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The Centennial Challenge

Anniversaries are big in France. Take the year 1989, which was the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The bicentennial’s big celebration came on the Fourteenth of July, and the Tour de France organizers just happened to schedule that day’s stage finish in Marseille, the city after which the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, is named. The race saw plenty of attacks by French riders that day, and the stage was won in a late solo attack by the blond rider from Normandy, Vincent Barteau. Acelebration followed on a hot, steamy night, as huge crowds watched a mammoth fireworks display

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Can Armstrong overcome history and become the Tour’s fifth five-time winner in 100 years?

By John Wilcockson

FIVE THE HARD WAY Merckx (left) struggled against Poulidor in the mountains in 1974, but still managed to win  ...

FIVE THE HARD WAY Merckx (left) struggled against Poulidor in the mountains in 1974, but still managed to win …

Photo: AFP

THE ONE TO CHASE: Armstrong will attempt to match Indurain's five consecutive wins.

THE ONE TO CHASE: Armstrong will attempt to match Indurain’s five consecutive wins.

Photo: Graham Watson

Anniversaries are big in France. Take the year 1989, which was the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The bicentennial’s big celebration came on the Fourteenth of July, and the Tour de France organizers just happened to schedule that day’s stage finish in Marseille, the city after which the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, is named.

The race saw plenty of attacks by French riders that day, and the stage was won in a late solo attack by the blond rider from Normandy, Vincent Barteau. Acelebration followed on a hot, steamy night, as huge crowds watched a mammoth fireworks display over Marseille’s ancient harbor.

Perhaps there will be similar celebrations this year when the race visits Marseille at the end of stage 10, even though it’ll be on July 15, not the Fourteenth. The reason, of course, is the centennial of the Tour de France. The year 1903 must have been a particularly creative one, as it also saw the founding of the Ford Motor Company, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the New York Yankees.

There will be many reminders of the Tour’s 100th anniversary throughout the July 5-27 event — which is actually the 90th edition because of the combined 10 years lost during the two world wars. Notable in the commemoration of the original Tour is the actual race route, which is structured around the six cities that greeted the Tour pioneers: Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Paris.

Symbolically, the prologue time trial starts in Paris, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, while the opening road stage starts from outside the Auberge au Réveil Matin (“the Alarm Clock Inn”), in Montgeron, where the 1903 Tour began its historic journey.

To remember some of the leading personalities of the Tour, this year’s race will visit the memorials erected for the Tour’s founder Henri Desgrange (on the Col du Galibier in the Alps) and its longtime race director Jacques Goddet (on the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrénées), while a wreath will be placed on the grave of co-founder Géo Lefèvre in Vitry-le-François on the day that the team time trial finishes at nearby St. Dizier.

The centennial Tour will also pass the memorials placed for notable race winners Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet (on the Col d’Izoard) and fallen hero Fabio Casartelli (where he died on the Col du Portet d’Aspet eight years ago).

Significantly, this is also a Tour at which an American who was a teammate of Casartelli in that fated 1995 Tour, Lance Armstrong, will attempt to become the event’s fifth five-time winner. Miguel Induráin (1991-95), Bernard Hinault (1978-79, 1981-82, 1985), Eddy Merckx (1969-72, 1974) and the late Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961-64) are the others.

During the reigns of the earlier quintuple winners, there were times when people said that the dominance displayed by those champions made the race a bore. What the critics tended to forget was the confidence, resilience and determination those men had to display to match their natural talent. And the fifth victories have usually been the toughest. By 1964, Anquetil had lost some of the greyhound qualities that previously enabled him to gain handfuls of minutes in the time trials while calmly matching the best the climbers could throw at him. Anquetil went into the ’64 Tour fatigued by an exhausting win at the Giro d’Italia, and he was in trouble on many of the climbs. He was dropped for several minutes on the Port d’Envalira in the Pyrénées, but fought back with the help of two teammates. Then, on the Tour’s last peak, the Puy de Dôme, he raced elbow to elbow with his French rival Raymond Poulidor — until Anquetil was left gasping less than a kilometer from the top. Poulidor gained 40 seconds that day, to come within 14 seconds of the leader going into the last day’s time trial. But the incentive of taking his fifth overall win was enough for Anquetil to overcome Poulidor and take a final winning margin of 55 seconds.

Ten years later, Poulidor — by now aged 38 — came close to toppling Merckx, the Belgian superstar, who showed considerable frailty in taking his fifth victory. Merckx was fortunate that his two strongest opponents, Joop Zoetemelk and Luis Ocaña, were absent because of injuries, and in the race itself he was dropped on several climbs — notably suffering a humiliating defeat to Poulidor at the St. Lary summit finish. The Belgian even lost the final time trial, but his strength in the flatter stages enabled Merckx to persevere and beat runner-up Poulidor by 8:04 — which was actually the narrowest of his five wins.

Hinault’s fifth victory, in 1985, was also labored. If eventual runner-up Greg LeMond hadn’t been the Frenchman’s teammate, the American would probably have won that Tour. First, on the Col du Tourmalet, LeMond was the strongest and might well have taken the yellow jersey had his team not ordered him to slow down. LeMond then defeated Hinault in the final time trial and was only 1:42 behind his team leader by the time the race ended in Paris.

As for Induráin, in 1995, he somewhat preempted his opposition with a devastating attack on the hilly stage 7 to Liège and then took the next day’s time trial to move into an overall lead that he never lost. But the Spaniard did have to fight hard to cling to the yellow jersey, particularly when he and his team had to chase a breakaway group led by Laurent Jalabert that gained almost 10 minutes on the stage to Mende.

So will Armstrong be similarly challenged in attempting to win his fifth Tour? Conventional wisdom says no, but there are many more potential opponents this year than in any of his four previous successes. The danger list is again headed by the 1997 winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, who has twice finished second to Armstrong, but appears to have renewed energy with Bianchi, a squad that has risen from the ashes of the Coast team. Riders who have greater ambition, or greater strength than ever before include America’s Tyler Hamilton of CSC; Colombia’s Santiago Botero, Italy’s PaoloSavoldelli and Australia’s Cadel Evans of Telekom; the Spaniards Aitor Gonzalez of Fassa Bortolo, Joseba Beloki of ONCE-Eroski and Iban Mayo of Euskaltel-Euskadi; and the Italians Gilberto Simoni of Saeco and Stefano Garzelli of Vini Caldirola.

Armstrong himself believes that these men will give him his toughest challenge yet, and given the experience of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Induráin, winning a fifth Tour will not come easy. Should Armstrong take this Tour, it would mean that of the 23 Tours contested by Americans since Californian Jonathan Boyer debuted in 1981, eight will have resulted in overall victories. That’s an average of 34.7 percent — a number of which even the 100-year-old New York Yankees would be proud of.

And even though a Frenchman won’t win this centennial Tour — unless you believe in miracles — after the finish on the Champs-Élysées a few hundred thousand locals will be in celebratory mood. Anniversaries are big in France.

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