 1969 Tour would reveal cycling’s greatest modern champion.

1969 MERCKXISSIMO  

“The Tour has only just started and there are plenty of difficulties to deal with. My success is above all a reminder not to let up for an instant. The Tour is only won in Paris” Eddy Merckx

“The idea that the Tour is never won until it reaches Paris is finished – Merckx has shattered that legend” Jacques Goddet

They called him – not affectionately – the Cannibal. But there were multiple Merckx’s in this race: Merckx the Magnificent who won every long time trial in the race; Merckx the Munificent who allowed Pinegon to win the stage to Chamonix; Merckx the Merciless who rode for 140kms alone through the Pyrenees, over the Soulor and the Aubisque, even though he had the victory dans son poche.

He won it all – every Jersey (Yellow, Green, White) and the Grand Prix des Montagnes. His Faema team dominated the team classification. He took 6 stages on all types of terrain. But none was greater than his victory on stage 17, Louchon-Mourenx.

Merckx didn’t disappoint in his Tour debut – but he’d arrived at the start line under a cloud (and through the auspices of the UCI bending the rules, as they would for Armstrong 40 years later). He’d been leading the Giro when he failed a drugs test. What happened in Savona has been the subject of endless speculation – and it certainly wasn’t the only time it happened to Merckx, he failed 2 further tests in his career – but he arrived at the Tour under a cloud: “the brilliant champion that we’d known since his professional debut in 1965 gave way to an inaccessible and surly man…and it’s an angry champion, in a quest to be rehabilitated, who has crushed the Tour under the heavy weight of his bitterness” wrote Equipe’

Was it that bitterness that drove him on that day in the Pyrenees? He rode almost to the summit of the Tourmalet with his teammate Van Den Bossche and then attacked and dropped him to continue alone to the finish. Was he ‘a champion in quest of rehabilitation’ or was there another reason to drop the hammer on his faithful co-equipier?

“Martin Van den Bossche told me the night before that he was leaving the team for Molteni. I didn’t blame him for wanting to make more money elsewhere but I wasn’t happy that he’d told me in the middle of the race. I knew he wanted to win on the Tourmalet so I caught him and passed him”.

And therein lies the dichotomy of the grand champion – we expect  the grand exploits of our supermen to be driven by motives that are pure and moral, but they’re mortal after all, with feet of clay and human motivations.

After the stage Merckx spoke simply of an opportunity that presented itself, of his happiness to have achieved something that might endure in the history of the sport. It is our dilemma to try to choose between the multiple Merckxs, between man and superman. Did Merckx give us an epic poem that day in the Pyrenees, or a snotty note on the fridge door telling us not to touch his stuff?

He said the arrival at La Cipale in front of 25,000 spectators was “the best memory of my career – everybody chanting my name. I’ve never been so moved or known an emotion quite like it”.

Fast forward to 9 September, 1969: scene, the Pierre Tessier velodrome, Blois. Merckx is competing in a derny race with his pacer Fernand Wambst when they get caught in a crash. Wambst is killed outright, Merckx suffers head and spinal injuries and twists his pelvis. From then on he rides in constant pain. He endlessly adjusts his saddle. He says “cycling is pain for me” and claims he is never again the same rider. “I was never as strong again in the mountains. Without the crash I could have won more Tours.”

How his rivals must have wept.

1970 MERCKX CANNIBALISES THE TOUR

This tale could as easily be about  Merckx’s 8 stage wins as it could about Gosta Pettersson, the first Swede to stand on the podium of the Tour de France. But it’s about neither. This is the tale of the Ventoux.

Roland Barthes called it “A god of Evil, to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering…Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful. Bald, it’s the spirit of Dry: Its climate (it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place) makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell.” Barthes may be overly dramatic but he gives us a way in to try and understand how the first riders to cross the mountain must have felt about the Geant de Provence.

But the myth of the Bald Mountain is not built on sacrifice but on doping, and what motivates riders to dope in the face of it.

