Friday, 18 July 2014

Great riders of Le Tour - Philippe Thys

Philippe Thys, one of the better Belgian cyclists of all time, is one of the most prolific champions in Tour de France history, with three yellow jerseys to his credit.  In fact, Thys is credited by some as being the first rider to wear a yellow jersey, though he wasn’t presented it in an official capacity.  Thys was one of the most talented young riders in the history of cycling.

On October 8, 1890, Philippe Thys was born. A talented cyclist already at twenty years old, he was winning competitions in Belgium before winning his first Tour de France three years later, in 1913.  Thys won only one stage, Stage 6, but was the leader from Stage 9 through the end of the race as he bested perennial runner-up Gustave Garrigou.

Thys’ win in 1913 would also contain a story that really summed up the era in which he raced.  He was the unfortunate recipient of a broken fork on his bicycle, so he got the owner of a bicycle shop to repair it for him.  However, the fix also got him a penalty of thirty minutes.  Of course, Thys was still able to win, with a finishing lead of around two minutes.

Also, many cycling enthusiasts trace the history of the yellow jersey back to Philippe Thys and the 1913 Tour de France.  Thys claimed that he was asked by race officials to don a yellow jersey during the race by organizer Henri Desgrange.  Originally, Thys said he declined, as the jersey would be akin to having a target on his back.  After Desgrange explained that it was part of a promotion for his newspaper, Thys reportedly relented.

In the 1914 Tour de France, Philippe Thys picked up right where he left off.  He won the first stage from Paris to Le Havre, on the same day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated to mark the beginning of World War I. 

Later on, just a week after Thys put the finishing touches on his second straight Tour de France victory, Germany declared war on France.  As a result, Thys would not get a chance to win a third straight title.  For the next five years, there was no Tour de France, and Thys unfortunately lost a great portion of the prime of his career during that time.

Finally, seven years after his second Tour de France win, Philippe Thys returned to the race with a dominating win in 1920.  Thys finished an astonishing 57 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of the second place Hector Heusghem, winning an impressive four stages (out of a possible 15) in the process.

In Thys’ final Tour de France appearance, in 1924, Thys won two stages but did not contend for the overall title.  His cycling career would essentially end at that point.  Thys lived on to be 80 years old before passing away.

Thys was always known as being an intelligent rider with a great work ethic.  As one of the more dominant riders in the early days of the Tour de France, Thys will always occupy a special place in the history of competitive cycling.  Fans still marvel at what he accomplished, and wonder even more about what he could have accomplished, had he not missed out on competing during much of the prime of his career.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Le Tour greats - Miguel Indurain

Miguel Indurain will always be known as one of the greatest cyclists to ever compete in the Tour de France.  Indurain was the first cyclist to ever win five straight Tour de France championships, and was one of only five riders to ever win five championships at all.  He was known as a gifted rider who excelled at time trials, and was nicknamed “Miguelón” due to his natural ability and his uncommon size for a cyclist.

Indurain competed in eleven straight years of the Tour de France, beginning in 1985, the year he turned professional.  He didn’t get off to the best start, as he dropped out of the running both of his first two years, and failed to crack the top twenty until 1989, when he finished 17th overall.  He did manage to build upon that success in 1990, finishing 10th, but no one could have predicted the incredible run he was about to begin the next year.

In the 1991 Tour de France, he won just two stages, but was still able to pull out the win in the overall race.  His two stage wins were individual time trials, contributing to his reputation as a time trial master.  In fact, he never won a non-time trial stage in any of his Tour de France victories.  In 1992, he would win his second straight Tour de France, aided by the infamous Stage 9 time trial, where Indurain won by over three minutes, even though the stage was only 65 kilometers long!  In the end, Pascal Lino couldn’t hold onto the yellow jersey, and surrendered it to Indurain in the 13th stage, who never lost it, finishing over 4 ½ minutes ahead of Italy’s Claudio Chiappucci.

