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Tour de France: The legend of bib number 51

Felix Lowe
30 Jun 2016

Could a glass of Pernod really help you win the Tour de France? Eurosport’s Felix Lowe looks at the legend of bib number 51.

Fans of the great myths and legends of the Tour de France will know all about dossard number 51. They will tell you about its mystical influence over the race, and proclaim that there have been more winners of the Tour wearing the 51 bib than any other number. There’s only one small problem – like most myths it’s complete baloney. 

In fact, there have been only four wins associated with that bib, starting with Eddy Merckx, who famously won his debut Tour in 1969 wearing number 51. In the nine years that followed, Luis Ocaña (1973), Bernard Thévenet (1975) and Bernard Hinault (1978) all had a 51 pinned to their jerseys during their first, or only, Tour triumphs.

But that’s where it stops. Just as Alpe d’Huez is still called ‘Dutch Mountain’ despite a 27-year hiatus since the most recent Dutch winner, the fallacy that number 51 carries good luck continues.

The reality is somewhat more prosaic. The most successful bib at the Tour de France is number 1, which has been worn to victory no fewer than 24 times. It stands to reason, as the number 1 is given to the defending champion. The next most prolific number is – logically – the 11 reserved for the previous runner-up (six wins) and then the 2 given to the defending champion’s understudy (five).

Heck, number 51 doesn’t even stand alone on four wins – sharing the berth with 21 (the previous year’s third-placed rider) and 15 (worn by Laurent Fignon during his debut win in 1983). In short, 51’s notoriety comes solely from that uncanny period of four standout wins in a decade. In France they call it the dossard anise in reference to
Pastis 51, the brand of aniseed aperitif launched by Pernod in 1951. 

It hasn’t been a wholly dry run for 51 since Hinault’s 1978 win. Pedro Delgado, Gianni Bungo and, last year, Nairo Quintana have all finished runner-up as 51, while Vincenzo Nibali was third in 2012. Throw in polka dot jerseys for Richard Virenque and Laurent Jalabert, Peter Sagan’s green in 2014 and Fabian Cancellara’s Paris-Roubaix triumph in 2010 – and there’s certainly still something fanciful about it.

Who will wear it in 2016? At the time of writing it is still unconfirmed – and it’s not the easiest of things to predict. The first part of a race number is assigned by the race organisers, while the second part is chosen by the team. To be 51 you have to be the leader of the team given the sixth berth in the race. Nine riders per team means no one wears a bib ending with a zero. The last man in the 198-strong field wears the number 219 (the ninth rider in the 22nd team).

Until 2005 the rules used to place all teams in an order based on the previous Tour’s results. But now, outside the top three teams (1-9, 11-19, 21-29), it’s an inexact science. For instance, when an important rider skipped or abandoned the previous year’s race, they’re often given a high dossard anyway– such as Froome, who last year was 31 despite crashing out in 2014. 

What we do know is that Froome will be 1, Quintana 11 and, probably, Fabio Aru 21 (by dint of his Astana team-mate Nibali’s fourth place last year behind Movistar duo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde). My sources at ASO tell me the aniseed bib will go to Thibaut Pinot of FDJ. He fits the bill: tipped for greatness with much expectation on his shoulders.

I’m just not sure how well Pinot and pastis would sit in the stomach – especially if you chuck in some celebratory champagne.

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