1975 – 1980 Enter The Badger

1975 LES NOUVEAUTES

“Au soleil, sous la pluie

A midi ou a minuit

Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysees”

Joe Dassin “Les Champs Elysees

It’s one of the most iconic finishes in all sport – the ribbon of riders diving down the underpass and emerging onto the cobbles of the grand  boulevard time and again before the inevitable sprint massif and the final stage winner of the Tour de France holding his arms aloft in the  V of victory. The first man to do it was the Belgian sprinter Walter Godefroot who would later steer a young German to Tour de France glory – but that’s for another tale.

It’s such an integral part of the Tour yet the race has only finished there since 1975 – before then it was a velodrome finish at Parc des Princes and then La Cipale and, quite frequently through the 60s, a time trial. So the spectacle of the peloton charging for the most famous finish line in the world in a melee of garish lycra is a relatively new one.

The Champs Elysees stage is usually a formality – champagne and larks and I seem to recall Armstrong in a long blonde wig – but it has been decisive for the Points classification a few times when the final sprint has decided on whose shoulders the Green Jersey will settle.

There was a bit of a dust up on stage 4 into Le Mans. The winner Jacques Esclassan clearly leaned on eventually Green Jersey winner Rik Van Linden as the pair crossed the line. The Belgian promptly crashed after the line, sprawling like a gawky duckling with his feet still in his toe straps, and complained. M. Andre Chadelle, the president of the jury adjudicated thus:

“The fundamental principle is that one rider mustn’t impede another rider. This can happen in a number of ways: by moving away from your line – or cutting across that of someone else – or if two riders are alongside each other and obstructs him, by shoving with an elbow or pulling his jersey or his saddle. Another irregularity would be to get a push from a ‘friend’.

In this situation, we take the view that 2 riders can be shoulder to shoulder and touch without there being any irregularity. It’s evident that our job is much easier when the sprint takes place in the velodrome rather than on the road, especially when there’s a huge crowd. If there is a protest, we talk to the line judge and his assistant. Additionally, because of television, we have the opportunity to review the last 200 metres. In this way, we can make the fairest judgement possible. That was the case with the Esclassan-Van Linden sprint. There’s no doubt, the sprint was absolutely regular up to the finish line”.

The Champs Elysees and the rise of the madness of the mass sprint finish wasn’t the only nouveaute in this Tour. There were some new jerseys too – a White Jersey for young riders in their first 3 years as a pro (not to be confused with the White Combine Jersey that Merckx had made a habit of winning in his Tours) and the King of the Mountains Jersey.

Love it or hate it, the maillot a pois rouge is arguably the most distinctive, definitely the most lary, of the classification jerseys in the Tour. White with large red polka dots, its distinctive design is said to be based on the wrapper of a Chocolat Poulain bar. An interesting aside: Victor-Auguste Poulain revolutionised the production of chocolate, believing it was a product that everyone should be able to enjoy. He produced chocolate bars in funky wrappers that anyone could afford and enjoy, not just the elite, hence the polka dot wrapped bar. His chocolate factory was founded in Blois in 1848 – I remember wandering around the town as a kid, high on the delicious waft of chocolatey goodness – where Merckx would have his terrible crash at the local velodrome. The alternative theory is that, though Poulain chose the colours (their logo is a red horse), the design was based on a jersey used in races at the Velodrome d’Hiver.

The first man to wear the polka dot jersey was Zoetemelk, the first man to win it in Paris was Van Impe (it was his third King of the Mountains and he won it on a fibreglass bike, before carbon fibre became the ride of choice). The current sponsor is Carrefour who inherited it when they bought out the Champion chain of supermarkets. In a cupboard, I have the giant PMU green hands and a couple of Champion cardboard polka dot jerseys. I also met Frederico Bahamontes – the incomporable ‘Eagle of Toledo’ at a Champion once where he was attending a promotional event one July. It was a privilege to ask for his autograph and to be in the presence of one of the most dapper riders ever to grace the Tour – the photos of him at Dunkirk station, smart in a suit, suitcase in one hand and bike in the other, after abandoning the race are wonderful. Did I ask him about the ice cream incident? No, I was far too starstruck.

