Felix Lowe takes a look back at how Merckx broke rival Luis Ocaña by almost winning two stages in one day during the 1972 Tour de France.
Eddy Merckx’s 1972 was named by Peloton Magazine as “the greatest season ever”, resulting as it did in three Monument wins, a second Giro-Tour double, and the Hour Record for the Belgian superstar. But one man stood between the Cannibal and the meat and two veg of his fourth Tour win: the Spaniard Luis Ocaña.
The 1972 Tour was decided in Provence and the Alps with six successive stages on the high stuff, kicking off with an ascent of Mont Ventoux in Stage 11.
Most intriguing was a split Stage 14 on Monday 17th July which kicked off with a 51km ride from Briançon to Valloire and was followed by an 151km afternoon schlep on to Aix-les-Bains. Stage 14a was essentially a long ride up the Lautaret and the south side of the Galibier ahead of a fast descent to Valloire.
Forty-seven years on, the Tour retraces those steps at the conclusion of the 208km Stage 18 from Embrun to Valloire; a fitting time to look back at Merckx’s majestic downhill win on the first and last time the Tour came to town.
Luis Ocaña and Eddy Merckx.
Image credit: Imago
Setting the scene: Ocaña dual
A year earlier, Merckx would probably not have won his third Tour had his big rival Ocaña not crashed out of the race. The Belgian was more than eight minutes down on the Spaniard entering the fourteenth stage when they both crashed on the descent of the Col de Menté.
While Merckx remounted, Ocaña suffered a bad shoulder injury after Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk ploughed into him at high speed while grappling with a puncture. With Ocaña forced out and Merckx effectively guaranteed the Tour, it was later dubbed the most famous fall in the Tour’s history by the author Christopher S.Thompson.
Ocaña's subsequent comments about Merckx being an undeserving winner that year did not go down well chez Eddy. The feud boiled over into the 1972 season and Paris-Nice, where a nasty finish-straight crash early in the race - one of the worst of his career - resulted in a broken vertebra for Merckx.
If his rival ramped up the mind games by stressing there was “nothing wrong” with him, Merckx’s doctor advised the reigning world champion to quit after admitting: "It's as if you've fallen from the third floor of a house".
Most people would take some time off after such a bleak diagnosis, but Merckx was not like most people. He rode on, picked up a second stage win ahead of Ocaña, and only missed out on winning the whole thing by six seconds to Raymond Poulidor. A few days later, he won his fifth Milan-San Remo after an “insane” descent of the Poggio.
Eddy Merckx and Gianni Motta in Milano-Sanremo 1971.
Image credit: Eurosport
After a fruitless cobbles campaign, he did the Liege-Fleche double, then went on to win four stages at the Giro en route to a third maglia rosa. The tifosi were so impressed many of them kneeled down on the side of the road as he passed; the organisers reportedly insured Merckx for 40,000,000 Belgian francs for the flight back from Sicily to the mainland.
And so, onto the Tour, for his renewed rivalry with Ocaña.
In the Pyrenees, the Spaniard put down an early marker with an attack on the Aubisque, which Merckx covered before Ocaña punctured on the Soulor. The Belgian attacked and Ocaña crashed while chasing back, accentuating the bad blood between the two riders. Merckx took the upper-hand at Luchon and then sandbagged Ocaña on Ventoux, leading the Spaniard to lament that he and his team were being "treated like lepers".
The scene was set for the Alps, which Merckx entered in yellow with a 2’39” advantage over the Frenchman Cyrille Guimard and 2’56” over Ocaña.
(from L-R) Spanish cyclist Luis Ocana, Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx and French cyclist Raymond Poulidor during the 11th stage of the Tour de France from Carnon to Le Ventoux.
Image credit: Getty Images
Vars, Izoard, Galibier and beyond
The first classic stage in the Alps spirited the riders from Orcières to Briançon via the Cols de Vars and Izoard. Merckx’s Molteni team set a fierce pace which eliminated all but 16 riders on the Vars. With Ocaña pedalling through paella, the Belgian had ridden clear near the summit before being caught by Guimard on the descent.
