The empty throne
Just as Eddy Merckx’s 1971 Tour victory will for ever have a ‘ what if?’ element about it, so a question remains about Luis Ocaña’s greatest win: the 1973 Tour de France. With no Merckx in the field, there will always be doubts as to whether Ocaña would have been able to put the Cannibal to the sword in the way he did the rest of the opposition that year.
Almost every race until 1973 had revealed the differences between the two. The Tour that year showed up all the similarities. The time gap between Ocaña and second placed Bernard Thévenet, over 15: 00 in Paris, was worthy of Merckx in 1969, his greatest Tour win. So, too, was the number of stages Ocaña won – six. There was the same need to win for winning’s sake, shown at the Puy- de- Dôme or in the Versailles time trial. There was also the same kind of opportunism and versatility. No doubt about it, Ocaña’s 1973 Tour win was taken with a degree of domination that Merckx would have been proud of.
All of which makes the issue of what the Tour would have been like with Merckx present even more relevant, and even more difficult to answer. The issue hangs over the race to the point that
L’Équipe’s final headline over a photo of Ocaña standing triumphantly in his yellow jersey in Paris wasn’t even about the 1973 Tour, but, rather, what would happen in 1974: “Next year, it’s Merckx vs Ocaña,” they predicted. All that mattered was the grudge match.
Yet, as Britain’s Bradley Wiggins said when asked about whether he regretted not being able to race against cycling’s then top stage racer, Alberto Contador, when he won the 2012 Tour de France: “I can only beat the people who are there.” With or without Merckx, Ocaña’s victory was as much a masterpiece as Orcières- Merlette, executed with clinical detachment and a degree of self- sacrifice that went all the way back to the previous winter.
Merckx himself recognises that Ocaña that year was on a level that could have taken their rivalry to new heights: “When he was on form he was a great all-rounder, and I really wish I had done that Tour,” Merckx now says.
“It would have been a great battle. But I’d have been the first foreigner to win it five times in a row and the public and the organisation didn’t like me so much because I would have beaten the Anquetil [Tour] record.
“The journalists convinced me not to go. So I decided to do the Vuelta and the Giro instead.”
“I am a complete rider again, not like last year when I seriously thought about finishing
This was not a one- off decision by Merckx. Even two years later, media opinion again swayed him and the public too much. In 1975, he says, when it came to fighting for Tour win number six, “[ Félix] Lévitan [Tour organiser] really wanted me to go, after I’d won five times, he wanted me to take part. But the press made the people go crazy on the road, and I received some letters, death threats.” Sometimes, he asserts, “the press go too far”.
Despite beating Ocaña in the 1973 Vuelta a España, Merckx says his number one rival was “just as impressive that year as he was in 1971. You could see immediately if he was in good shape, his expression, the way he was riding, something about the way his legs moved if he was going well. When you’re a pro you get to know these things.”
For once, he seems to be saying, he would have had a rival who it might have been impossible to match. And as Thévenet, who finished second that year, observes, “I don’t see how Merckx could have beaten him.”
Luis was never so conscientious about training and eating as he was in the winter of 1972, Josiane recalls. “He had been sick in 1972, and he decided to be far stricter, with a really tough diet and training at incredible levels.” It even got to the point where on New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve, “when we eat really well here in this area, good wine, foie gras ... I swear on the heads of my children that he followed his diet, he didn’t do what everybody else was doing and stuff himself silly.
“He even said it: ‘ In 1973 I’m going to win the Tour, I have to do everything, not bend the rules at all. And to do that all the way through Christmas and the New Year, not even have a drop of champagne or a drop of [ any other] alcohol, that’s really hard.’”
Merckx himself said he was more impressed by Ocaña in 1973 than he had been in any previous year, including 1971. Having opted to do the Vuelta – which he had never raced before – and the Giro rather than the Tour, the two only crossed swords in Spain.
The Vuelta itself saw Merckx racking up a huge advantage thanks to his ability to sprint and claim time bonuses – something that Ocaña, never at ease in the bunch finishes, could not hope to compete in. But on the one major climb of the race, the Orduña near Vitoria in the Basque Country, Ocaña finally managed to find some terrain where Merckx was at last a little exposed. And he dropped Merckx.
“I remember thinking, ‘ this is a different Luis’,” Merckx recalls. “He was not the same, much stronger. I caught him before the finale, but it did make a difference.”
There were other indications in the spring that Ocaña was functioning on a far better level than usual. In the Vuelta al País Vasco, despite the appallingly cold, snowy weather – in which he would usually be at a disadvantage – Ocaña managed to fend off an exceptionally strong KAS team almost single-handed to claim his second victory there in three years. In the now defunct Setmana Catalana, at the time one of Spain’s top five events, Ocaña finally managed, for the first time in his career, to defeat Eddy Merckx in a stage race. “I am a complete rider again, not like last year when I seriously thought about finishing my career” – when he was told by the doctors in the
Tour that he would have to do just that. “Eddy and me will be running the show this season,” he predicted at the finish, a statement that would have bordered on the outrageous considering their respective track records. But given Ocaña had just managed to put a hefty 0:28 into Merckx in a 13- kilometre time trial, it didn’t cause quite as much controversy as it could have.