What else was new in 1975? There was a new winner, the French prometteur Bernard Thevenet who won it at the 6th attempt. It was a ding dong battle with Merckx who took over the lead from a promising young Italian called Francesco Moser – who won the prologue at the first attempt – and held it until Thevenet pulled off the exploit of his life at Pra-Loup. But Merckx was suffering the after effects of an ugly episode the day before. On the climb of the Puy de Dome, he was punched in the liver by a spectator 150 metres from the line. Was it deliberate? Or, as was claimed, an involuntary reaction as a result of pushing and shoving when spectators invaded the road? The result was the same – Merckx was given Glifanan by Dr Miserez and their anaestheric effect may have dulled his reactions. He crashed on the Pra-Loup stage but rode on with a broken cheekbone – he said abandoning the race would devalue Thevenet’s victory. The Frenchman  seized his chance and took back to back stages in the Alps, winning the stage to Serre Chevalier on the quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, in the Yellow Jersey. Thevenet had managed the same feat in his first Tour, but not in the Maillot Jaune. For a French rider in the Tour de France it doesn’t get better than that.

1976 COUP DE BLUFF

“To win the Tour, you must have endurance, know how to save your energy and know how to be as good at the start as you are at the finish” Antonin Magne

RAYMOND POULIDOR AND THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

Pouli, PouPou call him what you like, but the fact is that he stood on the podium of the 1976 Tour de France at the age of 40.

Henri Paret, nicknamed ‘le Pere’ was the oldest man ever to finish the race – he came 11th in 1904.  Paul Duboc always believed he’d have won the 1911 Tour had he not been poisoned and had a last throw of the dice in 1927, aged 43. He abandoned on stage 1. Giovanni Rossignoli also started – and finished – the 1927 Tour aged 44. He holds the record for most starts in his 40s, all 5 of them.Giuseppi ‘Pino’ Cerami won a stage at the age of 41 in 1963 and holds the record for oldest stage winner. Joaquim Agostinho finished the 1983 race in a very respectable 11th place at the age of 41.

But none had drunk from the fountain of youth quite as deeply as Poulidor who also finished the 1974 race in 2nd place behind Merckx at the age of 38 and had proved the 29 year old Belgians fiercest competition.

FAST FREDDY EQUALS THE RECORD

The days of the Yellow Jersey taking multiple stage wins were fast diminishing as developments in equipment and infrastructure bought the GC contenders closer together. Bagging a hatful of wins was becoming the preserve of the routiers sprinteurs and none was better than Freddy Maertens in the 1976 Tour. He took the prologue, 2 of the 3 individual time trials – he was imperious in the Le Touquet contre la montre – and 5 other stages to equal the record held by Pelissier and Merckx.

Maertens won thirteen (count them!) stages in the 1977 Vuelta a Espana en route to winning the race overall and taking the Points jersey.

Maertens nearly broke the record and took 9 stages – Bastille Day saw not one, not two, but three stages between Auch and Bordeaux. Maertens won the first two, the journalists were already filing their copy…then Karstens caught him out and took the stage and  the unread copy went in the bin.

You think Freddie did it all without a little help? Of course not. Of his domestique deluxe Pollentier and Deamyer, one got popped in the Yellow Jersey and the other died young with a needle in his arm. But the tale of the way that doping was beginning to change from ad hoc stimulant use to organised ‘preparation’ is a tale for the 77 Tour.

VAN IMPE AND A GAME OF POKER

Stablisnki was convinced that Van Impe could win the Tour but it took the arrival of Guimard at Gitane to make it happen. It wasn’t that the Belgian lacked talent, just the killer instinct to finish off a race like the Tour. He was happy to win polka dot jersey after polka dot jersey – 6 in total – but the GC didn’t interest him. Until Guimard, who threatened to drop him from the Tour squad after a ‘disinterested’ performance at the Midi-Libre.

One year younger than his team leader, Guimard understood that Van Impe had too much respect for Merckx to attack him – Guillaume Dreissens knew it too when he told Merckx not to give up the 71 Tour after Ocana’s crash “You’re not going to leave the race to Zoetemelk and Van Impe who have never attacked once!” Van Impe confessed that he was fascinated by the great Belgian champion. But Merckx wasn’t there. It was a Tour of transition between generations and wide open.

