A Rich History of Badgers, Pirates & Cannibals: Epic Tales of the Tour de France

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Christophe’s Heavy Hammer

While he never won a Tour, Eugene Christophe competed in the Tour de France eleven times, finishing eight. He’s best known for two things: The first to wear the Yellow Jersey and for welding his bike back together in the midst of a Tour stage. The latter made him a legend. In 1913 Christophe was descending the Tourmalet, the highest pass in the Pyrenees, when he lost the ability to steer. His fork broke.  He carried his bike over ten kilometers to a village at Ste-Marie-de-Campan. At the time, the rules of the Tour dictated each rider must complete the route independently, with all repairs done solely by the rider. At the village he found a blacksmith shop and proceeded to repair the damage. Three hours and fifty minutes later, he completed the remaining 60 kilometers of the stage, finishing in seventh place. Christophe was actually penalized an additional ten minutes because a boy helped pump the bellows during the weld, but this was later reduced to three.

After the war Christophe competed in the 1919 Tour de France. Due to a shortage in dye, many of the teams wore grey colored jerseys. It was suggested that the leader wear a different color so officials and spectators could tell them apart from the other cyclists.  Much to the chagrin of Christophe, since spectators were reported to have made fun of him for looking like a canary – the Yellow Jersey was born.

 

Bartali’s Epic Mountain Stages

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Never mind the fact that Gino Bartali transported secret documents for the Italian Resistance in the seat tube of his bicycle during World War II. Or kept a Jewish family safe from Nazi persecution by hiding them in his cellar. Never mind all that.  No, wait – that’s actually pretty important so, don’t forget it. But, getting back to the Tour: Bartali is credited with ushering in the Golden Age of Cycling with his ongoing rival, Fausto Coppi. The two would actually divide Italy into two factions: Bartaliani & Coppiani. The result was many epic races and a lot of intense media coverage.

In 1948 it had been ten years since Bartali’s last Tour victory and he was not expected to do well. He won the first stage sprint, but failed to maintain the lead during the following stages.  On July 14th, Bartali was thinking about calling it quits when he received a phone call from the Prime Minister of Italy, Alcide De Gasperi. The call was in reference to a recent assassination attempt on the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti. The potential division and civil unrest of the country was at a tipping point and Gasperi wanted a distraction. The distraction would require Bartali to do better. After the phone call, Bartali went on to win three consecutive mountain stages (a new record) and ultimately prevail in seven stages en route to overall victory at the 1948 Tour de France. Fifty years later, Mario Cipollini would beat Bartali’s three stage win by winning four consecutive sprint stages in the 1999 Tour de France. But, we’ll get to him soon enough.

 

The Reign of Anquetil

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Jacques Anquetil was only 23 when he won the Tour de France in ’57. Despite multiple attacks in the Pyrenees and grabbing the wrong musette bag, where instead of finding semolina and fruit for energy, found only iced tea, Anquetil still managed to win by a margin of fifteen minutes. He would go on to dominate the Tour from 1961 to 1964, becoming the first cyclist to win the Tour de France five times, with the ’61 Tour being the most famous where, coming straight off the Giro d’Italia, Anquetil made it his goal to not only win the Tour de France, but seize the yellow jersey on the first day and wear it all the way to Paris – which he did.

 

The Cannibal

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If Jacques Anquetil set new records and standards for racing, Eddy Merckx shattered them, gobbled them up and kept on riding. By the time Eddy Merckx won the 1969 Tour de France, he was barely 25 and had already accumulated a laundry list of wins: The Giro, Milan-San Remo (3 times thus far), Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and the professional World Championship title to name a few. And while he was unable to break Anquetil’s Tour record of five overall victories, he was still able to match it – all the while breaking new records in the process. All total, Merckx holds 525 career victories, with the following going towards the Tour:

  • Most stage victories at 34.
  • Most days in the yellow jersey at 96.
  • The only cyclist to win the general classification, points classification and mountains classification in the same tour.

In addition to those records, he also shares the most stage victories in one Tour with Charles Pelissier and Freddy Maertens, the most victories in a single classic at 7 (Milan-San Remo), and the most victories in the Grand Tours collectively at 11.

