A desperate Eddy Merckx's seemingly indomitable grip on the Maillot Jaune was prised loose when Bernard Thévenet reeled in The Cannibal on the climb to Pra Loup at the 1975 Tour de France. Felix Lowe recalls the punches, punctures and brutal controversy for Re-Cycle.
"What? Eddy Merckx has been caught? It's not true! What are you talking about, Georges? It can't be. That is terrible. Unimaginable. My breath has been taken away. It's the worst day in my entire life. Oh la la!"
Luc Varenne couldn't believe it. Less than an hour earlier, the veteran Belgian radio reporter had handed the microphone over to his colleague Georges Malfait after his pride and joy Eddy Merckx had ridden clear of his rivals on the Col d'Allos. But here he was, back in the booth at the finish line of Stage 15, and the tables had dramatically turned on his compatriot.
Entering the final week of the race, Merckx had a 58-second lead over Thévenet in the General Classification; the sport's biggest star was on course for an unprecedented sixth Tour victory. But on the final climb of the first stage in the Alps, Merckx collapsed like never before.
Varenne was an unashamed Merckxist who'd been around so long that even Belgium's most famous cyclist attributed his love of the sport to the old man’s commentary. Seeing the implosion of 'mon petit Eddy' – as he called him – was a knife to Varenne's heart. He had never witnessed anything quite like it. On Sunday July 13, 1975 his hero's long reign of supremacy was over.
Thévenet had roared back to win the stage and prise the Yellow Jersey from Merckx's slumped shoulders – the five-time Tour winner would never wear it again. While the race was still far from won, the Frenchman known as 'Nanard' had laid the foundations for an era-defining victory by reaching what he would describe as "the summit of my career" at Pra Loup.
When the Tour ended for the first time on the famous Champs-Élysées, Thévenet would become the first man to beat Merckx in a major stage race since the Belgian made his Giro d'Italia debut in 1967.
Setting the scene: Merckx stutters, Thévenet on the rise
Merckx had cleaned up that spring, bouncing back from finishing second on GC at Paris-Nice to win Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold, the Tour of Flanders and, after coming second to Roger De Vlaeminck in Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
But following two stage wins at the Tour of Romandie, he was struck down by illness – a cold, then tonsillitis – which forced him to skip the Giro. Merckx struggled in the Dauphiné, where Thévenet danced up the mountains, then finished behind De Vlaeminck at the Tour de Suisse (during which he turned 30).
Despite being outsprinted into second place by Merckx at La Doyenne, Thévenet was confident. "I was getting better," the Frenchman said. "And he didn't seem to be quite as good. I wondered if our trajectories might cross. But no one had beaten him before in a major tour, and he was as competitive as ever."
Entering the Tour, Merckx and Thévenet were the two big favourites, with Joop Zoetemelk the dark horse. The Dutchman had won Paris-Nice but was still recovering from his terrible fall and illness the previous year. Ditto Luis Ocaña, previously laid low by bronchitis.
With five summit finishes and a mountainous final time trial, the route for the 1975 Tour was thought to favour Thévenet. His manager, Maurice de Muer, formerly of Ocaña's BIC team, had instilled a winning culture at Peugeot. He told his leader that to win the Tour, he needed to be within three minutes of Merckx when the race entered the Pyrenees, 11 stages in.
Thévenet was described by Geoffrey Nicholson, author of the acclaimed The Great Bike Race, as "strong and self-willed, but not particularly adroit on a bicycle; he could climb efficiently, but on the descents lost time manoeuvring round the corners".
Growing up on a farm in a village called Le Guidon – which translates as 'Handlebars' in English – Thévenet was perhaps always destined to be a cyclist. It was only during the 1961 Tour that the choirboy realised his vocation:
The priest brought forward the time for mass so that we could watch the riders go by. They were modern-day knights. I had already dreamed of becoming a racing cyclist and that magical sight convinced me definitively. Although it was never that magical when I was actually in the peloton of the Tour!
Thévenet turned pro in 1970 and soon beat Merckx, three years his senior, along with Felice Gimondi and Roger Pingeon, in the Mont Faron hill climb, confirming his exceptional talent. He was fourth in the 1971 Tour, second behind Ocaña in 1973, and entered the 1975 race with six Tour stage wins to his name – and high hopes of causing an upset.
Merckx packs a punch – and takes one
Defending champion Merckx went into yellow after winning Stage 6, a 16km time trial from Merlin to Plage. His lead over the Italian Francesco Moser remained at 31 seconds until the second time trial, a 37km test from Fleurence to Auch for Stage 9b, which Merckx won again, by nine seconds over Thévenet, to extend his GC lead to 2'20" over the Frenchman, back in third place.