July 10th, stage 14: Saint Gaudens – Saint-Lary-Soulan. 4 climbs: cols de Mente, PortillonPeyresourde and Pla d’Adet. Legend says that Guimard threatened to run Van Impe off the road if he didn’t attack, stamping on the accelerator and flashing his hazard lights. Van Impe had never in his life launched a long range attack. “Do you want to win this Tour or not?” demanded Guimard at the foot of the Peyresourde. Van Impe pushed on, his rivals refusing to believe he would do something so out of character and assuming he’d explode at any minute. One by one Van Impe picked off the breakaway riders ahead of him until he caught Ocana. If the Castillian had been an ice hockey player, he’d be credited with 1 win and 1 assist, because his decision now was crucial to the outcome of the Tour.

The choice was clear – stay with Van Impe or assist Zoetemelk who was chasing behind. Zoetemelk who had never once assisted him in his bitter struggles with Merckx. Ocana chose Van Impe. The Belgian won the Tour.

Guimard said of his approach: “I give my riders orders but I tell them every time the reasons for the choices that I’ve made. After 2 years in my team, the rider should be capable of recolving problems himself. But not all riders are good at this type of approach…”

Van Impe left the team the next year.

1977 THE ART OF LOSING

Didier Thurau was the revelation of the first half of the Tour winning the prologue, the first time trial, a flat stage and a mountain stage and wearing the Yellow Jersey for two weeks until he gave in to Thevenet. Germany would have to wait a while for another young rider who was capable of such an all round performance.

Bernard Quilfen pulled off an incredible 200+km escape to take a memorable stage win and Thevenet rode himself to exhaustion to win the race. But it was the last hurrah for Eddy Merckx. Robert Silva described the scene in a piece entitled The Art of Knowing How To Lose:

An example of dignity – so much for the lovers of melodrama. We found a man at the Novotel in Houches who knew exactly what had happened to him. No tears. No nervous breakdown. But no happiness. Just an open door for journalists. “When you lose 2’ 32” at the end of a 120km stage, you can be disappointed but no more”. Then the regrets: “At the top of the Forclaz, I wasn’t far from Thurau and his group. I thought I could get back on the descent. But I didn’t have the power, I couldn’t do it. And that was when I lost the Tour de France…”

The word is spoken. The voice that was so assured is now a little choked. He’s laid out on the masseurs table at 7.00 o’clock. He’s only just managed to have a bath. He’s been held up more than an hour as a result of undergoing a surprise medical control.

“I drank 2 bottles of mineral water, and I still couldn’t give them the sample they wanted”. A little additional torture to add to his suffering. Since Fribourg, Eddy has been suffering with dysentery. But he doesn’t shout from the rooftops about it, that’s not his style. He has the right to think about cause and effect “During the time trial at Morzine-Avoriaz I didn’t have the strength to push the gear. Despite that, I was only 25” behind Thevenet on GC. At the start of the stage to Chamonix I felt better physically. I never thought I’d lose 2’ 32” by the end of the day. Thurau, who did worse than me at Morzine-Avoriaz, won the stage. Me, I lost…”

The man who has won everything, whose palmares surpass everyone’s, is staring defeat in the face. “It’s hard but you have to accept it. The law of sport is always to do more than necessary.” Eddy Merckx possesses the art of knowing how to lose. Just as much as the art of knowing how to win. We speak quietly around him so as not to disturb his peace. Eddy simply wants to be a champion. He has lost a decisive battle.

“I prepared thoroughly  for the Tour de France. I based my season around what was, for me, an important objective. I’ve failed. That’s racing and in a race the best should win. The race finds the best, and that’s not me…”

This avowal touches the journalists who’ve followed the fabulous career of this insatiable winner. We call him the Cannibal. That appetite, worn down by time, is far from being what it was. A page has turned in the history of ‘Merckxisme’ here at Chamonix. “It had to happen one day. You’d have to be crazy to think otherwise. At the end of the race I’ll no doubt have better days than this one. I’ll try and take advantage of that. Not to win the Tour. For me. For my pride. We’re still not at Paris…”

A somersault of pride animates the fallen champion. He may have lost his strength but not his strength of character. Things being as they are, Eddy Merckx takes a look backwards. “This Tour de France was the last of my career. I’ve been a cyclist for 13 seasons. I’ve honoured my contracts. I’m sorry I couldn’t bring this win to Lorenzo Cesari and Fiat. I did everything it was in my power to do.  Now life goes on. I have a wife, two beautiful children. Reasons to be happy…”

Then Eddy goes to dinner. He’s no longer down in the mouth. Another life has started for the champion of an era.

