The Tour de France has long had a penchant for venerating its own history. And that is even more the case now that La Grand Boucle has passed the 100-year mark. One of the highlights of this 102nd edition comes this Wednesday, when the Tour ventures into the southern Alps, after Tuesday’s rest day—with a rare stage finish to Pra Loup. A modest ski resort that peaks at an equally modest 1,620 meters, Pra Loup rarely is honored by a Tour de France finish. But 40 year ago marked one of the race’s most epic days, when an up-and-coming Bernard Thevenet upset the great Eddy Merckx.
Words & images: James Startt
From: Gap, France
Until that day, the rider known as The Cannibal, appeared unbeatable. After all, the five-time winner was wearing the yellow jersey, and an unprecedented sixth Tour de France was within reach. What no one knew, was that Merckx would have a rare moment of weakness in the final kilometres to Pra Loup. And the impasse would prove fatal.
“Merckx having a bad day didn’t exist!” recalls Thevenet. “Who would have known!”
“Honestly when I won on Pra Loup, I didn’t think people would be talking about it 40 years later. It’s strange, that day really marked the public,” Thevenet said before the start of stage 14 this year.
But while Thevenet is surprised at the historical resonance of the day, he remembers the stage like yesterday. “For me it was a complicated day. Eddy had taken a minute out of me on the descent of the Col d’Allos. As a result, I attacked Pra Loup with rage. In front of me there was Merckx, Lucien Van Impe, and there was Felice Gimondi. From the foot of the climb, there are only seven kilometres to the summit. I just gave it everything. Then suddenly I saw the Molteni team car in front and I understood I was catching Merckx. At first I thought that I’d just be able to finish with Eddy. I had no way of knowing he was having a bad day. I remember that I caught him on this turn. He was on the inside and I passed him on the outside so he wouldn’t get my wheel. Then I just focused on chasing down Felice. I hadn’t yet won a stage yet, so I really wanted to get the stage win. When I caught Gimondi, I just sprinted by him. The last kilometer, was so long. When I finished, my soigneur told me I had won the jersey too. I just responded, “No you’re wrong. That’s impossible!” I didn’t know that Eddy had died, that he’d lost nearly two minutes in a kilometer and a half.”
Thevenet went on to win his first of two Tours de France that year.
Aérogramme powered by @quarq #knowyourpowers
This year the Tour will cover much of the same stage in honor of that historic day in 1975. “It’s a big wink back to that day,” says Thierry Gouvenou, Tour de France race director.
“It’s funny, Pra Loup is not difficult,” says Thevenet. “What makes it difficult is the Col d’Allos before. The Col d’Allos is 25 kilometers long. And then the descent is very long and very technical and fast. As a result, there is no time to recuperate. So you hit the foot of Pra Loup after nearly an hour and a half effort.”
Thevenet, who grew up in a small farming community fittingly named Le Guidon, or the handlebar, as it was little more than a “T” in the road, loosely shaped as a handlebar. “I rode my bike to school and then a couple of my friends started racing, and I got into it.”
But despite his modest beginnings, Thevenet became a national hero when he befelled Merckx. Looking ever fit, the 67-year-old continues to ride “when it’s sunny,” and works for ASO, the Tour organizer. Participating in his 43rd Tour, Thevenet is respected for his analytical eye, and generally appreciated for his gracious company. “I still love it,” Thevenet says. “The Tour is the time to meet old friends, old teammates and old rivals. It doesn’t matter, we are all bitten by the bug.”
An avid fan, Thevenet say he sees a little bit of himself in up-and-coming French rider Romain Bardet. “He is a real attacker. He gives it everything he’s got,” says Thevenet.
Fittingly, Bardet won the stage to Pra Loup in the recent Dauphine Criterium, a key warm-up race to the Tour de France in June. On that day Bardet attacked the leaders on the summit of the Col d’Allos and exploited the technical descent to gain time on the his rivals, before powering to victory on the final climb up to Pra Loup. Behind, American Tejay Van Garderen managed to drop Christorpher Froome in the closing meters. For many watching, the stage was an exciting appetizer for the stage 16 in this year’s Tour. For some it could even be provident.
Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.