In the next three years, Indurain cemented his reputation as a legend in the making, as he continued to dominate the yearly Tour de France.  He would win each year by several minutes, helping his own cause by continuing to race brilliantly in individual time trials while working hard to maintain his leads in the other stages.  In 1995, he held the yellow jersey for the last 13 of the race’s 19 stages.

Unfortunately, in 1996 Indurain’s incredible run came to an end.  He was slowed significantly by an onset of bronchitis that occurred after a cold and soggy first week of racing.  He would finish at 11th, his worst finish since 1989, and although he still was one of the most gifted cyclists in the world, would retire in later that year as one of the greatest riders in the history of the Tour de France.

Almost as impressive as his string of victories was Indurain’s reputation for being a kind and gracious competitor.  With the media and other competitors, he was a quiet person who never let his success get to his head, even as he put together his unprecedented run of five straight Tour de France wins.  He claimed to never feel superior to the other riders, despite the fact that he clearly was through much of his career.  Not only was Indurain one of the most incredible talents to ever pedal a bicycle, but he always set an example of kindness and humility for fans, his countrymen, and fellow riders as well.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Greatest Tour de France riders - Lucien van Impe

Lucien van Impe was one of the better cyclists of his generation, with five Tour de France podium appearances including one win at the 1976 Tour de France.  Van Impe, known as a gifted climber who excelled in long, grueling mountain stages, won six Tour de France mountain classifications in addition to his overall race successes.

Van Impe was born in Mere, Belgium in October, 1946.  He became a professional cyclist largely due to the help of Federico Bahamontes, himself an expert climber who had won the Tour de France in 1959.  Van Impe would repay Bahamontes’ faith in him by eventually tying his record for most polka dot jerseys, with six. 

Bahamontes helped van Impe get his first professional contract, and van Impe raced his first Tour de France in 1969, finishing 12th overall.  The next year, van Impe raced again in the Tour de France, this time finishing in the top handful of cyclists, in the sixth position.

The year 1971 was when van Impe started to break out on his own and earn a reputation as a rider to be reckoned with, especially in mountain stages.  Van Impe earned his first podium finish at the Tour de France, also winning his first of six polka dot jerseys as best climber of the Tour de France in the process.

In the 1972 and 1973 editions of the Tour de France, van Impe would reach a personal milestone by winning a stage in each of the races, although he finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and wasn’t on the podium following the races.  He did add another of his six polka dot jerseys in 1972.  The 1974 Tour de France held only frustration and disappointment for van Impe, however, as he finished at 18th.

Luckily, the next year, van Impe proved that his 18th place finish was a fluke, as he again earned a podium finish with a third place performance in the 1975 Tour de France.  It was also the race where van Impe earned another polka dot jersey as well as his first time winning two stages in the same Tour de France.  It appeared that van Impe was primed to claim the title of Tour de France champion.

The 1976 Tour de France saw van Impe do exactly that, as he won the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, while winning another stage victory along the way.  Colorful stories have emerged to help explain van Impe’s victory, including one that Cyrille Guimard shouted to van Impe to attack leader Joop Zoetemelk, unless he wanted to be run off the road by Guimard’s car.  Of course, van Impe denies that it happened that way.

Try as he might, van Impe was never able to reach that level again.  He did finish 3rd in the 1977 Tour de France and 2nd in 1981, and he also added four more stage victories and three more polka dot jerseys, but he could never win a second Tour de France.  His successes were peppered with some disappointing finishes, including a 27th place finish in 1985 that marked the end of his participation in the Tour de France.

Nevertheless, Lucien van Impe’s Tour de France win in 1976, along with his other podium finishes and his reputation as one of the best climbers of all time, have reserved him a special place in cycling history.  Van Impe is also notable for being second only to Joop Zoetemelk for the amount of times he finished the complete Tour de France race (fifteen times, in fifteen attempts).

