Change is the only constant. So theorised Heraclitus some 2,500 years ago but if one phrase could typify the 2015 Tour de France so far it would be this. Not only has the yellow jersey changed hands three times in as many days, with Etixx-Quickstep‘s Tony Martin now the latest proud wearer as race leader, but the weather has been equally unsettled. Scorching temperatures sizzled the peloton on stage 1’s short time trial before a storm blew in and blew apart the peloton on stage 2. One could even argue that the opening time trial saw a changing of the guard for this discipline with a young pretender, Rohan Dennis, stepping up to shoo the self styled “old lion” Fabian Cancellara from his kingdom. As the Tour de France prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its now iconic finish on the Champs-Élysées we look back to the 1975 Tour when the world witnessed a change in cycling hierarchy the like of which it had not seen before – and one which we are unlikely to see again.
Eddy Merckx is the greatest cyclist of all time. His palmarès (list of victories) has no equal. A select few could argue to have rivalled his achievement in specific areas of the sport, the same amount of Tour de France crowns or a similar breadth of success across the monuments, but Merckx excelled at every turn. His nickname was earned in reference to his irrepressible appetite for victory and heading in to the 1975 Tour de France having won the previous five editions he had deigned to enter, few would have bet against him winning a sixth.
And so, it seemed that Merckx’s inexorable charge to a record breaking sixth Tour de France was to once again be a formality. The Belgian cruised in to yellow after the first time trial of the race, displacing Francesco Moser, but from here things only went downhill. As the race headed towards its first rest day the riders were to tackle the Puy de Dôme, a tough climb in the Massif Central, and as they reached its finish line summit a spectator slipped from the crowd punching Merckx in the abdomen. Merckx, who was already languishing several seconds behind a rampant Bernard Thévenet, crossed the line shaken by both Frenchmen’s rather different attacks. This was to be the beginning of the end.
The Tour de France is revisiting the Col d’Allos–Pra Loup double-header for the 2015 edition, perhaps as a nod to the end of Merckx’s dominance in the race. 40 years ago the constantly aggressive Belgian, seemingly rejuvenated by the rest day, attacked on the former and after its tricky, winding descent had built a two minute advantage over a chasing group containing Thévenet at the foot of Pra Loup. What followed was an implosion. One by one the chasers caught and passed Merckx as his over exuberance on the earlier climbs bit back hard. Thévenet would win the stage and depose Merckx from the yellow jersey which he would never wear again.
The rest of the Tour only sought to add insult to injury. Thévenet soared to a second victory on the following stage padding his lead and on stage 17, after attacking from the gun, Merckx crashed on a slippery descent fracturing his cheekbone. Despite the injury, which affected both his ability to breathe and eat for the remainder of the race, Merckx clawed back a few seconds on the race leader here and there. However, it was not enough to deny the Frenchman rolling to a comfortable victory in Paris as the Champs-Élyseés made its debut in the race.
The 1975 Tour de France was a rather ignominious end to Eddy Merckx’s long love affair with the yellow jersey. Merckx can lay claim to an incomparable 34 stage victories in the race, 5 general classifications, 3 points classifications, 2 mountain classifications, 4 combativity awards and 5 combination classifications – a category now no longer used. We will never see his like again and as this year’s race tackles Pra Loup on stage 17 we should remember how this climb felled cycling’s Goliath whose sporting endeavours stand amongst the greatest.