To mark Eddy Merckx's 70th birthday, we look back on one of the defining races of his career: the brutal, tumultuous 1975 Tour de France. Ultimately he was beaten, but the memory of a classic race will never fade

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The best cyclist ever to grace two wheels, Eddy Merckx turns 70 today, and to mark the occasion, we have released an ultimate guide to The Cannibal, which you can order now. It takes a whole magazine to look back at his life on the bike, but here we’re looking back at a single defining time in the great man’s career: his defeat in the 1975 Tour de France.

Perhaps it seems perverse to suggest the 1975 Tour de France was one of the high spots of Merckx‘s career. After all, this was the year he suffered his first defeat in the Tour de France. He was also attacked by a spectator and injured his face in a fall. 

But being a champion isn’t just about winning. It’s also about pride in performance, loyalty to team-mates and a bloody-minded refusal to accept defeat. Those were some of the qualities displayed by Merckx in the Tour of 1975.

The Belgian had rampaged his way through that year’s spring Classics, scoring his sixth win in Milan-San Remo, winning the Tour of Flanders for the second time and Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the fifth time. In addition, he placed second in Paris-Roubaix.

He might have triumphed at Roubaix had he not punctured with a few kilometres to go. “I rode like a man possessed to catch the leaders, but by the time I rejoined them Roger De Vlaeminck was away,” Merckx recalled.

With this kind of form, Merckx looked a good bet to add another Tour de France to the five he had won already – although, in public at least, he insisted he had no desire to beat the all-time record he held jointly with Jacques Anquetil. “The idea doesn’t interest me very much because then people would want me to go for a seventh and then an eighth,” he said.

Tour heroes

Merckx and Thevenet at the 2009 Tour de France. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Merckx and Thevenet at the 2009 Tour de France. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Just three riders wore the yellow jersey in the 1975 Tour, each of them a star name in his own right. Francesco Moser won the prologue at Charleroi and stayed in yellow until stage five. Then, 
in the first time trial held over 16 kilometres at Merlin Plage, Merckx put 30 seconds into Moser and donned the maillot jaune.

The race headed south to Bordeaux, where Britain’s Barry Hoban was the stage winner, and on to Auch, where Merckx again proved he was master against the watch. Merckx won the 
37-kilometre time trial from Bernard Thévenet, who was only nine seconds down, a portent of the challenge to come.

Felice Gimondi and Joop Zoetemelk took the main stages in the Pyrenees and the lamented Gerrie Knetemann won at Albi.

The race finish in Paris was just over a week away as the peloton embarked on stage 14, a mountain time trial, which finished on the 1,400-metre summit of the Puy de Dôme.

Merckx, still in yellow, was battling up the climb when, almost within sight of the finish, a French spectator emerged from the crowd and punched Merckx in the stomach .

“I was about to catch Zoetemelk on the climb,” Merckx recalled. “The blow winded me and I took a long time to get my breath back.”

Merckx was clearly in distress at the finish, whether from the shock of the assault or the effort of the climb, it was impossible to say.

Later, Merckx would claim that the punch on the Puy de Dôme cost him his chance of becoming the first six-time winner of the Tour. However, after the time trial stage, he was still in yellow, with Thévenet hovering less than a minute down.

Following a rest day, battle resumed with a mountain stage from Nice to Pra Loup. Merckx attacked and dropped Thévenet on the Col d’Allos. As he raced towards the final climb, his hold on the yellow jersey looked to be safe for another day.

But then Merckx blew up in sensational style on Pra Loup. Thévenet, who thought his chance of victory had disappeared, gained new heart as word of the Belgian’s collapse spread down the mountain. In a memorable confrontation, the Frenchman caught a suffering Merckx two kilometres from the summit.

Yellow no more

Most of Merckx's success came after he left Peugeot, but his time there helped shape his career. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Merckx would never wear yellow again. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

By the time he crossed the stage finish line, Thévenet had turned a one-minute deficit at the foot of Pra Loup to a two-minute advantage at the top.

Merckx had worn the yellow jersey for the last time in his career. He claimed that his breakdown on Pra Loup was caused by medication he had taken to alleviate the effects of the thump he had received on the Puy de Dôme.

As if empowered by the yellow jersey on his back, Thévenet produced the ride of his life next day on the Col d’Izoard. The moonlike landscape of the Izoard was the setting for Thévenet’s epic as he put two minutes into Merckx, which virtually assured him of victory in Paris.

Merckx meanwhile ran into more trouble before the stage 17 start in Valloire. Riding to the start he collided with Denmark’s Ole Ritter and fell on his face, breaking a cheekbone.

He still rode an aggressive stage, in the vain hope of dethroning Thévenet. But as the days went by, the pain grew worse and he had difficulty eating.

The Tour doctor advised him to abandon, but Merckx was determined to reach Paris no matter what the cost. He was also aware that had he pulled out of the Tour it would have left his loyal team-mates a lot poorer. Without Merckx’s second-place prize money and the cash he picked up in the points, mountains and team classifications, the Molteni men would have had little to show for their three weeks’ hard labour.

Later, Merckx would say his decision to continue in the Tour was “really stupid. It was a mistake that helped to cut short my career.”

Merckx kept on attacking all the way to the Champs-Elysées. But the Tour had been a lost cause since the Alps, where Merckx had suffered his first serious defeat and Thévenet had opened a lead of almost three minutes.

>>> Cycling Legends: the ultimate guide to Eddy Merckx – pre-order your copy now

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  • Kenneth Alcorn

    Another error is by Merckx himself, if he was quoted accurately. In the 1975 Roubaix, he did flat with 9 kilometers to go to the finish and he staged a tremendous pursuit, catching the lead group of De Vlaeminck, De Meyer and Dierickx with about 5 km to go; Merckx attacked immediately, trying to catch his rivals off guard, but De Vlaeminck quickly chased him down. The four Belgians stayed together until the sprint in the velodrome. Merckx started the sprint in front and long, about 300 meters from the line. De Vlaeminck won by half a wheel. Merckx second, Dierickx third. So, De Vlaeminck did not drop his rivals while Merckx was in pursuit.

  • Jon Borley

    I enjoyed reading the article and reliving the 1975 Tour but, for the sake of accuracy, I feel I must point out that stage 14 was not a time trial. I know because I was there and have photos to prove it. Why has nobody else pointed this out?