The fans of the Setmana Catalana were also witness to an arguably even rarer sight than Ocaña beating Merckx: a Merckx– Ocaña alliance. On a whopping 249-kilometre stage to Castelldefels, Ocaña attacked early on, Merckx responding by bridging across with three of his Molteni teammates, and when Ocaña began taking turns at the front, the damage inflicted was colossal. In a minor masterpiece, the two giants of stage racing in the early 1970s and 10 other riders in the day-long break ensured that Poulidor, Zoetemelk and early leader Raymond Deslisle all lost a staggering 28: 00 by the time they reached Castelldefels, and that the Setmana Catalana would
“Freed from the monster, they couldn’t
hit the pedals hard enough, they fled from him like poisoned rats”
be played out between the two top contenders. Sadly, this was the first and only time that Merckx and Ocaña ganged up together – their opponents must have been thanking their lucky stars that the rivalry between the two was so extreme it did not allow them to do so more often.
Merckx had not been in top form throughout the eight- stage, seven- day Setmana. On stage 1 he had a mechanical problem two kilometres from the line and Ocaña, Leif Mortensen, Zoetemelk and Poulidor instantly went on the attack. “Freed from the monster, they couldn’t hit the pedals hard enough, they fled from him like poisoned rats,” was how El Mundo Deportivo described it. The monster then recovered to the point where it was breathing down the quartet’s necks by the line. But if reducing a gap of 1: 00 to 0:10 in a couple of kilometres on four of the biggest names of the time was something only Merckx was capable of doing, he paid the price for it the next day. In the final kilometre of the stage to Andorra, Merckx cracked, losing another 0:10 on Ocaña. “He was almost delirious and his eyes were coming out of their sockets at the finish,” said El Mundo Deportivo in typically B-horror-movie style. “Could Eddy be paying the price of [ his recent Hour Record bid in] Mexico?”
At Castelldefels, though, after ripping the race apart between them, Ocaña said that “Merckx has recovered completely, I tried to drop him several times today but I couldn’t. The [ decisive] time trial [ the following day] doesn’t suit me much, it’s
too mountainous ... and Eddy is the kind of rival that gives you nightmares.”
“Luis is very strong, but he shouldn’t doubt that I will give it everything,” Merckx warned. “The Setmana is a race which I haven’t got in my palmarès and I want to set that record straight.”
However, Merckx would have to wait another year. Ocaña managed to defeat him in the time trial and then, despite a late puncture to which Merckx responded with an attack, stayed close enough to the Belgian on the final sector of the last stage to claim the victory.
“Luis was irresistible but I was not performing to the best of my abilities,” Merckx said. “I’ll have time to get my revenge.” Even so, the psychological importance of a definitive defeat of Merckx, even once, is clear from Ocaña’s statements on the line. “It’s going to spur me on and it gives me a sense of obligation,” he said. “Eddy’s not unbeatable, but I needed a victory like this to convince myself of the fact. I’ve shown what I can do, and I will show it again.”
While warning that the early season races like the Setmana were not always reliable omens for the rest of the year, Ocaña pointed out that his health – always a major issue – had not let him down so far.
“I’ve had a perfect winter’s preparation, my breathing problems have stopped, my morale’s back up and I’m going very well. All I can hope for is that this will continue.
“My whole year is focused on the Tour de France. I don’t want to burn myself out before then. I have a debt there with the Spanish fans that I can’t forget. It’s a big gap in my palmarès and I can’t fail this time.” Thursd ay 31 May 1973. Stage 3 of the Dauphiné Libéré: a monster Alpine stage including – appropriately enough for that year’s Ascension Day – climbs of the Croix de Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier. Bernard Thévenet recalls that, as the race starts off, Luis Ocaña – whom he’d met and chatted with the night before as their teams shared hotels – comes up and says, “Do you realise we’re both in the Dauphiné and nobody [ in the media] has mentioned us yet?”
“And with his funny accent, he says, ‘ Bordel [ Dammit], all those sprinters, have you seen how they make us suffer? Right, come on, let’s do the same to them.’ And I said to him, ‘ Well, if you’re going to make them hurt, then I’ll come with you’.” ( There are also unconfirmed stories that Ocaña’s attack was specifically aimed at Cyrille Guimard, with whom he had fallen out.)
Either way, after the two of them attacked on the Croix de Fer, there was no question as to who would be doing the lion’s share of the work. It got to the point where, Thévenet recalls, “It was all I could do to come up by his side from time to time
It was never worthwhile winning with just two minutes on the bunch. He had to
do it with panache
to pretend I was going all right and so he wouldn’t accelerate... God, the way that guy was climbing!”
And even so, the gap kept increasing, to the point that when the duo reached Briançon the race was effectively theirs for the taking – “We had the next guys at nine minutes, the third group at a quarter of an hour, the bunch [ including expert climbers like Van Impe] at 45 minutes.”
As Thévenet says, “The margins sum up Luis completely. It was never worthwhile winning with just two minutes on the bunch. He had to do it with panache and, f**king hell, when it got to six or seven minutes, I wanted to say, ‘ Hey, isn’t that enough [ of an advantage] now?’ and I realised that if I did, all he would do was accelerate.”
The 1973 Dauphiné Libéré had come down to a two-horse race, with just the time trial from Creusot to Montceau-les- Mines as a decider. Thévenet says he was inspired by racing on roads he knew well from his childhood, and as leader he also had the advantage of knowing Ocaña’s times. But it did him little good. Ocaña put a minute into him and had his third Dauphiné in four years in the bag. “At least,” Thévenet now reflects, “I wasn’t beaten by a ‘nobody’.”