Anyone who is interested in the history of professional bike racing knows the name of Eddy Merckx, Belgium’s most famous son and undoubtedly the greatest racing cyclist ever. In 1969 he was in his fourth year as a professional and had already racked up a palmarès that would be the envy of many a modern, and contemporary, rider: World Champion in 1967, winner of the Giro d’Italia in 1968, Milan San-Remo in 1966, 1967 and 1968, Gent-Wevelgem in 1967, Paris-Roubaix in 1968, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Flanders in 1969, not to mention a host of other races, 43 in all during 1969 alone.
Merckx’s tilt at the Giro-Tour double in 1969 had ended in scandal and intrigue when, resplendent in the pink jersey, he failed a drugs test after the end of stage 15 and was expelled from the Giro the following morning. Merckx maintained his innocence arguing that he had been framed. The urine sample he produced 16 hours after the one that had given the positive was tested and found to be clean. Rumour and counter rumour circulated freely; a representative of Felice Gimond’s team had secretly approached Merckx with a hefty bribe to throw the race in favour of the Italian rider which Merckx had refused the night before his positive test; Merckx’s positive result had been released before he and his team manager had been informed; the sample had been mislabelled; his bidon had been swapped for one containing the drug when Merckx wasn’t looking; and not to mention the wild speculation in a Swiss newspaper that Belgian paratroopers were mobilised to enter Italy on a special ops mission to extract Merckx and bring him back to Belgium.
Despite appeals to the organisers the exclusion from the Giro remained in effect, but the UCI did subsequently overturn the one month ban that would have prevented Merckx from riding Le Tour that year. When he arrived in Roubaix on 28 June for his first ever appearance at Le Tour Merckx was fired up to win. Victory in the team time trial on stage 1B put him in yellow for a day, relinquishing it to his team mate, Julien Stevens, on the following stage. On stage 6 he struck on the climb to the Ballon d’Alsace winning the stage and taking the yellow jersey.
By the start of stage 17 another three stage wins saw Merckx still in yellow with an advantage of 8 minutes and 21 seconds over second placed Roger Pingeon. In effect the Tour was already won, barring accident or illness, but Merckx hadn’t finished. Stage 17 was another of those monster mountain stages Le Tour is famous for, 214 kilometres from Luchon to Mourenx that took in the climbs of the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and the Aubisque. Merckx and his Faema team controlled the early pace of the race over the first climbs of the day and on the Tourmalet, led by Martin Van den Bossche, they picked up the pace even more, forcing a major shakedown in the peloton. As the now select group headed by Van den Bossche neared the summit Merckx powered away crossing the summit to take the mountain points a few seconds ahead of those behind him.
Glancing round and realising he was on his own Merckx shot off down the descent of the Tourmalet, as much to ensure he had a clean racing line as to attack. By the time he reached the bottom he had a minute in hand over the field. His team manager told him to wait for the others to catch up while he took on food with 105 kilometres to go. Merckx, hearing of the time gap of 3 minutes that now separated him from his rivals, decided at that point to carry on. By the summit of the Aubisque he had extended his lead to 7 minutes as he drove himself hard to maintain his advantage. The last 20 kilometres were torture as, exhausted, he drove himself on. Merckx crossed the line at Mourenx after 7 hours and 48 minutes of hard riding. Behind him Michelle Dancelli placed second, 7 minutes and 57 seconds behind Merckx who had won the stage after an improbable 130 kilometre solo breakaway that had begun as little more than a show of strength and a points grab at the top of the Tourmalet. In the process he had nearly doubled his lead in the general classification.
When the race reached Paris Merckx’s total domination of the 56th edition of Le Tour was complete. Not only had he won Le Tour by 17 minutes and 54 seconds over Pingeon, but he had also claimed the green jersey, the mountains classification, the combination classification, and the combativity award, while Faema claimed the team classification. It was an unparalleled victory and a level of dominance in Le Tour that has not been repeated, nor is likely ever to be.
During the evening after the epic events of stage 17 Van den Bossche went to Merckx’s room. He’d worked hard that day to keep the pace high on the Peyresourde and Aspin, even harder on the Tourmalet where he had been forcing the pace. That Merckx had shot past him at the summit rankled. “Today a little rider expected a big gesture from you”, he told Merckx, who just smiled in response.
The night before, Van den Bossche had told Merckx that he’d accepted an offer to ride for Molteni. Merckx had resented this, hence his leap for the points and the honour of being the first to cross the summit. While his victory that day was in no small part due to the psychological supremacy he’d established over his rivals who failed to mount a successful chase it seems that the catalyst for one of Le Tour’s greatest rides may have been little more than the petty jealousies of cycling’s greatest ever rider.
Eddy Merckx crosses the line at Mourenx at the end of his epic 130 kilometre solo breakaway
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