Road

Stage Preview: The lessons of history

The first time that the Tour de France came to Belgium, on June 26, 1947, a fiery sun was broiling the countryside and Frenchman René Vietto from the Côte d’Azur gave everyone a lesson. Vietto, a natural climber, transformed himself into a flatlander, or should we say a Flandrian; and the best Belgians of the time -- Raymond Impanis, Briek Schotte, Albert Sercu and Prosper Depredomme -- lived the supreme humiliation of being dropped 100km from the finish. "My old friend René," wrote Jacques Goddet for L’Équipe the next day, "you have just accomplished the finest exploit of your career,

Antwerp, July 10

The first time that the Tour de France came to Belgium, on June 26, 1947, a fiery sun was broiling the countryside and Frenchman René Vietto from the Côte d’Azur gave everyone a lesson. Vietto, a natural climber, transformed himself into a flatlander, or should we say a Flandrian; and the best Belgians of the time — Raymond Impanis, Briek Schotte, Albert Sercu and Prosper Depredomme — lived the supreme humiliation of being dropped 100km from the finish.

“My old friend René,” wrote Jacques Goddet for L’Équipe the next day, “you have just accomplished the finest exploit of your career, and according to the established rules, the most monumental error.” The writer reminded his readers that in the Tour de France, a test of endurance, every turn of the pedal is noted, and that there is some risk in breaking clear from too far out.

We know the rest: Vietto, at the end of his tether, ran out of gas on the 19th stage. And he lost any chance of taking back the yellow jersey. Should we conclude from this example that no one today will dare go on the attack? If so, we would be forgetting that panache counts for a lot in cycling, and that we find it advantageous on certain stages to show our muscle.

This is why Miguel Induráin, in 1995, the year of his fifth Tour victory, bolted away on the slopes of Mont Theux, 25km from Liège. Only Johan Bruyneel, glued to the Spaniard’s wheel, answered the challenge, and the pair finished almost a minute ahead of the embarrassed Bjarne Riis, Eugeni Berzin, Tony Rominger, Alex Zülle and Ivan Gotti. This is only an observation, but this year’s stage 3 also offers the Mont Theux climb, 35km from the Seraing finish, and Bruyneel now controls the destiny of a rider named Lance Armstrong. Enough said.