Nuff said. Actually, I could (and should) go on about Merckx, but we’ve a lot of ground to cover and there’s not a whole lot to say on Merckx that hasn’t been said already. The guy’s an animal…I mean, Cannibal.

 

The Badger

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He once punched a farmer. He also rode to victory with a broken nose and two black eyes. Some say he gets his name from his aggressive riding style. Bernard “The Badger” Hinault said the animal has nothing to do with it. Like so many professional cyclists, Hinault’s career is part recorded history and part myth. His rivalry with Greg LeMond inspired the book “Slaying the Badger”. You can’t talk about Hinault without talking about LeMond. But regardless of what you think of the guy, he still won the Tour de France five times and he’s the only rider to finish either first or second in every Tour de France he finished.

 

Greg LeMond

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Currently the only American to win the Tour de France, (Yep, I said it. That’s the consensus view as of 2017) Greg LeMond was only nineteen years old when he started racing professionally. Talented and ambitious from the very beginning, he competed in his first Tour de France in 1984, winning the young rider classification and white jersey that goes along with it.

Enter the Badger. In ’85 LeMond signs to La Vie Claire in support of the team captain, Bernard Hinault, who was attempting his fifth Tour win. It was understood that if LeMond were to help Hinault win his fifth, Hinault would help LeMond win the following year. But a sixth win for the Badger would be a historical, record breaking win. One of the most historic races of all time, the 1986 Tour de France defined LeMond as a force to be reckoned with and the only rider capable of taking down The Badger. Oh, and did I mention he was shot in 1987 and nearly died from his gunshot wounds? Hunting accident. No big deal. With shotgun pellets still in his body, he recovered and would eventually go on to win the Tour de France in 1989 and then again in 1990.

 

The Pirate

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His shaved head, bandana and earring earned him the nickname “Il Pirata”. A fan favorite and natural born climber, Marco Pantani was the last to win the Giro and Tour in the same year. While his later career was shrouded in doping allegations and an untimely and tragic death, Pantani was beloved by those who loved the sport and credited for inspiring a new generation of fans.

 

Super Mario

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Mario Cipollini, aka The Lion King, aka Super Mario, is quite possibly the most charismatic cyclist of all time. Known for wearing garish, custom made skin suits and antagonizing his opponents by deliberately withdrawing prior to the mountain stages (even going as far as taking photos of himself lounging on the beach while others suffered it out in the mountains), Cipollini was one of the sport’s fastest sprinters and in 1999 set a post-WWII record for most consecutive stage wins for a total of four, beating out Gino Bartali’s 1948 record.

 

Joop Zoetemelk

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An impressive and unusual career, Joop Zoetemelk is best known for holding the record for most Tours completed with a total of sixteen. His first Tour de France was in 1970, finishing in second place behind Eddy Merckx. He repeated the second place win behind Merckx yet again the following year. Then a series of additional second place wins would follow in 76, ’78, and ’79. He would place fourth in ’73 and ’75, and place fifth in 1972. After many years battling for first place, Zoetemelk would finally get his chance in 1980, when the reigning champion, Bernard Hinault, would abandon the Tour due to a knee injury. With Hinault out, the win for Zoetemelk was all but certain.

 

 

Big Mig

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It has been noted that Miguel Indurain’s physiology is genetically superior to yours and mine, with his lungs having the capacity to accept twice the amount of oxygen your average human being is capable of accepting. His resting heart rate is 28 beats per minute – meaning, he’s essentially sleeping when he’s not racing. So, when he’s sitting in a chair and eating a banana, he’s also sleeping. He’s also a big man, standing at six feet, two inches tall, which is interesting because “big” is not traditionally the physical trait desired in climbing mountain passes. Patience and the ability to reserve energy until those final efforts were most needed is how Indurain would win. He excelled at time trials and used this to his advantage. But whereas some, like Mario Cipollini, would avoid the mountain stages, Indurain would hold steady and stay in the pack.

