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Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Calm before the Alpine storm

1971: “Unbeatable” Ocaña felled in a tempest

1971 Tour de France, Luis Ocana crash on the Col de Mente. AFP file photo
Luis Ocana after his crash on the Col de Mente in the 1971 Tour. AFP file photo

The 1971Tour seemed to be going the way of the Spanish rider Luis Ocaña when he put almost nine minutes into defending champion Eddy Merckx in a long solo breakaway on a day of heat-wave temperatures in the Alps to take what seemed to be an insurmountable lead of 7:23 into the Pyrénées

“It will be hard to take back that much time on a rider as talented as Ocaña,” Merckx said. But the weather intervened. The heat wave fomented storms in the mountains and just as Merckx and the yellow jersey crested the Col de Menté, the penultimate climb of stage 14, thunder and lightning hit the Tour. The two started the descent through sheets of rain and hailstones that washed mud onto the narrow road.

Although they took care on the downhill, Merckx lost his balance for a moment on a sharp left hairpin bend some 4km from the top but Ocaña couldn’t stop sliding and fell on the rocky shoulder. Two men following also had trouble making the turn, and defending champion Joop Zoetemelk skidded straight into Ocaña as the Spaniard was getting up after his crash.

Stunned by the violence of the impact and with blood staining his yellow jersey, Ocaña couldn’t get up. He remained lying on his back, a helper’s raincoat around his body, until a helicopter arrived to fly him to the hospital in St. Gaudens.

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