Glory awaits over the Pyrenees
Television viewers of this year’s Tour de France will recall an advertisement for a well-known bicycle brand featuring Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. In it, each one claims to be better than the other, whether in power output up a climb, or consuming more sports drink.
This week, the friendly banter in the advertisement will turn into one of the great duels in professional cycling, as the two riders battle for supremacy over the leg-sapping mountains of the Pyrenees.
For the next three days, Schleck and Contador will race over nine cols along the French-Spanish border before the second rest day of the Tour. Then on Friday they will tackle the mountains for the last time in this year’s race, finishing the stage atop the Col du Tourmalet, the 2115 metre monster of the south. If they are still close, a 52 km time-trial will decide the eventual winner.
At 25 years and 28 years of age respectively, the rivalry between Schleck and Contador could be a feature of the Tour for seasons to come. If so, it will join many rivalries that have helped shape our fascination with the world’s greatest bike race.
In every decade since the Second World War, we have witnessed great contests between champion cyclists, beginning with the Italians, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, and the Frenchman, Louison Bobet. Bartali had established himself as a champion before the war, winning the King of the Mountain and the Yellow Jersey in 1937.
Resuming a decade later, Bartali won again in 1948 at the age of 34, defeating Bobet. In an extraordinary Alpine stage that included climbs over the Izoard, Lauteret, Galiber and Croix-de-Fer cols, the Italian turned a 21 minute deficit into a six minute lead. His stage victory united Italy, which had been on the verge of civil war following the shooting of the leader of the Communist Party the night before.
The following year, a young Fausto Coppi arrived for his first Tour, having won the Giro d’Italia twice.
The exploits of Bartali and Coppi, on and off the road, fixated Italy. Few riders could have been less alike. Bartali was a hero in his native land. A country boy from Tuscany, he was nicknamed Il Pio – The pious – for his strong Catholic beliefs. Feted by Popes, he had helped thousands of Jews escape deportation during the war.
By contrast, Coppi had spent the war in a British POW camp after being captured in Tunisia. In 1953, he shocked conservative post-war Italy by leaving his wife and taking up with a married woman. The Pope threatened not to give his traditional blessing to the Giro unless Coppi returned to his wife. He applied for a divorce, but was refused. Coppi also shocked in other matters, including his regular use of drugs.
A chain smoker, Bartali first used derailleur gears to help him dance on the pedals long before Lance Armstrong. By contrast, the thin Coppi climbed without apparent effort. Their rivalry was so great that both abandoned the 1949 World Championships rather than assist each other.
Coppi won the Giro and the Tour in 1952, including the first ever climb of Alpe d’Huez, and the World Championship the following season. Bartali finished fourth that year and last raced the Tour in 1953. The French rider, Bobet, then came to the fore, winning three Tours in a row.
The next great rivalry involved two French riders, Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor, who duelled with each other in the early 1960s. Anquetil first won in 1957, and then claimed four victories from 1961 to 1964. Poulidor was the eternal bridesmaid. In 1964, he led Anquetil until a mechanic pushed him too hard after a routine wheel change, causing him to crash and lose two minutes. In perhaps the greatest one-on-one contest in Tour history, the two riders rode shoulder-to-shoulder up the Puy de Dome, repeatedly slowing, then attacking, neither able to dislodge the other for 10 kilometres. With half a million cheering fans on the roadside, they continued the duel, until Poulidor inched away in the final kilometre. Anquetil clung to the Maillot Jaune by just 14 seconds, enough to claim a then record five victories. Poulidor never won the Tour, loosing to 22 year old Felice Gimondi in 1965.
Eddy Merckx dominated cycling in the 1970s, winning five Tours. His record on 525 professional victories from 1,582 races, ranging from one-day classics to the Grand Tours, is never likely to be bettered. He is simply the greatest cyclist of all time.
His intense rival of the era was the Spanish rider Luis Ocana, who crashed when leading the Belgium star in 1971, and then had to abandon the race the following year after another high speed crash.
The great rivalries of the 1980s involved a new breed of non-French riders. It was the era of the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey, a confident young Australian with a big toothy smile named Phil Anderson. However Anderson’s French team couldn’t accept someone from the New World leading their Tour, leaving the Australian with little assistance when he needed it.
A group of extraordinary riders from Ireland burst onto the European scene at the same time, including Steven Roche, who won in 1987. Struggling to stay in touch with the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado, Roche made an extraordinary effort on the climb to La Plagne, emerging from the fog just 40 second in arrears. So exhausted he had to be put on oxygen, the Irish rider nonetheless survived to close the gap in the next two stages and claim the Tour. The following year Delgrado won the Tour, although under the cloud of a doping scandal.
Three other great riders duelled throughout the 80s: Bernard Hinault, the Breton who went on to win five Tours, Laurent Fignon, the tall, bespectacled rider known as ‘The Professor’ because of his schoolteacher looks and manner, and the first of the other of the foreign invaders, Greg LeMond.
With his teeth clenched, Hinault was the arrogant king of the road. He won his last Tour after suffering a sickening crash in a sprint half way through the three-week event. “When I feel bad I attack,” Hinault once said. “That way no one can find out how bad I feel!”
Despite his French-sounding name, LeMond was an American. He dethroned Hinault in 1986, the first of his three victories. His second victory three years later was the closest in Tour history, a mere eight seconds over Laurent Fignon. The following year he had to recover the lead from the emerging Italian star, Claudio Chiappucci. For the next five years, a tall, quiet pedalling machine from Spain, with a resting heart rate of just 29 beats per minute, Miguel Indurain, dominated the Tour.
The great duels returned in the past decade with Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, and, of course, Lance Armstrong.
Alberto Contador joined the elite when he beat Cadel Evans by just 23 seconds to win the 2007 Tour. With Astana not invited to the 2008 edition, he won the Giro and the Vuelta a Espana. Nick-named “El Pistolero” for his gun-shooting gesture when victorious, Condator returned to France last year to defeat Andy Schleck , with Lance Armstrong achieving a remarkable third placing in his come-back year.
Can Contador win again? Schleck leads, and sounded cocky a few days ago when he said that if Contador wanted to win, he would have to attack. But when the Spanish rider demonstrated his awesome acceleration on the steepest slopes on Friday, Schleck was a little more subdued, saying that he was convinced that the result of that stage “wasn’t his last time on the podium.”
Schleck has the lead with the assistance of three great riders, Fabian Cancellara, Aussie Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt, but he lost his brother Frank to a fall on the cobblestones. Contador has Alexandre Vinokourov, a very good climber. Contador first came to note in Australia when, as a little known 23 year old, he stormed up Old Willunga Hill to win the fifth stage of the 2005 Tour Downunder.
Whoever wins, the next four days of racing are likely to add to the great duels of the Tour de France.
Baring accidents, my tip is that Contador will prevail.
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