The radio station who reported the possibility of a stage finish on top of the giant Cime de la Bonette climb, Dici.fr, have now come up with a more logical, and logistically acceptable, suggestion for where the finish of stage 20 of the 2015 Tour de France will be. It’s the ski village of Pra-Loup at the end of the climb that took the biggest scalp in cycling.
There will be a stage finish in the Ubaye Valley next year, there’s no doubt about that. Every hotel room is booked up there for the night of July 20, and most are the same for the 21st. So that suggests a stage finish in the Ubaye Valley, a rest day in Gap at the eastern end of the valley on July 21, and a stage start there on the 22. That stage could end on Alpe d’Huez, which has been rumoured to be in the 2015 Tour for quite some time.
But why is Pra-Loup being suggested as the stage finish? Because 2015 sees the 40th anniversary of the end of Eddy Merckx’s reign in the Tour de France. The Tour was where Merckx earned his nickname, the Cannibal, and he dominated every time he took part from 1969 to 1974, winning every Tour he started. Whatever the Tour de France threw at him, Merckx beat it, most often with a knock-out blow.
Back in 1975 he looked to be on his way to doing the same, when he was punched by a spectator on the climb of the Puy-de-Dome on stage 14. Merckx lost 34 seconds in the short time it took him to reach the summit after the incident, but he still had the yellow jersey by 58 seconds.
The next stage went from Nice to Pra-Loup. Merckx’s lead was still healthy. He could have ridden cautiously to help his body recover from the bad bruising he’d suffered. Except Eddy Merckx didn’t know what cautious was. He looked in command as the lead group climbed the Col des Champs, then he attacked near the top with 63 kilometres to go.
Merckx descended alone, then flew up and over the Col d’Allos, extending his lead all the way. Then he began the climb to the ski station at Pra-Loup. He was pedalling strongly and had a healthy lead. Pra-Loup isn’t a steep climb, or a very long or very dramatic one; the drama was all with Merckx because he suddenly went into slow motion. For the first time ever in a bike race Eddy Merckx had over-estimated his strength and completely blown up. He was human, after all.
Behind him, Bernard Thevenet launched an attack that splintered the chasing group. He caught Merckx and rode straight past him, not even looking at him. Next up was Felice Gimondi, Merckx’s oldest rival. How Gimondi would have loved to have beaten Merckx in a straight fight, but now he looked across at a man who over the years had also become his friend, who he admired, and who was now in trouble. Gimondi rode alongside Merckx for a while, seeming to try to rally him, but it didn’t work and the Italian had to press on.
Merckx lost nearly two minutes in five kilometres, falling to second overall behind Thevenet at 58 seconds. And next day Thevenet took him to the cleaners, winning in Serre-Chevallier, after crossing the Col d’Izoard splendidly alone in the yellow jersey, to put Merckx 3 minutes and 20 seconds behind him. Merckx carried on valiantly to Paris, despite fracturing a cheekbone in a crash, to finish second. And he attacked Thevenet all the way. But he’d lost his first Tour de France, when he had expected to win his sixth.
Stage 20 will start in Digne, the authorities have confirmed that. Then the route makers have the choice of taking the riders over the Cime de la Bonette, or the Col de Cayolle before finishing in Pra Loup. Or they may replicate the 1975 stage by using the Col des Champs and Col d’Allos before the finish.
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