Stage 17, Untold Stories: Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, and David Millar in the 2010 Tour de France

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau

199.5 km/124 mi high mountains

 

Etape by Richard Moore Tour de France stages 2010 Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, David Millar, Untold StoriesClimbing the Col du Tourmalet, Mark Cavendish slips out the back of the group. His loyal teammate, Bernhard Eisel, remains at his side and tries to encourage him.

“Big effort, Cav, come on, stay with the group.”

Cavendish screws up his face. “Bernie, I can’t do it.” He is suffering a thousand agonies. He wants Eisel, his best friend, to shut up. But Eisel knows how critical it is that they stay with the gruppetto, the group that rides a shadow Tour de France in the mountains, out of view of the television and photographers’ lenses. For Cavendish, a prolific winner of flat sprinters’ stages, stages like this are the B-sides to his hit singles, songs that no one hears.

Today, the top of the Tourmalet is not the end of the stage; there is a fourth Pyrenean climb, the Col d’Aubisque, and then 60 km of flat valley roads to the finish in Pau. Manageable in a group, impossible as a duo. He and Eisel will almost certainly miss the time cut and be out of the race.

Cavendish is ill, feverish, and in a desperate bid for marginal gains he removes all extraneous items: sunglasses, food from pockets, even bidons. Still Eisel cajoles him and Cavendish snaps, “Don’t nag! Just let me fucking ride,” he says. Fuck you, then, Eisel thinks. He could ride back up to the group and leave Cavendish to his self-pity, to stew in his petulance. But he doesn’t. He sticks to the task, which means sticking with Cavendish, but pointedly veers to the other side of the road.

On they ride up the Tourmalet, “together” but not together, Cavendish hugging one side, Eisel the other, shutting each other out, not speaking a
word, sulking like a married couple.

FOR THE MAJORITY, THE TOUR de France is not about winning. By the third week, it has nothing to do with winning. An example: With two days to go, the 2008 Tour was on a knife edge. It was so close that either Cadel Evans or Carlos Sastre could still win. The time trial on the penultimate day would decide.

It was thrilling; the watching world was transfixed. On the eve of the decisive time trial, David Millar, not a bad time trialist himself, was asked how he thought the race would go and who he thought would win.

“I don’t give a fuck,” said Millar.

The great myth of the Tour is that the riders are all engaged in the main narrative, the battle for yellow. Yet those transfixed by the duel in 2008 did not include most of the riders.

I was keen to speak to Cavendish, the greatest sprinter of his generation, about this aspect of his Tour, the shadow Tour. Days in the gruppetto are Cavendish’s most difficult, the suffering of a different order to the days in which he fights for position and follows his lead-out train, then sprints for the win at the end. Those days, in the full glare of the TV cameras, involve courage, skill, and the sharp pain of a flat-out effort (or several). Days in the mountains, away from the glare, involve pure suffering.

When asked to nominate his single toughest day in the mountains, Cavendish struggles. “All of them?” he suggests. Perhaps they seem a long way away from where we are sitting, in a deserted hotel on the Costa del Sol in Spain in January, during a pre-season training camp. How about Hauta- cam in 2008? “That was pretty hard ’cause I crashed,” Cavendish recalls, almost nostalgically. “I hit a football [soccer ball]. A football in the middle of fucking nowhere!

“But nah, there have been harder ones. Oh, I tell you. There was one I was ill, it finished up the Tourmalet. We only did the Col d’Aubisque and Tourmalet, but I had fever. I suffered that day. I was way off on the Aubisque with Bernie, but we got back on the descent. Then I suffered up the Tourmalet.

“But no, that wasn’t the hardest . . . I don’t know. Days like 2012, the ring of fire: Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde. That was bloody hard.

“No!” Now Cavendish is sitting forward in his chair. “When we did that ring of fire the other way, in 2010. That day was fucking—” he trails off, shakes his head.

It was dubbed the Circle of Death (rather than ring of fire) when this circuit of the Pyrenees, including four major climbs, first appeared on the route in 1910 and the riders feared bear attacks, among other things. A century later, the same route, in reverse, was stage 16 of the 2010 Tour, over 199.5 km, or 124 miles.

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 18% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online:

Stage 16 Honor Among Thieves: Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo in the 2003 Tour de France

Monday, July 21, 2003

Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Luz Ardiden

159.5 km/99 mi high mountains

Etape by Richard Moore tour de france stages 2003 Lance Armstrong, Iban Mayo Honor Among ThievesLance Armstrong is angry.

“I mean, listen, look. Travis Tygart and his band of haters can say what they want. Those Tours happened. . . . It was an unfortunate time, most of us if not all of us played by the same set of rules. . . . I consider myself the winner of those seven Tours.”

We had been talking about a stage that officially didn’t happen, 10 years after it didn’t happen, one year after it has been deemed not to have hap- pened. Armstrong is talking as he drives to the golf course, 40 minutes from his house in Austin, Texas. It is almost a year since he was officially stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from competitive sports for life. He gets angry when he talks about Travis Tygart, the man at the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who led the investigation into Armstrong and his U.S. Postal team, eventually describing the setup as “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” (To which Armstrong responds: “You can’t say that one team has the most sophisticated program in the world when you don’t look at the other 19 teams. You have to look at all 20 before you make that claim.”) But otherwise Armstrong seems remarkably relaxed. The fact that he is on his way to play golf suggests that he is holding it together, that he is not in the midst of a breakdown.

On the contrary, Armstrong says he is well. “Yeah, y’know. Just dealing with a little drama here and there, but otherwise not too bad.” The “little dramas” include an insurance claim of several million dollars, and a federal case that might cost him up to $100 million, to name just two.

Yet in one sense Armstrong is certainly right. Those Tours did happen.

It was the year Armstrong was bidding to join the Club. The Club of five- time Tour de France winners, whose members were Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and Indurain. But in the months leading up to his bid to join the Club, things and events, which had always been tightly controlled and micromanaged by Armstrong, seemed to unravel.

But Armstrong’s opponents were well known to him, and he had the measure of them. (With Ullrich, Armstrong’s strategy was to praise him, calling him the most naturally talented rider of his generation. As Armstrong’s chiro- practor, Jeff Spencer, told Coyle, “He understands that what Jan doesn’t like is pressure. If you want to get into his head, praise him to the skies.”) But in 2003 another rival emerged as if from nowhere—or the Basque Country, which amounted to much the same thing as far as Armstrong was concerned.

Iban Mayo was as proud, unpredictable, and obstinate as the region he came from. Armstrong faced this mercurial climber at the Dauphiné Libéré, just weeks before the Tour got under way; it was his last tune-up before the big one. “I always used the Tour of Switzerland or the Dau- phiné, and most of the time we used the Dauphiné, as final prep for the Tour,” Armstrong says. “For 2003 I did the Dauphiné. Before that, I was riding very good. I was in the [leader’s] jersey. One of the days, I had a re- ally bad crash. We never really figured out what happened, but my bike just basically locked up and I went sliding on a fast downhill; really messed up my arm, lost a ton of blood, had stitches and a bunch of stuff through the night. I wanted to stay in the race and everybody else told me to drop out. Ferrari said, ‘You gotta drop out. You’re riding good, just go home and rest.’

“But Iban Mayo was in second,” Armstrong continues. “He was attack- ing me all the time. And, let me tell you, I was not a fan. I was not a fan of Mayo. I thought he was a little punk. We were all sort of . . . dirty, but I viewed him as being a lot dirtier than us.”

Mayo was certainly intriguing and enigmatic. He was an archetypal climber: slightly built, quirky, erratic, and capable of devastating accelerations in the mountains. But Armstrong’s description of him as a “little punk” seems fitting for other reasons, too. He had two hoop earrings in one ear, and straggly, shoulder-length hair. Handsome, with his dark eyes and sharp nose, he seemed the heir to Marco Pantani, the little Italian climber who Armstrong might also have described in less than friendly terms as a “punk.”

And that was the point. If Mayo was the new Pantani, Armstrong had every reason to be worried (and so, perhaps, did Mayo). It was Pantani who got under Armstrong’s skin, especially in the 2000 Tour, with his erratic, unpredictable, explosive attacking. Ullrich had always been his strongest rival on paper, but Armstrong knew where he stood with Ullrich. The German was as good-natured as he was strong; too nice, too compliant, a rider lacking Armstrong’s ruthlessness or Pantani’s subversiveness. When Armstrong allowed Pantani to win the stage at Mont Ventoux in 2000, the Pirate threw the gesture back in his face. Ullrich would have been grateful for the gift. Pantani was offended by the charity.

Like Pantani, Mayo seemed uncontrollable. Thus he could unsettle Armstrong. Which is why Armstrong says of the 2003 Dauphiné, “I wasn’t going to let Mayo win.” And yet it was only the Dauphiné; only a warm-up for the Tour. When Ferrari and others advised him to forget about Mayo and the Dauphiné, Armstrong told them, “No way, because if I go home this punk wins.”

“So I stayed in,” Armstrong says, “and he kept attacking me, attacking me hard over the Galibier. And it just fucking killed me to stay with him. . . but I wasn’t going to let this little punk win.” When Armstrong caught Mayo he gave him a look—or “the look,” which he had used to intimidate Ullrich on l’Alpe d’Huez during the 2001 Tour. He also indulged in some trash talk.