Few would have thought at the time that they had just witnessed Merckx's last ever stage win at the Tour.
The tide began to turn when the race hit the Pyrenees on Stage 11 to Pla d'Adet when Thévenet and Zoetemelk had ridden clear on the final climb. The Frenchman punctured 400m from the finish to concede the stage win, but slashed his deficit to Merckx by 49 seconds. The gap was now half the maximum three minutes that De Muer had cited for the Frenchman to emerge triumphant.
Two days later, the race entered the Massif Central where, for all his effort, Merckx managed only to extend his lead by one second over Thévenet at Super-Lioran. Then came the moment that perhaps defined the entire race.
On the 14th stage to Puy de Dôme, Merckx was put under serious pressure from an attack by Thévenet and the Belgian Lucian van Impe. He dug in to maintain the gap at around 100m until, with the finish line in sight, a spectator stepped out from the packed, partisan crowd and punched the Yellow Jersey in the kidneys.
The almost imperceptible incident was over in a flash. Although Merckx stayed on his bike and, in typical fashion, hardly even flinched, he was in severe difficulty. As reported at the time by TheDaily Telegraph:
"Merckx crossed the line and collapsed against a crash barrier, vomiting and racked with spasms, clinging to the barrier and supported by newsmen."
He came home 34 seconds down on Thévenet, who now trailed the Belgian by just 58 seconds going into the second rest day. It was only on the flight to Nice following the stage that the Frenchman learned what had happened to Merckx on the climb.
On his way down the mountain accompanied by a police escort, as he rode past banners rallying for the Tour to be "de-Merckxified", the race leader had spotted the man who had struck him.
The assailant was not your typical drunken hooligan, but an unassuming 55-year-old local man dressed in a white shirt and a beige jacket called Nello Breton. He claimed he had been pushed forward in the melee, that any contact had been entirely unintentional.
But the damage was done. Merckx had a large bruise close to his liver, which swelled on the rest day. He even had to be given a blood thinner before the start of the next stage – a gruelling Alpine test with four climbs, each with a brutal descent, before a final, more gentle ascent to Pra Loup, where Merckx nevertheless had his sights set on the win.
The Cannibal comes out swinging
The 217.5km stage from Nice warmed up with the Col Saint-Martin and the Col de la Couillole ahead of the Tour's first – and only – ascent of the Col des Champs. Merckx was clearly nervous, having changed bikes three times ahead of the first climb of the day.
On the Col de Champs, a selection was forming on the front of the race, with Merckx feeling pain where the punch had landed, the anticoagulant medicine he had taken in Nice starting to wear off.
Shortly after the start of the 12km climb with its average gradient of 7%, Merckx sent a teammate back to the doctor's car to pick him up some painkillers. Thévenet started to pile on the pressure.
"I went five or six times,” said Thévenet afterwards. “But he got me every time. It annoyed me, because I had thought I might get some time on him."
Despite his succession of attacks, the Frenchman could not put daylight between himself and the Yellow Jersey, who winced from the pain in his abdomen with every acceleration. For all his troubles, Merckx eventually crested the summit in pole position before going full throttle on the descent.
Here’s Thévenet again:
He knew I wasn't as good a descender as he was, and he had won the 1971 Tour like that, when Luis Ocaña tried to stay with him and fell.
Thévenet then punctured at the worst possible time and needed to swap wheels with a teammate. Then followed a long chase back to Merckx and the other leaders with his teammate Raymond Delisle.
No sooner had they rejoined the fold than the next climb reared its head and Merckx's Molteni team went to work at the foot of the Col d'Allos. In what he hoped would be the race-winning move, Merckx dropped his rivals 1km from the summit to open up a 15-second gap ahead of what Thévenet described as "one of the most dangerous descents in France".
"Oh la la, it was vintage Merckx," the cautiously descending Frenchman recalls in William Fotheringham's biography of The Cannibal. "I wasn't feeling great, because I had made a big effort to get back to him, and he knew it. It was really quite something. Quite amazing. He was very, very strong. I just couldn't follow. He was really going well at that point."
‘Little Eddy’ the demon
Commentating for Belgian radio, Luc Varenne, as you can imagine, was ecstatic. With Merckx seemingly en route to a stage win and an unprecedented sixth Tour victory, his biggest fan gushed: "He's a demon! But a good demon, of course. What a king! I can't believe it. I have tears in my eyes!"
