Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by Cassell
L’Équipe opted for Luis Ocaña’s defeat of Eddy Merckx at Orcières-Merlette as the greatest Tour stage of all time. Peter Cossins argues they picked the right rider, but the wrong exploit
In the days just prior to the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in the Basque Country, L’Équipe published its top 10 greatest mountain stages in the race’s history (you can see the list at the foot of this article). It was, perhaps predictably, French-heavy, with home riders featuring on no fewer than six of the 10. However, top place went to the Grenoble – Orcières-Merlette stage of the 1971 race, when Luis Ocaña obliterated Eddy Merckx, finishing close to nine minutes clear of the Belgian.
‘The goal was to attack Merckx as early as possible because he didn’t seem to be very good in this heat,’ said the Spaniard at the finish. It seemed that Ocaña had done enough to win the Tour with the first week barely done, but, of course, it wasn’t to be. He largely rebuffed Merckx’s counters as the Tour raced across the south to tackle the Pyrenees, but the Spaniard’s hopes were swept away in a savage mountain storm. Having crashed on the penultimate hairpin on the descent of the Col de Menté as water and rubble cascaded across the road, Ocaña staggered back to his feet only to be sent crashing down again when Joop Zoetemelk hurtled into him, like a linebacker taking down a quarterback.
As Ocaña was being driven to hospital, that stage was being won by José Manuel Fuente, a mercurial climber, who’d won the first of four consecutive mountains titles at the Giro d’Italia a few weeks earlier. Fuente won the following stage too, a very short hill-climb from Luchon up to Superbagnères, burning off the likes of Lucien Van Impe, Bernard Thévenet, Merckx and Zoetemelk in the kind of from-the-gun contest we rarely see now.
While the Orcières-Merlette stage is a worthy pick to top the list of the Tour’s best-ever mountains stages, I’d argue that it wasn’t Ocaña’s outstanding performance in the great race. That came two years on from famous defeat of Merckx, when the Spaniard engaged in a long and spectacular duel with his compatriot Fuente. The Belgian sat out the race, opting to ride and, naturally, win the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia, leaving the yellow jersey to be decided between the two riders Merckx viewed as his most dangerous and unpredictable rivals.
By the time the eighth stage of the race arrived, between Moûtiers and the Alpine ski resort of Les Orres, Ocaña was already in the ascendancy. He’d taken the yellow jersey with victory on the morning’s half-stage the day before, then consolidated it in the afternoon. Leader of the French Bic team, Ocaña hoped to further strengthen his grip by reaching a deal with Fuente, who was his only threat in the mountains.
According to Fuente’s Kas teammate Antonio Menéndez, Ocaña went to the Kas hotel that evening and offered each of the riders 500,000 pesetas if they would back him in his quest for the title, adding that he would allow Kas to go for stage wins, the mountains jersey and second place in Paris. Fuente offered a short response, ‘No! No! And no!’ Turned down by Kas, Ocaña turned to three or four other teams, ‘and they made mincemeat of us,’ said Menéndez.
The fall-out between the two Spanish team leaders became apparent on the marathon mountain stage to Les Orres, which took place exactly 50 years ago today, on 8 July 1973. It went over the Madeleine, Télégraphe, Galibier and Izoard passes, for a total of 5,200 metres of vertical gain – it remains the only occasion in the Tour’s history when the riders have tackled both the Galibier and the Izoard via their more severe northern flank. The antagonism began when Fuente stopped in the valley after the Madeleine to change into dry clothes. As his team waited for him, Ocaña’s Bic team went to the front, forcing Kas to chase flat out to regain contact with the peloton before reaching the foot of the Télégraphe.
Cue Fuente’s response. As the road began to rise from Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, he attacked, then again and again, Ocaña countering each time. One report said he’d accelerated twenty-one times. Thévenet and Zoetemelk managed to catch the Spaniards with three other riders on the short descent to the foot of the Galibier, only for Fuente to scatter everyone bar the yellow jersey. As they rode away together, Ocaña asked Fuente to collaborate rather than keep attacking, a request that was again rebuffed. Approaching the summit, Ocaña uttered the biting phrase, ‘Follow me if you can.’ Fuente did, sticking to his compatriot’s wheel for the most part. With 30km left, Fuente punctured and, naturally, Ocaña didn’t wait for him, riding solo to finish a minute clear. There was a gulf behind the Spanish pair, Thévenet losing seven minutes, Joop Zoetemelk twenty minutes despite finishing sixth in Les Orres.
Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil described the Spaniards’ duel as, ‘One of the greatest exploits in cycling history.’ Bizarrely, though, this contest is almost completely forgotten. Although Ocaña has been commemorated at the Tour this week at the stage start in Mont-de-Marsan, where his family emigrated when he was a boy, this astonishing duel between two of the best climbers in the sport’s history has become little more than a footnote.
The contest underlined the differences between the two riders. Ocaña was the better all-rounder, untypically Spanish in that he could compete with the best in time trials, while also more cunning in the use of strategy, both on the road and, vitally, away from it in his deal-making. Fuente was the slightly better climber, able to rally his team around him but, due to his principles, only interested in an unadulterated test of racing ability. More than that, though, it emphasised how unbridled they could both be, slugging it out on the most historic and challenging passes in road cycling without a thought of sitting in behind their teammates and waiting or on evaluating the consequences of these solo efforts might extract from them. Unlike more calculating GC riders, such as Zoetemelk and Van Impe, who would wait and watch, often not attacking at all, it was win or die trying for Ocaña and Fuente. There was no glory in being an also-ran.
Parts of this article were extracted from my book Climbers: Pain, Panache and Polka Dots in Cycling’s Greatest Arenas, which has just been released in paperback by Cassell.
L’Équipe’s top 10 list in full:
1 Luis Ocaña’s win at Orcières-Merlette in 1971
2 Eddy Merckx’s win at Mourenx in 1969
3 Jonas Vingegaard’s win on the Granon in 2022
4 Bernard Thévenet’s win at Pra Loup in 1975
5 Greg LeMond’s win at Superbagnères in 1986
6 Marco Pantani’s win at Les Deux Alpes in 1998
7 The neutralised stage to Tignes in 2019
8 Bernard Hinault’s win at Alpe d’Huez in 1986
9 Richard Virenque’s win at Cauterets in 1995
10 Luc Leblanc’s win at Les Arcs in 1996