Great Escapes (Part 2)
In Pursuit of Yellow
| The Pedaller of Charm 1951
|| Hugo Koblet was known variously as a ‘ Dandy' , a Greek God and a playboy.
|| The ‘Champion of Champions' (Campionissmo) is an epithet that was applied to Fausto Coppi early in his career.
| The Cannibal 1969
|| Merckx had a voracious appetite for success and competed every day as though it were his last.
Special Note: In part two we look at great escapes of three icons of our sport. The common theme here is that their escapes were not made out of necessity but more “because they could”! Without exception these are some of the riders that reside at the very pinnacle of cycling history and have contributed some of the greatest legends of the sport.
The Pedaller of Charm
Following WW 2 cycling entered a golden age. Especially in Europe society was trying to recover from the ravages of war. Money was scarce as were most luxuries. Cars were but a dream for most and the bicycle became a way to escape into the countryside. Club cycling was at an all time boom. In the world of professional racing there were perhaps more truly great champions active in the peloton than at any time before or since. Le Tour came back to French roads in 1947 and was won by the little known Jean Robic. The following year the great Italian rider Gino Bartali won the race, ten years after his first victory. Then in 1949 the new generation struck when Fausto Coppi (the ‘ campionissimo' to be) won the race at his first attempt. In 1950 the fiery Ferdi Kubler claimed Switzerland 's first ever Tour de France victory.
If you were a betting person in 1951 the prospects of a second Swiss win would have been laughable. There were simply too many great champions from the traditional cycling countries of France , Belgium and Italy hungry to restore order!
Hugo Koblet was known variously as a ‘ Dandy' , a Greek God and a playboy. Also from Switzerland , he had done much of his ‘apprenticeship' as one of Kubler's domestiques. On the bike his natural talent was translated into winning with apparent effortless ease and grace. In 1951 he came to the Tour with great ambitions following his Giro and Tour de Suisse wins of the previous year. His playboy tendencies suppressed any logical race strategy and on Stage 1 he attacked almost from the gun. About 40km later he was brought to heel by the peloton. Maybe his manager gave him a stiff talking to for nothing much more was heard from him until Stage 7 when Koblet gave it full gas and won the 85km time trial.
Stage 11 from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Agen (177km) was considered a transitional stage before entering the Pyrenees . Koblet, knowing that he was in the form of his life, launched his “ great escape ” just 37km into the stage. A French rider, Louis Deprez, clung on to Koblet's back wheel for a short while and then sat up. It was a baking hot day and the collective wisdom of the riders back in the bunch was that such a move was suicide. Unperturbed, the immaculate Koblet pedaled on with consummate ease and beautiful style. When the bunch got news that he was three minutes ahead they set about putting a serious chase together. After 50km of heat, sweat and collective toil the chasers had not pulled back any time. Amusement was replaced by concern and the biggest names in cycling now joined in the chase effort. Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, Louison Bobet, Jean Robic, Stan Ockers, Fiorenzo Magni and Raphael Geminiani all contributed their considerable power but after another 50kms they had been unable to make any impression on Koblet.
As he entered Agen, Koblet sat up, took out a sponge soaked in Eau de Cologne and a comb to spruce himself up. The disbelieving bunch rolled in 2'35” later and Koblet moved up to third on GC and well ahead of the main GC contenders. That day a French journalist dubbed Koblet the “ Pédaleur de Charme ”, an epithet that has remained linked with him ever since.
The race entourage, although totally impressed with Koblet's great escape were convinced that the “true stars” of the race would make short work of him once they got to the mountains. How wrong they were. Koblet had made his epic Stage 11 ride more to intimidate the field rather than gain a lot of time. Known for his recuperation powers, Koblet continued with the intimidation and eventually made it to Paris a full 22 minutes ahead of second placed Geminiani.
Sadly Koblet never raced so well again. His playboy life restricted his training time and a slow demise ensued. His good looks, along with his money, started to fade away. He died alone in a car crash in 1964 in good weather and on a good road. Some say it was suicide.
“You cannot race, I mean really race, if you stay at the back of the field” , said Fausto Coppi during one of his many interviews. For many years he was “the man to watch” and being constantly marked made his racing very difficult. Yet on numerous occasions he did escape and with his exceptional talent produced many epic rides. He became known as the ‘ Campionissmo' (Champion of Champions) and whenever great moments of our sport are remembered Coppi's name will always come to the fore.
In the same way that we cannot isolate the greatest escape ever, it is also very hard to isolate Coppi's greatest ride. With reference to the Tour de France, his brilliant win at his first TdF attempt in 1949 stands like a shining beacon. However the TdF 1952 ranks higher as a showcase of Coppi at his best. Just a few weeks previously he had won his fourth Giro d'Italia and returned to the Tour that year with the great form of 1949.
His first serious assault in the 1952 Tour came on Stage 5 to Namur , Belgium , where his furious pace left his rivals struggling behind him as he attempted to catch the eventual stage winner Bim Diederich (Lux). Coppi finished second on the stage after dropping everyone in the peloton.
Stage 10 offered the next famous episode. It came on the first Tour de France climb to Alpe d'Huez. Coppi crushed the field and thus became the first winner on this now legendary climb (he also took over race leadership and then held it all the way to Paris ). That night the French press wondered what would happen to Frances ' best riders when the next major climbs came.
