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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."
Nonetheless, at 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.
Oca�a's somewhat 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.
Merckx' victory 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.
But "Cannibal 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 race?"
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.
Guimard's ruin 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.