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Classic jerseys: No.11 Bic

28 Mar 2019

This article was originally published in issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

Words Giles Belbin Photography Danny Bird

On the evening of 5th July 1971, 10 members of the Bic team were sat around a dinner table in their hotel.

Spirits were high. Earlier that day the team’s Spanish leader, Luis Ocaña, had won Stage 8 of the Tour de France.

Ocaña, who had claimed the Vuelta a España the previous year, had escaped on the climb to Puy de Dôme to win by seven seconds over Joop Zoetemelk.

More importantly Eddy Merckx, the two-time Tour winner who Ocaña considered to be a bitter rival (the Spaniard even named one of his dogs after the Belgian just so he could call ‘Merckx’ to heel) hadn’t been able to react.

Merckx lost only a handful of seconds and retained the yellow jersey he had held for nine days, but Ocaña thought he saw a weakness.

‘The time has come, guys,’ Ocaña said that night. ‘The Cannibal is ripe for the picking.’

Three days later, on the 134km stage from Grenoble to Orcières-Merlette, Ocaña launched an attack some 60km from the finish after he had earlier broken away with a small group of favourites.

Merckx hadn’t reacted to the breakaway and the Spaniard took an eight-minute win and claimed the yellow jersey. It was an incredible ride.

‘Never will things be like before,’ wrote Jacques Goddet in an editorial the likes of which Merckx later said ‘makes you doubt yourself’.

Of course Merckx reacted how only Merckx could react: by attacking right from the gun of the next stage and clawing-back two minutes as the Spaniard was left behind.

Then, two days later, came a day that has entered Tour legend.

Stage 14 was 215km from Revel to Luchon, taking in the climbs of the Portet d’Aspet, Mente and Portillon.

Ocaña was still in yellow by around seven minutes but felt apprehensive for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom and went to pray before the stage. 

Merckx again went on the attack but this time Ocaña easily matched the Belgian.

The skies darkened as the stage progressed and then a fierce storm hit the mountains. The road became a river of mud as heavy rain and hailstones fell.

Braking soon became useless, with the riders forced to use their feet to slow down as lightning bounced around the peaks.

When Merckx skidded round a corner, the following Ocaña couldn’t stop and careered off the road.

When the DS of the Bic team, Maurice de Muer, arrived he found his star rider in agony.

L’Equipe later reported, ‘Ocaña was screaming in pain as he lay there amid the stones and mud like Christ taken down from the cross, one hand clutching his chest and his yellow jersey torn and spattered with a mixture of blood and earth.’

It later emerged that as the fallen Bic leader had tried to remount, Zoetemelk and Joaquim Agostinho had smashed into him as they too lost control in the terrible conditions.

Rumours swirled that Ocaña had died or been paralysed.

As it turned out neither was true but his race was over.

Merckx assumed the race lead but refused to wear yellow the next day out of respect for his rival.

A difficult start

Best known for its disposable pens and lighters, French company Bic had entered cycling in 1967, taking over sponsorship of the Ford France-Hutchinson team that had Raphaël Géminiani at the helm and Jacques Anquetil as its star rider.

It would prove to be a challenging first season for the team.

Anquetil was nearing the end of his career and wasn’t in great shape, but he still managed to win the Critérium National early in the season despite staying up until gone 3am eating camembert, drinking whisky and smoking cigars the night before.

Géminiani might have been annoyed had he not been at the table with his prize asset.

Anquetil’s real focus was the Giro d’Italia – a race he was leading two days from the finish before controversially losing his lead to Felice Gimondi on the stage to Tirano.

Anquetil appeared exhausted but the apparent ease with which Gimondi left both the Frenchman and other favourites raised eyebrows, with talk of a pact between the Italians and the ‘assistance’ of a race car on quite a few lips.

By this time Anquetil was down to just two teammates.

The rest of the Bic team had abandoned for reasons never truly known, though Anquetil claimed the team lost interest in the race and stopped paying the riders, so the domestiques went home.

Feelings in the team deteriorated further during that year’s Tour.

Anquetil didn’t ride but joined the media circus following the race.

With that year’s Tour being run for national teams, Anquetil was furious that his Bic teammates Jean Stablinski, Raymond Riotte and Paul Lemeteyer spent the race working for his trade-team rivals Roger Pingeon (who won the race) and Raymond Poulidor.

There was a furious row between Stablinski and Anquetil at the Perroquet Vert restaurant in Montmartre where Anquetil laid into his teammates, refusing to shake their hands and branding them ‘sluts’.

Stablinski, a former world champion and four-time national champion, left the Bic team at the end of the season.

Ocaña joined in 1970, once Anquetil had retired.

After again abandoning the Tour in 1972, this time with a lung infection, the Spaniard finally got onto the top step in 1973, recording the team’s greatest win.

In the absence of Merckx, who was resting after winning the Vuelta-Giro double, Ocaña ruled the race with an iron fist, taking yellow at the end of the first week and holding it all the way to Paris for a 15-minute overall win.

Bic collected eight stage wins en route, six of them courtesy of Ocaña.

The outfit folded at the end of the 1974 season.

Other major results claimed by the team included stage victories at all three Grand Tours, a Paris-Roubaix win by Roger Rosiers in 1971 and the 1972 Tour of Flanders, where Eric Leman won the final seven-man sprint.