History of the Tour de France: Lucien Van Impe wins the biggest prize

Lucien Van Impe may be the greatest climber in Tour history, but in 1976 he swapped his polka dot jersey for yellow, making the difference on a stage that the 2022 Tour will replicate on stage 17 tomorrow .

Words Gilles Belbin Photo The Team

For 1976, the organizers of the Tour de France took the Grand Départ to Merlin-Plage, just south of the Vendée seaside resort of Saint-Jean-de-Monts.

Among the 130 starters who gathered for the first leg of the 4,017km race were four of the top five from the previous year.

The defending champion, Bernard Thévenet, was back, accompanied by Lucien Van Impe, Joop Zoetemelk and Vicente López Carril.

The missing man? It was Eddy Merckx. The rider who dominated cycling for so long is injured and heading into the final chapters of his career.

Most observers had Thévenet and Zoetemelk as favourites, but Van Impe also had a pedigree.

Possibly the greatest climber to ever turn a pedal on the Tour – he would win six mountain classification awards and once claimed the only reason he didn’t take more was out of respect for Federico Bahamontes, the great Spanish climber who has achieved six Tour mountain titles himself – Van Impe entered the race as the leader of the Gitane team.

With two final podium places under his belt, he was considered to have a legitimate chance of victory, even if it was on the outside.

With more than 90km of individual time trials ahead of him, Van Impe had spent the winter riding against the clock, aware that time gained in the mountains could all too easily be lost in TT.

His team had also experienced a change of direction, Cyrille Guimard taking over from Jean Stablinski, bringing with him another atmosphere to the team.

“Last year I had two valuable teammates, Alain Santy and Mariano Martinez,” Van Impe said before the race, “but they weren’t fit for the Tour. The team lacked cohesion.

“Under Guimard’s direction, that changes… for the first time, I’m entering the Tour to win it.”

Ultimately, Van Impe’s relationship with Guimard would almost disintegrate in Paris.

The Tour takes place in the Pyrenees

The opening week was ruled by Tour rookie Freddy Maertens, who won four of the first nine stages, spent the first ten days in yellow and would finish in green in Paris. Then the race reached the Alps with a summit finish in Alpe d’Huez.

It was only the second time the race had visited the now legendary climb, Fausto Coppi having first scaled its 21 hairpins en route to a famous victory in 1952.

Today, 24 years later, Van Impe went pedaling with Zoetemelk to the top, with neither man able to land the knockout blow.

Zoetemelk took the stage win on the line, while Van Impe took yellow. Thévenet meanwhile took eighth place and is now 1 minute 48 seconds behind Van Impe overall.

His sporting director at Peugeot, Maurice de Muer, was indifferent: “We think that it is in the Pyrenees that the Tour will be played.

De Muer was right, although by the time the race reached its final stage, a lot had changed. Thévenet had fallen ill, but his teammate Raymond Delisle had taken the lead after attacking on the 2000 Pyrenees stage.

This decision had apparently been taken following the suggestion of none other than Guimard, who had wanted to lose responsibility for the yellow jersey for a few days.

When a furious Van Impe then confronted his sporting director, Guimard simply told his rider to leave the race if he didn’t like the way he was handling things.

Two days later, the stage that De Muer predicted would be crucial – 139 km from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan (a stage that the 2022 Tour will largely reproduce on stage 17 en route to Peyragudes) in covering four major climbs, including a summit finish at Pla d’Adet.

A cartoon by the great cycling illustrator René Pellos in the post-Tour issue of Cycling Mirror perfectly caricatured of what happened that day.

It shows Van Impe wringing out his rivals after plunging them into a giant bathtub filled with foam bearing the names of the mountains they climbed that day.

Guimard and Louis Caput, the sporting director of Zoetemelk in Gan-Mercier, face off while, at the very top, the image of Van Impe is carved like Mount Rushmore in the Pyrenean peak behind, under the gaze of a Merckx covered with clouds.

The exact events of that day remain subject to conjecture. The final point came 80km from the finish when Van Impe broke away from the group of favorites to follow a move by Luis Ocaña. But who had the idea for Van Impe to attack then?

Guimard is quoted in Ed Pickering’s book, The yellow jersey clublike having to implore journalists to Het Volk drive up to Van Impe and tell him in Flemish that “if he doesn’t start riding he’s gonna lose the Tour, the idiot”, after Van Impe initially hesitates to chase.

For his part, Van Impe reportedly said he always knew he could take the jersey on this stage, simply reflecting that “Guimard always takes credit for it”.

Argue all the way

Who or whatever prompted Van Impe to launch this attack, the move worked. After reaching the breakaway group for the first time, he then closed in on Ocaña, who worked with the Belgian before falling.

That left Van Impe taking the stage victory more than three minutes behind Zoetemelk, who had remained behind the wheel of Delisle, betting that the yellow jersey would eventually bring him back to the front of the race.

But Delisle didn’t have the legs and the day ended with Van Impe back in yellow.

The jersey will remain on the Belgian’s shoulders until Paris, although this is not the end of the drama as a team.

On the Puy de Dôme stage, Zoetemelk’s last chance to take yellow, Van Impe had to chase every movement himself after an argument with Guimard over the cans.

Van Impe was reportedly so incandescent at being left to his own devices that he threatened to quit the race despite being in yellow and days away from Paris.

His wife, Rita, had to travel to France to convince her husband to apologize and move on.

In the end, Van Impe’s final margin in Paris was over four minutes. He remains the last Belgian to win the Tour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he changed teams in 1977.

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