First the facts: Mont Ventoux stands nearly 2,000 metres above the lavender filled fields of Provence. The climb is 22.7 km from Bedoin and has an average gradient of 7.1% but the easy slopes at its base give way to maximum gradients of 11%. The winds are ferocious, especially when the Mistral blows. If you’re crazy enough and you can climb the mountain by all 3 routes in 24 hours then you can become a member of the Club des Cingles de Ventoux. As a climb it stands alone in the massif des Cedres – you have to adjust your eyeline radically from the foothills to find the observatory at its peak. It thrusts its way out of the plain like a great white tumescent whale. It’s the Moby Dick of cycling.

Now the legend: Mallejac nearly died there, had to have his jaws prised apart so they could administer oxygen. He never rode again. In that same Tour, 1955, Ferdi Kubler set off at a murderous pace over the Ventoux. Geminiani went with him, warning him the pace was too hot

“Be careful Ferdi, this is not a climb like the others”

“Ferdi is not a rider like the others!”

Gem was right and Ferdi was wrong. In murderous heat he began to weave across the road, labouring his way to the summit. Near the finish he was seen in a café drinking beer after beer. He set off again – the wrong way. Later that night he announced his retirement: he was too old “Ferdi has killed himself on the Ventoux!” he declared. Turns out he was nearly right – after Mallejac’s collapse and Kubler’s crise the teams were in uproar – directeur sportifs and soigneurs were spiriting pills and potions out of hotel rooms like magicians and a delirious Kubler was running around screaming “Ferdi est trop charge! Ferdi va exploser!”

Simpson fell victim to pride and desperation and a lethal cocktail of drugs, alcohol and dehydration, like an Ecstasy death at 6,000 feet.

What is it about the Ventoux that gives it such a fearsome reputation? It’s not the longest or steepest climb. The Izoard is as eerie, the Tourmalet more fearsome. But those climbs are where they’re supposed to be, in the wilderness of the high mountains. Ventoux stands alone, awesome. The Tour uses it only sparingly and always as the dominant climb – it’s not part of the ‘Ring of Fire’ or the ‘Circle of Death’. It is unique.

My own personal favourite exploit is the day that Eros Poli, the tallest rider in the race, hauled his mighty carcass over Ventoux and down the other side to win the stage. I shouted myself hoarse that day, screaming him to victory. It was perfect: man against nature, man against man, and man against his own physiology.

In 1970 it was Merckx’s turn. Wearing a black armband for his team manager, clad in the fabled golden fleece, he ascended into the dazzling whiteness, the observatory at the summit winking in and out of his eyeline. He passed the Simpson memorial with a tip of his casquette as Goddet laid flowers. But even Merckx was not immune to the hungry, savage god. His pedal struck got jerkier, his thighs seemed about to explode. When he crossed the finish line and made his way to the podium, his legs gave way. He spoke of his fear – fear of ending like Simpson? He was given oxygen and taken away in an ambulance.

But maybe Merckx had outwitted the mountain after all. By the time his rivals had negotiated their way back down the mountain, Eddy had already been relaxing in his hotel room for several hours. It was all a clever ruse, a bluff – or so the story goes.

Should we add another Merckx to our tales – Merckx the Manipulator?

1971 THE MATADOR MASTERS THE BULL

He lays by the side of the road on a bed of gravel, his Yellow Jersey covered with a rain mac as if draped with a muleta. The wide white toothed grin splits his face as grim men in rain soaked shorts try to comfort him. The torrential rain has plastered his hair and his socks to his skin as the pain rictus widens across his handsome Spanish features. The matador has fallen. This is the pivotal moment of the 1971 Tour de France.

Ocana had taken wing and flown through the Alps. He’d made Merckx look (whisper it) ordinary, beating him by nearly 9 minutes. The Tour was nearly his. Bobet said he felt like he’d been watching Coppi ascending. He put all but 39 riders outside the time limit which the race organisers had to extend. Even the Cannibal was admitting – well, not defeat exactly – but close to it:

“What he’s done is extraordinary, believe me. He was truly better than all of us. You have to give in to a champion who thrashes you like that. That’s sport. Even if I’d be in top form physically I don’t think I’d have been capable of following him. He’s accomplished a fantastic exploit….with the advance he has, I can’t see at the moment how he can lose the Tour. That time gap is practically impossible to close. Not unless I get some new strength and he has a terrible defaillance. I don’t want to think about that.”