1978 A DEBUTANTE CALLED HINAULT

14 riders have had to leave the race while wearing the Yellow Jersey:

Francis Pelissier (1927) was ill

Victor Fontan (1929) broke his bike after taking the Yellow Jersey. Unable to repair it himself as the rules required, he was forced to abandon. There’s a heartbreaking tale that he was forced to go door to door asking for help. None was forthcoming. He was forced to abandon and the rules were changed to prevent it happening again. If he’d stayed in the race he would have started the next stage as one of 3 riders wearing the Yellow Jersey, the only time it’s ever happened.

Maes (1937) and Magni (1950) withdrew when their teams abandoned due to fears about threats from French spectators.

Van Est (1951) and Ocana (1971) abandoned after serious crashes

Van Der Kerkhove (1965) was forced to abandon on the Aubisque due to sunstroke

Hinault (1980) and Heulot (1996) dropped out with knee problems

Simon (1983), Sorenson (1991) and Boardman (1998) were forced to abandon due to injuries sustained in earlier crashes

And that leaves two, both asked to leave the race because of doping – one was Michael Rasmussen (2007) a tale in itself, the other was Michel Pollentier who was thrown off the race for trying to fiddle a doping control. Pollentier had figured the controls were easy to dupe and  filled a condom with clean urine attached to a tube taped to his inner thigh. Unfortunately for him, the doctor demanded to watch him urinate. Pollentier was found out and thrown off the race after a surprise win on Alpe d’Huez. The whole sorry, farcical episode was replicated and spoofed in the Belgian film ‘Le Velo de Ghislain Lambert’.

The rest of the race was a straight dog fight between new kid Bernard Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk. Zoetemelk pulled off an incredible ride on the uphill TT to puy de Dome putting 1’ 40” into Hinault. The magistrate of Valence d’Agen told the young Frenchman “you’re not fit to wear the French champion’s jersey”. The Badger, as he would become known, wasn’t having that and struck back to win the next day. He grabbed the Yellow Jersey with 3 days left to race at the conre la montre between Metz and Nancy and the Tour was his: “I give myself 8 or 9 years at the top level. But I don’t want to win everything, like Merckx. Each year I fix a  number of objectives to focus on, without going overboard. I like nature, I can’t live without the open air, without trees. And when I think about my career after cycling I’ll choose something that keeps me rooted to the earth that I love. I’m a happy man.”

Hinault is a Breton – seriously, what is it with Bretons and professional cycling? – and a proud man. There’s a photo of him on the start line in Valence d’Agen, standing astride his bike, chest thrust out like a pouter pigeon to display the maillot tricolore of the French champion, his chin tilted defiantly as he supports his fellow riders in their strike against working conditions.

Infuriated by the early mornings, numerous transfers, split stages and the lack of consultation the riders met pied a terre. L’L’Equipe interviewed Andre Chalmel about the rider’s motivation:

What do you think about the working conditions of professional riders on the Tour?

The race organisers don’t discuss those issues with us. They prefer to speak to the directeur sportifs and hope they pass it on to us.

But you’re free not to take part if the work doesn’t suit you!

It’s not that simple. We ride to try and make a better life for ourselves and if we oppose certain practices, then we need to show our opposition.

But things like transfers aren’t new?

They’re presented as a fait accompli and we’ve always shown our hostility to them.

In what way?

By collective action which isn’t easy to organise because the riders aren’t unionised.

What action?

Riding deliberately slowly, for example

You’ve already achieved results using these methods?

