This July, the Tour de France – La Grande Boucle – will make its 103rd* journey around the hexagon of France with a few incursions on to neighbouring soil. Since its beginning in 1903, only two World Wars have temporarily halted this amazing event in its wheel tracks. My first Tour was in 1973, won by the great French-loving Spaniard, Luis Ocana. Now 44 years on, I am probably the longest English-speaking reporter on the race, never having missed a day in all these years.
The word “legends” is bandied about all too easily, but the millions of words written about the Tour over the years has made these fabled cyclists, exactly what they are. To name 10 is difficult, as other great names have to be omitted, but here we go in the order of the year of their first attempt to reach Paris.
This great Italian was, along with Fausto Coppi, one of the two heroes of Italy throughout their careers. Gino found all the emotions of a cruel sport that had taken his 20-year-old brother Julio in a road race in 1936, the same year that Bartali won his first Giro d’Italia. In 1938 with WW2 on the horizon, Bartali won his first Tour de France. Then followed the war years and finally a return to the French race when he won again, 10 years later. He had a long career, which ended with a traffic accident in Italy, a year after he rode his last Tour de France.
Fausto Coppi was a more accomplished rider than his Italian rival Bartali. They both feuded throughout their careers and only really came together as friends after retirement. Coppi however, was a fragile individual and a fall usually resulted in broken bones. Coppi could do it all; from pursuiting on the track (where he was a World Champion) to winning the Tour de France twice in three attempts. This lanky rider with gaunt features was the first to conquer the (now) famous Alpe d’Huez climb, which he did on atrocious roads in 1952. After this, the Alpe was never climbed again until 1976 and now is a regular on the Tour route. Coppi died from malaria, contracted in Africa in January 1960 when he was 40 years of age.
Maitre Jacques was an Aristocrat who lived in a Chateau in Rouen. He never looked tired when in the most rugged terrain and was even said to keep a comb in his back pocket. Without doubt the greatest time trial rider of his era, he was virtually unbeatable in the Tour de France, becoming the first member of the “Famous Five” club, of which today there are four five-time winners. In 1961 he led the Tour from day one to the end in Paris, but he could not claim he had led it from start to finish, as sprinter Andre Darrigade had won the morning stage before Jacques took control in the 28km time trial around Versailles in the afternoon. He died from cancer in 1969, refusing treatment until after he had followed, as a radio reporter, his final Tour.
If “Poupou”, as he was known throughout France, had ever worn the mailliot jaune, then his image would have been gone forever. This most likeable man from Limousin, who became known as the eternal second (although third would have been better) gave Anquetil his hardest moments. They say that Raymond was too unintelligent to beat the Aristocrat, but it was he that the crowd loved the most. His comedic face, his battling through to finish with broken bones and the love of the people made him one of the biggest legends of the Tour. He did “win” the yellow jersey once – in a prologue – but then it was taken back as the timing was in error. Thank Heavens, as Poulidor was never meant to wear it and the deception would have been over.
Even to the present day, there are few people who dispute that The Cannibal (so called because he refused to let others win a race) was the greatest rider ever seen. He rode in 1500 races and won 525 of them. There are no honours left in Belgium that can be bestowed upon him, and he is a legend in every sense of the word. It was in Morzine in 1975 where he struggled to the top of Avoriaz, suffering from a crash and a fracture of his lower face. He had refused to give up and finally lost his first Tour to Frenchman Bernard Thevenet. This was the first time the race ended on the Champs d’Elysees and even in defeat, Merckx was the hero of the hour saying “If I had retired no one would have seen Thevenet as the true winner, which he was.”
Now this is the man who should have been called the eternal second. After all, the Dutchman took second place on the podium on six occasions. But, when Bernard Hinault abandoned the 1980 Tour in Pau with a painful knee, “Joopy” finally got his win in Paris – the first for a Dutchman since Jan Jansen in 1968. To this day he is the only rider to have ridden and finished all 16 Tours he rode.
All of France knew about Hinault, whose nickname was “Le Blaireau”. He was kept back from riding the arduous Tour too soon, and when he did in 1978, as French Champion, he won easily. Hinault works as protocol manager on the Tour these days, but as a rider, France has not seen an equal since. His saddest moment was when he was forced to retire in Pau in 1980 from an injured knee. He was wearing the mailliot jaune and could so easily have been the first rider to win six times.
The American with the French sounding name was a champion from his junior days and as he progressed his career alongside Hinault, the two were destined to become rivals on the same team. It happened in 1985 when LeMond could have won the race, but was told to wait for Hinault and help him win his fifth title. In return Hinault offered to help him win in 1986, but in that race, for a long time, LeMond felt he was facing a perfect “double-cross”, as the Frenchman turned out to be his biggest rival once again. In the end, LeMond won and Hinault finished second, but a friendship had been lost along the way. LeMond then missed the next two tours after being accidentally shot in a hunting accident. He came back in 1989 and won by the narrowest-ever margin of eight seconds, and again in 1990.
This handsome, quietly-spoken Spaniard was not the most dazzling of stars, but he was the most elegant on the bike and an absolute master. He didn’t finish his first two Tours, but he did cause LeMond to ask who he was in 1986. He didn’t win his first Tour until 1991 and never lost again until 1996, when he passed through his home town of Pamplona, far behind the eventual winner, Bjarne Riis of Denmark. Indurain could so easily have stopped, but instead he continued to Paris, where he finish 11th in his last tour.
A British rider had never remotely looked like winning a Tour de France in its 98 years, but the 99th edition introduced a great Olympic track champion to the top spot in Paris. Wiggins, who was knighted by the Queen for his effort, won at his 6th attempt with the support of Kenyan-born Brit Chris Froome, who finished second and won the 100th edition a year later. Wiggins has never been back to the race, and will never come back, such was the effort and concentration required to win in 2012.
*This article is from the Summer 2016 issue of Source Magazine.