He likened Ocana’s performance to the great matador Cordoba taming a bull, but the bull charged again the next day as Merckx drove the peloton for 250km to the line in Marseilles. Ocana was distanced, but only by a couple of minutes. “Who lese but Merckx could pull off a trick like that?” mused Ocana, and promised he would deliver the estocada the next day, on the col de Portillon. But the wounded bull had one last charge left in him – Merckx attacked on the col de Porte.

If a complete rider needs to be able to ride on the flat, to handle himself in a sprint and to climb like an angel, he also needs to be able to descend like a falling stone. Merckx attacked and yet Ocana was able to match him with ease at each acceleration.

And then the storm broke. The torrent swept lumps of slick mud down the mountainsides and onto the roads. Hailstones pelted the riders’ backs and they were forced to brake with their feet. It was Merckx that fell first, inevitably bringing down Ocana. Merckx was back up and on his bike as quickly as possible and Ocana was in the process of doing the same when Zoetemelk came hurtling down the road towards him:

Zoetemelk: “I was riding as quickly as possible to reduce the time gap. Suddenly I saw the Yellow Jersey of Luis Ocana standing in the road in front of me. My brakes wouldn’t work. I tried leaning on my bike to try and switch direction but I lost my balance and then I punctured. I hit Ocana full force. It was inevitable. No one could have stopped it…when I saw the Spaniard wasn’t getting up, I thought about quitting. But what purpose would that have served?”

Van Impe: “Merckx fell first and Ocana got caught up in the crash. Ocana got up almost immediately and had a look to see if he could get going. He was standing when Zoetemelk reached him. The crash was awful….today the Tour has lost all its charm for me. It’s such a shame for Ocana and Merckx. Both of them have been formidable”.

Merckx refused the Yellow Jersey, said he’d rather finish second than find himself leading in that fashion: “winning the Tour under these conditions doesn’t interest me!”

He is crying with pain now, as they get him into the ambulance. He wounded the bull but didn’t deliver the estocada and he has paid the price. He has been gored in his turn. A drop of rainwater falls from the doctor’s nose as he tries to comfort him.

1972 THE GESTURE OF A CHAMPION

It can’t be easy growing up in the public eye. Ata a time when most men in their mid 20s are making mistakes, drinking themselves insensible and shagging unsuitably, Merckx and Ocana were expected to deliver superhuman feats on the bike and diplomacy beyond their years off it. So this is the tale of the greatest champion, the greatest directeur sportif and the Green Jersey.

Ocana still felt he would have won the 71 Tour, Merckx that he had been robbed of a ‘proper’ victory by the Spaniard’s abandon. The match was on…at least until the race hit the Pyrenees. Another crash in appalling weather robbed Ocana of the Tour and by the time he reached Pau, jersey bloodied, hair plastered to his skull, it was all over. He’d brought down Van Impe, Alain Santy and Bernard Thevenet when he missed a bend. Santy remained by the road immobile with a broken neck, Thevenet suffered a concussion and took another 30 kms to realise where he was.

Enter stage left Cyrille Guimard. He won 4 stages in the race, including beating Merckx by 10 cms on Mont Revard when Merckx had already raised his arm in victory, much to the Belgian’s disgust. To say there was no love lost between them would be an understatement – it’s a feud that rumbles on to this day with Guimard calling Merckx ‘neither a star nor an icon’ and Merckx spitting back that Guimard was ‘a little sprinter…who thought he was better than he was. He was a little rat”.

Guimard’s 96 wins, including 7 Tour de France stages, say he was a pretty decent ‘little’ sprinter. He was also a talented multi-disciplinary rider, who finished his career with a 4th place in the World Cyclocross championships. One hour later, after a shave a shower and a change of clothes, he took up a position as directeur sportif at Gitane with Jean Stablisnksi.

A quick aside on ‘Stab’ – the very epitome of the working class hero domestique that dominated cycling until quite recently, Stablisnki was the son of Polish immigrants. He was down the pits of Northern France by the time he was 14 after his father died in a mining accident. He won his first bike in an accordion competition and turned pro at 21. The ability to ride faster, harder, further in support of a team leader was a way out of poverty for many young riders. He loved cycling, rode his bike almost to the end. For those of us who love the Classics, we owe Stab a huge debt of gratitude for it was he that suggested the creation of the trouee d’Aranberg that is the highlight of the ‘Hell of the North’ Paris-Roubaix. Chapeau Monsieur Stablisnki!