But on the Izoard, Merckx soloed clear to take a solid victory in Briançon in the tyre-tracks of Bobet and Coppi. Ocaña rallied to limit his losses to 1’41” ahead of the brutal split stage a day later, which he would start trailing his rival by almost five minutes on GC.
Forty-seven years on, both the Vars and Izoard will be employed during Stage 18 of the 106th edition of the Tour - ahead of an ascent of the Galibier via the south approach on the Col du Lautaret. The decisive 208km stage - which goes above 2,000m on three occasions - finishes in Valloire.
For Merckx and the 1972 peloton, the Galibier was reserved until the next morning for Stage 14a. It was the 37th occasion that the Tour had tackled the Galibier since its introduction by Henri Desgrange in 1911, when Emile Georget crested in pole position.
A year later, Eugène Christophe - the first man to don the Tour's yellow jersey - went over first before declaring: "It's not sport anymore, it's not racing, this is just hard labour."
There were calls for the mountain to be scrapped from the Tour route, but Desgrange was having nothing of it. According to the author Daniel Friebe in Mountain High:
Nothing, though, could persuade Desgrange that the Galibier wasn't the jewel in his and the Tour's crown. He was besotted, calling the inclusion of the Galibier his 'act of adoration' towards the Tour. 'Oh Sappey, oh Laffrey, oh Col Bayard, oh Tourmalet!' he wrote in L'Auto, itemizing climbs that now shrunk by comparison with his new talisman, 'I will not shirk from my duty in proclaiming that compared to the Galibier you are no more than pale and vulgar babies; faced with this giant we can do no more than tip our hats and bow!'
A large monument to the Tour's founder built at the summit in 1949, nine years after his death, dedicated: “To the glory of Henri Desgrange (1865-1940), former director of the newspaper L'Auto, founder of the cyclists' Tour de France."
Until 1976, riders passed over the summit at 2,556m through a 365m tunnel below the ridgeline. But when this was closed for safety reasons, a further tortuous kilometre was tackled on to the existing road as a deviation, taking the riders up to 2,642m.
Just as in 1972, the route in 2019 takes the peloton on the south approach via Briançon. Daniel Friebe:
Steadier in its upper portion, with just an evil final kilometre above the tunnel through the summit, the south-north route from the Lautaret is less famous but equally awe-inspiring. Towards the top, in particular, the giant rocky wedge of the 3,228m Grand Galibier commands the view.
1972 Tour de France, Stage 14a
In the words of Patrick Brady from Peloton Magazine, the split stage the next day was “text-message-breakup cruel”.
The first ‘half’ consisted of 34 uphill kilometres up the Lautaret and Galibier before a fast 17km descent to the finish.
Guimard won the sprint at Monetier-les-Bains after 13km before Molteni whittled down the pack on the Lautaret. But it was the Dutchman Zoetemelk who then rode clear to summit the Galibier in pole position.
Zoetemelk led Frenchman Raymond Delisle by five seconds, with Portugal’s Joaquim Agostinho and Dutchman Edward Janssens at 15 seconds and Merckx riding over five seconds later alongside his deliciously named Belgian teammate, Jos Deschoenmaecker. Poor Ocaña, was pedalling squares two minutes adrift, suffering with a cold he’d picked up in the Pyrenees..
Merckx, Agostinho and Janssens caught and passed Delisle on the descent before Merckx rode clear like a demon to join forces with Zoetemelk 5km from the finish. According to the French journalist Pierre Douglas, Merckx was riding like a man possessed on the descent of the Galibier.
I was on the back of the motorcycle. The speedometer read 100 km/h. Eddy overtook us. I thought I was seeing things. At the finish, he said to me, 'I could have gone quicker, you know… I was spinning – I needed another gear'.
At the finish in Valloire, Zoetemelk launched the sprint early to open up a small gap over Merckx, who fought back to win by a bike length - the Cannibal wrapping up his fifth victory of the race before lunch time.
Guimard came home at 54", Poulidor at 1'34" and Ocaña, his Tour dream in tatter, at 2'11".
What happened next: Merckx's annus mirabilis
The immediate aftermath was taken up with the small matter of Stage 14b, a 151km ride that took the peloton immediately up the Col du Telegraphe and then the Col du Grand Cucheron and Col du Granier ahead of the finish in Aix-les-Bains.
