Foix, July 21
It was as if a bomb had exploded on the race: Raymond Poulidor had dropped Eddy Merckx! At 38, the man who writer Antoine Blondin nicknamed “the quadragenarian” had attacked the Belgian legend as they started climbing a mountain that was new to the Tour, but would become infamous from the moment that Poulidor left the master behind. That’s because in this month of July 1974, the battle that unfolded between Seo de Urgel and St. Lary-Soulan — with the climbs of the Col du Portillon and the Col de Peyresourde, followed by the first-ever finish at the Pla d’Adet summit, at an elevation of 1680 meters (5511 feet) — was one of the most spectacular anyone had ever witnessed. Each man had gone into combat without a second thought.
At first, the diminutive Belgian, Van Neste, went on the attack, hoping to capture a stage victory. Then it was the counterattack of the famed veteran Poulidor, who caught and devoured Van Neste, and then stepped up the pace even more. “Behind him,” wrote journalist Pierre Chany, “Merckx fights desperately. The sweat rises through every pore of his face, he brings his head back into his shoulders, crushes the pedals with rage, but doesn’t lose any less ground on a totally rejuvenated Poulidor….”
What happened next is part of Tour history: Despite a subtle bike-change, cycling’s greatest champion would finish 1:49 down, and Pla d’Adet took its place as one of the Tour’s mythic places, justifying the prophecy of the first five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil, who said, “In my time, on such a course, Bahamontes and Gaul would have made me suffer….”
This year, on stage 13 — where the climbing starts on the Col du Portet d’Aspet at kilometer 71, and continues with the Col de Menté and the Portillon-Peyresourde-Val Louron trilogy, before tackling Pla d’Adet — which favorite will dare to make the best man suffer? Who will imitate Poulidor, or imitate Van Impe, who also made a decisive breakaway on these same roads in 1976? The answer should come at around 4 this afternoon.