Mayo remembers, “On the last day Armstrong came up to me, drew level with my handlebars, and said to me, ‘Iban, can’t you go a bit harder than that?’

“So that day I went so hard, I kept attacking and attacking, and Armstrong came up to me again and said, ‘Is that all you’ve got? Can’t you go any harder?’ And so we’d do it all over again and again, each time Armstrong asking me, ‘Can’t you go any harder?’ and me attacking again.”

Mayo wasn’t aware, at the time, how much he annoyed Armstrong. “People told me afterward. Maybe I was more unpredictable than Ullrich, I could attack on other climbs, because I could go all out in one place or another, whereas Ullrich would not surprise him; he’d be a guy who would go for him in the time trials. I could surprise him.”

Armstrong won the Dauphiné, but not without cost. “It took too much out of me. I had two weeks between the Dauphiné and the Tour. And I just didn’t recover. I came into the Tour behind, and tired and depleted.

“I mean, so much has been made about, y’know, doping and blood [transfusions] and et cetera, et cetera,” Armstrong continues. “But I’ll never forget, I started—in those years they did the pre-race screening and hematocrit test, et cetera—and I started the Tour at 39 [percent] hematocrit. And I remember thinking, oh fuck. Huh!” Armstrong laughs: 39 was low; it meant his red blood cells were depleted. Hamilton, who took a blood transfusion on the eve of the race, started with his at 48.

“And it didn’t start good,” Armstrong continues. “I had a bad prologue. I was used to winning those prologues and I barely made the top 10. It was just a rough start and a rough three weeks. I had to get lucky.”

Since his first Tour win in 1999, Armstrong had never had to “get lucky.” He never crashed. Never punctured. Never fell ill. Never had a bad day—minor dips in form, but not a really bad day. He even felt that his Tour wins were “dialed in.” There was precious little drama, excitement, or suspense, apart from when Pantani launched his (self-)destructive attacks. Otherwise, the Armstrong Tours were as predictable as the Indurain Tours.

Until 2003.

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 21% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online:

 

Stage 15 Champagne Freddy: Freddy Maertens in the 1981 Tour de France

Tuesday, July 28, 1981

Martigues to Narbonne

232 km/144 mi flat

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France:“Where’s Freddy?” is a refrain that might echo around the Flanders Center on an hourly basis. Freddy Maertens, perhaps cycling’s fastest sprinter, works there now. “Where’s Freddy?” would perhaps have made a fitting title for his autobiography. Instead it is called Fall from Grace, which is also apt. Because that, certainly, is what Maertens did.

“Anyone who says they can do it naturally is a liar,” says Maertens, meaning racing without drugs. He used amphetamines in kermesses, “but never in the Classics or Tours,” though he lost the Tour of Belgium in 1974 after testing positive. He also tested positive in some big races in 1977, the season after his great year, at the Flèche Wallonne, Tour of Flanders, and Tour de France. In those days a doping positive didn’t result in expulsion, much less suspension, much less disgrace. The standard punishment was a time penalty, usually of 10 minutes.

Maertens’s own problems were just over the horizon…He was unhappy with his Flandria team in 1979, sensing a plot against him, suffering with an injury to his wrist, and only winning two minor races. He had fallen a long way from his eight stage wins and world race title of 1976. Three years later, he could barely finish races: “Depression was looming just around the corner,” he writes in his book. On the advice of his team boss, Paul Claeys, he traveled to the United States, to a school of medicine in Philadelphia, for tests.

Maertens stayed in Philadelphia for several weeks. He was under the care of a Dr. Fischer, who ran a series of physical and psychological tests. In Belgium, the rumor was that Maertens had been committed to a mental hospital. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, all the tests were clear; Maertens was told there was nothing physically wrong with him, although Dr. Fischer did suggest that his psychological problems were due to “the problems he has had in relation to drugs.” He added, “Though I suspect he will be tempted to use stimulating drugs when he is under competitive pressure, I think he has the inner strength to resist the temptation.”

Still Maertens could not rediscover his old form. Still he struggled to finish races; winning was out of the question. The rumors intensified: He was an alcoholic; a drug addict; he had a nervous breakdown. It was none of these things, Maertens says now. It was all a big misunderstanding. He did have a problem, and it completely derailed his career. It was financial. The taxman was after him. “Nineteen seventy-seven was good,” he says, “and ’78 was OK, but then began the problems with the taxes. It was the biggest problem I had in my career. But in the winter of 1980 my wife and I talked. She said, ‘You have to do it like you did it before.’” She meant training, focusing solely on cycling. “She said, ‘When it comes to speaking to the accountant, the lawyer, the court, I will do it. You have to train and nothing more.’” Carine shielded her husband, intercepting mail, phone calls, and even visits from the taxman.

At the start of the 1981 season, Maertens had a new team, Boule d’Or, and, with Pollentier and Demeyer no longer by his side, he had two new musketeers, Ronald De Witte and Alain De Roo. He was also reunited with his old director, Lomme Driessens, who had been fired after the 1977 season. But a return to his previous form seemed impossible. Although still only 29, Maertens was seen as a spent force. Whatever his problems, he had shone too brightly, too young, and burned out.

Maertens wishes to correct one point. “I was not an alcoholic. The problem is that when they see you drinking one beer, people think you are an alcoholic.”
He did use alcohol, though. He used it as a performance aid. But only champagne. “It was Lomme who said to try it. Seventy-six was the first time; you have to try it in training, not racing. That was the mistake Pol- lentier made. He tried it before the Baracchi Trophy and his legs were like that”—Maertens shakes his legs and they wobble like jelly. “Everything new, you have to try it in training.

“Once you know it works, then the fortnight before, you do not drink alcohol. No! Or the champagne has no effect. When the legs weren’t good, I didn’t drink it. But in big races I left the bottle in the car.”

A whole bottle of champagne? “No, no, no—half a bottle. In a cool box. A teammate went to get it for me at 30 km from the finish.” Who? “Normally it was Herman Beyssens who went back, because he would have a drink also.” By the time it reached Maertens, with Beyssens having had his share, it was “more like 33 centiliters.”

“It was in a bidon, mixed with some sugar and some caffeine.” He would drink it in three or four gulps. And the effect was like dynamite. Compa- rable to amphetamines? “Yes,” nods Maertens. “Like amphetamines, yes. It was like a legal high.”

What happened to the rest of the champagne? “Lomme finished off the bottle while driving the team car.”

But in 1981 even the champagne didn’t seem to be working for Maertens.

It wasn’t until Stage 3 that Champagne Freddy began showing his old speed.

Cycling Weekly: “Maertens moved as if on rails, accelerating, gathering speed until he put in that special effort that we thought we had seen the last of. He thundered across the line. . . . It was a spectacular, dangerous final sprint.”

Phil Anderson: “It was too dangerous for me.”

Asked who was faster, he or Sean Kelly, Maertens says, “Me. Me, me.”

Maertens went on to win three more stages, including the final one into Paris, and the green jersey. He also won his second world title later the same year, in Prague. Green jersey, world champion—his improbable comeback was the story of the year, and explanations were sought. “He’s riding two gears higher than the rest of us,” one unnamed rider said in a story in a Belgian newspaper. How did it happen?

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 15% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online:

Stage 14 The Unknown Warrior: Jose Luis Viejo in the 1976 Tour de France

Tuesday, July 06, 1976

Montgenevre to Manosque

224 km/139 mi mountains

His is a name that is only ever mentioned in connection with one obscure but impressive achievement. Otherwise, it has faded from the cycling record books; and in any case, it was never in bold type. A career, in short, that passed almost without note or notice.

Apart from one stage.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France: The Unknown Warrior Jose Luis Viejo 1976He meets you at the train station in Azuqueca, a dormitory town 30 minutes east of Madrid. He is not tall but wiry, gray-haired, wearing silver-rimmed spectacles and a striped shirt. He drives you in his modest car to his modest first-floor apartment. And in his living room he shows you his trophy cabinet, which is large and has pride of place and suggests the re- cord books might be lying—or at least not telling the full story. There is a glut of silverware, three shelves, packed with trinkets, ribboned medals, and big-eared cups. A bronze medal from the 1971 amateur world road race championship, where Freddy Maertens was second; a trophy for winning the amateur Tour of Poland, the only Spaniard ever to do so; awards for stage wins in the weeklong stage races that pepper the Spanish calendar.

Now in his early sixties, José Luis Viejo can also boast of a fifth over- all finish in his national tour, the Vuelta, in 1977. But that is not what he is known for. Instead, his fame, if it can be called that, is of the pub quiz variety. The biggest winning margin by an individual rider on a stage of the Tour de France? That would be José Luis Viejo, on stage 11 in 1976.