The answer came the very next day on the grueling stage from Bourg d'Oisans to Sestrieres (also being used for the first time). Coppi's ‘ great escape ' started on the Col du Galibier. The impetus was ignited by the proud French rider, Raphael Geminiani. Gem attacked the chase group, which included Coppi, in the hopes of catching his fellow countryman Jean Le Guilly who was alone a little further up the mountain. Irritated by the obvious focus on himself, Coppi made short work of catching and dropping Geminiani. Then he very quickly caught and passed Le Guilly without even glancing at him. For the rest of the day Coppi majestically flew through the mountains alone. Race director Jacques Goddet was in awe of this display and described Coppi as “climbing like a ski lift gliding up its steel cable”. Behind him the field was in shreds without any semblance of a chase. The end result was devastating to his rivals as Coppi now extended his race lead to almost 20 minutes.
By the time the Tour finished in Paris Coppi had claimed two more stage wins and extended his race lead to more than 28 minutes over second place Stan Ockers (Belg.). Such was his domination of the Tour that the organizers doubled the prize money for second place so that the rest of the field would keep racing hard! As it turned out this decision gave birth to the Green Points competition as we know it today.
A year later: The organizers did not invite Coppi back in 1953 for fear of their race becoming a one man show!!!
Twenty years after Fausto Coppi had ridden, and won, on his first attempt at the Tour de France, another gifted Tour ‘novice' appeared on the scene. Like Coppi before him, Eddy Merckx totally dominated his first Tour in 1969. To the jaded race officials and hordes of journalists following the race they believed that they had previously seen everything. Mountains were mountains, breaks were breaks and the Yellow Jersey would stubbornly defend his lead. To their disbelieving eyes, Merckx was about to show the experts a new world of racing!
The whole of Belgium , and most importantly his team, had very big hopes of their young champion. Their goal was to score whenever the opportunity arose and when everyone least expected it. Here we see the big difference between Coppi and Merckx. Coppi could dominate at will but normally would only use his extraordinary powers when it made sense. Merckx had a voracious appetite for success and competed every day as though it were his last. His nickname, “the Cannibal” was more than appropriate!
Right from the first day Merckx was in the thick of the action. In fact on the second day he briefly wore the Yellow Jersey before relinquishing to his teammate Julien Stevens. He reclaimed the jersey on Stage 6 and would not relinquish it again. Most days Merckx produced rides that most riders can only dream of and in so doing completely dominated the '69 Tour.
The biggest day of all came on Stage 17 which traversed the great chain of Pyrenean climbs known in Tour lore as the “ circle of the dead men .” Many champions have lost their race here but Eddy was fearless and his ‘ great escape ' that day has gone down in history.
This 214km stage started with the Col de Peyresourde and Col d'Aspin (both Category 2 climbs) before the ascent of the mighty Category 1 Col du Tourmalet. A rapid descent down to the valley then led straight on to the Category 1 Col d'Aubisque which included the ‘stepping stone' of the Col de Soulor. Once over the top there was about 72kms of mostly downhill riding to the finish in Mourenx. At the beginning of the day Merckx comfortably led the race by 8:21 minutes over Pingeon and 9:29 over third place Gimondi. There was no need for heroics from Merckx.
Brilliant sun and intense heat combined to turn the Pyrenees into a magnificent picture post card setting for what was about to unfold. Over the Peyresourde and Aspin Merckx was in the leading group just a 100 meters or so behind the then King of the Mountains rider, Joaquim Galera. On the descent of the Aspin Merckx found himself alone in the lead but he waited for the group behind him as the Tourmalet reared up ahead. Once on the slopes of the Tourmalet Merckx and his teammate Van den Bossche set an infernal pace. The bunch fell apart and one of the biggest victims was 1965 Tour winner Felice Gimondi who was dropped ‘like a novice'.
Merckx sprinted ahead at the summit of the Tourmalet for the maximum Best Climber points. On the descent, he soft-pedaled, waiting for the re-grouping of the breakaway. When Merckx looked back and saw no one coming. The talented, young Belgian instantly made the decision to attack with 130 km remaining to the finish in Mourenx. As he reached the valley floor 34kms later he had one minute on a bunch of six chasers.
Next came the Col d'Aubisque and riding with elegant composure, he turned on the ‘after-burners'. During this incredible display of power his team manager begged Merckx to ease off and conserve some energy. It was still a long way to Paris . Paying no attention to the pleas for common sense, Merckx crested the Aubisque 6'55” ahead of his nearest chasers. Coming off the mountain Merckx lost 30 seconds to a seven man chase group. When Merckx got news of the chase, he settled into time trial mode along the 40 kilometers of gently descending road to Mourenx. Astoundingly he not only held off the group chasing furiously behind him but at the finish had extended his day's winning margin to 7'56” minutes. The 1969 TdF had 6 stages remaining until the finish in Paris , but the race was decided in Mourenx.
SPECIAL NOTE: Merckx's Stage 17 ‘great escape' was the brightest of all of his amazing exploits in that 1969 Tour. It was then that Merckx learned that he had nobody to beat but himself. There have been several theories as to what ignited his fury on the road to Mourenx. The most popular is that he learned that his teammate Van Den Bossche had agreed to accept an offer from another team which apparently caused a serious conflict of interest. So it would seem that when the two of them hit the Tourmalet the inhuman pace that they set was not team work but instead directed at destroying each other.
Far from exhausted by his epic ride, Merckx continued riding the Tour like a man possessed. In Paris his lead over second placed Pingeon had grown to 17:54 minutes and to third placed Raymond Poulidor 22:13 minutes. In addition to the GC, Merckx also won the Points, Mountains and Combine (GC, Points, Mountain) jerseys which to this day remain a unique achievement. His Faema team carried off the team award and not surprisingly Merckx also claimed the ‘Combativity Award'.
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