When the young AG2R rider Romain Bardet launched himself solo down the corkscrew descent of the Col d’Allos in the Dauphiné Libéré race this June, did he fully realise what he was doing?
His daredevil move, which took place well before the final climb to the Pra Loup ski station, looked as if it had been well planned and rehearsed. It was designed to wrong-foot his rivals and win him the stage – and it did just that.
Maybe he realised, also, that his safe passage along the narrow, serpentine road, with its patchy surface and precipitous drops, represented a successful test run for the coming Tour de France. The ASO, which runs the Tour is a Colossus that bestrides the narrow world of cycling: it also runs the Dauphiné and other smaller races, and often uses them to trial climbs, or even whole stages, both for practical reasons and to whet our appetites for the spectacle to come. This year, the Tour’s Stage 17 uses exactly the same parcours. By putting the testing climb and descent of the Allos so close to the end of the race, along with the challenging Étape stage and Alpe d’Huez on the eve of the final stage, ASO have backloaded the race with treacherous terrain, in the hope of keeping the result on a knife edge right up to the Champs-Élysées. Chris Froome’s superiority has meant that this is not the case, but Stage 17, through the remote, high mountains of the Alpes-Maritimes, will nevertheless showcase some of the most beautiful roads in France.
However, Bardet’s memorable escape is also a piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle: that of the history and tradition of the Tour de France. France is the most tradition-bound of the great cycling nations, and the other grand tours – the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España – do have their hallowed places, but neither sticks so closely to the classic climbs and landscapes that have been the setting for former glories. So, while we may go to the Giro for the pure passion, and the Vuelta for the fireworks occasioned by the inventive route, we go to the Tour to feel that direct connection to cycling’s history: every ascent builds upon its previous appearances in the Tour; and every feat is a rehearsal for the unknown heroics of the future.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the creation of the polka-dot climber’s jersey, and 40 years, too, since the race first finished on the Champs-Élysées. And we have to go back 40 years for the special significance of the Digne-Pra Loup stage – where, in 1975 one of the great dramas of the Tour took place on the finishing climb. That year, Eddy Merckx was in yellow, and bidding for a record sixth Tour win, one that would put him head and shoulders above the other five-time winner, Jacques Anquetil. Merkcx was leading the race, and seemed set to defend the title he had won the previous year, until Stage 14. There, on the slopes of the legendary Puy de Dôme, he was punched in the kidneys by a spectator and was in obvious pain when he dismounted from his bike. After the next day’s rest day, he set off towards Pra Loup seemingly unaffected and flew down the descent of the Allos, gaining almost a minute on his main rival Bernard Thévenet. Thévenet, giving chase, almost missed a corner and called that descent, ‘The most nightmarish moment of the 1975 Tour.’
Yet Thévenet did not give up, and stuck with Merckx on the climb to Pra Loup, waiting for the moment to attack. And there, with the finish line practically in his sights, Eddy Merckx cracked. Thévenet dropped him, gained a couple of minutes’ lead and took hold of the yellow jersey.
That day on the Pra Loup was the last that Merckx, whose fearsome will to win had led to his being nicknamed ‘The Cannibal,’ would ever spend in yellow. It was the end of an era.
Some criticise the Tour for being hidebound to tradition, but it is gestures like including the Pra Loup in honour of Merckx, which make the race special.
When the peloton comes down the Col d’Allos in Stage 17, they’ll not only be pursuing the memory of Bardet down those twists and turns, they’ll also be chasing Thévenet and Merckx, and the other superstars of the past – René Vietto, Jean Robic, the great campionissimo Fausto Coppi – who have all passed over the summit en tête when the race has scaled Allos before. Here, as on the Col du Tourmalet, Col du Glandon and Alpe d’Huez, history makes itself felt, and when the moment is right it is just possible to think that those heroes of bygone days are still out there on the road. That the dust raised by their passing has just settled and that they are just out of sight around the corner, pushing on for the finish in the valley far below.
Photography from Jered and Ashley Gruber and Antton Miettinen.