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Tour de France's first summit finish: a power climb – Preview

Luis Ocaña (centre) and Lucien Van Impe go on the attack with race leader Joop Zoetemelk and Joaquim Agostinho on stage 11 of the 1971 Tour de France between Grenoble and Orcières-Merlette
Luis Ocaña (centre) and Lucien Van Impe go on the attack with race leader Joop Zoetemelk and Joaquim Agostinho on stage 11 of the 1971 Tour de France between Grenoble and Orcières-Merlette (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

While Orcières-Merlette has the honour of being the 2020 Tour de France's first summit finish for stage 4 on Tuesday, in one sense it wouldn't matter much if it were missed off the route for another two or three decades. And that's because whatever happens today, when it comes to the sheer scale of the events there back in 1971, it's very, very unlikely to match them.

Yet here it is, back in the Tour. And as most French newspapers will doubtless reflect this morning, the return of Orcières-Merlette gives the cycling world a wonderful chance to rewind briefly to the events of 49 years ago when a relatively anonymous 7.1-kilometre climb in the southern half of the Alps marked the final, crucial act of one of Eddy Merckx's most significant defeats in the Tour de France, at the hands of Spain's Luis Ocaña.

Yet even if Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocaña were suddenly teleported, Harry Potter-style – sideburns, BIC and Molteni jerseys and all – into the 2020 peloton, today's ascent of Orcières-Merlette would still have a very different role to play in the race, for three big reasons.

One is partly because, as the old saying goes, lightning rarely strikes twice. In cycling terms, that means that the Tour has been up Orcières-Merlette four times since that mythical stage of 1971, the last occasion in 1989 in a time trial, and it's never had the same devastating effect on the race – not even remotely. A second reason is that Orcières-Merlette comes at a point in the 2020 Tour – in the first week – where it would be very odd for a main favourite to show their hand as clearly as Ocaña did back in the day. But it's also, if we're honest (and more on that later), because of the nature of Orcières-Merlette as a climb in itself.

Would you want history to repeat itself anyway, given the  force of the drama of that stage from Grenoble south to the ski station above the town of Orcières 49 years ago? If 2019 and Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot's efforts to dislodge Ineos from dominating the Tour were repeatedly branded as a 'French Revolution', the events of 1971 – with no disrespect intended to Alaphilippe and Pinot – represented a far more spectacular storming of a two-wheeled Bastille.

That was because the Tour came at a point when, while having earned the label of being his most dangerous rival, Ocaña had already tried and failed to beat Merckx on numerous occasions, most notably in 1971 at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

Then and now, the Dauphiné was a critical warm-up race, and speculation had mounted, briefly, that Merckx could be having a bad year after he lost a little time on one climb, the Col de Granier. But by the end of the Dauphiné, Merckx was back in control, and winning the race, even if his team had looked weaker than usual while Ocaña was back to square one – i.e. getting beaten by the Belgian.

In fact, there had been rumours that Merckx was not on such a good year right the way back to Liège-Bastogne-Liège that year, and again at the Midi-Libre, due to a dodgy knee injury. But nothing, really – not even Merckx looking like he had been suffering the day before Orcières-Merlette after a puncture – made it evident that Ocaña could launch a  60-kilometre solo attack on that stage, cause Merckx to lose no less than eight minutes and 42 seconds, and with it the yellow jersey.

Had the time cut on the winner's time been applied properly by the UCI commissaires that day, no fewer than 61 of the Tour's 109 racers would have been sent home. But such was the scale of this defeat of 'The Cannibal' that it felt as if the era of the all-conquering Merckx, despite finishing third, had come to an abrupt end. To quote Jacques Goddet, the Tour director of the time, as he spoke at the summit of Orcières-Merlette, "Things will never be the same again."

'The most amazing thing I've ever seen on a bike'

As for the man at the centre of affairs that day, winning that day had been all about Merckx, Merckx and Merckx. In one of the last interviews Maurice de Muer, Ocaña's longstanding manager at BIC, gave before he died, he recollected how the Spaniard's only interest that stage had been in gaining time on Merckx.

"I drove up alongside him when he was in the break and said, 'You've got four minutes now on Merckx, take it steady now.' And all he did was yell back, 'Well, soon it'll be five.' And then when I drove up a bit later and said, 'Now you've got five – steady,' he yelled back, 'Well, now it's going to be six.' And so on and so on," said De Muer.

"Luis was all alone; nobody helped him. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen on a bike."

De Muer's memory of the last 90 minutes of the stage is correct. But what's also true is that in the team hotel, as he recounted the night before, he and Ocaña – having seen Merckx had been in difficulty on that stage – had enlisted the support of Portuguse cycling legend Joaquim Agostinho to inflict the first blow on the steep, punchy Côte de Laffrey, the first climb of the day. By the summit, Ocaña and a little group – also containing Lucien Van Impe, the 1976 Tour winner, and Joop Zoetemelk, who'd taken the title in 1980 – had two minutes on Merckx, meaning that it wasn't just Ocaña who had it in for the Belgian that day.

"They rode against me," Merckx told me once. "They wanted me to lose, not to win it themselves."

He also felt, interestingly, that it was his time loss on that first climb and lack of team support – spot the lesson from the Dauphiné – that really cost him by the end of the stage.

On the next climb – the much narrower, twisting, Côte de Noyer – Ocaña had some history to resolve of his own, given that was where he'd been definitively dropped from the Tour's main peloton in 1970, losing all chance of remaining in contention. But a year later, on stage 11, the boot was on the other foot as Ocaña dropped the rest of the breakaway halfway up to go clear and straight into the history books.

Yet bizarrely enough, for all its reputation as an epic mountain stage, the fact remains that the route of the stage that day was not that hard, with all three climbs that day ranked as second category. The stage length was just 134 kilometres, too.

Maybe that's not so odd if you look back to the 188-kilometre Fomigal stage in the Vuelta in 2016, where Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana inflicted a stinging defeat on the Grand Tour giant of his era, Chris Froome, on a stage ending with a pretty easy second-category ascent, all by structuring their day-long attack correctly.

That goes to show that, as Contador likes to say, bullets are not lethal in themselves – it's the speed at which they're travelling that does the damage. And in 1971 in the Tour, it was how stage 11 was raced, as much as the terrain itself (something certain Grand Tour organisers would do well to remember from time to time) that really hurt Merckx.

A power climb

It may be surprising, therefore, to find that while Orcières-Merlette is steady, and steepest at the bottom (making positioning crucial), and with no false flats or little descents to draw breath, its six-to-eight per cent slopes are relatively benign enough, and the road well-surfaced enough, to mean that that this is no Angliru or Galibier. Rather, it's a power climb – nothing more, but nothing less, either.

This was why a rider like Ocaña – a gifted climber but an outstanding time triallist – was able to inflict such damage on Merckx. In fact, according to De Muer, Ocaña actually lost a little time on Merckx on the final ascent, "because he'd gone so deep earlier on in the stage", much of which in the last hour was flat or gently rising. Someone like Marco Pantani would have been destroyed on that kind of terrain, but a time triallist – no.

So who does Orcières-Merlette favour – apart from 'trains' like those of Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers? Among the GC specialists, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) effectively won a Volta a Catalunya on a similar, if more irregular ascent, at La Molina, one year. Richard Carapaz (Ineos) has twice won at the Giro d'Italia on stages like this, both in 2019 and 2018.

But whoever inflicts the biggest damage today, it's worth remembering, too, that in 1971, it wasn't Ocaña who finally won the Tour: it was Merckx.

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.