In 1987, van Impe retired for good, leaving behind a legacy as a tenacious competitor whose strength and perseverance in the climbing stages is still envied by those who race in the Tour de France year after year.  His drive and determination helped make him one of the more notable cyclists of all time.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Greatest Le Tour riders - Lucien Petit-Breton

Lucien Petit-Breton was not only one of the first dominant riders in the history of the Tour de France, but also a great symbol of the eccentric and sometimes tragic time that he lived.  A two time champion of the Tour de France, Petit-Breton may have won more Tours had he not joined the French Army and died in World War I.

Lucien Petit-Breton was actually born Lucien Georges Mazan in 1882.  He was born in France and lived there until age six, but took on Argentinian nationality when he moved with his parents to Buenos Aires.  He would later adopt the new identity of Lucien Petit-Breton because he wanted to take up cycling, but his father wanted him to do something else instead.  He couldn’t simply be Lucien Breton, because there was already one who was also a cyclist.

Petit-Breton may not have ever gotten into cycling if he hadn’t won his first bicycle in a lottery.  He would use the free bicycle to help him get started, and as a young cyclist had some success in Argentina.  He was the track cycling champion there, although he would end up moving back to France after being drafted by the French Army.

In 1904, he continued his track cycling success before breaking the world hour record in Paris, cycling over 41 kilometers.  This was in 1905, around the time when Petit-Breton began participating in road races, rather than just in track cycling events.  1905 was also Petit-Breton’s first time participating in the Tour de France.  The race was a quirky one, with changes being made to try to limit the rampant cheating and tampering from previous races, and many riders having their tires punctured early on when spectators spread nails along the road.  Petit-Breton finished fifth among the chaos.

Petit-Breton improved his finish the next year, finishing fourth in another zany race.  More tires were punctured by spectator antics, and some riders even attempted to ride the train to get an edge on their competitors (they were disqualified).
Finally, in the 1907 Tour de France, Petit-Breton reached the level he had aspired to get to, winning the prestigious race.  Without the previous year’s winner in the field, Petit-Breton was able to stay near the front and take advantage when Émile Georget was caught borrowing a bicycle and received a penalty.  Petit-Breton won two of the later stages and held off Gustave Garrigou to win the race.

The next year, Petit-Breton repeated the feat by winning 5 stages (out of a possible 14), and proved those who considered him to be the race favorite right by easily besting the field.  In doing so, Petit-Breton became the first cyclist to win the Tour de France two years in a row.

Unfortunately, Petit-Breton would only compete in the Tour de France once more, in 1911.  The race itself was one of the most brutal in Tour de France history, and Petit-Breton was one of many to drop out early on in the proceedings.

Petit-Breton’s cycling career came to an end with the onset of World War I.  He would tragically die in 1917, bringing his life to an early end as well.  However, Petit-Breton would live on in cycling history as the first of the Tour de France’s truly great champions.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Greats of The Tour de France - Laurent Fignon

Laurent Fignon was a two time winner of the Tour de France, and one of the most beloved French cyclists of all time.  He won a variety of races other than the Tour de France in his career, and missed winning a third Tour de France by the smallest margin in race history. 

Fignon, born in 1960, won 18 races as an amateur before turning pro with the help of Cyrille Guimard.  Fignon started his career with the famed Renault-Elf-Gitane team, and quickly burst on the scene with skilled and tenacious riding. 

In the 1983 Tour de France, Fignon figured to play a supporting role to five time winner Bernard Hinault before Hinault ultimately was forced to withdraw from the race due to injury.  Fignon took full advantage of the opportunity he was given to shine, turning in one of the great time trial stage performances in history just before claiming his first yellow jersey midway through the race.  Fignon won the final time trial as well en route to winning his first Tour de France.

Fignon completed a repeat bid in the 1984 Tour de France, beating his former teammate, Hinault.  Hinault changed teams before the race, but Fignon was dominant, winning five stages on the way to his second Tour de France victory.  Fignon finished the race especially well garnering three of his five stage wins in the final several stages.

