Coming into the 1975 Tour de France, Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx seemed invincible. He won the last five Tours he entered and was the favourite to win again and claim his 6th title. But an unexpected turn of events changed the trajectory of one of the greatest cycling champions.
Merckx’s 1975 season was looking great, he won four classics that spring. His Belgian reign has been so strong that he was getting threatening letters from the French fans. The message was always similar:
“If you win again, bad things are going to happen to you.”
Eddy Merckx wasn’t intimidated. He considered these letters to be motivation and was fired up to claim another victory at the Tour. After stage 6, he was leading the 1975 Tour with 31 seconds ahead of the young Italian star Francesco Moser. He was off to a good start after that first time trial. But his true rival was ready to strike when they entered the Pyrenees.
Bernard Thévenet was riding his 6th Tour in 1975 and after finishing in second place two years prior, he was determined to bring the championship back to France. A month before the Tour, he won Critérium du Dauphiné, which gave him further confidence that he had what it takes to bring down the Cannibal.
Thévenet, along with another experienced Tour competitor Joop Zoetemelk, was able to drop Merckx during the “Circle of Death”, the hardest Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees Mountains. Merckx showed first signs of vulnerability but was still leading by 1 minute and 31 seconds four days later at the start of the climb to Puy de Dôme.
Around 4 km into the 12 km Puy de Dôme climb, Thévenet was in the lead pursued by an excellent climber Lucien Van Impe. Merckx was chasing them, slowly closing the gap. He was alone making his way through hordes of fans lining the road. And then… it happened. One of the spectators punched Merckx in the side where the right kidney is.
Merckx clutched his belly in pain but kept on pedalling. He completed the stage 34 seconds after Thévenet and vomited after crossing the finish line.
The attacker was eventually found, his name was Nello Breton. He claimed it was an accident and that he was pushed and fell onto the road on the rider. Merckx later sued Breton. The court found him guilty but sentenced him only to pay a symbolic fine of 1 franc.
At the end of this dramatic 14th stage, Merckx maintained a 58-second lead. Unfortunately, the doctors found that he had a mild kidney inflammation. Merckx had to be treated with pain medication and blood thinners as well. His chances for the rest of the Tour were not looking good.
After the rest day, Merckx had to face Thévenet at stage 15 that included five brutal Alpine climbs. They fought non-stop trying to find each other’s weaknesses. The Frenchmen had an unlucky flat, which set him back and he became the pursuer chasing Merckx. At the beginning of the final climb to Pra-Loupe, Merckx was ahead by a whole minute. All was looking great for the defending champion.
With around 4 km left till the top of the climb, Merckx broke. He later described it as going from sober to fully drunk in a matter of seconds. Only this was not caused by alcohol but the long breakaway and the medical treatment to solve his kidney issues during the rest day. He was barely able to spin the pedals with a painful grimace on his face, an empty look in his eyes, and a hunched posture.
The Italian Gimondi was the first one to catch up to Merckx and Thévenet quickly followed. Encouraged by what he saw, Thévenet pushed even harder and crossed the finish line in the first place 23 seconds ahead of Gimondi and almost 2 whole minutes ahead of Merckx. In one of the most memorable Tour de France stages, Bernard Thévenet managed to finally take the yellow jersey away from the Cannibal.
This victory gave the Frenchman wings! He flew over Izoard in the next stage and increased his lead to impressive 3 minutes and 20 seconds. The French fans were starting to celebrate the fall of Eddy Merckx. Even Merckx himself commented that Thévenet secured the win that day. Was he bluffing? There was one more mountain stage in the Alps left. There was still a chance for a comeback.
Merckx attacked from the starting line but luck was not on his side that day. He suffered a bad fall. He was bleeding, had a banged-up knee and hip, and a broken cheekbone and jaw, which was only discovered later. Despite this, he got back on his bike and kept fighting. He was refusing medical attention. Somehow, he managed to finish only 2 seconds after Thévenet.
Doctors suggested Merckx should drop out due to the severity of his injuries. He was only able to take in liquid food, unable to chew with his broken jaw. Merckx decided to continue despite the warnings. He later expressed regret saying that continuing with those injuries likely cut his career short.
Merckx said his suffering was unimaginable for the rest of the Tour. He was severely under-fuelled and in constant pain. He was only able to continue because of how important Tour was to him and because of his team colleagues. His colleagues’ bonuses depended on Merckx’s general classification placement. He knew he could still finish in second place but his body paid the price. He later added that he should have quit and paid his domestiques with his own money.
The Tour de France was finishing at Champs-Élysées for the first time that year. It was quite symbolic as it marked the beginning of this tradition but also an end of the Merckx era. Bernard Thévenet claimed victory with a margin of 2 minutes and 47 seconds and the French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing couldn’t be prouder congratulating a French champion on the podium.
“I tried everything and it wasn’t enough. The strongest one always wins and Thévenet was the strongest this time,” said Merckx showing class in defeat.
“Tell me who came in second behind you and I will tell you the value of your victory,” said Thévenet showing the respect he had for his rival.