Varenne had a long and distinguished career with Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF) covering football, tennis and cycling, for which he made his Tour commentary debut in 1948. So taken were the Belgian masses by his chatty, passionate and rather biased style, that many people watched images of the Tour with the TV volume turned down, preferring instead to listen to Varenne's radio commentary.
Christian Prudhomme, the French director of the Tour, once admitted to having been a huge fan himself:
When I was a kid, I listened on average to the last 100km of a stage. I used to listen on Belgian radio to a man called Luc Varenne – an extraordinary man.
Varenne’s benign ubiquity even saw him trickle into popular culture: he appeared in the Dutch-language newspaper comic strip Nero in 1956 in a story entitled The Nine Peppercorns, during which the eponymous anti-hero (with no little prescience) discovers in a bunch of African peppercorns a stimulant that enables him to win a Tour mountain stage by 38 minutes.
"Everything changed the day Eddy Merckx arrived. He was the joy of my life," Varenne, doting husband and father to two daughters, once said. In Merckx, he found the son he never had. From the moment his Little Eddy won his first Monument through to his famous collapse en route to Pra Loup, Varenne unashamedly planted his foot in the rider's camp.
The Belgian precursor to Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby once famously claimed that "a good commentator must be partisan". When, in the 1971 Tour, Ocaña benefited from drafting a French convoy of vehicles to heap pressure on Merckx during a time trial in southern France, Varenne, live on air, even implored the Belgian navy to bomb the French coastline.
But with his man Merckx seemingly coasting to a sixth Tour win with his attack over the Col d'Allos that day, Varenne handed over the commentary reins to his colleague, Georges Malfait, admitting he was "too emotional" to continue.
So, off went Varenne by car to the finish line at Pra Loup while his hero negotiated the pockmarked and melting tar of the treacherous final descent. Despite the abrupt turns, the stones strewn across the road, and what Thévenet later described as "a smell of drama floating over the race", Merckx rode like a man possessed.
Behind, Giancarlo Feretti, Gimondi's sporting director at Bianchi, overcooked a turn in his car and plunged into a ravine, crashing 100m below. Thankfully, he and the team mechanic were thrown from the vehicle unscathed.
Thévenet, meanwhile, was losing ground, opting to stay upright and concede time over throwing it all away by taking too many risks. As Merckx passed under the 10km-to-go banner ahead of the final climb, he had an 18-second gap on Gimondi; a trio of Thévenet, Zoetemelk and Van Impe were 1'10" back. Was the race over? Was it heck.
The final climb to Pra Loup from Barcelonette is only 7km long and never rears up over 8%. But it was the fifth of what had been a tough, hot, unrelenting day in the saddle – and Thévenet was not yet ready to throw in the towel.
As William Fotheringham writes in Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike: "The Tour should have been won. But suddenly the great man cracked, on what was a far easier ascent than any of the other finishes that year."
Unlike his rousing rival, Merckx was starting to suffer like never before. Gimondi was first to catch him, the suave Italian stunned when the man in yellow actually asked him to slow down as he passed. Further back, Thévenet, having refuelled over the Col d'Allos, was also on the rampage, shedding Zoetemelk at the start of the climb, then Van Impe a little later.
In the Frenchman's wake, his directeur sportif De Muer was tooting the horn and shouting words of encouragement with the Peugeot mechanic, Jean-Claude Vincent.
With the lucky number 51 on his back – the same number which both Merckx and Ocaña were wearing when they first won the Tour – Thévenet ate into the minute-long gap. He was in the process of pulling off what Pierre Chany, the great French cycling journalist, would describe as "the most incredible reversal the Tour has ever seen".
Comparing the contrasting state of the two riders, Fotheringham says: "Thévenet has the hungry look of a man who wants to devour the final kilometres as he lifts himself out of the saddle to accelerate past. Merckx has an air of pure desperation as if he dreads what may lie ahead."
Thévenet was so in the zone that he initially failed to recognise what was going on around him. Spotting the Molteni team car ahead, he was then momentarily confused as he caught a glimpse of the man in yellow, struck by Merckx's stilted pedalling, the difficulty with which the champion was turning his legs, struggling to make any progress.
"Go, Bernard – this is the time!" De Muer cried from behind, smelling blood. "He's cracking! He's cooked!"
As Thévenet told Merckx's other biographer, Daniel Friebe, author of The Cannibal: "I'm going so hard that I can't really think straight. A moment later I'm with the car. Somehow, though, I'm still scared that he'll see me coming, counter-attack and that'll be the end of it.
