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The Magnificent Seven: Le Tour’s finest battles

As this year’s race comes to a dramatic conclusion, we look back at seven of the most memorable battles in Tour de France history.

Stephen Roche, left, rides shoulder to shoulder with Pedro Delgado during their 1987 battle.
Stephen Roche, left, rides shoulder to shoulder with Pedro Delgado during their 1987 battle.
Image: Lionel Cironneau/AP/Press Association Images

1. Greg LeMond vs.  Laurent Fignon (1989)

THE BATTLE BETWEEN Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon on the final day of the 1989 Tour was every broadcaster’s dream.

After a tug-of-war over the yellow jersey, Fignon came down from the Alps with the upper hand, leading his American opponent by 50 seconds going into the last stage – a 25 kilometre individual time trial from Versailles to Paris.

As the challenger, LeMond knew that he would have to ride out first, hoping to set a pace so fast that his opponent would surrender his advantage.

The individual time trials had been his strength that year, winning one and snatching the overall lead back from Fignon in another. Before he set off from Versailles, he told his team that he didn’t want to be fed any data on his time or speed. He was just going to go with his instinct and ride.

And it worked. LeMond set off a blistering pace, averaging a speed of almost 55 kilometres an hour to set the clock at 26:57.

Then came the wait, as the American stood with family, friends and team-mates, waiting for Fignon to finish. With about a kilometre to go, it was clear that the Frenchman wasn’t going to beat LeMond’s time. Whether or not he could finish within 50 seconds of his rival and hang on to win the Tour was anyone’s guess.

In the end, Fignon fell agonisingly short, crossing the line in a time 58 seconds slower than LeMond, handing the American his second overall victory by what remains to this day the Tour’s narrowest margin of victory – eight seconds.

2.  Luis Ocana vs. Eddy Merckx (1971)

The 1971 Tour saw 26-year-old Eddy Merckx chasing his third yellow jersey in as many years.

In the end, the Belgian’s triumph was rather comfortable, finishing the race almost ten full minutes ahead of Dutch rider Joop Zoetemelk. But for a brief couple of days as the race entered the Alps, it seemed as though an upset might be on the cards.

Merckx’s Molteni team had set the race’s tone from the get-go, winning the team time-trial prologue to give their man a 20-second jump on the field. With the exception of one split stage on the second day, Mercx would wear yellow continuously until the peloton tackled the Alps.

It was there that the Spaniard Luis Ocana, winner of the Vuelta and the Dauphiné the previous season, launched his attack, taking 15 seconds back from Merckx with a late attack on the first Alpine stage.

The real damage to the Belgian, however, was done three days later when Ocana soloed almost 80 kilometres to Orcieres-Merlette, gaining ten minutes and snatching the yellow jersey.

The brilliant battle between two great riders was sadly cut short four days later when the pair collided while speeding down the Col de Menté in the Pyrenees.  Merckx was able to get back on his bike and complete the stage. Ocana, accidentally struck by Zoetemelk’s bike as he lay on the ground, was hospitalised, handing the initiative – and ultimately the yellow jersey – to Merckx.

3. Stephen Roche vs. Pedro Delgado (1987)

The tussle between Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado as the pair fought their way up the Alpine slope to La Plange in 1987 is one of the finest moments in Irish sporting history.

Going into the stage, the 21st out of 25 and the final mountaintop finish of the race, Roche knew that if he could stay in touch with Delgado in the yellow jersey, a shot at overall victory would be his.

And so he attacked, setting off early and maintaining the gap between him and his rivals until the tank finally emptied half-way up the final, brutal ascent.

What happened next is nothing short of superhuman. As Delgado caught and passed Roche, opening up a minute-and-a-half advantage of his own, Roche’s Tour aspirations looked dead and buried.

Focusing on the action at the head of the field, the television commentators presumed that there was no chance that Roche would be able to close the gap. But as Delgado crossed the line, there – to the complete amazement of all watching  - was the Irishman, a mere four seconds behind the yellow jersey.

Roche had given it his all to get to that point, collapsing off his bike seconds after crossing the finish line, drained of life and in dire need of emergency oxygen.

But his Trojan effort paid dividends. On the penultimate time trial stage into Dijon, he bridged the gap between himself and Delgado and it was he who rode into Paris in yellow, completing the second part of a remarkable Triple Crown.

4. Jacques Anquetil vs. Raymond Poulidor (1964)

The 1964 Tour was the first to be televised live. Its climax – the scrap between Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor up the volcanic slopes of the Puy de Dome – was one of the most iconic moments in the race’s history.

Over the opening weeks, Anquetil’s strength in the time trial stages had given him the upper hand – so much so that he could afford to spend one of his rest days at a barbecue, guzzling champagne with his wife.

