Orcières-Merlette: where Merckx trembled and Tour history was made

by William Fotheringham

There aren’t many hotels in the town of Gap, but it’s a regular stop off on the Tour de France route. Which is why one day way back in the Lance Armstrong era, I ended up staying in the little ski resort of Orcières-Merlette, just up the valley of the river Drac.

And that’s how I came to nip out early in the morning for a brief bike ride up and down the valley, one of those snatched hours on the bike which are so precious when you are a reporter on Tour. 

I knew the name. Of course I knew the name. You can’t be a follower of cycling history, and be unaware of Orcières-Merlette, where stage four of the 2020 Tour de France finishes on Tuesday. And the men who organise the Tour route will know their history too, and will have been fully aware that Orcières is legendary as the place where Eddy Merckx suffered the worst bad day of his dominant years. Merckx would suffer like a dog at times in the years just before his retirement in early 1978, but never knew anything quite as bad as the kicking inflicted by Luis Ocaña on July 8 1971. But the drama at Orcières happened on the descent from the resort as well as the climb up to it.

Merckx had won an epic stage into Strasbourg in a bitterly fought sprint finish against Roger de Vlaeminck, but wasn’t looking quite his normal dominant self as the climbing stages approached. At the Pûy de Dôme on stage eight, Bernard Thévenet and Ocaña attacked as Merckx faltered; the Cannibal’s loss of 15sec wasn’t dramatic, but what they represented was vulnerability, something Merckx had never before shown in the Tour. Two days later into Grenoble, the unthinkable happened: they attacked again and Merckx lost the yellow jersey. “Nothing will be the same as before,” read the next day’s headline in l’Equipe. 

They were dead right. The wolves were running, with Merckx in their sights. Ocaña’s Bic team manager Maurice de Muer knew that 12km into the stage south out of Grenoble to Orcières came the super-steep Côte de Laffrey. The team were put to work there to set up Ocaña’s attack. Up the road went the Spaniard and his rivals, as Merckx slipped back, suffering from stomach trouble. Up front, Ocaña rode all the other pretenders to overall victory – Zoetemelk, Thévenet and Lucien Van Impe – off his wheel and set off on his own. 

Behind, Merckx faced a 120km chase. Initially, he had two team mates to help him; once they had faded, he led a string that included five members of Bic and the rest of the overall contenders, “a pack of dogs attached to his heels,” as Jacques Goddet wrote. They never gave him a turn, but they did pass him a bidon from time to time. This was payback for all the humiliations Merckx had inflicted on them since he hit his peak in 1968. 

Merckx had clearly lost the Tour, with Ocaña more than 10 minutes ahead overall… But what followed 48 hours later was even more epic: the Cannibal’s madcap attack from the gun at Orcières.

At the finish, Merckx made a point of winning the sprint for third, but he was almost nine minutes behind Ocaña. The stage speed was so high that the time limit had to be extended, as 71 of the field were (provisionally) outside it. Merckx had clearly lost the Tour, with Ocaña more than 10 minutes ahead overall… But what followed 48 hours later was even more epic: the Cannibal’s madcap attack from the gun at Orcières. He told his team mate Rini Wagtmans to attack into the first hairpins as they left the start, with Ocaña still digesting his morning coffee. They went racing down that valley at warp speed where I trundled on my bike during that Tour’s rest day, and ended up flying to Marseille with Ocaña in hot pursuit for the whole 251 kilometers; the longest and fastest chase the Tour has ever seen. 

The Tour would return to Orcières three more times. The following year, the mischievous organizers ran a stage back into the ski resort, just to rub salt in Merckx’s wounds. The return fixture was an anti-climax. Ocaña was on nothing like the form of the previous year; he was suffering from a lung infection, and was unable to prevent Lucien Van Impe winning the stage. A few days later, the Spaniard quit the Tour; Merckx’s fourth Tour victory was pretty much sealed. 

1982 was the next visit, with Bernard Hinault safely on the way to his fourth win, although few now remember that the stage victory went to France’s Pascal Simon; the Peugeot rider is usually remembered for the long days he spent in the yellow jersey nursing a broken shoulder blade the following year. In 1989 the Tour finish had far more impact. The late Laurent Fignon started the 39km largely uphill time trial from Gap with a 7sec lead over Greg LeMond, having relieved the American of the lead in the Pyrenees. 

Famously, Fignon’s weakness in time trialling was to cost him that Tour by a mere 8sec, and the result of the final day’s contre la montre into Paris was foreshadowed that day at Orcières, with LeMond time trialling strongly enough for 5th behind the stage winner, Holland’s Steven Rooks. Fignon dropped 47sec and gave up yellow to LeMond; their ding-dong battle would continue all the way to the Champs Elysées. This year, Orcières is the Tour’s first proper uphill finish. It’s not as severe as many that follow this year but is perfectly suited to Julian Alaphilippe. There probably won’t be a ding-dong battle to compare with the Merckx-Ocaña epic, but who would bet against France’s darling holding yellow where Fignon let it slip? 

Photo of Ocaña – Bert Verhoeff / Anefo / CC0

William Fotheringham’s best selling biography of Eddy Merckx, Half-Man Half-Bike, can be bought here.

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