Unfortunately, Fignon couldn’t attempt a third straight win in the Tour de France, as a knee injury kept him from participating in 1985.  He did not finish the Tour de France in 1986 and 1988, and finished the 1987 installment, but only in seventh place.  In 1989, Fignon entered the Tour de France as the number one cyclist in the world, setting the stage for a legendary showdown between Fignon and the returning Greg LeMond, who was sidelined after being shot in a hunting accident.

During the 1989 Tour de France, Fignon watched as LeMond surprisingly earned the yellow jersey at Stage 5.  Throughout the race, Fignon played mind games with LeMond, challenging him through the press to ride more aggressively.  In time, it became a two-man race, as Fignon and LeMond battled with all they had.

From Stage 5 on to the finish, the yellow jersey belonged to either LeMond or Fignon, with the lead swapping from LeMond to Fignon, then back to LeMond briefly at Stage 15, then back to Fignon before the final time trial that would decide the victor. 

Fignon had a 50 second lead, but LeMond out-strategized the former Tour de France champion, using a more aerodynamically sound bike and helmet and beating the Frenchman by 58 seconds for an 8 second overall victory.  Fignon was crushed, and the finish remains the closest in Tour de France history.

After the disappointment of the 1989 Tour, Fignon would finish no better than 9th in subsequent years, dropping out in 1990 and finishing 23rd in 1992.  He finally retired afterward, remaining one of the more popular French cyclists due to his persona and signature ponytail.  Because of his talent as well as his memorable personality, along with his participation in the legendary showdown of 1989 with Greg LeMond, Fignon remains one of the more beloved cyclists to have participated in the Tour de France.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Tour de France 'great rider' - Lance Armstrong

Even those who are relatively unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the sport of cycling can tell you who Lance Armstrong is.  There are many people worldwide who don’t know the difference between the yellow jersey and the polka dot jersey, but are familiar with Armstrong’s legendary triumphs at the Tour de France, and his courageous battles with cancer.  Let’s take a look at the many great performances of Lance Armstrong on cycling’s biggest stage, the Tour de France.

Armstrong was born in Plano, Texas in 1971.  He began competing in his teens as a triathlete rather than as a pure cyclist.  As he got toward adulthood, he began competing in cycling events, before turning pro in 1992 at age twenty one.  He quickly found success, winning individual stages in several races, as well as being the overall winner of the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic.

In 1993, Lance Armstrong had his first slice of success in the Tour de France, winning Stage 8.  Unfortunately, he was unable to build on that success right away, as his only other stage victory at the Tour de France in the next few years was in 1995, when he won Stage 18 of that year’s race.  Of course, Armstrong had an uphill battle, as he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996.  Only in 1998, after extensive chemotherapy, was Armstrong able to return to competitive cycling.

Then, in 1999, he began a run the likes of which has never been seen in the cycling world, and which will likely never be seen again.

During the 1999 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong was excellent.  He won four stages as well as the overall race for his first-ever Tour de France victory.  The race itself was notable not only for Armstrong’s win, but also for a twenty five rider pile-up at Passage du Gois.  The next year, Armstrong only won one stage, but was consistent overall as he took the yellow jersey in Stage 10 and never surrendered it. 

Armstrong won his third-straight Tour de France in 2001, again besting the perennial runner-up Jan Ullrich by several minutes. Armstrong’s characteristic endurance allowed him to again take the yellow jersey in the middle portion of the race and never relinquish it.  Among the highlights of his 2001 win was his famous “look back” at Ullrich as they rode on Alpe d’Huez.

In 2002, Armstrong again finished strongly, winning three of the last ten stages to hold onto the yellow jersey, after surrendering it early in the race.  His arch rival, Jan Ullrich was unable to compete due to injury.  Armstrong made it an unbelievable five straight with his win in 2003, which was almost made impossible by a near crash that Armstrong barely avoided, that took Joseba Beloki out of the running.