With four days to go, he led by 56 seconds over Poulidor. The race to the top of the Puy de Dome would be the challenger’s last chance to catch him and snatch the yellow jersey for himself.

In search of his fifth overall win, Anquetil had earned a reputation as a master tactician, expertly controlling so as to suit his strengths and weaknesses. As the two rivals prepared for their final ascent, this had never been more apparent.

Rather than sit on Poulidor’s wheel and track him to the finish line, Anquetil chose a more unorthodox approach, pulling up alongside his opponent and riding out the final kilometres shoulder-to-shoulder.

For him, this was a mental battle rather than a physical one. To drop into Poulidor’s slipstream would be a sign of weakness, regardless of the advantages which it would bring.

Eventually, after riding in tandem every step of the steep ten-kilometre ascent, Poulidor managed to break free, attacking decisively with the line almost in sight to finish 42 seconds ahead of Anquetil.

It would not be enough, as Anquetil may have been aware when he finally let his rival gain the upper hand. The champion still had 14 seconds in hand and, with one final time trial still to come, he would retain his Tour de France crown for the final time.

5. Fausto Coppi vs. Gino Bartali (1949)

As cycling rivalries go, there are few which can compare to that of the Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.

It was, without exaggeration, a rivalry which split a nation.

The pair first came together in 1940 when Coppi, five years Bartali’s junior, was hired by the Legnano team to ride in support of their leader, the winner of the Tour in 1938.

But Coppi, it seemed, had other ideas. In the 1940 Giro, he paid little attention to team instructions and ultimately won the race by a huge margin.

And so the scene for their tumultuous relationship was set, reaching its peak at the 1949 World Championship in Holland when both men dismounted and quit the race rather than help the other to victory.

But as the rivalry raged on during that summer’s Tour, something unusual happened. En route to the small Alpine village of Briancon, the pair broke from the peloton, surging off into the distance before Coppi’s challenge was derailed by a puncture.

Rather than attack and take advantage of his team-mates misfortune, Bartali waited. And, when similar misfortune befell him later on in the stage, Coppi repaid the favour. They then rode in tandem to the finish line before Coppi stepped aside, allowing Bartali to take the stage victory on his 35th birthday.

Whether or not Bartali ever spoke the immortal line, “Let’s finish together. Let me win the stage. Tomorrow you will win the Tour,” will never be known. But that is how it panned out – less than a week later, Fausto Coppi had won the first of his two yellow jerseys.

6. Greg LeMond vs. Bernard Hinault (1986)

Coppi and Bartali weren’t the only team-mates to do battle on the Tour. Almost 40 years later, Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault would serve up a thrilling storyline which captured the public’s imagination throughout the summer of 1986.

The previous year, LeMond had reluctantly followed instructions from team manager Paul Koechli, forgoing his own shot at a first yellow jersey to help his French team-mate win his record-equalling fifth, thus drawing level with Mercx and Anquetil in the pantheon of cycling greats.

The following year, the legend known as “the Badger” promised that the roles would be reversed, that 1986 would be Lemond’s year.

But that wasn’t quite how it panned out. Hinault set a punishing pace from day one, ostensibly in an attempt to run his and LeMond’s mutual opponents into the ground, but the tactic was seen by some as evidence that the champion would renege on his promise given half a chance.

Then, as the tour ascended the notorious Alpe d’Huez, the Frenchman broke from the pack opening up a sizable gap between himself and the field. So unexpected was Hinault’s attack that nobody could respond, not even LeMond, who was wearing the yellow jersey.

Eventually the stunned American set off in pursuit, gradually reining his team-mate back in. Then, with 90 kilometres left to cycle, Hinault suddenly transformed from predator into protector, guiding his companion through the crowded streets until the two crossed the finish line arm-in-arm, setting up LeMond for the first of this three Tour victories.

7. Lance Armstrong vs. The World (2001)

Before Schleck vs. Contador on the Col du Tourmalet, there was Armstrong vs… well, pretty much everyone else on the Alpe d’Huez.

As the peloton tackled Alpe d’Huez in 2001, the two-time champion appeared to be struggling, isolated from his team-mates and seemingly ready to crack.

But it was all a ploy.

Suddenly and without warning, Armstrong attacked, flying up the final ascent and leaving his gobsmacked challengers in his wake.

As he pulled away from the front of the pack, the American turned and caught the eye of the man widely tipped to challenge his for his crown, Germany’s Jan Ullrich.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an taunting glare must be worth at least twice that amount. Without opening his mouth, the champion psychologically crushed Ullrich and anybody else who would dare challenge him.

They were never going to catch him. Armstrong knew that and now, courtesy of one simple look, so did his opponents.

Read more of the Magnificent Seven series here >

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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