Hushovd only second world champ in 30 years to win Tour stage

2002 Tour de France, Oscar Freire wins stage 2
Until Friday Oscar Freire was the most recent world champion to win a Tour stage, in 2002. Photo: Graham Watson

When Thor Hushovd crossed the finish line in Lourdes on Friday, he became only the 16th rider in Tour de France history to win a stage as the reigning world champion. But, perhaps more to the point, the popular Norwegian was only the second rider in 30 years to achieve that distinction. The other one was Spain’s Oscar Freire, who usurped German sprinter Erik Zabel on home soil when he took a chaotic field sprint in Sarrebrücken in 2002.

Prior to that, we have to go back to Bernard Hinault in 1981, the winner that year of five stages and the Tour itself. The bulk of those to win a Tour stage in their season wearing the rainbow colors came at a time when there were far fewer teams and riders in the Tour, so the chances of achieving this rare distinction were much higher.

Through the 1970s, an average of three world champion each decade won Tour stages. The very first was a sturdy Frenchman Georges Speicher. A former competitive swimmer, Speicher didn’t become a professional cyclist until he was 24; and in his second year (1933) he won the Tour de France! He also won the world title later that year, and in the 1935 Tour, wearing the rainbow jersey, he won the first stage of the Tour from Paris to Lille.

Tour stages won by world champions

Thor Hushovd (N) 2011 (one stage)
Oscar Freire (Sp) 2002 (one stage)
Bernard Hinault (F) 1981 (five stages)
Jan Raas (Nl) 1980 (three stages)
Gerrie Knetemann (Nl) 1979 (two stages)
Hennie Kuiper (Nl) 1976 (one stage)
Eddy Merckx (B) 1975 (two stages), 1972 (six stages)
Jan Janssen (Nl) 1965 (one stage)
Benoni Beheyt (B) 1964 (one stage)
André Darrigade (F) 1960 (one stage)
Ercole Baldini (I) 1959 (one stage)
Stan Ockers (B) 1956 (one stage)
Louison Bobet (F) 1955 (two stages)
Marcel Kint (B) 1939 (two stages)
Éloi Meulenberg (B) 1938 (three stages)
Georges Speicher (F) 1934 (five stages)

Tour overall wins by world champion

Greg LeMond (USA) 1990 (didn’t win a stage)
Bernard Hinault (F) 1981
Eddy Merckx (B) 1972
Louison Bobet (F) 1955

Two others achieved the feat before World War II, the Belgians Éloi Meulenberg and Marcel Kint, who were both classics-style riders in the Speicher mold, not unlike Hushovd. There was a 16-year break (partly due to the war and the Tour’s suspension for seven years) before Frenchman Louison Bobet became the next world champion to win a Tour stage in 1955 — and the first to win the whole Tour (which he previously won in 1953 and ’54).

Virtual GC after stage 13

1. Fränk Schleck 2,280km in 55:51:46
2. Cadel Evans at 0:17
3. Andy Schleck at 0:28
4. Ivan Basso at 1:27
5. Damiano Cunego at 1:33
6. Alberto Contador at 2:11
7. Samuel Sanchez at 2:22
8. Tom Danielson at 2:46
9. Nicolas Roche at 3:08
10. Peter Velits at 4:14
11. Haimar Zubeldia at 5:28
12. Rein Taaramae at 5:38
13. Levi Leipheimer at 6:02
14. Rigoberto Uran at 6:06
15. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 6:31
16. Jérôme Coppel at 7:02
17. Tony Martin at 9:02
18. Christian Vande Velde at 12:34
19. Ryder Hesjedal at 17:05
20. Robert Gesink at 19:21

Five men pulled off rainbow stage victories over the following 10 years, all of them snagging just one stage. Belgian Stan Ockers scored his victory at St. Etienne in 1956; Italian Ercole Baldini, who had a short-lived but meteoric career, took his stage on home soil at St. Vincent d’Aosta; French sprinter André Darrigade, who holds the Tour record of 22 sprint stage wins, took his victory at St. Mâlo; Belgian sprinter Benoni Beheyt, said to have double-crossed his team leader Rik Van Looy at the 1963 worlds, won the ’64 Tour’s next-to-last stage at Versailles; and Dutchman Jan Janssen, who took his win in Perpignan, was considered a pure classics rider before he shocked everyone by winning the Tour in 1968.

King Eddy

No one will be surprised that the great Eddy Merckx won the most Tour stages when he was world champion, taking six in 1972 (when he also won the Tour) and two in 1975 (a Tour he’d lose to Bernard Thévenet after a series of mishaps). And until Hinault became the next rider in the rainbow jersey to win the Tour (and five stages) in 1981, there was an unusual triple achieved by the Dutch riders Hennie Kuiper (1976), Gerrie Knetemann (1979) and Jan Raas (1980).

On Friday, Garmin-Cervélo’s Hushovd gained new respect by joining this select band of world road champions to win a Tour stage with what was an astonishing ride for a two-time green jersey winner. The Norwegian’s previous eight Tour stage win came with three uphill sprint wins (at Quimper, St. Brieuc and Barcelona), two bunch sprints (at Joigny and Paris), one small-group sprint at the end of a long breakaway (Bourg-en-Bresse), another elite sprint after a stage over the cobblestone of northern France (at Arenberg) and a prologue time trial (in Strasbourg).

But this was the first time he has scored a solo win in a mountain stage of the Tour — though he did show his aptitude for this kind of breakaway on a stage through the Alps in 2009, though he didn’t win that day. Hushovd has proved himself a true and worthy world champion these past two weeks. He placed third to Philippe Gilbert and Cadel Evans on the uphill finish to stage 1, took over the yellow jersey by helping his team win the team time trial, led out teammate Tyler Farrar to win stage 3 in a field sprint, defended the yellow jersey for seven days … and now this, his most beautiful stage win to date!