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Moments of the Tour de France History That Take Us Aback

By Jiri Kaloc

Every year the Tour has its dramatic moments and things to remember. Some have been so memorable that they are talked about to this day. Let’s look back at some of the most shocking events in the Tour de France history.

The wild beginnings

Riders were trying to find creative ways to ease their suffering long before the Tour became a global phenomenon. Some were trying to hold on to a supporting car on hard climbs, others were even caught taking a train to avoid pedalling. The nutrition of early Tour competitors would be more than shocking by today’s standards. Back then, it was quite normal to drink alcohol during a stage, smoke cigarettes before a climb or use a variety of performance enhancers that would be considered illegal today. Doping was legal until the 1940s and it took another 20 years for it to become illegal.

Tour de France 1927
It used to be normal to smoke cigarettes before a climb or even during a stage. © Profimedia

The death of Tom Simpson in 1967 during stage 13

The first truly tragic event of the Tour de France history highlighted the dangers of illegal doping was the death of Tom Simpson during the 1967 Tour. He unexpectedly fell off his bike about 1 km below the peak of Mount Ventoux at stage 13. Despite warnings from the team mechanic, he decided to continue the race. After another 500 meters, he started to wobble again and collapsed completely. He was declared dead shortly after being transported to a local hospital. It was later revealed that Simpson was drinking alcohol and taking amphetamine during the race, which turned out to be fatal when combined with the extreme heat and hard climbing. His death resulted in mandatory testing for illegal substances in cycling. It was introduced the very next year at the Tour, Giro d’Italia, and even the summer Olympic games.

Eddy Merckx got punched

The 1975 Tour showed how passionate fans can be. The Belgian five-time champion, Eddy Merckx, was aiming for his 6th title that year, which would put him in the all-time lead ahead of Frenchman Jacques Anquetil who got his fifth title earlier. An angry “fan” from France who didn’t want this honour to go to a Belgian rider decided to take matters into his own hands. He managed to punch Merckx in his kidney during the Puy de Dôme climb. It’s unclear to this day whether the bruising and damage from the punch was the reason why Merckx didn’t win that year or whether it was simply that his competitors were better. But, regardless, it remains as a shocking display of emotions that the Tour sparks.

Eddy Merckx
Eddy Merckx at 1975 Tour. © Profimedia

Betrayal inside a team

The Tour de France is a team sport. Even though we have individual champions, they always rely on their team to help them neutralize attacks and support them in any way possible. Greg LeMond supported his team captain Bernard Hinault in 1985 during his 5th victory. A year later, Hinault promised to offer the same help to LeMond. To everyone’s shock, Hinault broke his promise at stage 12 where he started attacking the very teammate he was supposed to support. Hinault used the fact he was in the yellow jersey and his teammate couldn’t answer his attack. Hinault created a 5-minute lead over LeMond thanks to this stunt. LeMond didn’t lose his cool despite this betrayal and clawed his way back to the lead minute by minute over the remaining stages to claim the title. He proved he was truly the best cyclist there that year. Hinault ended his career after that year.

No respect for the unwritten rules

Alberto Contador shocked the cycling world when he went against the unwritten rules in the 2010 Tour. The yellow jersey wearer, Andy Schleck, caught up with the leading group of riders at stage 15 during the climb to Port de Balès. He had to get off his bike soon after due to an issue with his chain. The unwritten rules say that when the yellow jersey has a mechanical issue, his rivals can’t attack because they would be gaining an advantage dishonourably. Alberto Contador didn’t respect Schleck’s mechanical interruption and continued charging ahead. Schleck was unable to catch up after fixing his chain and lost his yellow jersey a result. He did gain it back retrospectively, yet it is debated until today whether Contador’s attack was warranted or not.