Stablisnki had been a wily fox of a rider tactically but Guimard now bought innovation to the team. He worked with Van Impe (who would win the 1976 Tour under his guidance) and a young unknown Breton (what is it with Bretons and cycling? Guimard was one too) called Bernard Hinault. They were the perfect fit – Guimard called Hinault the most naturally gifted cyclist he had ever known, better than Merckx (take that Eddy!) and the 2 would go on to dominate cycling in the 80s – but those are tales for another Tour.

The riders Guimard worked with are like a who’s who of modern Tour de France greats with a side order of French heroes and a huge influence on the shape of modern French cycling –  Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, Charly Mottet, Marc Madiot and Jean-Rene Bernadeau among them.

There is a but – there’s always a but. Guimard’s personal ‘doctor’ at the 72 Tour was Bernard Sainz aka the  ‘sulfureux’ Dr Mabuse whose name has a place on the roll call of dishonour alongside Ferrari, Conconi, Checcini, Van Mol and the rest.

But all that lies ahead for Guimard. In the 1972 Tour he traded the Maillot Jaune back and forth with Merckx (they were the only riders to wear it) and held the Green Jersey when he was forced, finally, to abandon. Guimard says his knee problems date back to an injury he picked up in 1969 which was badly handled. He carried the Yellow Jersey through the race to the foot of the Pyrenees when the knee started to play up. The race doctor diagnosed water on the knee and prescribed daily novocaine injections and he made it through to the Alps. But he knew the game was up when he had to be wheeled to the start line and carried off his bike afterwards. He abandoned the race 3 days before Paris, the Green Jersey passing to Merckx who would finish with fewer points on the Points classification than Guimard.

Maybe it was a gesture of largesse from a Champion who had already won so much. Maybe the race organisers did ‘strongly suggest’ (as Merckx later acknowledged) that he make a grand gesture on the podium. But it was still down to Merckx to make it. Guimard was there, dapper in a suit and buttonhole. Merckx turned to him, the Green Jersey in his hands.

“Here’s the Green Jersey – you’ve earned it. Look after it”

Guimard said he felt nothing. But tears sprang to his eyes. He buried his face in the Maillot Vert and wept.

1973 OCANA SUPERCHAMPION

“Ocana, the tormented hero, damned by the Gods, victim of a crash on the Ballon d’Alsace in 1969, crucified by the storm on the col de Mente in 1971 and again the victim of misfortune in the rain on the Soulor in 1972” Equipe

Three stages in the Alps in 48 hours, three in the Pyrenees in 48 hours – that’s how tough the 1973 Tour was. Ocana won 4 out of the 6 stages (he won 6 stages in total) but he added his voice to the chorus that cried ‘massacre!’: “If you take into account the transfers by coach and rail we’re getting less than 6 hours sleep a night. And then they expect us to climb the mountains!”

Merckx had levelled similar accusations against the race organisers a few years earlier – there wasn’t enough time to rest, never enough sleep, no time to recuperate. Goddet may have wanted to keep to the spirit of Desgrange but he was no fool – he had to listen to the riders concerns over stage length and especially split stages. There’s a lot of debate currently about addressing the issue of doping by shortening stages or maybe even reducing Grand Tours from 3 weeks to 2. Yet the Tours of the EPO ‘superdoping’ era were markedly shorter than the Tours that Merckx and Ocana rode. Perhaps when race organisers can pinpoint the precise intersections between human nature, physiology, greed, aggression, desperation and the desire to win at all costs then they may stand a chance of developing a holistic approach to solving the doping problem. But simply shortening stage races solves nothing – 100 metre runners dope.

Ocana did climb – even though the epic stage to Orres left him so drained that he was found, spark out, in his bib and Yellow Jersey. But that day he became ‘El Magnifico’ and they spoke of Coppi and Koblet. “Each rides in his own manner” responded the Spaniard. “We’re all different. Me, I am Ocana”.

He won it like Merckx – dominant on all terrain, the mountains and the time trials. He won on the Puy de Dome “for my Bic teammates to show them they haven’t ridden for nothing”. He had one fall – a dog brought him down on stage 2 – but he was uninjured. The Gods smiled. It was Poulidor who crashed out this time, falling six feet head first into a ditch on the  descent of the Portet d’Aspet as he chased desperately after Ocana and Fuente. It was Goddet himself who pulled him out. Concussed, his face covered in blood, he sponged himself down with his casquette. His Tour was over. Ocana’s would finish at La Cipale, standing on the top of the podium at last.