It is a historic feat, yet one that earns only a couple of pages in Geoffrey Nicholson’s wonderful The Great Bike Race, a book that tells the story of the Tour through the reporter’s travels on the 1976 race. Nicholson’s book is all the more remarkable for it being a pretty unremarkable edition of the great bike race. In fact, Viejo’s achievement was one of the most no- table things to happen, but Nicholson doesn’t dwell on it; he had no idea that the record would endure into a fourth decade and is unlikely ever to be beaten. For Viejo himself, it is the source of great pride, but also frus- tration. Not least because the true story, or his story, is not the official one. “José Luis Viejo is not a name that anyone has bothered to conjure with so far in the Tour,” writes Nicholson. He mentions a couple of minor placings, “but the proper function of this long-faced, twenty-six-year-old Castillian has been to cater for the needs of the two Super Ser stars, Luis Ocaña and Pedro Torres.” Which, says Nicholson, “is not a particularly thankful job when the stars themselves are waning.”

Viejo’s best performances—the 1971 worlds, the Tour of Poland—were as an amateur. As a professional, his problem was that he was good at everything rather than excellent at any one thing, “a proficient climber, sprinter, and time trialist—a coureur complet, if not of the highest rank.”

The stage began on top of Montgenèvre, where the previous day a stage won by Joop Zoetemelk had finished. It looped south, through the Hautes Alpes and Alpes de Haute Provence, with four category 3 climbs in its 224 km (139 miles). It was a classic transitional stage after two tough days in the Alps; it would be followed by a rest day and then four days in the Pyr- enees. It was, in short, a fill-in stage wedged in between decisive and difficult days, which perhaps offers a partial explanation for the strange events of July 6, 1976.

Nicholson described the scenery, spectacular and ugly at the same time—“an oppressive landscape of rocks striped like cross-sections in a geology textbook. Pipes the size of brickyard stacks ran down the moun- tainside with no attempt at concealment; red and white pylons marched brazenly down the valley; the Durance was flowing like lava”—but con- cedes that it is a day when not much is expected to happen.

This might explain why he and other reporters race ahead and stop for coffee in Embrun.

It means they miss “the start of a puzzling sequence of events.”

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 19% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online:

Stage 13 Shock and Awe: Bobby Julich, Jorg Jaksche, Marco Pantani, and Jan Ullrich at the 1998 Tour de France

Monday, July 27, 1998

Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes

189 km/117 mi high mountains

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France: Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Bobby Julich 1998 Shock and AweMarco Pantani bounced off the sidewalk onto the road, like a kid out playing on his bike. I was walking behind him, along the same sidewalk, in Dublin, on Saturday, July 11, 1998. Pantani had just ridden the prologue time trial of the Tour de France, finishing 181st out of the 189 starters.

The sport’s most exciting climber—the most exciting cyclist in years—seemed distracted. He seemed disinterested in racing. Or in anything. Pantani had recently won his home tour, the Giro d’Italia, and it had overwhelmed him. The celebration parties drained him. The death of his mentor, Luciano Pezzi, 15 days earlier demotivated him. He said he wasn’t interested in the Tour. The mountains weren’t hard enough, he said, and there were only two summit finishes. In Dublin, he looked miles away.

The strangest-ever Tour got under way, and still Pantani showed no in- terest, even when, 12 days in, he won at Plateau de Beille, one of the two summit finishes, in the Pyrenees. “Every day, including the stage to Pla- teau de Beille, he was just sitting at the back with his team,” recalls Bobby Julich, the American who was fourth in the Dublin prologue. “This is be- fore race radios, and when you’re going back to talk to the team car there’s Marco sitting at the back, in last position.

“You think, well, he doesn’t give a crap, he’s just going for stages.” After winning at Plateau de Beille, Pantani grudgingly admitted, “Anything is still possible, but after all the stress of the Giro it makes my head spin when I think about the overall classification.”

The favorite and defending champion, Jan Ullrich, didn’t seem any more comfortable. Only 24 years old, the German described his Tour win as “a nightmare for me. I didn’t enjoy a single second of it.”

A month later, Ullrich stopped racing, ending his 1997 season early. He was suffering from stress and exhaustion. “The physical and mental strain of winning the Tour took Jan to his limits and we have to protect him,” said his Telekom team manager, Walter Godefroot. “He’s still very young and we have to be careful.” At the end of the year, he was voted German sports- man of the year, bracketed among a small group of his country’s über-stars that included Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, and Michael Schumacher. But over the winter his weight ballooned from 158 pounds to 183. All spring, in the run-up to the 1998 Tour, Ullrich battled to regain fitness and lose weight under the intense glare of a German media who declared his ample behind “the most examined rear since Claudia Schiffer’s.”

Ullrich and Pantani must be two of the most physically gifted but psychologically fragile athletes in Tour history. Yet in 1998, here they were, duking it out in a race that made everybody’s head spin, which would surely have broken even the strongest of spirits.

It was the best of Tours, it was the worst of Tours. The world was shocked as it came to terms with the revelations about the scale and systematic nature of doping on the world’s top team, Festina. The riders were shocked, too. But for a different reason. If anything, they were shocked that the world was shocked.

It started with a small news item. As the Tour got under way, it emerged that a soigneur with the Festina team, Willy Voet, had been stopped on the French–Belgian border with a car full of banned drugs. He was en route to Dublin. The outside world paid little attention at first; it was a minor story, a subplot. But the riders’ ears pricked up. “I heard about it at dinner in our hotel in Dublin,” recalls Jörg Jaksche, a 21-year-old German about to start his first Tour with the Italian Polti team. “Word spread very quickly. Everyone was, like, ‘Holy shit. What are we going to do with our stuff ?’ It wasn’t, ‘Fuck Festina, what assholes, they’re doping.’”

Everyone was using EPO, says Jaksche. “Maybe not everyone, but it was a majority,” says Bobby Julich, who was riding his second Tour. The UCI had introduced a health check the previous year, designed to limit its abuse, but there was no test. It was banned, but undetectable. “What should you do?” asks Jaksche. “You could say that the UCI accepted the use of it, up to a certain level. I don’t think that’s true—they saw the problem but couldn’t do anything about it with no test. At least they tried to do something about it. What more could they do?

“And what could the riders do? You know everyone’s doing it, so you have to do it. If your contract is running out, no one’s going to ask you, ‘Why didn’t you perform well?’ and give you a new contract if you say you didn’t use EPO. But if you’ve been fourth in the Tour, they’ll say, ‘Here’s your contract.’”

The Tour carried on as usual for its three days in southern Ireland, but Voet, in custody in Lille, was a ticking time bomb. His initial story, that the enormous stash of drugs was for his own use, was patently ridiculous. There was a growing sense, among the riders and teams, that when the race arrived in France—a country basking in the warm afterglow of not only hosting but also winning soccer’s World Cup—there would be trouble. Across the Channel, storm clouds gathered. There were stories of drugs being dumped over the side of the boat that carried them to France from Ireland. “At first we kept it,” says Jaksche of the doping products. “I have to be careful. I kept my stuff. It was then thrown away in the second week.” Voet changed his story on the Tour’s first day back in France. He had been acting under team orders, he admitted. A day later, French police raided the Festina riders’ hotel rooms. Now Festina was the story; the race was secondary. Journalists who had traveled to Ireland and then France to cover a sports event found themselves working as crime reporters.

As the race headed from Brittany to the heart of the country, the Tour de France was unraveling. The teams’ world was collapsing as the outside world was afforded a glimpse inside and recoiled in outrage and horror. Among the riders, there was confusion. On the one hand, they wanted to keep their secret; on the other, with the secret out, they couldn’t under- stand what all the fuss was about. On some stages they were booed and jeered. Libération described the sport as a “cesspit,” adding, “the giants of the road are dwarves of sporting morality.” The mood in the peloton was one of righteous anger, and hurt. Udo Bolts, a teammate of Ullrich, pro- tested, “We are not criminals. The booing was terrible, soul-destroying.”

The Festina doctor, Eric Ryckaert, summed up the ambiguity. “I’m against doping. That much, I think, is clear. But there are questions you must ask yourself on the definition of doping. For myself, in the role of a doctor, I want to know where medical treatments end and where doping begins.”

A week in, after the Festina management admitted that the team orga- nized a doping program, their nine riders were thrown out of the race, including French darling Richard Virenque. The Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, acknowledged “a classic case of institutionalized doping within a team,” which, he added, was “a grave affront to the morality and prin- ciples of the Tour.”

That was the official line. Bernard Kouchner, the French secretary of state for health, struck a different note, saying, “We are all accomplices in this huge hypocrisy. Everybody knows that doping reigns at the Tour de France.”

Amid the chaos, confusion, and anger, the race continued. Pictures of riders celebrating stage wins seemed incongruous beside those of the po- lice entering team vehicles and riders’ rooms—the Dutch TVM squad was the next to be targeted—until finally, on July 24, before stage 12, the riders’ patience snapped.

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 18% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online:

 

Stage 12: The Devil, Claudio Chiappucci, 1992

 Saturday, July 18, 1992

Saint-Gervais to Sestriere

254.5 km/158 mi high mountains

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France: Claudio Chiappucci The Devil 1992Casa Chiappucci is a three-story building on the edge of a small village in northern Italy, near Lake Como. At the entrance, three buzzers, each labeled “Chiappucci.” But it would appear that Claudio, the dazzling little climber of the 1990s, is not at home. A man appears on the balcony of the first floor, introducing himself as Claudio’s older brother. He says he doesn’t know where Claudio is. He adds that he never knows where Claudio is.

“You can wait,” he says. “He’ll be back soon.”

