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The 30 Greatest Moments in Tour de France History

The most memorable scenes from cycling’s premier event.

by Whit Yost
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Over its 116-year history, the Tour de France has challenged, disgraced, and immortalized the world’s greatest cyclists. But while each year brings fresh triumphs and heartbreaks, these are the 30 moments we will never forget.

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1905 – The First Climb

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The first two editions of the Tour de France were primarily flat affairs. So in an attempt to make the race more exciting, organizers introduced the Tour’s first major climb, the Ballon d’Alsace, in 1905. Riders were allowed to change their fixed-gear bikes at the base and again at the summit so they had appropriate gearing for the climb and descent. France’s René Pottier reached the top first, making him the first (albeit unofficial) King of the Mountains in Tour history.


1910 – The Circle of Death

Octave Lapize
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Inspired by the success of the Ballon d’Alsace, the Tour started including even higher summits. After a reconnaissance trip to the Pyrenees, it was decided that the 1910 edition would include a mountain stage of 326K sending the riders over the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque—four summits later known as the “Circle of Death.” (This is perhaps because while walking his bike up the Tourmalet, eventual 1910 winner Octave Lapize shouted “You are assassins, yes, assassins!” at the organizers.) More than 100 years later, these climbs still strike fear into the hearts of Tour competitors.


1919 – The First Yellow Jersey

Eugene Christophe ( 1885-1970 ), French racing cyc
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What would the Tour be without the yellow jersey? Midway through the 1919 race, organizers heeded to pressure from the press to make the race leader more visible. Fittingly, they chose yellow as the distinctive jersey’s color, a nod to French newspaper and then-Tour owner L’Auto. The first jersey went to Eugene Christophe, one of the top riders of his generation.

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1934 – Vietto's Great Sacrifice

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Bicycle racing is nothing without sacrifice, and in 1934 Rene Vietto set the standard in an incomparable beau geste. Starting as a support rider for the legendary Antonin Magne, Vietto proved to be the revelation that year. Easily the best climber in the field, Vietto won four stages and rivaled Magne, who dealt with mechanical problems throughout the race. When Magne crashed on the descent of the Portet d’Aspet, his chances to win a second Tour (after his first victory in 1931) seemed slim. But once again, the 20-year old Vietto came to the rescue. Doubling back from the break, Vietto climbed up again to give Magne his front wheel. He then sat on the stone fence, waiting for the support car to finally arrive—and cried, knowing his own Tour chances were over.


1934 – The First Time Trial

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On July 27, 1934, organizers introduced a new kind of stage, one that has shaped the outcome of just about every Tour since: the individual time trial (ITT). Team time trials had been a race fixture since the 1920s, but ITTs were too hard to run due to the sheer number of vehicles needed. So the Tour saved its first ITT for the penultimate day of the 1934 edition, after much of the field had dropped out or been eliminated. At 90K, it was incredibly long by modern standards, but given the frequency of 300K-plus stages back then, it probably felt just right to riders at the time.

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1949 – The Coppi-Bartali Duel

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Cycling is all about competition and camaraderie, defined best by Italians Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi in the 1949 Tour. The aging Bartali was the reigning champion, but Coppi was the rising star, having just won Milano-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia. For much of the race Coppi appeared jinxed, losing nearly half an hour to crashes and mechanical mishaps. But he showed his superior climbing in the Alps. On an epic stage to Briançon, the duo charged away on an early climb. But on the final Izoard ascent, Bartali began to struggle. Finally Coppi said, “Now Gino, I’m going.” But Bartali pleaded, “Let’s finish together... Let me win the stage. Tomorrow you will win the Tour.”


1955 – Louison Bobet on Mont Ventoux

Tour De France 1955: The Cyclist Bobet In Action
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At the peak of his career, popular French rider Louison Bobet sealed his legacy with a memorable solo ride over the infamous Mont Ventoux. Attacking with Charly Gaul in the final kilometers, Bobet then soloed to victory. Winning the stage in Carpentras, he would exchange his rainbow world champion’s jersey for yellow, assuring his third Tour de France victory.


1956 – Unknown Roger Walkowiak

Walkowiak Victory
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Unknowns rarely win the Tour de France. Three weeks is just too long for an unheralded rider to sustain any flashes of brilliance. But in 1956, Roger Walkowiak surprised just about everyone as he stole the headlines, not to mention the yellow jersey, from the top favorites. Attacks were nonstop throughout the ’56 Tour as the major national teams failed to control the race. Without fanfare, and without winning a stage, “Walko” nonetheless rode consistently. Once he grabbed the lead, he held up under pressure to take it all the way to Paris. Many disregarded his victory, and in fact he would never win again. But for three weeks in July he racked up a historic win for the little guy.

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1958 – Charly Gaul Breaks Away

Charly Gaul
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Ever since Ottavio Bottecchia won in 1924, a pure climber had been unable to ride home in yellow. But Luxembourgish rider Charly Gaul turned the situation around in the final days of the 1958 Tour. Known as the “Angel of the Mountain,” Gaul won a stage on Mont Ventoux but only grabbed the lead on the final day of climbing in the Alps. Attacking in the Chartreuse Mountains, he soloed to victory in Aix-les-Bains, leaving Frenchman Raphael Geminiani and his yellow jersey well behind.


1961 – Anquetil Leads From Wire to Wire

Jacques Anquetil
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Heading into the 1961 Tour, Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil, who first won in 1957, boasted that he would take the yellow jersey on the opening day and keep it all the way to Paris. It was a bold prediction, as Charly Gaul, winner of the 1958 Tour, was racing that year as well. But Anquetil stood by his word, dominating the afternoon time trial on the first day and defending his lead throughout the rest of the race. He went on to win the next three Tours to become the race’s first five-time winner.


