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Simply Clever: The five greatest moments in Tour de France history

The Tour de France is approaching Stage 10. (Photo by Joe Frost)
Expert
3rd July, 2015
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1122 Reads

According to the Oxford Dictionary definition, for something to be great, it needs to be “considerably above the average” and “important or the most important.”

Great, however doesn’t necessarily mean positive.

So, when trying to choose the five greatest moments in Tour de France history, everything should be considered, both good and bad.

Real success in the Tour de France is just finishing this gruelling event. Anyone that rolls across the line on the Champs Elysees should be feted, but history most easily remembers the winners.

Sadly in our “live in the moment society”, feats of days past are often quickly forgotten, and if they were pre-television, may as well not have happened.

Like Fausto Coppi in the 1949 Tour, where he encapsulated the “never give in” motto in one of the greatest comebacks in the Tour’s history.

The fact that Coppi even started the 4808km, anti-clockwise lap of France was a minor miracle. Despite it being his Tour de France debut, Coppi was in dispute with teammate and the Tour’s defending champion Gino Bartali over who should be team captain.

In 1949, the peloton was comprised of national teams, so France was joined by Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and Luxembourg plus a host of regional and junior French teams.
But Italy’s two stars made an inauspicious start and by Stage Four were already 15 minutes behind race leader Jacques Marinelli.

Coppi, who’d just won the Giro and was aiming to be the first rider to win the Giro and Tour in the same year, was first to stir.

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In Stage 5, along with Marinelli and five others, Coppi attacked the race and their buffer over Bartali quickly reached six minutes.

Marinelli was putting himself into a winning position but didn’t count on the excitement he was causing. An over-enthusiastic spectator stepped into the road as Marinelli rode past, bringing him down. Coppi, who was on the Frenchman’s wheel, also fell.

Marinelli rode off but Coppi’s bike was badly damaged forcing him to wait another seven minutes until his spare arrived. Despite Bartali helping the chase, Coppi’s motivation was crushed. So Bartali left Coppi to trail home, losing more time and fall to 36 minutes behind the yellow jersey.

But if everyone thought Coppi’s race was done, no one told him.

In the Stage 8 Time Trial, Coppi clawed back eight minutes, and then eclipsed that spectacular effort a few days later in the Pyrenees.

Stage 11 included the Aubisque, the Soulour, the Tourmalet, the Aspin and the Peyresourde, cols that in 1949 were dirt roads. By the end of that 190km suffer-fest where Coppi punctured twice, the deficit was down to 14 minutes.

Coppi’s next move came on Stage 16, the first of four Alpine days. Breaking away with Bartali, Coppi helped the defending champion into the Maillot Jaune, the perfect 35th birthday present.

The next day, the duo attacked again, but Coppi knew he was stronger, so didn’t wait when Bartali punctured. He soloed away to the finish in Aoste, Switzerland to claim the yellow jersey.

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Coppi wasn’t finished though, and made sure of his victory by smashing out a seven-minute win in the Stage 20 time-trial to win the Tour by 10:55.

It made the final stage into Paris a ceremonial ride as Coppi became the first rider to win the Giro and Tour in the same year.

The Tour de France features riders from virtually every continent, but of course it wasn’t always like that.
Australian representation goes back to 1914 when Don Kirkham (17th) and Iddo “Snowy” Munro (20th) rode their one and only Tour. Sir Hubert Opperman claimed 12th place in 1931, but really it wasn’t until Phil Anderson exploded onto the scene that the broader Australian sports fans started to take notice.

It was 1981, the 117km Stage 6 to Pla d’Adet in the Pyrenees and Phil Anderson was glued to Bernard Hinault’s back wheel.

Hinault was already a double Tour winner (1978 and 1979), but as Phil Anderson told Rupert Guinness in the excellent book “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oui, Oui, Oui” he didn’t even know who Bernard Hinault was, let alone how to say his name.

The 23 year-old on his Tour debut, was really annoying Hinault by not doing any turns. Anderson even naively offered Hinault a drink from his bidon as they tried to keep pace with climbers just up the road.

Hinault, who was already fuming at Anderson’s refusal to work, angrily swiped the bottle away, the two riders eventually finishing 27 seconds behind stage winner Lucien van Impe.

By virtue of his placing the day before, that was good enough for Anderson to become the first non-European (Britain included) to claim the yellow jersey.

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He may have lost it the next day, but the fact that after 67 Tours an English speaking rider was wearing the Maillot Jaune was simply seismic.

If that single day in 1981 heralded an irreversible change in the story of the Tour de France, the events of 1986 only confirmed it.

Greg LeMond may have described the 1989 edition (when he won the closest ever Tour) as the “greatest moment of my whole life”, but what he achieved three years earlier simply has to rank higher.

Once again Bernard Hinault was the chief protagonist, although unlike with Anderson in 1981, LeMond and Hinault were teammates.

The La vie Claire duo finished one-two in the 1985 Tour, but Hinault was fortunate to be going into the 1986 race as a record equalling five-time champion.

A crash inside the final kilometre of Stage 14 stopped Hinault crossing the line. He broke his nose but didn’t lose any time. Hinault couldn’t breathe properly, and relied on team orders to stop LeMond from winning the Tour.