Do you remember the first day of the 1977 Paris-Nice? After the prologue that didn’t finish until 22.30 at Aulnay, near Paris, we had to be at the depart in Provins the next morning at 8.00, a 100km drive. First split stage at Auxerre, then another depart 30kms away and a finish around 20.00. We showed our annoyance.

What was the result?

Look at this year’s race? It was perfect.

You also understand the financial imperatives facing the organisers?

We understand, but we’re not circus animals

In general, you get decent food and lodgings, her and elsewhere?

We’re pretty well treated but we don’t get enough sleep and that’s pretty important as of today.

You’re convinced that direct action can lead to better conditions?

We don’t want more money, just a bit of consideration. We’re happy to ride difficult stages, climb mountains, take risks, but you must respect our sleep.

How can that change?

We know we’re paid to ride, not to give our advice and that’s a shame because if the organisers would just ask out opinion from time to time then the Tour and cycling would benefit.

A dialogue of some sort?

That’s what we’d like but we get the impression they’d rather we shut up. As proof just look at the reduction of our representation on the Commission of Professional Cycling.

There had been a riders union, started way back before the madness of the Tour was even thought about in 1989. And the 1978 strike did galvanise the disparate bodies representing riders’ interests to form the AICPRO but it didn’t carry the momentum of the Valence d’Agen strike. Finally, in 1999, the  CPA was formed under the chairmanship of Francesco Moser, galvanised by a protest against doping controls at the Giro. Not the most auspicious start. I’d like to tell you more about the AIGCP, which has also been around since at least 1999 when it was headed up by Manolo Saiz. But they’re so mysterious they don’t even have a website. Newest kids on the block are the MPCC (mouvement pour une cyclisme credible) a loose collective, started by the French teams, to campaign for ‘clean’ cycling. They’re currently flavour of the month, with membership being a condition for wild card candidacy at several races.

1979 TO THE WIRE

Hinault might have proclaimed that he wasn’t the new Merckx but his deeds said different. He’d won the Fleche-Wallonne and the Dauphine-Libere – where he took 4 stages in a week long race, quite the dominant performance – coming into the Tour and he’d walk away from the 79 race with 7 stage wins just one shy of the record.

The race hit the Pyrenees almost immediately and Hinault was confident he could take the Maillot Jaune from start to finish. But Gerrie Knetemann won the prologue in the World Champions rainbow stripes before it passed to Hinault’s teammate, Jean-Rene Bernadeau. By stage 3 it was where the Breton felt it belonged. He was dominant in the Pyrenees, winning the first time trial and the stage to Pau. It looked like the Tour would be plain sailing for the Gitane rider…

And then the race hit the cobbles of Roubaix. Hinault punctured and lost just over 2 minutes to Zoetemelk. I wonder if that indignity ignited Hinault’s loathing of Paris-Roubaix, the race he called a ‘connerie” but  raced until he beat it in 1981. Zoetmelk might have profited from Hinault’s misfortune but he was only 49” ahead of the Frenchman as the race hit the Alps. Hinault might have lost the Yellow Jersey but he hadn[t lost the Tour to the ‘Hell of the North’.

The 1979 Tour is the tale of 2 grand exploits – one in the mountains, against the watch, the other a last gasp baroud d’honneur as the race closed in on the Champs Elysees.

Hinault was devastating in the 54 km contre la montre to Morzine-Avoriaz. Zotemelk lost 1’ 17” over the first 40 kms of the course but there was still the final 14km of climbing to come where he’d have a chance to close the gap. He started to claw back the seconds from Hinault but Guimard was certain his rider would win: “The hardest part is over for Bernard (the toughest sections of the climb come in the first 6 kms). As of now, Zoetemelk won’t take back more than 10 seconds”. Instead the wheel of fate turned Hinault’s way and Zoetemelk had a mechanical that meant not one but two bike changes. It cost him at least 20” and that augmented as the climb wore on. L’Equipe were typically lyrical about Hinault’s performance: “We expected  Hinault to stretch his lead over his closest rivals, and we saw the appearance of a new rider, extraordinarily compact, almost welded to his bike with muscular legs combined with huge calves. The way he climbed the slope, without slowing or getting out of the saddle, testament to the fact that he still had something in reserve.”