Ten minutes later, the electronic gate clicks and whirrs and begins to slide open. Instantly recognizable, the cyclist once known as “El Diablo” (the devil) appears behind the wheel of an SUV with a 20-something girl in the passenger seat. He is 50 but looks and dresses about 30 years younger: distressed jeans, tight black shirt, chunky white watch, and sunglasses perched on his head, acting as a hairband for his glossy black mane.

“Ciao, ciao, ciao,” a smiling Claudio leads us into the building then bounds up three flights of stairs. At the top, we are greeted by Mama Chiappucci, a small, hunched woman in her late seventies wrapped in an apron. She offers a warm welcome and shows us into the living room, or shrine. Everywhere you look there are trophies, trinkets, and photographs of Claudio riding and winning races, as well as one of him meeting the Pope. There is no escape: On the sofa, the cushions are adorned with his image. Which is ironic, because Claudio himself has disappeared again.

When he reappears, he explains that he has been checking on his new girlfriend, who is in his apartment on the ground floor. “She’s 25, from Lille.” Chiappucci picks up one of the cushions: The picture on this one shows the happy couple. “When you feel like this with someone”—he pats his chest—“the age doesn’t matter.”

Sitting down on his own face (on another cushion), Chiappucci explains that he’s just back from riding a Gran Fondo held in honor of . . . himself. “I finished fifth. I’m still riding well. The rest were amateurs, but it was a good level. I’m 50, so to finish with guys who are 20 or 25 years old . . .”

But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Sestriere in 1992 and one of the most extraordinary, almost unbelievable, perfor- mances in Tour history.

Chiappucci turned professional in 1985 and for five years seemed destined to be a journeyman. It took him four years to win his first race. Then in 1990 he featured in a bizarre breakaway on day one of the Tour de France— bizarre because it gained 10 minutes. The yellow jersey passed between three of the four riders who had been in the break, but Chiappucci was, to everyone’s surprise, the last to wear it and the most reluctant to give it up. For three weeks Greg LeMond chipped away at his lead, but Chiappucci, at the relatively late age of 27, was a man transformed, who, even while in yellow, attacked LeMond in the mountains. It took LeMond until one day before Paris, and a time trial, to finally wrest the yellow jersey from the little Italian’s shoulders. LeMond regarded Chiappucci as a pest, dubbing him “Cappuccino.”

But for Chiappucci, who finished second, it was only the start. The 1990 Tour made him a star, a celebrity. He was busy that winter. “Any- body who invited me, I showed up”—at schools, dinners, old folks’ homes, orphanages.

The following year, he won Milan–San Remo after a long, lone break- away, and then he finished second in the Giro and third in the Tour, where he was crowned King of the Mountains. Against the steady, stoic, unflashy Miguel Indurain, Chiappucci was everything the Spaniard was not: un- predictable, aggressive, exciting. He was El Diablo, who so fully embraced his nickname that he rode time trials with a cartoon devil on his helmet.

He acquired the name in South America. “I raced there at the start of my career and I’d always attack. They started calling me El Diablo because of it. For them, it was strange to see a European racing that way. When I re- turned home, I told the story, that they called me the devil, and the name started to stick. Even today, it’s incredible, I get people calling me Diablo instead of Claudio.”

He doesn’t exactly discourage that. There are devils—sketches and figurines—everywhere in Casa Chiappucci—even a devil-shaped telephone. You wonder if there was a knowingness in his embrace of the “diablo” moniker, given what we now know about this era of cycling, and especially Italian cycling. But, no. Chiappucci simply liked being the protagonist. He saw himself as a benign and popular devil, a showman and source of mis- chief. “I thought that it was better to have personality and style than a long palmarès. I wanted to be different.

“I had tactics,” Chiappucci continues, “but not the same tactics as ev- eryone else. The majority think there is only one tactic. Who said it has to be that way? You can race a million different ways. I knew my rivals’ tactics, and I’d go and destroy their plans. They think the race could only be raced in one way, like today when everyone just rides to the last climb and the race is made there.” Chiappucci’s approach was popular with the fans but also necessary against a steamroller of an opponent like Indurain. When taking on the Spaniard, it was clear that a more imaginative ap- proach was needed.

Approaching the 1992 Tour, there was one stage that stood out for Chiappucci: Saint-Gervais to Sestriere. It was brutally mountainous and, at 254 km, or 158 miles, hideously long. It was a stage that would reward the strong and the brave. It also visited Italy, ending with a summit finish at Sestriere, a climb synonymous with Fausto Coppi, the Italian cyclist whose name was shorthand for panache. Coppi won at Sestriere in 1952; now the Tour was preparing to visit on the 40th anniversary.

There was even a Chiappucci-Coppi family connection. “My dad and [Fausto] Coppi were in the war together in Africa, and my dad would speak with me about that,” Claudio says. In fact, Arduino Chiappucci and Coppi were prisoners of war in Ethiopia. “But,” Claudio adds, “I was closer to [Gino] Bartali.” Bartali was Coppi’s frequently bitter rival in the 1940s and

’50s. “Bartali was still alive in my time, and he was Tuscan, like my family.” In the POW camp, Chiappucci’s father gave up some of his food allow- ance for Coppi, to help the Campionissimo stay fit and healthy (though Coppi looked painfully thin, even in prime fitness). But that was the ex- tent of their relationship, says Claudio. “My dad and Coppi never saw each other after the war.” Arduino talked about Coppi to young Claudio, though. And his first racing bike, bought by his father when he was fourteen, was a Bianchi, as ridden by Coppi. Sadly, Arduino died in 1985, just as his son was turning professional. He never saw Claudio’s metamorphosis into Campione, if not Campionissimo.

After finishing second in the 1992 Giro (again to Indurain), Chiappucci began to prepare for the Tour. And in particular for Sestriere. “I’ve always studied stages in advance,” he says. “Many things can change: the weather, your rivals, a crash, a mechanical, a team attacking. However, beforehand, I try to have an idea of what I want to do. That stage to Sestriere, I prepared for months in advance. I wanted to do something, I wanted to confirm what I had done at the Tour in 1990 and 1991. That would be a confirmation, a Tour de France stage in Italy. I wanted to win that stage.”

After the Giro, in the company of two Carrera domestiques, Mario Chiesa and Fabio Roscioli, as well as his “favorite” directeur sportif, San- dro Quintarelli, Chiappucci went to ride the route. The reconnaissance ride has become commonplace today, but it wasn’t in 1992 (not least because the riders raced so much; Chiappucci points out that in 1991 he raced 143 days, more than any other rider). Indurain also attempted to scout out the stage to Sestriere, but was denied by snow blocking the third of the five climbs on the route, the Col d’Iseran.

Chiappucci and his teammates’ ride was an intelligence mission with a difference. The stage was so long that they decided to do it over two days, staying overnight in Megève, the small and exclusive ski town close to Mont Blanc and the Italian border. Riding the stage over the two days, Chiappucci was flying; he reckoned he had never felt so strong. “In train- ing, I was doing more gregario [domestique] work for Chiesa and Roscioli than they were for me,” he recalls. “They weren’t able to stay with me.”

The Day, July 18, 1992, dawned clear and sunny, especially at the summit of the ski station at Sestriere. “A tranquil haven under a piercing blue sky with air that could bring back the dead,” wrote the doyen of Italian journalists, Gianni Mura, in La Repubblica. “This is Sestriere.”

This stage, with its five climbs, was a “Death March,” according to some. Unusually, it was also, almost two weeks into the Tour, the first ma- jor mountain stage. In honor of the Maastricht Treaty, this was a Tour of the European Community: It started in San Sebastián, Spain, then all but missed the Pyrenees before visiting Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Ger- many, and now Italy. It had witnessed some extraordinary stages, not least Indurain bludgeoning the field in the 65-km stage 9 time trial, where he won by three minutes, a margin so enormous that it teetered on the edge of improbability. There were other notable days: Gilles Delion, always an outsider (who a few years later would make a premature exit from the sport after complaining that the use of EPO was rampant), winning a thrilling stage 7 into Valkenburg; Laurent Fignon, humiliated by Indurain in the Luxembourg time trial, raging against the dying of the light with a solo victory in Mulhouse.

Chiappucci, who finished five minutes behind Indurain in Luxembourg, was determined to prove that the 1992 Tour was not the Indurain show. But what could he do? Beat him to Paris? Perhaps not. Indurain seemed unbeatable. Make life difficult? Light some fires? He had nothing to lose.

Sestriere was the day. Chiappucci and the other climbers had waited so long for the high mountains that they were itching to go. But Claudio, in particular, had big plans. Not that you would have guessed from his horse- play in Saint-Gervais, when he traveled to the sign-on stage on the back of a teammate’s bike. He explains that such stunts, which were always part of his act, could be misleading. “I was very tense ahead of the stage,” Chi- appucci insists. “I was focused, more than for any of the other stages, be- cause I was prepared, I held it dear to me. I was heading into Italy and I knew there’d be so many fans waiting. I was worried about messing up.”

Chiappucci is interviewed by French TV as he is getting ready, perched on the hood of a team car, fastening the Velcro straps on his shoes. “Today, I want to do something good,” he tells them. “I feel great.”

He is asked if he will attack from the start. He shrugs. “I hope the race will be hard.”

