Out of This World-
50 years ago this July, an event occurred that shook the cycling world. Having won the Tour de France the previous two years, along with other Grand Tours and multiple Spring Classics, Belgian great Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal, was the best rider on the planet. As the 1971 TdF got underway, he began the race in his usual style, attacking and quickly taking the yellow jersey. Stage 8 introduced the first mountains of the race, with a stage finish up the fearsome Puy de Dome, with its narrow road and 10% average grade. Space is so limited on this hill that it is no longer used in the Tour, to that race's detriment. On that day, Spaniard Luis Ocana was in the lead group with the top contenders. One of the most talented riders of the era, he had won the Tour of Spain and the Dauphine Libere and would later add a Tour win to his collection. Suddenly he bolted up the mountain and Merckx could not stay with him. He picked up only 15 seconds on the race leader by the summit but his acceleration gave him an idea
After Merckx lost a bit more time over the next few days (and the yellow jersey), recognizing that he may not be at full strength, Ocana, with a minute lead on the Belgian and one second behind the overall leader, made a critical decision. Stage 11 was only 134 kilometers long, but difficult with 3 major climbs along the way. The first on the route was the super steep Cote de Laffrey with its 10% average grade. Four superb climbers, Ocana, Joachim Agostinho, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien Van Impe, three of which were future TdF winners, quickly attacked and left Merckx. Many have speculated as to why this occurred. At times a slow starter, it may have been that the Belgian didn't think they could stay away. There were also rumors that he wasn't feeling well, a stomach issue, though Merckx has stated he was feeling fine. Regardless, he found himself down early in the stage. At the summit of the Laffrey, the four had opened up a two minute lead on the Cannibal. On the next climb, the Noyer, Ocana suddenly jumped up and flew away from the remainder of the small group, quickly opening up a big lead. If he did not realize it previously, at this point Merckx now knew there was a problem. For the next three hours he was to lead the chase in an effort to limit the damage, eventually catching the other 3 attackers with a heroic ride in his own right. Yet Ocana was nowhere in sight.
To realize the rarity of the situation, one needs a sense of how dominant Merckx was at that time. In addition to the last two TdFs he had won the Giro d'Italia twice and multiple major one day races over the same period. In fact, he won 1 of every 3 races he had entered since turning professional. It was the most dominant period of cycling by the most dominant cyclist of all time yet Merckx, with no help from the rest of the field, is still so strong he can catch three of the best riders of that era. However, even with the furious chase Ocana continued to increase his lead in dramatic fashion. Spinning his way up the final climb of the day to the Merlette ski area, he put additional time on all of the top contenders, winning the stage by almost six minutes over Van Impe. Only a small group of riders were able to hang on to Merckx for 3rd place. When the Belgian arrived at the final summit, Ocana had been waiting for him for almost 9 minutes. He had set such a pace, 61 cyclists finished outside the original time limit, leaving only 39 in the race. The time limit was consequently extended such that 58 more were allowed to start the next stage. The Spaniard had done the unimaginable, to put Eddy Merckx in deep distress with one of the greatest mountain rides in history, taking the yellow jersey in the process. Impressing former Tour de France winners, three time champion Louison Bobet who witnessed the drama first hand stated "That was a legendary stage, as good as any of Fausto Coppi's solo raids." Merckx himself said "...what Luis just did was extraordinary. He was superior to everyone."
Merckx rode hard and attacked the very next stage (after a much needed rest day) but he gained only two minutes by the time he reached the finish in Marseille. He then won the time trial around the town of Albi, but it was a short one so he struggled to make much more of a dent in Ocana's lead. The Pyrenees were coming up and the Spanish rider felt those steep mountains offered plenty of opportunity to put even more time on the Belgian. Alas it was not to be as tragedy seemed to follow him.
Stage 14 included three solid hills towards its end, the Portet d'Aspet, Col de Mente and the Portillon. The Belgian attacked repeatedly on the steep Mente but Ocana was able to follow each one. As the lead group came over the top it began to rain, gently at first but then the sky opened up into a deluge that included hail. Merckx attacked again but soon skidded around a tight turn on the way down and hit the pavement. He quickly resumed but Ocana, following close behind, ran into two spectators. As he tried to remount, he was hit hard by several riders. Badly hurt, he was helicoptered to a hospital, his Tour over. By day's end Merckx became the new leader, but out of respect for his rival he did not attend the ceremony at the conclusion of the stage. He even considered leaving the race, not wanting to take yellow due to Ocana's bad luck. Good sense and race director Jacques Goddet convinced him to continue. He compromised by refusing to wear the yellow jersey during the next day's stage.
History states that the 1971 Tour de France was won by the Cannibal, Eddy Merckx. No doubt he was the first to cross the finish line, by a wide margin, his 3rd in a row. But many who witnessed that race tell a different story. Who really knows what may have played out if Ocana had been able to continue but on Stage 11 at least he had placed huge time into the best rider in the world, putting that year's race into question, not only among cycling fans but in Merckx's mind as well. "I believed the Tour was lost," said Merckx some years later. "That thing Ocana did, it was out of this world."
John Summerson is the author of "The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike in California"
PJAMM Cycling note:
I would like to personally thank John Summerson for contributing another interesting, historical and informative post to our blog. As many of you know by reading PJAMM Cycling's About page, and many other pages on the site, I have enormous respect and admiration for John. John Summerson got me started on traveling to climb by bike around the US and if it was not for his outstanding book series on cycling climbing in the US, there would be no PJAMM Cycling.
John Johnson | Founder & CEO | PJAMM Cycling