Cycling History

Le Tour de France: Stage 7 – Chambéry-Les Arcs, 1996

The French call it la fringale. To English speakers it is ‘the bonk’. That dreaded moment when the lights go out, the tank is empty, and you find yourself grovelling on the bike with nothing left in your legs. The head drops, your rhythm is lost and can’t be found again, and your morale plumbs the lowest depths. At best you suffer a demoralising loss of performance. At worst bonking can lead to disorientation, hallucinations, and total collapse. What has happened is that your body has run out of stored fuel and has entered into hypoglycaemia, a deficiency of glucose in the bloodstream and muscles. Lacking fuel your muscles stop performing efficiently and so does your brain, which also needs glucose to function, hence the dizziness, light-headedness, tunnel-vision, disorientation, and even feelings of anxiety, nervousness, irritability and hostility that can develop when you bonk.

In 1996 Miguel Indurain, the great Spanish rider, was attempting to become the first rider to win six Tours, a year after becoming the first to win five in a row. With the elimination of the team time-trial from the 1996 edition and the placing of the first individual time-trial after the first foray into the mountains on stage 7, Indurain’s chances of success were less than they might have been. He was still the odds-on favourite, backed by no less a pundit than Bernard Hinault to be in yellow when the race reached Paris. In June Indurain had won the Dauphiné Libéré, claiming two stages in the race that more often than not indicates who will be in contention for the overall in July.

The first six flat stages of Le Tour played out as expected with the sprinters and the breakaway artists claiming victory. For the general classification riders it was a case of keeping their powder dry before the decisive stages in the mountains and time-trials. As Indurain put it, “The most important thing in the first week is not to fall and not to lose too much time on the most dangerous riders.” By the end of stage 6 it was job done for Indurain and his rivals, with the main contenders all clustered at or around four minutes behind the Yellow Jersey wearer, Stéphane Heulot, who was no threat to them in the long term. The racing had been exciting but perhaps the most significant event, at least in retrospect, had been the retirement of the young Texan, Lance Armstrong, with suspected bronchitis during stage 6 in his fourth appearance at Le Tour. Later that year he was diagnosed with metastasized testicular cancer, going on to be the central player in Le Tour’s most inglorious chapter and his own dramatic rise and fall.

Stage 7 from Chambery covered 200 kilometres, crossing the major climbs of the Madeleine and the Cormet de Roseland along the way and finishing with the 17 kilometre long ramp up to the ski station at Les Arcs. With the first individual time-trial the following day Indurain, winner of all bar one of the time-trials in the previous five Tour’s and the reigning World Champion in the discipline, needed to do little more than stay with his rivals before hopefully taking time out of them in the time-trial.

Stage profile, Chambery - Les Arcs, 6  July 1996

Stage profile, Chambery – Les Arcs, 6 July 1996

On the hors category Col de La Madeleine all seemed to be going to plan. Indurain rode well crossing the summit in second place, while behind him one of his main rivals, Laurent Jalabert, was struggling 4 minutes and 35 seconds down. Heulot was 1 minute 35 seconds behind, leaving Indurain in 5th place overall on the road just 12 seconds behind the nominal Yellow Jersey wearer, Alex Zülle. Next up was the Cormet de Roseland where Heulot was forced to abandon, rolling to the side of the road and climbing off his bike in tears, a victim of excruciating tendonitis in his right knee, becoming one of a small group of riders who have abandoned Le Tour while wearing Yellow.

Indurain crossed the summit in 5th place with his main group of rivals. With only the long descent to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and the final climb to Les Arcs ahead of him it seemed that ‘Big Mig’ had done all that was needed to keep himself in contention. The climb to Les Arcs is, by Tour standards, relatively gentle. It is a steady climb made difficult by its length rather than the gradient and one that Indurain would normally devour. Early on in the climb Luc Leblanc attacked. Well down on the classification the main contenders let him go, content to reserve their energies and comfortable in the knowledge that Leblanc was no threat to the general classification.

Indurain seemed to be riding well but with just over three kilometres to go, out of the blue race radio reported that Indurain had been dropped. Grimacing with the effort and struggling to maintain his rhythm, Indurain watched his rivals inexorably pull away from him. He had bonked. Inside the last two kilometres he waved his hand, calling for a drink from his team car, willing to ignore the rule that restricts teams from feeding their riders in the final kilometres of a stage. Immediately behind him was the rival team car of Gewiss. Their directeur sportif, Emanuele Bombini, felt sorry for Indurain and passed him a bottle as the car went past. It was an unfortunate moment. Instead of drinking Indurain threw the bottle away, unwilling to take any risk by accepting drinks from a rival team. Ahead of him Leblanc rode to victory while his rivals made significant gains, with Indurain crossing the finish line in 16th place, 4 minutes and 19 seconds behind Leblanc, and outside the top 10 in the general classification.

Indurain struggles on the clib to Les Arcs, 6 July 1996. Photo: Presse Sports/Clement

Indurain struggles on the climb to Les Arcs, 6 July 1996. Image: Presse Sports/Clement

He never recovered from the blow. In the next day’s time-trial he lost more time to three of his rivals, over a minute to the new Yellow Jersey, Evgeni Berzin. On the stages to Hautacam and Pamplona he lost more time, eventually completing his final Tour in 11th place, 14 minutes and 14 seconds down on eventual winner Bjarne Riis. Six months later Indurain announced his retirement from cycling saying, “Every year it gets harder and I think I have spent enough time in the sport. My family are waiting.” He remains one of the great Tour riders and arguably the greatest Spanish cyclist of all time.

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