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Five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx once said, “When you are the strongest, the Tour is the easiest race to win, because it is the hardest race of all.” What the Belgian was saying is that because the Tour is so physically demanding, only the very strongest riders will stay in contention on the mountain stages and time trials. But Merckx didn’t mention the unforeseen incidents—crashes, injuries, or untimely mechanical problems—that can stymie even the strongest rider. Before his winning spell (1969-70-71-72-74), Merckx was preceded by three others who won at least three Tours: his fellow Belgian Philippe Thys (1913-14-20) and the Frenchmen Louison Bobet (1953-54-55) and Jacques Anquetil (1957-61-62-63-64). Since Merckx’s reign, four others have had dominant periods: Frenchman Bernard Hinault (1978-79-81-82-85), American Greg LeMond (1986-89-90), Spaniard Miguel Induráin (1991-92-93-94-95), and the Kenyan-born Briton Chris Froome (2013-15-16-17). There have been twelve two-time winners, from French rider Lucien Petit-Breton (1907–08) to Spain’s Alberto Contador (2007–09). Gino Bartali was the only rider to win the Tour at ten-year intervals, taking his victories in 1938 and 1948.
The most exciting Tours were those when some of these champions faced strong challengers. Perhaps the greatest rivalry was that between Anquetil and countryman Raymond Poulidor in 1964. Several times, Anquetil was on the point of cracking, but the younger, more popular “Poupou” suffered terrible bad luck and, though he pulled within fourteen seconds with a day to go, he had to be content with second place. For all his brilliance, even Merckx was pushed to the limit in 1971, when Spanish climber Luis Ocaña took a near-ten-minute lead in the Alps—though he was forced to pull out four days later after crashing on a steep mountain descent in a thunderstorm. The closest-ever Tour was in 1989, when LeMond and French-man Laurent Fignon fought a race-long battle, exchanging the yellow jersey four times before the American came from behind in the ﬁnal-day time trial to win by just eight seconds.
Seven men have won the Tour without winning a stage in that Tour: Firmin Lambot (1922), Roger Walkowiak (1956), Gastone Nencini (1960), Lucien Aimar (1966), Greg LeMond (1990), Oscar Pereiro (2006), and Chris Froome (2017).
Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, who won the Tour in 1980, was the only rider to place second to three different Tour champions: Eddy Merckx (1970–71), Lucien Van Impe (1976), and Bernard Hinault (1978-79-82).
Frenchman Jacques Anquetil was the ﬁrst rider to truly focus his racing season on the Tour; he raced it in a calculating manner, winning the time trials and defending his gains in the mountain stages. His methods worked, as he was the ﬁrst ﬁve-time winner.
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