Tensions remained as the ’86 Tour began but this time there were no team orders. The strongest rider would be the team leader.

After a cagey opening week, Hinault threw down the first challenge in the Stage Nine Time Trial. The Frenchman won but LeMond still finished second despite losing time through a puncture.

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In Stage 12 over the Alps to Gap, Hinault snared a more decisive advantage. He used his domestiques to ride a calculating race and not only snatched the yellow jersey, but put almost five minutes into LeMond.

The American wasn’t worried though as he sat second on the General Classification. LeMond knew that as long as he rode safely, the Maillot Jaune would be his if anything happened to Hinault.

This is precisely what happened the next day.

As Hinault once said, “As long I live and breathe I attack,” but on this occasion he paid a big price.

With Hinault’s attack fading on the final climb to Superbagneres, LeMond caught and passed him. He won the stage and importantly tore more than four minutes off the deficit.

On Stage 17 as Hinault faded again, LeMond assumed the race lead.

Stage 18 would prove the ultimate showdown, a classic dual on a stage we’ll essentially see (minus the Galibier) in a few weeks; the Col de la Croix de Fer, the Telegraphe and finally l’Alpe d’Huez.

Typically Hinault attacked whenever he could, including on the descent of the Galibier, but eventually it was just the two of them on the hairpins of Alpe d’Huez.

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Hinault couldn’t shake LeMond though, and as they crossed the line the Frenchman grabbed LeMond’s hand and held it aloft. The American gave Hinault a little push to make sure he won the “battle”, but everyone knew LeMond had won the “war.”

Hinault won the final Time Trial, while LeMond crashed, but it wasn’t enough to stop the crowning of the first non-European Tour champion.

It’s impossible to gauge what effect LeMond’s win had on the psyche of French cycling, but one thing is clear, a Frenchman hasn’t won the Tour since.

Man may have landed on the moon in 1969, but for cycling fans it wasn’t the year’s only “out of this world” feat.

Eddie Merckx’s preparations for his debut Tour were thrown into chaos when he tested positive for amphetamines while leading the Giro d’Italia.

Merckx and his army of supporters managed to convince the authorities to clear his name, but his expulsion from the Giro cost him 18 days of valuable competition.

Still, he started the race in typically aggressive fashion, finishing second in the Prologue before claiming yellow on the first road stage.

Merckx happily surrendered the jersey to teammate Julien Stevens on Stage Two, but four days later was ready to reclaim it.

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He easily won a mountain top finish on the Ballon d’Alsace, but only after he chased down and passed the day’s main break, dropped the two riders who’d helped him in that chase, and then rode away on the final climb.

Two days later, he won the Stage Eight Time Trial (9km), before changing objectives on Stage Nine, sacrificing a win to take the lead in the points and KOM classifications.

Merckx won again in dominating fashion in the Stage 11 climb to Digne, before attacking but losing Stage 12, the final day in the Alps.

The Stage 15 Time Trial in Revel was only 19km, so nowhere near long enough to stop Merckx winning, let alone lose any of his eight-minute lead.

And just why Merckx was called “The Cannibal” was even more starkly demonstrated on the 214km Stage 17 in the Pyrenees, when he attacked the race 140km from the finish.

Over the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, Merckx was unchallenged to snare his fifth stage win and double his lead to more than 16 minutes.

That five wins became six on the final day in Paris, a 37km Time Trial and his final margin of 17:54 was the biggest since 1952 when Fausto Coppi triumphed by an astonishing 28:27.

Victory in the Overall, Points, King of The Mountains and Combine Classifications (for the best all-round rider), on his Tour debut, is a unique achievement and it remains so. No one has come even remotely close to matching Eddie Merckx circa 1969.

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It deserves to be the greatest moment in a race spanning more than 110 years. And were it not for one other event, something that transcended the sport, and changed cycling forever, it would be.

The cliché, “the bigger they are the harder they fall” couldn’t be more apt because as much as overcoming a brutal cancer battle to win seven Tours de France was unheralded, the subsequent exposure of sport’s greatest fraudster, who was also a pathological liar and vicious bully, was even more spectacular.

Lance Armstrong has taken us for the biggest ride in sporting history and with numerous legal cases still undecided, the journey is far from over.

When Armstrong was winning and winning and winning, changing the corporate and mainstream face of cycling forever on the way, millions believed in the apparent sporting miracle they were witnessing.

Those who didn’t were shouted down, blacklisted, bullied and even sued.

Now, the man who reportedly earned more than AUS $160m during his career could lose it all, and plenty more.
Armstrong says he lost $100m in sponsorship when in 2012, the US Anti-Doping Agency found his former US Postal Services Team had “run the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport had ever seen.”

There’s another $135m at risk later this year in a “whistle-blower” lawsuit led by former teammate Floyd Landis.

Few people and even fewer athletes have had a rise and fall as massive as Lance Armstrong. Certainly no one in cycling has.

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This, for all the wrong reasons makes him responsible for the “greatest moment” in Tour de France history. And that won’t ever change.