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Tour de France history: Merckx and Molteni conquer all

In-depth
14 May 2021
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In 1972 Molteni’s team time-trial win took their leader Eddy Merckx into yellow, setting the stage for his fourth straight Tour title

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: L’Equipe

When race officials at the 1972 Tour de France published the General Classification after Stage 3(b), Eddy Merckx was in yellow with an overall time of 15h 15min 21sec. Nothing strange about that, perhaps, other than the fact his time was now 20 seconds less than it had been at the end of the previous stage. Had Merckx suddenly added the power to reverse time to his arsenal?

Sadly the real reason was rather more prosaic. That stage at Merlin-Plage was a team time-trial of 16.2km, which Merckx’s Molteni team completed in 19min 24sec. Team TTs had long been a feature of the Tour – the 1927 and 1928 races were run predominantly as a series of team tests albeit with individual rather than team times taken.

While that experiment was dropped after just two years, the discipline returned in 1935 and has remained ever since, falling in and out of fashion over the years. But there has always been one problem: how to accommodate the team time-trial when its potential impact on a stage race can be so significant, leaving talented riders with weak teams at a serious disadvantage.

In 1972 the solution the organisers came up with was to reward only the top-three placed teams on the stage with a handful of bonus seconds and not add the stage times to the overall.

Molteni, who according to the next day’s race report in La Stampa could ‘count on two “chronomen” of equal value in Merckx and Roger Swerts as well as the very effective teamwork of all the others’, were led over the line by Merckx, ahead of Peugeot and Bic.

The result meant Molteni riders had 20 seconds deducted from their overall times, Peugeot riders 10 seconds and Bic riders five. Everyone else’s times remained unchanged.

And so it was that Merckx, nine seconds behind race leader Cyrille Guimard at the start of the stage (and wearing the white jersey as leader of the combined classification), took an 11-second lead over the Gan-Mercier man, despite putting nearly 40 seconds into him on the road.

Not that the Frenchman wasted much time in taking back the jersey, winning the stage and reclaiming yellow the very next day to maintain a narrow lead over Merckx until the Pyrenees. But it was another rider that would have concerned the Belgian as the race hit the mountains – Bic’s Luis Ocaña. 

1971 and all that

Ocaña was one of very few riders that Merckx genuinely feared. Twelve months previously Ocaña had sensed he had the measure of the Belgian at the Tour, telling his Bic teammates that ‘the Cannibal is ripe for the picking’.

After a devastating attack to Orcières-Merlette in which Ocaña took more than eight minutes out of Merckx – prompting Jacques Goddet to write that ‘never will things be like before’ – the Spaniard held a lead of more than seven minutes. Then fate cruelly intervened.

In one of the Tour’s most dramatic moments, Ocaña fell in heavy rain on the descent of the Col de Menté. Joop Zoetemelk and Joaquim Agostinho then crashed into him as Bic’s leader tried to remount. ‘Ocaña was screaming in pain as he lay there amid the stones and mud, like Christ taken down from the cross,’ L’Equipe would later report.

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His race was over and Merckx duly took his third Tour title in 1971. But the question remained – without such misfortune would Ocaña have won? Even Merckx said, ‘The doubt will always remain.’

In the build-up to the 1972 race a war of words developed between the two men as each enjoyed success – Merckx winning Milan-San Remo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro d’Italia; Ocaña claiming the Dauphiné Libéré and Spain’s national championship.

It was against this backdrop that the 1972 Tour entered the Pyrenees. This was where Ocaña, fourth on GC, less than a minute behind Merckx, was meant to put the previous year behind him. 

Alas for the Spaniard, it wasn’t to be. On the opening stage in the Pyrenees Ocaña crashed again and rode into Pau nearly two minutes behind the leading group, which included Merckx. One stage into the mountains and he now trailed the Belgian by nearly three minutes.

Ocaña hung around for the next week, suffering from a lung infection and losing more and more time as the race went on. Trailing Merckx by more than 12 minutes, Ocaña left the race in the Alps. He would finally get his Tour win the following year.

By the time Ocaña abandoned Merckx was more than six minutes ahead of second-placed Guimard, who had battled on after losing the jersey despite terrible pain in his knee.

‘He is forced to have dinner stretched out on his bed every evening,’ Pierre Chany wrote in La Fabuleuse Histoire du Tour de France.

‘He leaves the room in the morning carried on a chair by members of his entourage.’

Ultimately, Guimard too was forced to abandon, climbing off 10km after the start of Stage 18 while wearing the green jersey, the pain finally too much.

Merckx went on to claim his fourth straight Tour title by more than 10 minutes from Felice Gimondi – those 20 seconds gained in the team time-trial superfluous. This was the all-powerful version of Merckx. Some hold his 1972 season as the most perfect ever – after all, two Grand Tours and three Monuments (he went on to win the Tour of Lombardy in the autumn) are hard to argue with.

He also won the Tour’s combined and points classifications, not that he went home with the green jersey. Guimard was invited to Paris for the race finale, where Merckx handed the jersey to him.

The Frenchman buried his head in the jersey, reflecting decades later, ‘Even though I hadn’t finished the race, I still had more points than him.’

Giles Belbin is the author of Tour de France Champions: an A to Z (thehistorypress.co.uk)