Is he scared, or worried the race will be fast? “I prefer a fast race. For me it’s easier when there aren’t many left.”

The stage began to climb immediately, with the difficult category 2 Col des Saisies. After 14 km, Chiappucci attacked. At the top, he sprinted for King of the Mountains points—he was already in the polka-dot jersey. The impression was that Claudio was restless and impatient. Soon he was ac- celerating again, this time at the foot of the category 1 Cormet de Roselend,

50 km into the stage. Nine riders went with him, including a young French- man, Richard Virenque, and the veteran Irishman Sean Kelly. They had two minutes at the summit, with Sean Yates, the peloton’s most fearless descender, joining on the way down. But the climbing was relentless. Soon they hit the third climb, the Col d’Iseran, 37 km long—almost 23 miles— soaring to more than 2,770 m, or 9,000 feet, the highest pass in the Alps.

Chiappucci tackled the Iseran as though the finish was at the summit, hands on top of the bars, face contorted with the effort, legs churning. Only Virenque could stay with him. But after repeated efforts to close a gap that kept opening, Virenque’s head dropped; then he was gone. Chiappucci was oblivious. On he climbed, past huge snowdrifts, to the icy summit. By the top, Virenque was two minutes down. Further back, Indurain was in the main group, whittled down to just 35 riders, and three minutes, 45 seconds in arrears. There was carnage, with one of the big losers LeMond, who had been dropped and was almost 20 minutes down at the summit. Now Chiappucci was on his own; there were still over 100 km left of the stage.

He couldn’t maintain this, could he? It was so improbable, or impossible, that journalists in the press room crowded around the television monitors, urging him on. “It was a brave act, to the point of insanity,” wrote Mura later. “But it’s nice to be so crazy, and to hell with the calculations and tactics! After all, is it or is it not El Diablo? So who better than him?”

Chiappucci says now that his attack was an “accident.” “I found myself ahead on the second climb. At first, I didn’t realize it. Those behind didn’t realize that I was up front, and those up front didn’t realize right away that I was there with them. In that time, the advantage grew as we were starting the Roselend.

“Virenque was there but didn’t want to work because [his RMO team- mate] Pascal Lino was in yellow. At first everyone wanted to work, but then nobody. So I had to lift the pace to form a smaller group to see who could help. Also, I heard that Banesto [Indurain’s team] and Bugno’s team [Gatorade] were working. The fact that Bugno and his men were working upset me a bit.” Bugno, the world champion, was a fellow Italian. “I had to lift the pace on the climbs to see what happened,” Chiappucci continues. “Behind, they kept pulling, but it was getting strung out. Virenque was the last on my wheel. Before the Iseran, I asked him if he wanted to help. I told him Lino was going to lose the yellow jersey that day anyway. He said, ‘No, no, I can’t, Lino is still in yellow.’ So I lifted the pace.” And he got rid of Vi- renque. “I preferred to be on my own.”

It meant losing some of the advantages of being in a group, mainly the shelter from sitting on others’ wheels. But there were compensations, says Chiappucci. “When you’re in a group, you can’t think about how to man- age the effort because you have to battle and attack with the others. It was better to be alone to manage myself the way I wanted to, not to suffer or be forced to follow the others’ attacks.

“On the descent of the Iseran, I gained more time. I wanted to see how they reacted behind, if I’d pull out the G.C. favorites, but nothing happened. So I continued on my way to Cenisio [Mont Cenis], and on that climb the advantage stayed at three to four minutes. But still I kept thinking they would come.”

For Chiappucci, “this was not how I imagined it”—riding at or near the front for over 200 km, having been on the attack from 14 km. “I remembered the road, what I had done in training, but it was not the same, it was another story. That day in training, I was going well because I saw my teammates couldn’t stay with me. But here . . .” Here he was alone, rid- ing on feel, unsure whether he would pay for his efforts on the final climb. He knew enough from the reconnaissance to realize that a major test lay ahead, not the climb to Sestriere but in the Susa Valley, before the mountain, where the road climbed deceptively and the wind swirled mercilessly.

In the valley, “I managed my effort by not going above myself, by watch- ing my heart rate.” It is a little surprising to learn that this talented, impetuous rider did not do everything on instinct and feel. In fact, he was an early adopter of heart rate monitors, with chest strap and handlebar- mounted computer. “I had one of the first Polars and I watched my heart rate in the valley. When I saw it going too high, I eased up. I never went at my maximum. It seems strange, but I always went at my maximum on the descents, where it was easier for me and where I could gain more on my rivals.”

His heart rate in the valley, says Chiappucci, was below the red line: “160, 170—180 maximum. I always had a low heart rate, never up to 200. In the valley, if it started to rise, I backed off.”

Quintarelli offered a slightly different version of events afterward, say- ing that Chiappucci had repeatedly asked him for reassurance. “The times! The times!” Chiappucci implored.

“You’re killing him!” Quintarelli told him. “You’re slaughtering Indurain!” Like a lion waking from a long sleep and feeling pangs of hunger, Indurain was beginning to stir. When he forced the pace, the chasing group rapidly boiled down to four: Bugno, Andy Hampsten, Franco Vona, and Indurain himself. Up ahead, Chiappucci was suffering. “I thought in the Valle di Susa that they’d come up to me. I gained time on the descents but in the valleys that [time] was important, because I thought, on the straight roads, they’d be able to see me and come and get me. But they weren’t gaining on me, though at one point I had only a minute. That was hard, that was a crisis moment for me. I was thinking, what are they doing? Are they going to come and get me or what?”

From the following car, Quintarelli was “telling me to hold tight, not to give up. But I was cracking, practically in tears. It was very hot, I couldn’t eat any more, just drink. I got rid of my helmet, it was so hot. I was afraid that on Sestriere I’d fall apart, after all I had done. The closer I got, the more tense I became.

“I thought, if they catch me on the climb, it’s going to be bad.”

HALF OF ITALY HAD MADE a pilgrimage to Sestriere, or so it seemed. The tifosi (fans), keen to celebrate the exploits of Chiappucci and Bugno as they had once rejoiced in those of Coppi and Bartali, were packed so deep toward the top that the road disappeared. Assuming he made it that far, threading his way through would be Claudio’s next challenge.

Sestriere was almost a shrine to Italian cycling, having first appeared in the Giro d’Italia in 1911. It was introduced after the Tour de France visited the Pyrenees the previous year; if the French could climb 2,000-m mountains, so could the Italians. There were three ways up the mountain—two from the west, one from the east. The Tour had only approached from the west, Coppi climbing from Montgenèvre in ’52. Forty years later, Chiappucci would approach from Oulx, but the two routes—the Coppi route and the Chiappucci route—merge in Cesana Torinese. Then the road curls up in hairpins, rising out of the valley, into the rarefied mountain air, surrounded by 3,000-m peaks. Monte Fraiteve stands to one side, Monte Sises to the other. On it goes for 11 km, or nearly 7 miles, climbing to 2,033 m (6,670 feet).

The crowd, hundreds of thousands strong, mainly Italians, are waiting for Chiappucci and for their world champion and world No. 1, Bugno. They know Claudio has been out in front for 200 km, that he has embarked on a crazy adventure, a move that defies logic and common sense, but, with transistor radios pressed to ears, they follow his progress through the valley, scarcely believing that he is holding off a group led by the great Indu- rain. It’s a David-versus-Goliath encounter, with the added tension for the tifosi of David being Italian. The heat is stifling and the atmosphere on the mountain frenzied. They know Chiappucci’s lead has tumbled in the val- ley, falling from five minutes to barely one.

Chiappucci began climbing and “at the start I saw the 10 km to go sign, and thought this is going to be my hardest 10 km ever. At that point, I just didn’t know how I’d manage the climb, how I’d face it. I tried to stay calm. I lost some time in the first part. But I knew there was a slight false flat in the first part of the climb.”

Working his way up, Chiappucci is accompanied by one, sometimes two, sometimes three bare-chested tifosi, running alongside, pouring water on his head, offering a brief push then skipping out of the way of the following motorbikes. Behind, Indurain and Bugno steadily advance, eating into his lead. In contrast, Chiappucci is punchy, his body rocking with the effort of pushing the pedals. He is stocky, too. “He always had very heavy muscles,” as Stephen Roche says of Chiappucci. “He was built like the trunk of a tree.” Indurain and Bugno are rejoined by Hampsten and Vona, who instantly attacks. Bugno slides off the back. So steady is the world champion, his upper body rock solid, that it is hard to tell how tired Bugno is. But he is cooked. Hampsten is next. Now Indurain is alone, tapping out his infernal rhythm—always in the saddle. He grimaces slightly beneath his cap and behind his sunglasses, while up ahead Chiappucci’s sweat-dampened black hair frames his impish face. He is also grimacing, but while Indurain seems impassive (wearing “a look of unemotional determination,” in Sam Abt’s description), it appears as though Chiappucci is grinning from ear to ear. And riding not through the crowds, but into them. He bounces off them, like a bumper car, weaving left and right. It means Chiappucci is part of the crowd, too. There’s an electric connection between them. You can see it. They respond in a way they don’t to those who follow. They are cool toward Indurain and hostile toward the struggling Bugno, who is booed and whistled at. Chiappucci is adored.