The race was as good as won but that didn’t stop Zotemelk having one last hurrah. Instead of a lazy, triumphal parade to Paris and a mass sprint finish on the Champs Elysees, Zoetemelk ignited the race by attacking – he was 3’ 20” down on GC, it might just be possible….Hinault was having none of that. He countered, caught the Dutchman, and the two of them contested the sprint on the Champs Elysees with Hinault triumphant in the Yellow Jersey, after taking 3 stage wins in the last 4 days.

In a final twist, Zoetemelk tested positive on the last stage and was penalised a whole 10 minutes (things were different then). It’s a measure of how far ahead of the rest of the peloton they were that he still held his second place ahead of the veteran Agostinho.

1980 ENFIN ZOETEMELK!

Joop Zoetemelk holds the record for Tour starts and finishes, 16 of them. Van Impe rode one less and Hincapie broke the record with 17 until the USADA reasoned decision against Armstrong saw him lose one, and he didn’t finish all of them anyway, not like the Dutchman.

Zotemelk finished 8th, 5th, 4th three times and 2nd five times. So why isn’t he known as the ‘eternal second’ rather than Poulidor? you ask. Because in 1980, at the age of 33, Hendrik Gerardus Jozef ‘Joop’ Zoetemelk finally won the Tour de France.

Zotemelk had moved to the Ti-Ralight team for the 1980 season. Absolutely dominant in the team time trial discipline, they were known as ‘Panzer Group Post’ in reference to team manager Peter Post’s disciplined  approach.

Gerald O’Donovan was the man behind Ti-Raliegh’s sponsorship: “We needed a winner and for 1980 signed Joop Zoetemelk, who had an outstanding record of places but had probably enjoyed less support than we could give him. We cleaned up the Tours of Belgium, Holland and Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré in preparation and waited for the big day. The big plan to control Bernard Hinault, who had won for the previous two years, came to fruition. The team attacked his every move; this was Panzer Group Post[11] at its most formidable. About halfway through the race he abandoned the lead to Zoetemelk and pulled out of the race. We arrived in Paris with the overall lead, 12 stage wins and the team prize, to say nothing of a whole bundle of francs. We had pounded away winning the battles for the previous four years; at last we had won the war.”

For his part, the Dutchman had never given up hoping; “I admit I’d got to the point where I was asking myself if I hadn’t missed definitively my chance. I’d ended up several times up against riders stronger than me – Merckx, Ocana, Thevenet, Hinault – and of my 5 second places there’s only one I regret and that’s 1976, finishing behind Van Impe. I really believe that if I hadn’t gone to the Ti-Raligh team this season, I’d have gone to my death hoping to win the Tour de France one day”.

But there was another, darker tale behind Zoetemelk’s final triumph. Not doping – though like so many others he wasn’t what we’d call a ‘clean’ rider. Some blamed a bad fall in the Midi-Libre in 1974 for his lack of greater success, some his lack of a killer instinct – like Van Impe he had needed a strong leader to give him the kick up the arse he needed to succeed – some his shy and retiring personality (he lacked the art of the punchy one liner that was increasingly a part of any successful rider’s armoury). But there was another reason – Françoise Duchaussoy, the Frenchwoman he married in 1971, was an alcoholic. Zoetemelk himself said: “I later told my father in law that if I hadn’t become involved with his family my career would have been much more successful.”

Unable to confide in anyone, not even his sister, Zoetemelk became more and more withdrawn. There was a serious car crash, the hotel business in Meaux failed, Francoise became incapable of caring for their children including son Karl (a future French mountain bike champion). Divorce was out of the question – Zoetemelk didn’t want to lose custody – so he struggled on, coping with his wife’s increasingly erratic behaviour but there’s no denying the impact it had on both his character and career. Teammates said he turned from a proper bloke, one of the boys, into a man increasingly remote and withdrawn. Francoise died in 2008 and Zoetemelk finally found happiness with a new partner, Dany.

What might have been for the most French Dutch rider in the Tour de France? Better to focus on what was – 16 Tours, 12 top tens, 7 podiums, 10 stage wins and 22 Yellow Jerseys. 214 career victories including the Amstel Gold Race in 1987 at the age of 41. Chapeau M. Zoetemelk!

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