"I get within striking distance on a bend with a strip of melted tarmac in the middle of the road, which he's taken right on the inside, along the line of spectators. I tell myself that he'll never dare to cross the melting tarmac – he'll get stuck in it – so I go all the way to the other side, where I'm almost hidden in the spectators on the right side of the road. I try to pass and get clear of him as quickly as possible, so that he can't respond. I see that he's not following and somehow I'm not surprised. The euphoria drowns out every other feeling…"
The catch came with around two kilometres remaining. Neither rider looked at each other – as if granting recognition would have been an admission of defeat. "I pass Merckx without giving him the slightest of looks," Thévenet recalls in his autobiography. "I don't want to know anything about his physical state. I want to distance him and win the stage."
Speaking to L'Équipe in 2003, Thévenet would admit that, had he known he was hammering a nail into Merckx's coffin, he perhaps would have savoured the moment a little more: "It's stupid, I was there, but I didn't see it,” he said. “If I had known all that, I would have looked at him as I overtook him."
He later elaborated: "I didn't know it was a historic moment, that this was the last time he would wear the Yellow Jersey in the Tour. I can only remember the shining bands of tarmac. And the fact that I'd stuffed him."
Having caught Merckx, Thévenet completed the job by reeling in Gimondi ahead of the Flamme Rouge. Behind, Zoetemelk and Van Impe both punished Merckx, who trundled home in fifth, almost two minutes down. According to Thévenet, the result was "an earthquake for cycling".
The Cannibal's nightmare
The image of Merckx labouring up the finish straight left no room for doubt, says Fotheringham: "He was hunched, uncomfortable, arms straight rather than pulling viciously on the bars as they did when he was pushing hard on the pedals. He looked resigned to defeat, tired mentally and physically."
Meanwhile, Luc Varenne, Merckx's biggest admirer, was coming to terms with what he had just heard – and then witnessed. "Poor Eddy… And poor us!" he lamented live on air. "He was flying towards victory. No one could have seen that coming. He was the hero. Mon Dieu, what a dream – and what a nightmare too."
Save for the punch on the Puy de Dôme, there was no explanation for Merckx's collapse. The Belgian was adamant that he hadn't bonked, and was quick to praise his rival, who now held a 58-second lead in the General Classification having donned the Maillot Jaune for the first time in his career.
"Bernard Thévenet is much too strong for me," Merckx conceded.
I have to look the truth in the face. I had to get beaten one day. This year, I've come up against a transcendent Thévenet.
On the podium that afternoon, Merckx congratulated his executioner and admitted: "I tried everything. I lost everything. I don't think I'm going to win this Tour." For his part, Thévenet would describe the moment he overtook Merckx as "so delicious for me, so atrocious for him".
Following the stage in a car that day was the French triple Tour winner Louison Bobet, who paid his countryman a visit that night in his hotel.
"He said he admired my performance and explained to me that a prospective winner of the Tour must do the same as his predecessors and win at Briançon after conquering the Izoard alone. I listened to his advice, determined to put it into practice the next day during the stage from Barcelonnette to Serre-Chevalier."
Thévenet doubles up
With a week remaining, the Tour was still delicately poised. And despite still requiring painkillers, Merckx would not give up without a fight. When Thévenet was distanced on the descent of the Col de Vars on Stage 16, Merckx attacked earlier than he had anticipated to join a leading trio that also featured Zoetemelk. But there was no cohesion and the Belgian sat up and waited for the main pack.
Channelling Bobet's words, Thévenet then made his move on the Col d'Izoard just as Merckx waved for assistance from his team car. On Bastille Day, Thévenet soloed over the summit of the mythical mountain before taking a glorious victory – his second in succession and first in yellow – in Serre Chevalier, gaining well over two minutes on second-placed Merckx in the process.
The Frenchman later admitted: "I won the Tour at Serre-Chevalier. I wasn't that good at Pra Loup, but over the Izoard, [Merckx] had a not-so-good day, I had a good one."
The next day, in the neutral zone of Stage 17 to Avoriaz, Merckx clipped wheels at the foot of the Col du Télégraphe and faceplanted into the tarmac – a stone's throw away from the point where, a year before, Thévenet himself had pulled out of the 1974 Tour.
His face bruised and swollen, Merckx battled over the climbs of the Madeleine, Aravis, Colombière and up to Morzine. He even took a couple of seconds back on Thévenet in finishing a heroic third in the 225km stage – but at a huge cost. Tests later revealed that he had sustained a double fracture to his cheekbone. He looked, according to Fotheringham, "as if he had received a right hook in a pub brawl".
Reports later filtered through of a delirious Merckx, probably concussed, slurring his words after the crash, even trying to speak Flemish to a rider he knew was Spanish. Doctors told him to abandon the race, but Merckx kept battling to Paris.
