Tour de France historians love to muse about the greatest exploits in the race’s history.
There was the epic ride by Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi over the Col de l’Izoard in the 1939 Tour. There was the memorable solo victory by Louison Bobet over Mont Ventoux in the 1955 Tour. There was Eddy Merckx’s historic solo escape in the Pyrenées as he rode towards his first Tour de France triumph in 1969.
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And there was Luis Ocaña’s historic ride to Orcières-Merlette in the 1971 Tour. On that day, the feisty Ocaña took more than eight minutes out of Eddy Merckx. For many, it was an unthinkable performance, Merckx was at the height of his career, and since winning the 1969 Tour, seemed simply unstoppable. But on this day, Ocaña simply destroyed “The Cannibal.”
And as the Tour returns to this historic summit on stage four of this year’s Tour de France, we caught up with Bernard Thévenet, one of the key players that day.
Thévenet was only riding in his second Tour de France, but he was already making a strong impression, especially after winning the stage into Grenoble the day before. He had a front-row seat as the stage left Grenoble in the morning that Ocaña made his move.
“The stage to Orcières-Merlette was only 135 kilometers. It was really short for the time, and a stage like that, well, we just knew that there would be attacks from the start,” Thevenet, himself a two-time tour de France winner remembers.
“I could tell from the start that I didn’t have great legs. There was already a short climb just after the start and already my legs were hurting. Ocaña took off with Joop Zoeltemelk, Joaquim Agostinho and Lucien Van Impe. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I wasn’t well placed at the beginning. I tried to bridge up. I chased hard and got to within 10 meters of them and then I just blew up.”
But Thévenet was not alone as Eddy Merckx also struggled early in the kilometers. “It was strange to see Eddy like that. But no one would have expected that Ocaña would pull off a ride like that!”
Of course, riders did not have race radios back in the day, and they had to rely on timekeepers on motorcycles that would ride next to the riders with the time splits written on a chalkboard.
Time splits came with less frequency than today, but what Thévenet does remember was that the time gaps only increased.
“We knew that Ocaña was in the breakaway and at one point we knew that he was off the front solo. Eddy’s team was really chasing, but the gap just kept increasing. Every time the timekeeper came back to us, we were another minute behind!”
Orcières-Merlette, which is situated in the Southern Alps, is not a huge climb, but it does finish at over 1,800 meters elevation.
“At the bottom of the climb, we were more than 10 minutes behind,” Thévenet recalled. “We got a little time back, but Eddy still finished eight minutes behind. When you think that Ocaña dropped great climbers like Zoeltemelk, Van Impe and Agostinho, well, he was just in the form of his life!”
For Thévenet, Ocaña’s ride was an undeniable exploit. “We were so blown away there was really nothing to say. We just figured that Ocaña had won the Tour. With an eight-minute lead, there just seemed to be no way for him to lose.”
But while Ocaña took over the yellow jersey, his dramatic rise in the Alps was mirrored by a historic collapse in the Pyrenées, as he crashed on the descent of the Col de Mente, in Dantesque conditions that mirrored stage 1 of this year’s Tour de France, and dropped out.
“That day on the Col de Mente was the worst moment of my life on a bike,” Thévenet recalls vividly.
“I actually think Luis dropped out mostly out of sheer fear. Something happened that day that I never witnessed before or after. Our brakes just didn’t work. You could brake all you wanted but the bike just didn’t slow down. The rains must have kicked up some oil or something. Everybody crashed in the same place. It was just really scary. The harder you braked the faster you seemed to go.
“We were just all in panic mode. Ocaña didn’t make a huge mistake really. He wasn’t hurt in the crash itself, but it was the fact that Agostinho and Zoeltemelk crashed into him after that was so frightening. He was just in a state of shock after they crashed into him. And he just dropped out.”
Ocaña would finally come back and win the Tour in 1973, but he is remembered most for his ride to Orcières Merlette.