The late sixties and early seventies wasn’t a great time to be a serious contender in the Tour de France, or the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España for that matter. The reason being that Eddy Merckx decided to completely dominate the sport and prevent anyone else from coming close. With wins in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972, it became a real pain for any cyclist looking to make a name for themselves, as Merckx’s wins were so ferocious and consistent. To add fuel to the fire that was the angry competitors and non-Belgian fans, Merckx had already won the 1973 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. At the top of his game, Merckx decided to not enter the Tour that year to avoid angry French fans, as it would’ve only disrupted his race.
So in 1973, at the start line in Scheveningen, Netherlands, the once dominated race was now finally open to a small group of contenders who’d sat back in second, third and forth place the previous years. Luis Ocaña, Raymond Poulidor, Joop Zoetemelk and Cyrille Guimard were finally in with a fair chance to race for the jersey.
Out of all of these cyclists, it was only Luis Ocaña who stood a real chance of taking first place on the podium, having given Merckx a good challenge in the previous years. But it wasn’t going to be an easy ride, there were several factors riding against Luis Ocaña, such as the fact that his team manager, Maurice de Muer, was threatening to drop the entire squad if they didn’t all join together and work for Ocaña. On top of this, although retrospectively a freak accident, Ocaña accidentally got caught up in a crash with a stray dog that collided with the peloton.
As Ocaña was now in a team with tension, he knew he, as well as the rest of the team, would have to pull together to take victory. As a result of this, Ocaña couldn’t make any fast bursts or risky sprints, so he played his cards carefully, and chose to attack on the mountain stages.
The style of attack wasn’t aggressive, but careful and well-planned. Strategically lined up against the changing terrain, it was this sort of effort that could really make an effect on the race. He ended up leaving challenger Joop Zoetemelk behind him and escaped the threat of Bernard Thévenet, as he suffered a crash.
The final stages of the race were a one on one battle between José-Manuel Fuente and Luis Ocaña, which resulted in a 20 kilometre ascent towards the finish line in one stage, and a slow crawl in another. With the peloton tired, the riders willing to step up, rode on with courageous effort and slowing pace. In the end, Luis Ocaña had a whole 10 minutes on Fuente and finished the tour off in style.
He didn’t just win because Merckx was a no-show; he won because he was so much better than the riders in second and third place. A new era in cycling had begun.