By 2004, many fans and experts were wondering when Armstrong would run out of steam.  However, Armstrong was as amazing as ever, winning an amazing five stages en route to  his sixth straight Tour de France win.  He did not take the yellow jacket until Stage 15, but still finished six minutes ahead of the competition.  In his final Tour de France in 2005, Armstrong made history once again with his seventh straight win.  The accomplishment was enhanced by the fact that Armstrong wore the yellow jersey for all but four stages during the race.  It was also Armstrong’s first Tour de France while racing with the Discovery Channel team.

Armstrong finished his career as one of the only cyclists to transcend the sport and become a major celebrity outside of the cycling world, especially in the United States.   His exploits in cycling and particularly in the Tour de France not only captivated the world, but brought new light to the great sport of cycling.  Whether or not anyone is ever able to equal or best his amazing accomplishments, Armstrong will remain a legend in Tour de France history…

...or at least he would if he wasn’t a cheat.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Great Tour de France riders - Joop Zoetemelk

Joop Zoetemelk was a cyclist from the Netherlands who is widely regarded as one of the greatest riders of all time.  Zoetemelk competed in an amazing 16 editions of the Tour de France, finishing the race in every one.  In a 13-year span from 1970 to 1982 (he didn’t compete in 1974), Zoetemelk finished no worse than eighth, appearing on the podium seven times. 

Zoetemelk won the Tour de France once to go along with his six second place finishes.

Zoetemelk was born in 1946, and had success in the 1968 Olympic Games, winning the gold medal for team time trial along with three of his countrymen.  He would then go on to begin his professional career, with his first Tour de France appearance coming in 1970.

In the 1970 Tour de France, Zoetemelk came out of nowhere to finish second to all-time great Eddy Merckx of Belgium.  Although Zoetemelk finished over 12 minutes behind and didn’t win any stages, his performance was quite impressive, especially for someone making their first appearance in the Tour de France.

Merckx would spend the next several years of his career coming close but not quite close enough to winning in the Tour de France.  His second appearance, in 1971, led to another second place finish, again to Eddy Merckx.  This time, Zoetemelk wore the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, albeit for just one day.  In the next two years, he would not finish on the podium, although in 1973 he won his first stage along with the prologue, and spent another day wearing the coveted yellow jersey.

In 1974, Joop Zoetemelk had a career threatening injury resulting from a crash where he fractured his skull.  Luckily, Zoetemelk was able to make a full recovery and in 1975, he returned to cycling and to the Tour de France.  He picked up right where he left off, finishing fourth and even winning a stage along the way.

The next year, Zoetemelk had a legitimately good chance to come away the winner of the Tour de France, dueling with eventual winner Lucien van Impe in the mountains before finishing a few minutes behind him for yet another second place finish.  Still, it was Zoetemelk’s best showing yet, as he won three stages.

After a disappointing step backward with an eighth place finish in 1977, Zoetemelk added two more second place finishes in 1978 and 1979.  Though he lost to the great Bernard Hinault both years, these were Zoetemelk’s best efforts yet, as he wore the yellow jersey for four and six days, respectively, in the two years.  Zoetemelk and his fans hoped that he had finally reached the level he needed to win the Tour de France, after five second place finishes.  It turns out that he had.

In 1980, Zoetemelk won the Tour de France for the first time with a margin of about seven minutes ahead of the second place Hennie Kuiper.  Although Zoetemelk won only two stages, he was consistent throughout and held onto the yellow jersey for ten days of the race.  After ten years of competing in the Tour de France, Zoetemelk had finally reached the summit.

Many thought that Zoetemelk could add another win or two to his Tour de France resume before his career was finished, but it was not to be.  He did add another respectable fourth place finish and a last podium finish (second place) in 1982, but in the mid-80’s, Zoetemelk’s performances declined in quality.  He finished 23rd in 1983, 30th in 1984, 12th in 1985 and finally, 24th in his last Tour de France appearance in 1986.  In 1987, he retired.

It’s easy to wonder what Joop Zoetemelk’s resumé would look like if he had not raced in an era with greats like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault.  However, despite the stiff competition he faced, Zoetemelk’s Tour de France win in 1980 and five second place finishes place him squarely among the best to ever compete in the Tour de France.