Then, just ahead of Chiappucci, the flotilla of motorbikes—TV, press photographers, police, officials—becomes clogged up. They can’t get through the crowds. Horns are blasted, engines revved, but it’s no good. “I was nearly at a standstill,” Chiappucci recalls. In front of him, a cacophony of noise and the stench of toxic exhaust fumes; a maelstrom that mocks Mura’s poetic description of Sestriere as a tranquil haven.

There is nowhere for him to go other than to try to squeeze past the motorbikes, overtaking the convoy that was supposed to clear the way. With a bit of quick thinking and improvisation this is what Chiappucci does, sitting up, shouting, and waving his arm to clear the road. Then he presses on. “On the one hand, it bugged me,” Chiappucci says of the moment he almost came to a stop. “But on the other, it gave me a lot of mo- tivation and strength. At that moment, I regained energy. If the road was empty, I would’ve just cracked, but instead I took on their energy. I felt they wanted something, and they contributed a lot. I think they understood my undertaking.”

Chiappucci continues his monologue, his mythologizing of his great exploit. “This was an escape in the Tour where my rivals didn’t give me any favors. I wasn’t let loose like an unknown domestique”—like 1990, in other words. “They knew who I was and that they couldn’t give me space because it’d be difficult to catch me. They thought that I wouldn’t be able to make it. They thought that I’d crack.

“But,” Chiappucci adds, “my legs and the fans were my salvation.” With 5 km to the summit, before he escaped his cocoon and overtook the motorbikes, Chiappucci led by one minute, 25 seconds. Behind him, Indurain was revving his engine. Now he would surely haul Chiappucci back. Everybody thought so. Chiappucci had been riding like this—hard, recklessly, but without fear—for 200 km and more than seven hours. With 3 km to go, his lead over Indurain was 57 seconds. That was well within Indurain’s range.

Chiappucci knew Indurain was closing. “I thought, oh boy, here he comes. In those last 2 km, I risked losing everything that I’d done in the 250 km before. I touched bottom. I probably wasn’t feeling anything, just the fans that were all over me; the whole time, a loud roar, but it gave me a lot of encouragement. I thought, no, Indurain can’t come and get me.” He had no way of knowing exactly how close Indurain was. “We didn’t have ear-pieces then, so it was ciclismo naturale, based on instincts. My DS [directeur sportif ] was yelling that I was losing time. But I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I thought he said the gap came down to 30 seconds.”

One big effort and Indurain would gobble Chiappucci up. Then the im- possible: The strain began to tell on Indurain. His shoulders gently rocked, the suppleness went from his legs, the grimace became a frown. He was caught and passed by Vona. Now, as Chiappucci headed into the relative tranquility of the final 500 m, where barriers kept the fans at bay, his lead began to increase again. “I thought, if Indurain caught me, I was faster, maybe I could outsprint him? Then he cracked! And I took more time.”

In the final meters, Chiappucci raised one arm, though the effort looked as though it might cause him to topple over. Then, just before the line, he managed to lift both arms before wobbling across the line, where his mother was waiting. As he was mobbed by reporters, Renata Chiappucci screamed, “Let him through, let him through, he’s my son!”

Somehow she found him, or Chiappucci found her. She cradled his head in her arms. It was Renata, not Claudio, who gave the first interview. “I was sure that they wouldn’t catch him. Everyone kept telling me, ‘Stay calm, signora, stay calm! This is how Coppi won forty years ago.’

“Now I’m calm,” she added, “now I’m calm.”

Chiappucci lifted his head and addressed her. “Mamma, off you go and rest now.”

When he could speak, Chiappucci said to the reporters who surrounded him, “When I heard that Indurain had dropped Bugno and was chasing me—him, Miguel, chasing me—I felt twice the size, like three Chiappuccis in one, a cooperative of Chiappuccis!”

Vona made it an Italian one-two, 1:34 down on Chiappucci, with Indu- rain third, another nine seconds later. “I finished this stage very tired,” said Indurain. “The hard course, the rhythm of the race and the heat exhausted me.” Indurain usually finished stages looking barely out of breath. Not to- day. “It’s the only day that I ever saw Indurain have trouble climbing the stairs in the hotel,” said his teammate Jean-François Bernard.

Behind Chiappucci, there was devastation. The crowds, high on Chiappucci’s epic victory, did not calm down after he had passed. “I remember asking Jean-François Pescheux, who was in the lead car, to do something about the crowds, to try and open up the roads,” said Laurent Fignon. “It was the first time I ever saw anything like it. They scared me. Perhaps it was Chiappucci’s exploit that made them like that.”

“When people ask me what was the hardest day on my bike, I say Sestriere,” said Stephen Roche, Chiappucci’s Carrera teammate. “I’ve never been so exhausted. I spent 150 km in the gruppetto. I’ll never forget Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle’s face. He said to me, ‘I can’t see the 20 km to go sign— where is it?’ I dared not tell him that we still had 70 km to do.”

Most poignant of all was the fate of LeMond, who hadn’t even started climbing to Sestriere when Chiappucci was reaching the summit with his arms in the air. The three-time Tour winner was one of 18 riders to finish outside the time limit; he was 130th, almost 50 minutes down. Did Chiappucci, once dubbed “Cappuccino” by LeMond, enjoy that? “I was already finished with him. After the 1990 Tour, he just didn’t exist in my book. But it gave me a bit of pleasure to force him out. Yeah.”

He wasn’t particularly enamored with Bugno after Sestriere, either. Now he says, “He gave Indurain a hand to chase. Indurain was on his own after Cenisio, but then they brought him back into the race. Why? I don’t know, I’ve always wondered that. Maybe because I was Italian as well; maybe he thought, ‘It’d be better if a foreigner, a Spaniard, wins in Sestriere—at least that way he won’t take any of my fame.’ I don’t know. People were very upset with him. We never really had a chance to speak about it. For a long time we weren’t talking, but now we hear from each other quite of- ten. However, we have never talked about that day.”

Bugno’s comments, immediately after the stage, sounded an oddly discordant note. “Chiappucci’s break is great but hard to believe in,” he said.

Gradually Chiappucci’s ride and its implications were digested. In the short term, he was up to second overall in the 1992 Tour, behind Indurain. But the significance went beyond that. “I didn’t think it was possible to do such things in modern cycling,” said Felice Gimondi, the last Italian win- ner of the Tour, in 1965. “It deserves to go down in the history of the Tour and of cycling.”

And yet against Indurain it was not enough. The Spaniard won in Paris, for the second of his five consecutive victories, while Chiappucci held on to second. But for Gianni Mura, writing in La Repubblica, “Indurain is the winner but Chiappucci is the hero of the Tour . . . the rider who lit up the race.” He had previously considered Chiappucci a glorious loser, another Raymond Poulidor, the so-called Eternal Second of the 1960s and ’70s. “Now I take off my hat and bow,” wrote Mura. “What Chiappucci did on the stage to Sestriere is at the limits of credibility [and] is one of the greatest feats in cycling.” Little Claudio left the Tour “enlarged by it.”

HE HAD WON STAGE 19, but Chiappucci looks reflective now. “If there was one or two kilometers more, I could’ve won the Tour.”

Typical Claudio, getting carried away. Always wanting more. Was the stage win, achieved in such extraordinary fashion, after seven hours, 44 minutes, and 51 seconds in the saddle, mostly alone, not enough?

He springs out of the sofa, heads for one of his mother’s cabinets and opens a drawer. “Here, look at this photo,” he says. “A fan took it from behind, as I’m crossing the line.” There he is, arms in the air, the vivid red polka-dots of his jersey standing out against the bright blue sky. “It’s beau- tiful, this shot. Not even taken by a professional.”

Not that you would know it now, in meeting the effervescent Chiappucci, but El Diablo’s career ended ignominiously. In 1997, he twice failed the UCI’s new “health check,” designed to control the scourge of EPO abuse in the absence of a test for the drug.

The exact date at which EPO, which gave the body a magical infusion of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, entered the peloton is not clear, but most put it at some point in the early 1990s, and, if they were to identify a country of origin, it would be Italy.

By the mid-1990s it was ubiquitous. But in the absence of a test the au- thorities were powerless. The health check was a compromise: If a blood test revealed a rider’s hematocrit (red blood cell count) to be over 50 per- cent, he was forced to take two weeks off racing. It wasn’t a doping ban, but a high hematocrit was prima facie evidence of EPO use. Chiappucci was one of the first to fail, initially at the 1997 Tour of Romandie in May, forcing him to miss the Giro, then again on the eve of the world championships. The test was, he said at the time, “a scandal. I lost half my season because of that. The mentality of the sport has changed.”

Others have claimed that July 18, 1992, was the day the sport changed. A decade after Chiappucci’s win at Sestriere, the French magazine Velo looked back on “a day of madness,” with Chiappucci cast as “the bionic man.” “Ten years later, what is the legacy of this day?” asked the magazine. “Did it announce a new era, polluted by a miracle drug? Did it symbolize the start of the EPO years?”

