What are the most memorable Tour de France stages of all time?
Originally published on VeloNews.com. Republished with permission.
It is a vexed and vexing question. The greatest Tour de France stage of all time — where do you start? Should we — can we — regard individual stages in isolation, divorced from context?
Knowing how difficult this would be, I did not set out to collect the “greatest” stages in my new book, Étape. Instead I sought out the most fascinating, extraordinary, quirky, mysterious, terrible, controversial, exciting, and scandalous — a collection of adjectives that sum up the Tour de France.
Still, the selection process proved an interesting challenge. Do you automatically include the best stage from a great Tour? Can there be a brilliant stage in an average Tour?
By general consensus, the 2008 race was not a classic, yet Carlos Sastre’s win at l’Alpe d’Huez was a masterpiece of timing and tactics, and it won the unassuming Spaniard his Tour.
And how much time should we allow before declaring a stage “great”? Last year’s Tour featured three that might be candidates: stage 9 to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, when Garmin-Sharp waged guerrilla warfare and Sky fell apart; stage 13 in the crosswinds to Saint-Amand-Montrond; and stage 18 to L’Alpe d’Huez.
There is a risk, though, of succumbing to “best ever album”-itis, a condition that sees disproportionate representation of relatively recent releases, producing anomalies like Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” ahead of anything by the Beatles.
Another challenge presents itself when it comes to doping. When it comes to the Tour and doping, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.
It is difficult to erase memories of dramatic stages whose results have been subsequently revised, but how many remain in the record books that should be revised? If they live in the memory, it seems a little absurd to airbrush them from lists or books. OK, Riccardo Riccò might be unlikely to make the cut, but how about Floyd Landis’ ride to Morzine in 2006?
Then there’s Lance Armstrong, and the seven Tours that didn’t happen. Included in those were stages such as Luz Ardiden in 2003, when Armstrong was brought down by a child’s musette, and there was the controversy over whether Ullrich waited or not. It was a dramatic stage, and the drama owed nothing (overtly) to doping.
Here, anyway, are the “memorable” modern stages I ended up choosing for Étape. I decided to restrict it to the (arbitrarily defined) modern era, so the earliest is 1971. Part of the reason for this was another challenge I set for myself: to procure a new interview with the main protagonist(s).
Let the debate begin.
- Chris Boardman vs. Miguel Indurain in the 1994 Tour’s prologue time trial. “Everybody went for a three-week race,” said Boardman. “I went for seven minutes.”
- What’s not to love about Bernard Hinault and a rain-lashed, muddy, freezing, and — at the end — dark stage of the 1980 Tour with almost as much pavé as Paris-Roubaix? Conditions were so terrible that Hinault tried to neutralize it. When TI-Raleigh team disobeyed the order, Hinault told me, he thought, “Right — this is war. They wanted to play? They were going to lose.” And inevitably, they did.
- Armentières: 1994 again, and the bunch sprint at the end of stage 2 ended in horror when Wilfried Nelissen collided with a policeman. These days, Nelissen’s work regularly takes him to Armentières, but that doesn’t bring up bad memories. “There is nothing for me to forget,” he said, “because I don’t remember anything.”
- 1989: stage 6 to Futuroscope. A long, boring stage into a headwind. It promised little. Then, little-known Joël Pelier attacked with 180km left and held them off. The real emotional punch came at the finish, when, in floods of tears, Pelier realized his parents had made a last-minute decision to drive across France to Futuroscope — the first time his mother had ever seen him race, owing to the fact that Pelier’s disabled brother required full-time care.
- Aubenas, stage 19, 2009: a hilly stage won by the fastest sprinter of his — and perhaps any — generation in a Tour that saw Mark Cavendish at the zenith of his powers. “Nobody could get near me,” he said.
- It was 1995, but the memory is as vivid as the stain that could be seen darkening the road. It was a damp patch, a small puddle emanating from a stricken rider’s head, expanding on the asphalt as riders sprinted past, rubber-necking at 45 mph to catch a glimpse of the figure on the road. He was lying on his side, knees curled to his chest in the fetal position. It was Fabio Casartelli, who died while being air-lifted to hospital. It was stage 18, three days later, won by Casartelli’s team-mate, Lance Armstrong, that I selected for the book. Armstrong would go on to cause a lot of heartbreak, but his win in Limoges, “for Fabio,” was heartbreaking for very different reasons. “I was possessed,” said Armstrong.