Refusing to throw in the bloodied towel, Merckx took 15 seconds back in the final time trial, then 16 seconds when Thévenet crashed near the finish in the penultimate stage of the race. Even though the gap was still the best part of three minutes, Thévenet never felt that the overall victory was in the bag while Merckx was still pedalling in anger.
"I didn't believe I was going to win the Tour until two laps from the finish on the Champs-Élysées,” Thévenet tells Fotheringham in Half Man, Half Bike. “I felt I couldn't leave the door open for him for a moment, he might jump. I didn't have a peaceful time."
Indeed, Merckx even attacked on the final stage on the way into Paris – a last throw of the dice from the departing titan. It was, according to Fotheringham, "a final act of panache from the fading champion".
But as the Belgian Walter Godefroot won on the Tour's first finish on the Champs-Élysées, Thévenet's wait was over. The 27-year-old had won the Tour at his fifth attempt by 2'47" over Merckx, whose run of 10 consecutive Grand Tour victories was over – and the home fans could cheer France's first winner in eight years.
For the first time in six Tour appearances, Merckx finished not in the Yellow Jersey but the rainbow bands of world champion. The Belgian was widely revered for his performance. His actions – to carry on racing despite injury and to attack to the bitter end – granted Thévenet total triumph.
"I have never known such a sport as Merckx," Thévenet said, aware that his maiden Tour victory meant so much more with his great rival standing alongside him on the final podium. During the ceremony, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing paid tribute to Merckx, saying: "He has not lost the Tour, he has finished second."
A rider whose five Tour wins had left the French fans increasingly tired – to the point where one took matters into his own hands and landed a punch on their annual tormentor – had finally known sympathy in being beaten for the first time.
As the report in The Daily Telegraph noted: "This has been a very hard Tour, and Eddy Merckx, although second overall, has come out of it with as much publicity and acclaim as if he had won. His decision to stay in the race against doctor's orders has made him a hero all over Europe."
The paper's praise of the overall winner was preceded by a caveat, but ultimately hit the right notes: "Perhaps a little fortunate to find Merckx not at his best, Thévenet is a worthy winner and his ability to fight and his courage cannot be questioned."
What happened next
Merckx never won the Tour again; indeed, he never won another stage nor wore the Yellow Jersey again after his collapse at Pra Loup. Ruled out of the Tour in 1976 through injury, Merckx finished sixth in his final Tour in 1977, outshone again by Thévenet.
But the Frenchman had struggled when defending his Tour crown in 1976, withdrawing ahead of Stage 19 when well down in the General Classification as the Belgian Lucien van Impe emerged victorious. Thévenet's second Tour victory in 1977 came months after he failed a doping control during Paris-Nice.
Luc Varenne received a knighthood in Belgium in 1998, the year of the infamous Festina doping scandal. Also on the list of honours that day was Marc Sleen, the creator of the Nero comic strip in which Varenne had appeared.
Varenne’s voice was sorely missed by Belgian listeners when he finally laid his microphone to rest after his 30th Tour. Reflecting on the illustrious career of his colleague, RTBF's Armand Bachelier said: "There are two spectacles on the Tour de France. That of Eddy Merckx, calm, serene, pedalling with tranquillity, and that of Luc Varenne, a volcano in permanent eruption."
There was nothing calm, serene or tranquil about Merckx's pedalling on the climb to Pra Loup in 1975. Whether this was age catching up with the Belgian superstar, poor form or the Puy punch precipitating his downfall – we will never know. Perhaps the painkillers simply wore off? In any case, the elastic finally snapped.
Merckx did win a seventh Milan-San Remo in 1976, but he later admitted that his decision to dig in and continue the 1975 Tour after his crash and that punch had been "dumb". After all, Thévenet's victory proved to be the turning point in his career – the moment things started to head south.
"But what made me go on?" Merckx mused.
The decision was pure madness. But I wasn't suicidal by nature, and I had no desire to die on the bike.
Merckx always blamed the punch on the French press for stoking up animosity towards him and his dominance. Given the spittle, urine and bile that has since invariably rained down on the likes of Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome during their own periods of domination, it's not hard to appreciate the sentiment of Merckx's statement.
The Cannibal sued his aggressor for damages and, several months after the 1975 Tour, he travelled to Clermont-Ferrand for a court ruling which he won. He was awarded a symbolic one franc in damages. It just so happened that the lawyer for his aggressor, Nello Breton, was called Daniel Thévenet.
No relation to Bernard, but it was a nice little coincidence that did not go unnoticed.
-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the Re-Cycle Podcast by Eurosport for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history