But Merckx wasn’t there. He’d beaten Ocana at the Vuelta, completed a rare Double by winning the Giro and then decided to sit out the Tour. He was gracious enough to say that he wouldn’t have beaten Ocana but the Vuelta victory and the 8 stage wins he took in 1974 said different. But you can only ride the race that’s in front of you and beat the adversaries who are present on the road. The bottom line is that Luis Ocana won the 1973 Tour de France comme un grand.

The Tour de France is given to pseudo religious imagery, but never was it more appropriate than when describing Ocana. He had the face of an icon, the sad dark eyes of an El Greco Christ. He was exiled from his homeland, his father cast out by Franco. His career was too brief, marred by physical fragility between the glimpses of brilliance. He suffered with lung and heart problems. He tested positive towards the end of his career. He retired to his vineyard. Like so many ex-riders before him business ventures failed. Then came the depression. Then came the cancer. Then came the bullet.

But in the 1973 Tour the heavens laid before him a cloth of gold as he ascended towards his longed for consecration.

1974 THE END OF HIS ERA

What can you write about Edouard Louis Joseph, Baron Merckx that hasn’t been said in the hundreds of thousands of words already written about him? I’ve never met the man, though I’ve seen him a few times at the Tour. He cuts a less portly figure now he’s nearing his 70s than he once did but he still invokes in my fangirl heart the flutter of the truly starstruck. He is, after all, the greatest rider the sport has ever seen and he carries with him every victory and every grand exploit. I never saw him ride – or I might have done, there is a much disputed family memory of an almost anthropological visit to a bike race during a holiday in Brittany but I’ve been unable to pinpoint exactly what stage we might have seen if, in fact, the cavalcade of noise and wheels my childhood self witnessed was the Tour de France at all.

Guimard makes an interesting point when he says “it is our failures that make us grow, make us popular, make us human. Not Eddy Merckx”. Merckx was never a failure – he rode every race from the lowliest criterium to the Grandest Tour with the same metronomic aggression. No wonder he hitched his star to Armstrong’s wagon – he saw in him the same desire for dominance, not only physical but mental, over his adversaries, the same desire to crush every race under his wheel. But we love an underdog – it’s why France chose Poulidor not Anquetil, why Vietto and Ocana seize the imagination. What is it, after all, that we expect of our Champions?

His team doctor at Molteni, Dr Cavalli, denied that he was a superman: “The difference in speed between him and his rivals was a lot less evident on paper than it was on the road. His capacity to tolerate fatigue was incredible! I remember one evening, at the Giro, where Eddy was suffering from  renal colic. He had nothing to eat, had hardly slept, and the next day, on the Stevio he still finished in the first three or four!” It was his pride, his tripes, his capacity to suffer that made him a Champion, that elevated him from man to superman.

His old teammate Ronald de Witt relates a telling anecdote:

“In the winter we used to play football sometimes. During a Belgium-Italy match – we were leading 2-1 – Martin Van den Bossche told me he’d committed a foul in the penalty area just to wind Merckx up about his need to win. And he spoke up about it, to Eddy’s great disgust. But to his enormous relief, I saved the penalty.”

The continued enmity with Van den Bossche, the drive to win at everything, the way he dominates his teammates mentally all speak to the multiple Merckx’s that he showed us on the road. Would Coppi have beaten him in the mountains? Probably. Would Anquetil have bested him in the time trials? At least once or twice. But Merckx encapsulated the qualities of both, with an indefinable spirit that was all his own.

Poulidor, the eternal second, perhaps summed him up best “He was a perpetual worrier, always believed he wasn’t at his best, that he had  some problem…but he was a winner, unlike myself who just enjoyed it, win or lose. He never tolerated failure – he felt he was letting his fans down”

But that morning in July in 1969, before the crash and the pain and the suffering, before the positive tests, when he set out from the start line in Luchon did Merckx know that he was about to ride himself into history? Or was he simply a young man who’d woken up with good legs that morning, ascending effortlessly into the blue.

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