1964 – Anquetil and Poulidor Duel on Puy de Dôme

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For years Raymond Poulidor was Anquetil’s greatest rival, and in 1964 he narrowly missed his best chance to seize victory from the defending champion. The final climbing stage that year took on the Puy-de-Dôme volcano in central France. At the base, Anquetil held a 56-second lead on Poulidor and knew his rival would attack. With each acceleration, Anquetil marked Poulidor as the two rode shoulder to shoulder up the narrow, fan-packed road. Finally, Poulidor broke free in the last 1,500 meters and gained ground with each pedal stroke. Delirious, Anquetil forged on, trying to cut his losses. At the finish he maintained a 14-second lead. Days later he would become the first five-time Tour winner, and Poulidor would never even wear the yellow jersey.

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1969 – Merckx Raids the Pyrenees

Eddy Merckx
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Eddy Merckx entered his first Tour de France in 1969 with a chip on his shoulder after being thrown out of the Giro d’Italia for a positive drug test that he still swears was rigged. But by the end of the first day he had the yellow jersey, and when the race hit the Pyrenees two weeks later he had a lead approaching eight minutes. On Stage 17 riders faced the Circle of Death, and when Merckx attacked on the Tourmalet 140K from the finish line in Luchon, his competition thought he was just stretching his legs. But Merckx persisted alone, descending the Tourmalet, climbing and descending the Aubisque, and then cruising over the rolling roads to the finish. He won the stage by nearly eight minutes, doubling his overall lead. It was one of greatest days in the career of cycling’s greatest athlete.


1971 – Ocana Defies Merckx

Luis Ocana
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Ever since his overwhelming first Tour victory, Merckx looked untouchable. But in 1971 he found a real challenger in Spaniard Luis Ocana. When Ocana attacked early on the mountain stage to Orcieres-Merlette, Merckx could not respond. Throughout the 77K solo breakaway, Ocana continued to take time out of the two-time champion, grabbing a nearly 10-minute advantage and the yellow jersey at the finish. Merckx, it seemed, had finally met his match. But soon he regained his lead in the Pyrenees, when Ocana crashed out of the race. Ocana, however, would finally win his Tour in 1973, the one year Merckx did not enter.


1975 – Thévenet Breaks Merckx

Bernard Thévenet
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For most, it’s a sleepy ski resort in the Alps. But for cycling fans, Pra-Loup remains a monument, for it was here where Merckx wore yellow for the last time. The greatest rider of all time seemed primed for a record-setting sixth Tour victory. All day long, he exchanged attacks with up-and-coming Frenchman Bernard Thévenet. On the final climb to Pra-Loup, Merckx bolted away. Soon, however, his pedal stroke stiffened and the Cannibal ran out of gas. Without hesitating, Thévenet counterattacked, catching and dropping Merckx. He then grabbed three minutes on Merckx in the final 6K and went on to win his first of two Tours de France.

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1975 – The First Champs-Élysées Finish

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What would the Tour de France be without its famous ending on the Champs-Élysées? For decades, in fact, there was no such fanfare at the finish. But in 1975, organizers reached an agreement with Paris to host the final stage in the heart of the city, a sign that the race had finally become a landmark of its own. Belgian sprinter Walter Godefroot won the first mass finish, while Thévenet won the race and a new Tour tradition was born.


1978 – Bernard Hinault Leads Rider Protest

Bernard Hinault remporte le Tour de France
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He may have been a Tour rookie, but Bernard Hinault was already the boss. Not only did he win the first Tour de France he entered, but “The Badger” already held the respect of the entire peloton. He showed it on a stage between Tarbes and Valence d’Agen, when he led riders in protest against the growing number of long transfers and early starts. It seemed only fitting when he finally took the yellow jersey and won the race.


1986 – Slaying the Badger

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After Greg LeMond helped his teammate Hinault win a fifth Tour title in 1985, the Frenchman promised the American that he would return the favor in 1986. Well, promises are made to be broken, and Hinault fought LeMond tenaciously before the latter finally took the lead on Stage 17. The next day, the two teammates dropped everyone on Alpe d’Huez, with Hinault winning the stage and LeMond adding to his overall lead. It looked like a truce had been declared, but Hinault told a journalist after the stage that the Tour “wasn’t finished.” Despite Hinault’s best efforts, though, LeMond held on to win his first Tour.

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1989 – LeMond’s Eight Seconds

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Two years after nearly dying in a hunting accident, LeMond returned to the Tour to face two-time champion Laurent Fignon. The pair exchanged yellow four times throughout the race, with Fignon wearing it heading into the final stage: an individual time trial in downtown Paris. Fignon held a 50-second lead over the American at the day’s start, but LeMond got the better of him, beating Fignon by 58 seconds while winning the stage—and the overall field. LeMond’s eight-second margin of victory remains the slimmest in Tour history.


1990 – Claudio Chiappucci Almost Steals The Win

Claudio Chiappucci
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Four riders grabbed a 10-minute lead on the first stage of the 1990 Tour. But it was the least-known among them, Italian Claudio Chiappucci, who nearly stole the race. With the yellow jersey on his shoulders, he maintained a seven-minute lead over defending champion LeMond exiting the Alps. He kept it until the last time trial in Lac de Vassiviere, when LeMond finally overcame the surprise upstart to win a third Tour. Chiappucci’s tenure in yellow, however, made him one of the most popular riders of his generation.

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