“Sestriere symbolized the arrival of the heavy artillery,” was the coded verdict of one of Indurain’s teammates, Jean-François Bernard. “A don- key will never be a racehorse,” said Roche. “If you accuse Chiappucci, you doubt all the achievements of cyclists and athletes in general.” Fignon made the point to Velo that Chiappucci’s was not the only exceptional perfor- mance. “Why not ask about the time trial in Luxembourg, where Indurain takes three minutes out of the second-placed rider, nearly four minutes out of Bugno, and six minutes out of me?” he said. “Nineteen-ninety-two was probably the first year where we see lots of suspicious things and we get clear confirmation in 1993. I will not say that I stopped only because of this [Fignon retired at the end of the 1993 season]. I was finished. But riders who were not as good as me were climbing much better than me. I regularly lost four or five minutes despite riding well. . . . I was becoming just another rider in the peloton.”

In 1997, Chiappucci told an Italian prosecutor, Vincenzo Scolastico, that he had used EPO since 1993, the year after Sestriere. But later he re-tracted his statement.

Chiappucci was certainly part of what was described, at the time, as an Italian renaissance, when their riders dominated classics and the podiums of Grand Tours; only the presence of Indurain prevented them clogging the top step. It was a remarkable resurgence, one that coincided with the increasing prominence of Italian medics such as Professor Francesco Con- coni and Dr. Michele Ferrari, whose methods are now well understood.

How did Chiappucci do it? How could he ride so hard, so long, over five mountains, and hold off Indurain? “Passion, stubbornness, suffering, and willpower. That is how I won on Sestriere,” he says.

In 2012 Chiappucci was invited back to the mountain to mark the 20th anniversary of his defining achievement. With other cyclists, he rode from Cesana Torinese up to Sestriere. “It was a good party, we talked, and they gave me a beautiful wood trophy—you want to take a photograph?”

The trophy is in Chiappucci’s own apartment, so he leads us back down the stairs. “Time passes quickly,” says Claudio. “I realized in my career, if I want to be different, I’ve got to do it this way. Attack, cause trouble. And let me tell you, it’s a lot more tiring. That’s normal, otherwise everyone would be doing the same thing. I had the head for it, however. From the outside it looked like chaos, but it was planned.

“Okay, I could have just stayed and played the game and won many more races,” he adds. “I would have won 150 to 200 races. There are many riders who’ve won that many races, but they lack character.

“I won 80 races; maybe I could have won more, but my victories have more value. And the people remember the way I won races, not the number of races won. The way you win. That’s what’s important.”

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Stage 11 Anarchy: Stephen Roche, Jean-Francois Bernard, and Andy Hampsten in the 1987 Tour de France

 Monday, July 20, 1987

Valreas to Villard-de-Lans

185 km/115 mi mountains

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France: Shelly Verses, Jean-Francois Bernard, Andy Hampsten, Stephen Roche 1987 AnarchyThere’s a photo of me washing his face at the finish,” says Shelley Verses, “but really I was trying to cover his face, to hide it.”

Verses was soigneur to the Toshiba team, whose leader in 1987, after the retirement of Bernard Hinault and the serious injuries suffered by Greg LeMond in a hunting accident in April, was Jean-François Bernard. “Jeff ” Bernard was 25; he had won a stage in 1986 and was the great hope of French cycling, the man who might fill the void left by Hinault.

Verses was waiting for Bernard at the finish of stage 19 in Villard-de- Lans. She was the only soigneur from the Toshiba team with an “A” on her accreditation, the only one allowed at the Arrivée (finish). She was also Bernard’s personal soigneur. It was his first day in the yellow jersey.

When Bernard finally appeared, after a dramatic, calamitous day, Verses sprinted to meet him. The photographers followed. She got to him first. “The photographers crowded around me so hard and so fast; I was short, there was a crush, and I couldn’t get the towel around his face. When I saw that he was starting to cry, I got his head down and I scooshed water on his face, so it looked like that was why his face was wet.

“We got away from there as quick as we could,” Verses continues. “My hotel room was on the ground floor. They always put the soigneurs on the ground floor because we had a lot of equipment, massage tables and all. The journalists were banging on my window from the outside. They knew Jeff was on my table. Jeff was still crying. I left him on the table, pulled the bedspread off my bed, and draped it over the curtain rod so they couldn’t see through the crack. And every time a tear came out of his eye, I just dabbed it.

“I told him to stay sharp as a knife. ‘Sharp as a knife, Jeff,’ that’s all I said.”

What happens when a leader of men retires? When a mafia boss is murdered or a dictator dies?

Bernard Hinault retired, as he always said he would, on November 14, 1986, the day of his 32nd birthday. And with that, the peloton was deprived of its patron. “He was Mussolini, he was Stalin, he was Hitler, he was all of them, rolled into one,” said Verses. “They had to ask Hinault if they wanted to stop for a piss.”

Hinault’s fifth and final Tour victory came in 1985. In his final year, he was second to his teammate Greg LeMond, but LeMond’s win was on Hinault’s terms. Hinault attacked relentlessly, seemingly breaking the promise he had made to help LeMond. One interpretation—Hinault’s— was that Hinault made his American teammate work for it. Another—Le- Mond’s—was that the Badger was trying to win his sixth. Hinault said that he was “stirring the pot” and having fun. “I never had so much fun as I did in my final Tour.”

Not only was Hinault missing in 1987 but so, too, was LeMond, the victim of a freak, nearly tragic, accident in the spring. He was shot by his brother-in-law while they were out hunting turkey. His life almost ended, his career curtailed in its prime.

Yet here was the strange thing: While many complained about Hinault when he was around, they missed him when he was gone, because the control exerted by the rider known as the Badger was also gone. Laurent Fignon, the winner in 1983 and ’84, was riding in 1987, but with his aura diminished, his authority reduced by his years out with injury.

Nobody was in charge. There was a vacuum. There was anarchy.

In Hunger, his autobiography, the Irishman Sean Kelly described the opening week of the 1987 Tour as “like being back in the amateurs with everybody thinking they had a chance. Fignon was the only former winner in the field but he didn’t have the authority of a patron. He was yelling to the guys at the front that they should let the lunatics go, but no one was listening.”

During one stage, Kelly told Fignon, “If Hinault was here, this would be stopped immediately.”

“We’re going to kill ourselves if we carry on like this all the way to Paris,” Fignon replied.

By 1993, having settled into the role of super-domestique for Indurain, Bernard told L’Équipe: “I’ll never be a leader. I can’t be someone that you can count on one hundred per cent, and if you ask that of me I lose half my power.”

So what happened to France’s great hope in 1987? Well, it was anarchy.

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Stage 10: Guerrilla Warfare, Luis Herrera, Bernard Hinault, and Laurent Fignon, 1984

Monday, July 16, 1984

Grenoble to L’Alpe d’Huez

151 km/94 mi mountains

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France: Luis Herrera, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon 1984 Guerrilla WarfareA contrast in styles. The spindly legs of the small climber, Luis Herrera, spinning fluidly. The lumbering and painful grinding of the Badger, Bernard Hinault, forcing a huge gear, shoulders rolling.

Herrera floats out of the saddle and eases clear. Hinault lifts himself heavily and accelerates back up to him. Then he passes Herrera. But it’s a façade. The Badger is bluffing. It has been the story of Hinault’s day, of his Tour. If he’s going to go down, he will go down fighting. Herrera, who looks like a child on an adult’s bike, pulls effortlessly clear again and Hinault, still snarling, has no response. Daylight opens between them.

Herrara, the little bird, is set free. Now he is flying up l’Alpe d’Huez, while Hinault labors, and a little lower down the mountain, Laurent Fignon, in the tricolore of French champion, sets off in pursuit.

Let’s freeze the picture there.

Herrera was an amateur, riding for the Colombian national team. For a 23-year-old débutant, he arrived at the start of the 1984 Tour with quite a reputation. Big things were expected. There was even talk of him win- ning. He had won a major stage race in his own country, the Clásico RCN, three times. All 23 editions of the Clásico had been won by Colombians, but in the early 1980s it opened its doors to European teams and some of the stars had gone prior to the 1984 Tour de France—including the ’83 Tour winner, Fignon.

Fignon talks about his visit to Colombia in his book, We Were Young and Carefree. “An astonishing experience,” he writes. He and the other Europeans were there primarily because it was at altitude, over 2,000 m, or 6,500 feet. It was thought to be good preparation for the upcoming Tour. Fignon was struck by the vast crowds, by the remarkable mountains, the equally remarkable climbing ability of the Colombian riders—and the co- caine. He later admitted he dabbled on the final night. But in the race it- self, the Tour champion was nowhere. Fignon finished 43rd in the Clásico, humbled by Herrera.

The question was, could the Colombians demonstrate their talent over- seas, in Europe? At the Dauphiné Libéré, a month before the 1984 Tour, Hinault was beaten by another Colombian, Martin Ramírez, despite some dubious tactics that spoke of the disdain in which the Colombians were held—or, perhaps, the threat these ingénues posed. Ramírez defended his overall lead by positioning himself on Hinault’s wheel, and later claimed to Matt Rendell for his book Kings of the Mountains that Hinault “responded by braking hard to make me fall, while his team bombarded me with elbows and fists.”