- The Dutch Cold War had been simmering for years — a bitter rivalry between Jan Raas and Peter Post. It played out between their teams, Buckler and Panasonic and came to a head in farcical fashion on the road to Montluçon on stage 17 of the 1992 Tour.
- Asking Eddy Merckx to pick the best of his 34 stage wins, he frowned: “There are a lot.” There are, so I picked three, the extraordinary trilogy of stages that defined the 1971 Tour and his battle with Luis Ocaña.
- The Colombians had been coming, and in 1984, on stage 17 to L’Alpe d’Huez, Luis Herrera arrived. While Hinault and Fignon duked it out on the lower slopes, this bird-like climber flew to a win that sent his country into raptures, and led to the Colombian stock exchange suspending operations for half an hour.
- A lesser known stage, but one where the script was ripped up: stage 19 of the 1987 Tour, to Villard-de-Lans, where the new yellow jersey, Jean-François Bernard, was the victim of an ambush — one from which he maybe never recovered.
- Claudio Chiappucci, Sestriere, 1992: one of the greatest, most unbelievable, almost shocking, exploits in Tour history. You can read this chapter in full on VeloNews.com.
- More shock and awe: stage 15 of the most infamous Tour, 1998, the year of the Festina affair. Yet this was an epic stage to Les Deux Alpes, won by Marco Pantani. When Pantani attacked on the Col du Galibier, Bobby Julich remembers, “He goes about 15 pedal strokes and then he turns around and looks back, and he has this smile on his face. I’ll never forget it. This smile.”
- The Tour always includes at least one rest day. They are rarely noteworthy, so I thought I’d include one that was, from 1991, when Urs Zimmermann opted to make his own travel arrangements for the rest day transfer, with unforeseen consequences.
- Who holds the record for the largest ever margin of victory after a solo breakaway? An obscure Spaniard, that’s who. It was stage 11 in 1976, and the circumstances were misreported at the time. And so José Luis Viejo, who arrived in Manosque 22 minutes ahead of the peloton, was keen to set the record straight.
- One of the great characters of the Tour, Freddy Maertens, won many stages, but one was particularly special to him — stage 3 to Narbonne in 1981. Why? “I liked winning by the sea,” he told me.
- “It was a little boy,” Lance Armstrong says, “probably a 10- or 11-year-old kid, whose parents had bought a commemorative musette from the concession stand. And he was kinda flapping it back and forth, and he timed it just right, caught my handlebars, and down I go. The kid must have had a firm grip. He was, like, ‘Look, I don’t wanna lose this thing!’” This was the aforementioned stage to Luz Ardiden in 2003, which saw Armstrong fall, get back up, and win, fueled by anger and adrenaline (as well as everything else).
- Sometimes the drama in the mountains comes at the back of the race, in the gruppetto. I knew of one such day, in 2010, when they tackled the Circle of Death in the Pyrenees, and Mark Cavendish, ill and exhausted, reached his limit.
- Andy Schleck — remember him? His win on the Col du Galibier in 2011 owed a lot to a plan that even his own teammate, Maxime Monfort, dismissed as “Playstation cycling.”
- David Millar’s win in Annonay in 2012, at the end of stage 12, will not feature in many “best-ofs,” but for what it represented to him, and to his sport, it was significant. No stage winner had ever opened his press conference with: “I am an ex-doper.”
- The closest Tour of all time, and arguably the greatest, was 1989. It is remembered mainly for the final stage: the 24.5km time trial into Paris, which Greg LeMond began with a 50-second deficit on Laurent Fignon. But for LeMond to even be in contention for the podium was the first miracle. “Was I confident at the start of the Tour?” he said. “No! No, no, no, no.”
Featuring exclusive interviews with the Tour’s legends and scoundrels about their best-ever day on the bike (and their most heartbreaking defeats), Moore’s book unravels lingering mysteries and recounts strange tales from 20 great stages of the Tour.
Étape assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race.
Includes recent interviews with Lance Armstrong, Jean-François Bernard, Chris Boardman, Mark Cavendish, Claudio Chiappucci, Laurent Fignon, Andy Hampsten, Luis Herrera, Bernard Hinault, Jörg Jaksche, Bobby Julich, Greg LeMond, Frans Maassen, Freddy Maertens, Iban Mayo, Eddy Merckx, David Millar, Wilfried Nelissen, Joël Pelier, Stephen Roche, Andy Schleck, Marc Sergeant, José Luis Viejo, Urs Zimmermann, and others.