This year's Tour
de France was a man-eater. Everyone sensed it from the beginning. Twenty-four
hundred miles in 20 uneven laps—more than half of them in rugged mountains,
some of which had not been included in the Tour for nearly a decade. Blinding
rain, biting cold and deadly mudslides, followed by suffocating heat, tortuous
ascents and 55 mph downhill runs. The race was planned beforehand to separate
the men from the boys—but the results must have softened the most calculating
hearts. When it was over, more than a third of Europe's finest cyclists,
including the redoubtable Spaniard Luis Oca�a, had given up. At one point Roger
Pingeon, winner of the 1967 Tour and captain of the Peugeot-B.P.-Michelin team,
said: "I'm just too scared to go on. I nearly missed two bends in the
sprint down the mountain because of mud and rain. It's not worth it."
Of the 139
cyclists who set off from Angers on July 2, a frazzled 88 sprinted into Paris
last Sunday. One of the race doctors called it "the Tour of the crippled
and lame." Added an exhausted British racer: "We felt like the Light
Brigade coming back from Balaklava."
the head of the Brigade, confident and unflappable as ever, rode World Champion
Eddy Merckx (SI, July 24). He won laughing, an astounding 10 minutes and 41
seconds ahead of Felice Gimondi of Italy. It was the unbeatable Belgian's
fourth Tour de France victory in a row, tying Jacques Anquetil's record. The
triumph of Merckxism is definitive. The much-heralded battle with the
revenge-obsessed Oca�a did not materialize. Dogged by bad luck in the Tour
(falls in '69 and '71, hemorrhoids in '70, bronchitis this year), the Spaniard
collapsed in mid-race, having already pushed himself beyond endurance for the
sake of his team's morale.
fragile constitution and inadequate racing schedule this year left him without
reserves to fall back upon in the Tour. However, his "principal
mistake," said the Spanish press, "is to belong to the Merckx
generation." The same could be said for his colleagues. In any event,
Merckx' so-called lucky victory in last year's Tour, when the front-running
Oca�a fell off his bike and out of the race, was not avenged this time. Au
contraire, it was rubbed in.
was all the more convincing because it was won in a Tour that many felt was
planned specifically without his interests in mind—and with Oca�a's. The French
have often said that climbing is not a Merckx superspecialty compared, say,
with running sprints against the clock. So the Tour this year (laid out, as
always, by France's leading sports journal, L'Equipe) was as studded with hills
and mountains as a ham with cloves. And it included only three timed individual
sprints. Poor Merckx.
Eddy," a nickname he got for his "insatiable appetite for
victories," took no notice. He won all the sprints, placed a close second
in the grand prize for mountain cycling and took three of the remaining awards.
"Merckx grabs up every trophy in sight," complained French cyclist
Cyrille Guimard. "He takes all the fun and suspense out of cycling,"
moaned a French journalist. But the best put-down came from the mouth of a
child. After a recent minor race that Merckx felt compelled to add to his
collection—and did—the six-year-old daughter of the second-place finisher
confronted Eddy with the unspeakable words which were on everyone's mind:
"Monsieur Le Cannibale, why don't you ever let my daddy win a
Aside from Oca�a,
the only racer who really gave Merckx a run for his maillot jaune (the yellow
jersey worn by whoever has the overall lead) was the 25-year-old Guimard. In
their own best of all possible Tours, Oca�a and Guimard could have looked
forward to a leisurely battle for the lead. As it was, the rigors of the '72
race and the omnipresence of the Merckx machine broke both of them, Oca�a
quitting on the 14th lap, Guimard on the 18th.
Still, the French
press went into raptures about n�tre Cyrille, singing of his "Breton
audacity" and crowning him Dauphin to Roi Eddy. It was well-deserved
praise: the unheralded Guimard performed prodigies of expert cycling, beating
Merckx on at least two occasions—the sixth and seventh laps—when the world
champion was trying all-out. More than once, Cyrille's astounding showing on
mountainous terrain (he's known primarily as a flatland sprinter) gave the
stoic Merckx "fits of pique."
But the pressure
was too great, and Guimard cracked at his weakest point: his right knee. Having
lost the maillot jaune back to Merckx on the eighth lap when the Belgian
outdistanced him by over two and a half minutes in one phenomenal dash up the
4,800-foot Peyresourde, Guimard wore himself out trying to recapture the lead.
By the 12th lap he developed an inflammation in his knee. It got steadily worse
in spite of medical treatment, and novocain injections did not dispel the pain.
Guimard plugged on against his doctor's and coach's judgment because of the
catastrophic effect his quitting would have on his team's share of the prize
money. After having won four laps and having held first or second place for
two-thirds of the Tour, he collapsed eight miles into the 18th lap. At that
point he was eight minutes behind Merckx. Nonetheless, his courage and skill
were impressive enough to assure the Breton the captaincy of a team in next
year's Tour as well as many profitable endorsements.
brought countryman Raymond Poulidor, 36, probably the world's most frustrated
and most popular cyclist, into second, more than 10 long minutes behind Merckx
but a scant four seconds ahead of the hard-riding Gimondi. The last three laps
of the Tour saw Poulidor's desperate attempt to stave off Gimondi, but to no
avail. The Italian poured it on in the last lap to overtake him. Pou-Pou, as
his fans call him, has been racing in Tours de France since the Anquetil days
(1957-64) but in spite of his excellent showings (usually second place), he has
never worn the maillot jaune for a single day. Some feel he is just too nice,
and they may well be correct. This year, for example, Pou-Pou steadfastly and
honorably refrained from passing his teammate, the ailing Guimard, who limped
along a minute or so ahead, even though he could easily have done so. In such
an extraordinarily punishing race as the '72 Tour, Poulidor surprised everyone
with his freshness and vigor. The way he battled Gimondi in the final 26-mile
sprint to Paris was reminiscent of his triumph earlier this year in the
Paris-Nice race where another of his last-minute mad dashes snatched victory
from the great Merckx himself.