“No one knew who we were,” Ramírez continued. “Cochise [Martin Emilio “Cochise” Rodríguez, the first Colombian to ride the Tour de France, in 1975] had raced in Europe, but that had been long before. So it was clear that they saw us and called us ‘little Indians,’ ‘savages.’ We showed up all of a sudden, and managed to beat them in a big stage race on the eve of the Tour de France. Well, that just wasn’t something they wanted. So the reception was not very good.”

What was not appreciated or even widely known in Europe was how developed Colombia’s cycling culture was. It had prospered quite apart from the European circuit, separated by a chasm even wider than the Atlantic. The Colombian scene had its roots in the early 1950s when a national tour, the Vuelta a Colombia, started, followed a decade later by the Clásico RCN. Like the Tour de France, the Vuelta was founded by a newspaper, Colom- bia’s biggest daily, El Tiempo.

Almost immediately, both races attracted enormous crowds and dominated the national conversation. According to Klaus Bellon, a Colombian journalist, they unlocked something, revealing that “the entire mountain- ous South American country was delirious with passion for cycling.” That passion simmered for almost four decades before finally boiling over and spilling into Europe.

If nobody in Europe knew about the popularity of the sport in Colombia, the ignorance was fully reciprocated: Few in Colombia knew about the great European riders and races. “My first Tour de France was in 1972,” Hector Urrego, another Colombian journalist and broadcaster, tells me. “I worked for Mundo Ciclistico, a monthly cycling magazine in Colombia. My impression at the Tour de France was, this is the best, the biggest event in the world.”

Well, of course it was. It was the Tour de France. But in the pre–mass media, pre-Internet age, they did not realize this in Colombia, where the Vuelta a Colombia or Clásico RCN were the biggest bike races. Biggest in South America? The world? Who knew?

Major stars had raced in Colombia, including Fausto Coppi, but he, like Fignon three decades later, struggled in the mountains and altitude of Colombia. Any debate about who was better, the Europeans or Colombians, remained tantalizingly unresolved.

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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.

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Stage 9: What About Zimmy? Urs Zimmermann, 1991

 Wednesday, July 17, 1991

Rest day: Pau

0 km/0 mi

Etape by Richard Moore tour de france stages urs zimmerman what about zimmy 1991The Tour de France is the circus that everybody thinks they would love to run away with. Colorful, exotic, glamorous, the allure for those outside its bubble is as strong and appealing as the idea that everybody inside it is as one. An impression of cohesion and unity is reinforced by the peloton itself, one of sport’s most powerful symbols of togetherness.

When the riders, lean and tanned and at the peak of their athletic prowess, step out of their team buses and climb aboard their gleaming bikes, on which most cut such graceful figures, it can be difficult not to feel a twinge of envy. But there are around 180 riders at the Tour. Of the 180, some will be highly motivated. Some will not. Some will be at war with their teammates. Others will be at war with themselves. Some will be confident. Others will be terrified. The Tour amplifies problems, physical, psychological, political.

People love sport because it offers an escape from reality. But what if it is reality? Despite what many might like to believe, what might be called Andre Agassi syndrome is not uncommon in elite, professional sports, even if Agassi is an extreme case. “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis,” said Agassi, “hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have.”

It wasn’t that Urs Zimmermann didn’t like his fellow cyclists. It was just that, after two weeks in their company, he felt like he needed a change.

Actually, Zimmermann thinks again, sometimes he really didn’t like his fellow cyclists.

Already stick-thin, Zimmermann shed more weight after going on an extreme diet in the winter of 1985—though this coincided, he points out, with moving out of his parents’ house. The next year, he finished third in the Tour de France, one of the greatest Tours of all time, behind the warring teammates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.

Yet even then Zimmermann seemed awkward and uncomfortable, as though he didn’t really belong in their company. Part of the reason was that he spent much of that Tour arguing with his Carrera team director, Davide Boifava, over his tactics. Boifava thought he wasn’t calculating enough, that he was reckless in attacking too often and at the wrong moments. It was Zimmermann’s nervousness that partly explained his attacking style. Like a lot of climbers, he didn’t like being in the peloton. He would rather be up the road, preferably alone.

It was Zimmermann’s desire to be apart, his reluctance to spend more time than was absolutely necessary in the company of his fellow cyclists, that led to his involvement in one of the stranger episodes in Tour history. It was halfway during the 1991 Tour when he was disqualified for travel- ing by car rather than plane from Saint-Herblain in the Loire-Atlantique, in northwest France, to Pau, in the southwest, some 565 km. Few riders in the history of the Tour had been thrown out of the race—at the time, even a doping infraction would often result in a paltry fine and time penalty.

It seemed a ridiculously excessive punishment for such a crime. Particularly when it was explained, in his defense, that Zimmermann was scared of flying. Zimmermann smiles at the memory. “I wasn’t afraid of flying. If I was afraid of flying, why did I go to the airport to fly home?”

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Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

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Stage 8: Trilogy, Eddy Merckx, 1971

Thursday, July 08, 1971

Grenoble to Orcieres-Merlette

134 km/83 mi high mountains

 

Monday, July 19, 1971

Orcieres-Merlette to Marseille

251 km/156 mi flat

 

Monday, July 12, 1971

Revel to Luchon

214.5 km/133.3 mi mountains

REVEL/LUCHONTo speak of stage 11 or 12 of the 1971 Tour de France in isolation would be like talking about only one-half of a great soccer match. To then ignore stage 14 would be like not mentioning extra time in a World Cup final.

One of the two protagonists is Eddy Merckx, “the Cannibal,” the greatest bike racer ever. He gobbled up races, devoured opponents, yet the cu- rious thing is that he did not win any of these three stages, and, naturally, excludes them from his list of personal favorites. It didn’t stop Jacques Goddet, the Tour director, describing one of these losing performances as the most “moving” of Merckx’s career, while Merckx’s own teammate, Rini Wagtmans, described the second as “the greatest stage in Tour de France history.”

I meet Eddy Merckx in Doha, where he can be found most Februarys, in his role as ambassador at the Tour of Qatar. In the mornings, he rides his bike with the Belgian friends who work on the race in a variety of roles— clearly being a friend of Big Eddy has its advantages. In the afternoons, after returning and clack-clacking across the hotel’s polished marble floors in cleated cycling shoes and Lycra that struggles to contain his fuller figure, Merckx heads back into the desert to supervise the stage finishes. In the evenings, he wines and dines in one of the expensive rooftop restaurants. And throughout, Merckx wears an impassive expression, revealing nothing.

Merckx is not merely a retired cyclist. He is his sport’s GOAT: Greatest Of All Time. In cycling terms, he is Ali, Pelé, and Jordan rolled into one. Yet the Merckx mystique is difficult to measure. Perhaps it is his ubiquity, which is due to his regular presence at the major races, or the impassivity that is his trademark. He often looks bored. His face—doe eyes, eyebrows like dark caterpillars, high cheekbones, downturned lips—appears to convey deep sadness, or boredom, or vacancy, as the journalist Odélie Grand observed when she interviewed him for L’Aurore in the 1970s. Grand noted that most of her male interviewees betrayed some sense that she was a woman, even some interest, “But in front of Eddy Merckx, nothing! His gaze gets lost somewhere over your shoulder and erases you from the picture. It’s a blackout. You no longer exist. He replies with a yes or a no, but he’s thousands of kilometers away, on his own inaccessible planet.” (Never mind failing to acknowledge the fact she was a woman, there is almost the sense that Merckx didn’t even register that Grand was a person.)

The paradox, of course, is that Merckx’s impassivity is so at odds with his engagement with—or immersion in—his sport. Merckx’s behavior— his attention to every detail relating to body and bike, his semipermanent state of high anxiety, his crises of confidence, his failure to ever be satisfied, his need to win every race he rode—was obsessive-compulsive before the term became fashionable.

You cannot appreciate Merckx, and what he did, by sitting and talking to him in the opulent lobby of the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel in Qatar, or from watching the bloated figure clack-clacking across the marble floors; you must go back to the lean, sculpted, and sideburned cyclist of the late 1960s and early 1970s, who came upon the scene like a hurricane and was capable of deeds so extraordinary that the language of the sport seemed inadequate to describe them.

The trouble with Merckx is that there are so many deeds to choose from. The pick for many is 1969 and his Tour de France début, specifically the stage that tackled the “Circle of Death” in the Pyrenees—Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, and Col d’Aubisque. Merckx attacked over the top of the Tourmalet, then rode alone for 140 km—about 87 miles—to win in Mourenx. That performance prompted the Tour director, Jacques Goddet, to coin a new word, Merckxissimo.

And indeed, when I ask Merckx to select his greatest-ever performance, this is his initial choice. “Sixty-nine, Luchon to Mourenx?” Merckx suggests. “I think also ’68 to Tre Cime di Lavaredo [stage 12 of the Giro d’Italia, on his way to his first Grand Tour victory]. And Paris–Roubaix in 1970.”

Merckx chuckles. “There are a lot.”

There are.

But in 1971 there appeared to be a chink in Merckx’s armor.

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 13% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.

Richard Moore Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France book coverWhat if all the best Tour stages happened in one race? In his new book Étape, critically acclaimed author Richard Moore weaves first-person interviews with cycling’s great riders to assemble a “dream team” of the best Tour de France stages in modern history.

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.

Étape is available in bookstores, bike shops, and online: