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Tour de France

Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Setbacks and comebacks are part of Tour history

Setbacks and comebacks are part of Tour history. Eddy Merckx's 1971 Tour has many similarities to this edition.

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No one at the Tour de France is exempt from setbacks. That has been emphasized time and again in the first half of this 97th Tour de France, which has seen four team leaders lose all their hopes because of crashes.

In the opening days, broken bones eliminated Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Transitions and Fränk Schleck of Saxo Bank. And over the past few days, both Lance Armstrong of RadioShack and Cadel Evans of BMC Racing hit the deck at high speed getting injuries that put them out of the overall GC picture.

Sometimes riders overcome bad crashes, injuries, and bad days to fight back and even win the Tour. The most recent example of this, of course, was in 2006 when Oscar Pereiro lost half an hour in the Pyrénées and then had it gifted back to him in a marathon break with Jens Voigt to take the yellow jersey (and win the Tour when Floyd Landis was disqualified for a testosterone positive).

Other Tour winners have overcome large deficits, including Armstrong in 2001 (when the peloton let a “no-hope” break gain more than half an hour), Greg LeMond in 1990 (when a first-day break with Italian challenger Claudio Chiappucci was allowed to get a 10-minute gain), and Laurent Fignon in 1983 (when solid race leader Pascal Simon dropped out with a broken shoulder blade).

But perhaps the most relevant to this year’s Tour came in 1971. Eddy Merckx was at the height of his career, just as Alberto Contador is today. Like Contador, Merckx had taken two Tours de France going into the race in ’71, winning the first by 17 minutes, the second by 13 minutes, and he was the out-and-out favorite to win his third Tour in similar fashion.

Merckx’s powerful Molteni team secured victory in that Tour’s prologue team time trial, and he was already in yellow at the end of stage 1. He still held the lead as the race entered the Alps on stage 10, 36 seconds ahead of Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, with Luis Ocaña of Spain another second back in third.

Merckx was expected to extend his lead on the first mountain stage, which ended with three stiff climbs through the Chartreuse Massif: the Granier, Cucheron and Porte. This was before the days of wall-to-wall television coverage, so I had decided to go on ahead of the race and watch developments near the top of the Col de Porte before driving down to the finish in Grenoble.

Radio Tour reported that the race’s 13 strongest climbers had split from the peloton on the Granier, a 15km climb with a 6-percent grade out of Chambéry (where Wednesday’s stage 10 started). Curiously Merckx had no teammates in the breakaway group, which left him open to attacks by the other top contenders.

But it was a puncture on the short, steep Cucheron descent, with 30km left, that put the race leader in danger. He had to wait awhile for a spare wheel and by the time Merckx reached my viewing point, in a pine forest halfway up the Porte, the Belgian in the yellow jersey was desperately chasing alone, more than a minute behind the six men who had gone ahead, including Zoetemelk and Ocaña.

Future Tour winner Bernard Thévenet won the stage, Zoetemelk took the yellow jersey, and Merckx finished 1:36 down to drop to fourth on GC. But that setback was only the start of Merckx’s travails in that Tour.

The next day’s stage was similar to this year’s stage 10, including the climbs of the Cat. 1 Côte de Laffrey and Cat. 2 Col du Noyer. And the weather was just the same, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. But compared with today’s smooth pavements, the roads back then were extremely bumpy, being surfaced with tarred gravel that melted in the sun. That was the case with most of the 1971 route especially the narrow, hair-pinned descent of the Col du Noyer.

However, the greatest difference was that a full-blown battle raged 39 years ago, unlike this Wednesday’s benign promenade once the day’s breakaway had been established. Coincidentally, a Portuguese rider, Sergio Paulinho of RadioShack, launched this year’s winning move, while the key attack four decades ago came from Portugal’s Tour pioneer, Joaquim Agostinho.

When Ago’ accelerated hard on the 10-percent Laffrey climb just 13km into the stage, only Zoetemelk, Ocaña and Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe were able to follow him. Merckx, with heavy legs from his long pursuit the previous day, was dropped.

In the furnace-like heat, on narrow back roads, Merckx again had no teammates to support him, but he fought back like a champion. While Ocaña went on to drop the three riders with him to ride alone over the final 70km of the stage, Merckx never left the front of the 12-man chase group, which absorbed race leader Zoetemelk and Agostinho.

Even so, he finished the four-hour stage almost nine minutes behind Ocaña, his hopes of winning a third Tour seemingly over. But Merckx was a fighter. The next stage started with a long downhill run to Gap, and the Belgian maestro attacked from the start with his teammates Rini Wagtmans and Jos Huysmans, along with six others.

The three Molteni men pulled the whole way, no less than 250km to Marseille, averaging more than 46 kph, to end the stage two minutes ahead of the peloton — which was pulled throughout by Ocaña’s domestiques, including Johnny Schleck, father of current race leader Andy Schleck.

Merckx took back a few more seconds in a 16km time trial at Albi, but he was still more than seven minutes down on Ocaña as the race began four stages in the Pyrénées. The defending champion vowed to attack.

Perhaps it was because of Merckx’s daring that Ocaña took too many risks on the descent of the Col de Menté in a violent thunderstorm. The Spaniard collided on a sharp turn with Zoetemelk and plunged to the rocky shoulder. He was stunned, his chest was badly bruised, and was helicoptered to a hospital.

Merckx was the automatic race leader, but he refused to wear the yellow jersey the next day, He went on to win his third Tour by almost 10 minutes over Zoetemelk, while Ocaña won the Tour two years later when Merckx was absent.

With Contador today only 41 seconds down on Schleck overall, and with six others within four minutes, this Tour is far from over. Thursday’s stage 11 will almost certainly go to a sprinter, probably Mark Cavendish, but two challenging stages then follow in the Massif Central, which might give opportunities for some surprise attacks, before the race reaches the Pyrénées on Sunday.

It’s too early to say this Tour is over — just ask Eddy…

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