There was little action until 5km from the summit of the final climb where Merckx pulled clear with Guimard, Zoetemelk, Lucien Van Impe, Felice Gimondi and a few others. But not, noticeably, Ocaña.
When the leaders contested the sprint it was Guimard who pipped Merckx by a tyre to extend his lead in the green jersey standings and deny the voracious a third consecutive win and his second in the space of a few hours.
A day later, Merckx and Guimard would renew their sprint rivalry atop Mont Revard in what resulted in one of the few embarrassing moments of Merckx’s career: thinking he had won the uphill sprint, the Belgian lifted his arm in celebration only to allow the Frenchman to pip him to the line.
Ocaña, meanwhile, had crossed the line in the second split stage six minutes down and coughing up blood because of a lung infection that he picked up waiting for his team car after crashing in the Pyrenees. Trailing Merckx now by 12’23” down in fifth place, the Spaniard reluctantly quit the Tour under orders of the race doctor - his third DNF in four years.
With Ocaña out, Merckx’s only remaining rival for yellow came in the form of Guimard, himself six minutes in arrears. But that last-ditch win over Merckx at Le Revard was to prove the Frenchman’s last moment of glory on the race: two days later, he had to withdraw.
Guimard, it turned out, had been destroying his knees, which were ravaged by tendonitis from using gears that were too big. According to Merckx’s biographer William Fotheringham, the Frenchman was taking xylocaine injections every two hours merely to keep him on the road. And after stage 17, when he was trailing Merckx by 7’58”, it proved too much.
Eddy Merckx wins the Tour 1972.
Image credit: Eurosport
Many may point at Merckx’s glory and flag up that it was done in the absence of his major rivals. But as Fotheringham points out in his book, Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike:
The difficulties both Guimard and Ocaña suffered suggest that they were simply physically incapable of taking on Merckx, while Ocaña clearly could not handle it mentally.
After a sixth stage win in the ITT to Versailles, Merckx went on to win his fourth Tour by almost 11 minutes on Gimondi, securing an historic second Giro-Tour double in the process. The Belgian also won the green jersey that he inherited from Guimard following the Frenchman’s withdrawal.
Guimard, who had won the jersey in the opening stage, was brought to the peloton to present the maillot vert to his rival in Paris, but the Belgian, in a show of sportsmanship and largesse, gave it back to him and said he deserved it more - a gesture which reduced Guimard to tears.
If, as the journalist Jean-Paul Ollivier claimed, Merckx's Tour win was a "masterpiece of clear-headed racing,” then, according to Fotheringham:
It was also a masterpiece of attritional racing: he gained time on Ocaña on all bar four of the fifteen stages that the Spaniard was in the race, ensuring that the psychological pressure never let up.
As it happened, July 1972 had witnessed the last ever Ocaña-Merckx confrontation on the Tour: next year, with Merckx sitting out the race, the Spaniard finally wore the yellow jersey in Paris.
No re-match between the two feuding rivals ever happened and they famously made up during a spirited drinking session on a plane to Geneva in 1973.
Belgian champion Eddy Merckx answers journalists upon the final stage of Tour de France, 21 July 1974
Image credit: Getty Images
Merckx kept on winning that year - following up his victory in the Giro di Lombardia by smashing the Hour Record in Mexico. His win-rate that season was 37 percent after standing atop the podium in 51 of 137 races. He also finished in the top three in a staggering 57 percent of his races. This was why Peloton Magazine had good grounds to describe Merckx’s 1972 as “the greatest season ever”.
In the words of Patrick Brady, Merckx’s 1972 was a year on which an entire career could be built:
Two Grand Tours, three Monuments and the hour record. Though Coppi and Anquetil could claim the Tour/Giro double and both set the hour record, Merckx was the first—and only—to achieve all three in the same year. As some pointed out, after beating the entire peloton, when Merckx set out to conquer the hour record he vanquished the one person he hadn’t previously humbled: himself.
And of course, it wouldn’t be the last Giro-Tour double of Merckx’s career, the Cannibal repeating the feat for a third time in 1974, the year of his record-equalling fifth Tour triumph. No rider but Merckx has achieved this feat on three occasions.
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