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Merckx Versus the World at the 1971 Tour de France

By Jiri Kaloc

Merckx was nicknamed the Cannibal for a reason. He won everything. Not just all of the Grand Tours, classics, and championships but also small criteriums and exhibitions. He was envied by many for his accomplishments and big paychecks. Could all of his top competitors combine their power to take him down at the 1971 Tour?

The unofficial alliance across many teams had one goal – prevent Merckx from making the Tour a one-man show yet again. The new generation of climbers, namely Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, Spaniard Luis Ocaña, and Frenchman Bernard Thévenet attacked Merckx right as the Tour arrived at the mountains. Ocaña won at Puy de Dôme and stole 15 seconds from the Cannibal. Merckx held on to the yellow jersey but the psychological effect was real. The seeds of doubt were sown.

1971 Tour
Merckx followed by Ocaña. © Profimedia

Merckx had a mechanical during a downhill at stage 10. His competitors ignored that and gained 1 minute on him. At stage 11, Ocaña attacked again and, this time, it was on the first climb of five planned for that day. He set a blazing pace. Merckx wanted to answer but he couldn’t and nobody was willing to help him. He lost the stage by 8 minutes and 42 seconds. Overall, Merckx was trailing by more than 10 minutes. It was an uncharacteristic gap for the Cannibal as he faced potentially the most devastating loss of his career.

“Ocaña was exceptional today,” admits Merckx after the stage.

“He is at the height of his physical abilities. I can’t imagine it’s possible to bridge the gap he has created. Unless I’m able to get a miraculous second wind or unless he does really poorly, I don’t see him losing the lead.”

Merckx shocked everyone with his statement. Was he already giving up? Not yet. He recovered during the rest day and attacked right from the start of stage 12. He arrived in Marseille half an hour earlier than the fastest expected time. Ocaña still kept more than 7 minutes of lead.

Luis Ocana
Ocaña leads in front of Belgian Lucien Van Impe and Dutch Joop Zoetemelk. © Profimedia

Stage 14 had riders climb Col de Portet d’Aspet, Col de Menté and Col du Portillon. The weather was terrible. Merckx attacked at Col de Menté but Ocaña answered. Merckx tried again and again but Ocaña simply would not be left behind. The bad weather turned worse right before they reached the top of Menté. There were thunder, lightning and heavy rain. The pass was foggy and visibility very limited. The road was lined with streams of running water, brakes weren’t working anymore and riders had to use their feet to slow down.

Eddy Merckx was an amazing downhill rider so he thought he would shake Ocaña while descending from Menté. Ocaña was not an expert downhill rider and was even warned by the director of his team not to try and hang on to Merckx while descending. But he tried to regardless.

About 4 km into the descent, Merckx lost control of his bicycle and slipped into a small wall at the edge of the road. Fans hurried to his help as he got up. Ocaña was following closely after him and couldn’t evade them all and fell. Merckx popped his chain back on and continued. Ocaña couldn’t and requested a new bicycle from his team car. Zoetemelk who was just arriving at the scene evaded the car but crashed directly into Ocaña. Just a few moments later, Ocaña was hit also by Portuguese rider Agostinho and fell to the ground in pain and lost consciousness. A helicopter got him safely to a hospital but his dream of winning the Tour was gone.

Luis Ocana
A helicopter got Ocaña safely to a hospital. © Profimedia

Merckx got the yellow jersey as a result but he refused to accept it and wanted to quit the Tour altogether. His teammates and Tour organizers were begging him to continue. He did but refused to wear the yellow jersey out of respect for Ocaña. Four days after that, he won stage 17 in an escape and gained 2 minutes over Zoetemelk. He also won the final time trial and his third Tour de France title with it.

“Whatever happened, I lost this Tour because there will always be doubt,” said Eddy Merckx.