Indurain’s place in history started at the top of the Pyrenees during the 1991 Tour de France. Greg LeMond was the Tour favorite and reigning champion, holding the Yellow Jersey for most of the beginning stages. On the Tourmalet climb during Stage 13, LeMond started to show signs of fatigue and Indurain broke away, with Claudio Chiappucci in pursuit. The two would help each other climb and finish the stage, with Chiappucci taking the stage win and Indurain taking his first yellow jersey. The rest is history. Currently, Indurain holds the record for most consecutive Tour wins, from 1991 to 1995. Unlike other cyclists, whose egos are often part of the drama and charm that go into the Tour de France, Miguel Indurain was quite humble during his years as a professional cyclist. And when it came time to retire, he did so quietly, taking his five consecutive victories along with him.

14 thoughts on “A Rich History of Badgers, Pirates & Cannibals: Epic Tales of the Tour de France

  1. “…with the ’61 Tour being the most infamous where, coming straight off the Giro d’Italia, Anquetil made it his goal to not only win the Tour de France…”

    Infamous is not the right word here. Famous is. Infamous means “sinister” or “known for some bad quality or deed.” The two words are antonyms, not synonyms.
    Anquetil was famous for winning the Giro and wearing the yellow jersey for every stage in the 1961 Tour de France.

    1. You are correct and thank you for catching this error. The article has since been updated. Jacques Anquetil led an interesting life, where infamous would not be out of the question in describing his career or character. However, the notable facts that make him infamous go beyond the scope of the article.

    1. Lance is a real hero. It’s a shame what the UCI did to spoil his legacy just because they don’t want Americans to wear their precious Yellow Jersey.

      1. It’s like the current administration here in the US. If you have nothing to hide, then don’t hide it. But as we all know, he DID DO IT! Just like Pete Rose., who denied for years that he had gambled on baseball, but in the end admitted it. Armstrong admitted to doping. Just like Vinokurov. TO continue to glorify him as a straight-shooting Texan hero is perplexing and disappointing.

      2. Lance Armstrong was one of the worst villains the sport has ever seen. He took doping to a new level and sent his attack lawyers after anyone who told the truth about him, essentially ending their careers. He constantly attacked our greatest Cycling hero, Greg Lemond. Then he started a foundation to make himself look like more of a golden boy and jet set around the globe. He was much more like Hillary Clinton.

    2. Armstrong did not make the Tour famous, it was always that. Lance made me and I am sure millions of others watch every dam moment of every stage. I loved the guy. LiveStrong! Never give up!

  2. Great article. Regarding the comments about Lance, he will always be an inspiration to those fighting cancer, but his cycling legacy was undone by his own behavior more than the doping. For more than half of the Tour’s history, doping was legal. After it was banned, it continued. I recall reading about a rider saying on television when asked if he doped, something like, “only when necessary, which is almost always.” Much like NASCAR drivers and team mechanics, riders caught would take their punishment and race again. Even Merckx was suspended for doping. Lance attacked the UCI and tried to ruin reputations and careers of his accusers, then in effect said, Never mind, it was all true. It’s sad because he was an amazing athlete.

    1. What you state here is 110% ( OK 100% ) True! I could not agree with you more. But when Armstrong raced, I still say those Tours the most exciting . Remember when that rider from Spain I believe crashed, due to the pavement melting from the heat. Lance jumped off the bike, carried it on his shoulder across that open field and got back on the other side to avoid the crash? Which by the way is aloud by tour rules and I believe he won that stage. Years later they retraced the path he took across that field with Yellow tiles when they used that route again. Yes, he doped, they ALL Doped. That’s why they declared no winner for all the years Armstrong won. Sadly, there are those who still cheat. Now besides drugs there putting electric motors in the bikes. You have to say ,they keep things interesting!

      1. He actually rode his bike through the field then carried it for a few yards! It’s still one of the all-time highlights of the tour. It’s a shame Joseba Beloki’s career was pretty much over after that crash.

    2. Rod–well said and exactly how I feel. It was not the fact of his doping, it was the he reacted to destroy everyone around him while denying he did it.

  3. Great review of the tour’s greatest champions. Makes me want to go out for a ride right now! Lance is indeed a dirtbag for what he did. In addition to the list of things already mentioned, look what he did to American cycling in general. He helped to set it back years, at least as far as competitors in the Tour de France. Check the number of American entrants and where they are in the standings.

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