The epic spectacle of Le Tour de France will begin again on Saturday in Utrecht as the riders compete over a 14 kilometre time-trial for the honour of being awarded the first yellow jersey in the races 102nd edition. Le Tour is the most important bike race in the world, the greatest annual sporting event, and, for cycling fans at least, the greatest sporting event of any kind, bigger than the Olympics or football’s World Cup. A reputed 3.5 billion people worldwide will watch at least part of the race on television, while 12 million will line the route for a fleeting glimpse of the riders as they fly past.
Over the coming weeks Le Tour will, as it has always done, both excite and infuriate. Never black and white, its history is one of drama, superlative effort, and sporting achievement, mixed with scandal and the worst of human frailty. To celebrate this rich heritage starting from Saturday 4 July Cycling History is devoting the following 23 days to Le Tour by delving into the archives to provide a stage by stage anthology of highs, and lows, from the race’s history. There are so many stories to choose from, making the final choice of which to include very difficult indeed. If you’re already a fan of Le Tour then you will already have your own favourites. The stories I have chosen are among mine, and I hope they reflect not only the drama of the race but other aspects that are part and parcel of the fabric of Le Tour and of professional road racing. No doubt I will omit a story that you think deserves inclusion. I hope, however that you enjoy my selection.
We begin, as have so many Tour’s, with the prologue. Technically not part of the race proper, but a way of selecting the rider who will wear the leader’s Maillot Jaune at the start of stage 1 and an opportunity to introduce all the riders to the public one-by-one. The prologue is run as a short time-trial stage, typically over a distance no greater than 8 kilometres, with riders setting off at regular intervals to ride solo against the clock. The fastest over the course is the winner and dons the yellow jersey as the official leader of Le Tour. The first prologue, officially described as stage 1a, took place back in 1967 in the city of Angers over a distance of 5.8 kilometres and was won by Jose-Maria Errandonea Urtizberea in a time of 7 minutes and 43 seconds at an average speed of 45.09 kph, beating the ‘Eternal Second’ Raymond Poulidor into second place by 6 seconds.
Fast forward 27 years to Lille on the 2 July 1994 and Le Tour riders were once again lining up for the prologue. The question of the day was who of the favourites would win. Topping the list was Miguel Indurain, reigning Tour champion and three time winner, a time-trialer par excellence, and the victor of the previous 2 prologues in 1991 and 1992. Also in the mix were Tony Rominger and Alex Zulle, and the neo-pro riding his first Tour, Chris Boardman.
Like Indurain, Boardman was a specialist at the time-trial. Unlike Indurain, he had cut his racing teeth in the insular, competitive world of amateur racing against the clock in Britain, rather than professional road racing . A five times consecutive winner of the British 25 mile time-trial championships from 1989 to 1993, he was also the 1992 Olympic champion in the 4 kilometre pursuit and the holder of the Hour record with a distance of 52.270 kilometres set at the Velodrome du Lac, Bordeaux, on 23 July 1993. A feat which had earned him a place on the podium alongside Miguel Indurain when Le Tour rolled into Bordeaux later the same day. While Indurain, Rominger and Zulle were at Le Tour with the intention of reaching Paris in yellow, Boardman had no pretensions as to his chances in that direction. His aim was purely and simply to win the prologue. As he later put it, “At the 1994 Tour, everybody went for a three-week race. I went for seven minutes.”
And what a seven minutes they were. Riding a version of the Lotus 108 bike he’d used at the Olympics which had been modified for road use Boardman tore round the flat course in central Lille catching Luc Leblanc for a minute and covering the 7.2 kilometre course in a time of 7 minutes and 49 seconds. A year earlier Leblanc had sniffily dismissed Boardman’s Hour, stating that if he could do it then so could half the professional peloton, which must have made the catch all the more sweet.
Zulle, Rominger, and Indurain, all followed Boardman onto the course but none of them were able to better his time, Indurain losing 15 seconds to gain second place on the day. Boardman’s average speed over the course was 55.152 kph, a prologue record that stands to this day, and an individual time-trial record that stood for 16 years until Dennis Rohan completed the 14 kilometres of the 2015 stage 1 time-trial in Utrecht at an average speed of 55.4 kph. Boardman’s prologue win was a superlative effort and a great victory over three of the best against the clock that professional racing could offer.
And finally. I’ll be watching Le Tour this year from my sofa, enjoying British broadcaster ITV4’s coverage and the commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. One of the highlights for me of each year’s TV coverage is the montage played with the closing credits of the final programme. Here’s the 2011 edition. Dramatic scenery, thrills, spills, bonkers fans, and AC/DC. Enjoy.
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