By Rupert Guinness
Lourdes. If ever a place has been so steeped in Tour de France tradition, but officially visited by the race so few times, it has got to be this Catholic pilgrim city in the Pyrénées.
It seems that no matter where the Tour goes, I am forever returning to Lourdes: its centrality in the Pyrénées makes it an ideal and easy-to-get-to place after nearby mountain stages. And when I do, it never seems to change: same drab hotels, same masses of humanity walking in search of blessings, miracles and hope, and same wafting sense of bleakness from the general public mood to the overcast and humid Pyrénéan weather.
As for the Tour, apart from those in the race entourage who come for the same reason as me — to find a hotel — it has only visited Lourdes twice, for one stage finish and one stage start. On both occasions Italians played major roles in the pomp and ceremony of those visits to a town made famous by Saint Bernadette in the mid-19th century reportedly seeing the Virgin Mary in the waterfall of the grotto. Today, millions and millions of devout Catholics from around the world make their pilgrimages here every year.
In 1948 Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali, a fervent Catholic nicknamed Gino the Pious, claimed one of his seven stage wins that year at Lourdes. It was a symbolic victory for Bartali. He then rode on to add a second Tour title to his 1938 victory and until his death celebrated his position as one of the most popular past champions in the sport.
Then, in 1990, it was Italian Claudio Chiappucci who brought the masses to their feet by making his own pilgrimage to the grotto just before the start of stage 16 to Pau. Many joked that Chiappucci, then wearing the yellow jersey thanks to the 10 minutes he gained in the winning four-man break on stage 1, was in need of a miracle.
The day before, on stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden, he had already come under pressure from American Greg LeMond. After attacking early on the Col d’Aspin in an attempt to maximize his lead, Chiappucci was instead caught and passed by LeMond on the final climb to Luz-Ardiden.
At the time, his unexpected lead in the Tour had created a huge stir in Italy from where many pilgrims come to visit Lourdes. I still recall how word got out that Chiappucci was to make his way for a private visit to the grotto and the wave of media that followed.
Soon into the stage we wondered if he had been blessed. On the Col de Marie-Blanque, LeMond punctured, and opened the door for Chiappucci to attack. And while doing so would have been a breach of etiquette, it was a door that Chiappucci promptly rode through.
It was obvious that LeMond had now regarded Chiappucci as a threat, unlike the first days when his spell in yellow was labeled as mere opportunism destined to run dry.
While stunned by the Italian’s daring to attack a rider when caught out by flatting, LeMond quickly initiated the chase, making a reckless descent from the Marie-Blanque and then ordering teammate Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle to drop back from the Chiappucci break and join in the chase on the flatter roads leading to Pau.
Chiappucci got to live in yellow another day. Then another and another before finally losing the jersey in the stage 19 time trial at Lac de Vassivière, where LeMond, while not winning the stage, took over the lead for keeps to claim his third and last Tour title. Still, Chiappucci, despite never winning the Tour, had secured his standing as one of Italy’s most revered sporting stars.
As I look out from my hotel window now and hear church bells ringing, I wonder who, if any, Tour cyclists have visited Lourdes today. It seems unlikely, as most teams are further down the road near Pau where tomorrow’s stage will start. But who knows? For the believer, an hour’s drive may not seem to be a burden in return for a little hope — if not a miracle.
Trust me, right now, after just over two weeks and with 2644.5km of the 3247km Tour under their wheels, there are some riders who are desperately looking for a little of both. Heavens knows, for many of them, from Lance Armstrong down, it is a miracle that they are still in the race.