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The day Bernard Thévenet dropped Eddy Merckx

From issue 88 • Words by James Startt with images from Horton Collection

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It is hard to imagine today, 50 years after a young Eddy Merckx won his first Tour de France, the grip he held on the world’s biggest bike race in the early 1970s. Sure, we’ve seen countless pictures of the elegant Belgian with his dark hair flowing freely as he raced along with the yellow jersey on his back. But it is hard to imagine the spell he cast on the Tour, sowing fear among his competitors.

But in 1975 the spell broke in the southern Alps on the modest climb to the remote ski resort of Pra-Loup. The climb itself is less than 10 kilometers long with an average grade of less than 6 percent. At face value it is far from daunting. But it was here that Merckx cracked under a split-second acceleration by up-and-coming French racer Bernard Thévenet and lost nearly two minutes in the final 2 kilometers. Thévenet, who raced in the distinctive black-and-white-checkered jersey of the Peugeot team, would go on to win the 1975 Tour and repeated his success two years later.

So while Thévenet is listed in the record books as a two-time Tour winner, he will always be remembered as the man who beat Merckx. Today, the mild-mannered Thévenet works with Tour de France organizer ASO; we caught up with him at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné to look back to that day at Pra-Loup, to the day he dropped Merckx.

Bernard, you were the first rider to beat Eddy Merckx in the Tour de France. What do you remember about that epic 1975 Tour? Well, you know, I wasn’t just the first rider to beat Eddy in the Tour, I was also the first rider to beat Eddy in a grand tour. I mean, since he had won his first Tour de France in 1969, Merckx had won every grand tour he started.

What gave me hope and motivation that things might be different in 1975 was that I raced with him in the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré before the Tour and I saw that he wasn’t super-strong. He was supposed to do the Giro d’Italia that year, but got sick before and didn’t start. And even at the Dauphiné he wasn’t completely back. For the first time, we saw him like a human and not some Martian like he usually was in the races. We saw him suffer. We saw him struggle. For the first time he wasn’t unbeatable.

I ended up winning the Dauphiné for the first time that year and after the race my director really looked at the Tour route that year and thought I had a real chance. There were a lot of mountaintop finishes; that was good for me, and he told me that if I could make it to the Pyrénées without losing more than two and a half minutes, I could win. Now, I got off to a bad start, because I lost over a minute on the first stage as I got caught behind a split. I’ll never forget that. I was like, “Wow, I’m already a minute down! How am I going to make it to the Pyrénées less with less than two-minutes-thirty?” But I made it to the Pyrénées and I was only two-minutes-ten down.

I only lost nine seconds to him at the [37-kilometer] time trial in Auch and so, for the first time, I started to believe in my chances. Unfortunately, Eddy understood that I had a real chance too, and at the press conference on the rest day, he said that I was now his biggest rival. I can tell you that didn’t help me out much as I was hoping to fly under the radar until the Alps.

But from then on, every time the race finished with a climb I attacked and gained back time. I attacked on Saint-Lary. I attacked on the Puy de Dôme and I gained time back each time. After the stage to Puy de Dôme, I was only 58 seconds down—and, I can tell you, that being able to calculate your deficit to Eddy Merckx in seconds rather than minutes was a huge boost!

And then came the crucial stage in the southern Alps that finished in Pra-Loup. It’s really not that big of a climb, but it produced historic results! Well, yes; but first it was a long stage, 217 kilometers, with loads of climbing. We climbed six climbs that day, including the Col d’Allos, a very hard climb. But, before that, we climbed the Col des Champs, which we had never climbed before. I had planned to attack there and I attacked several times but didn’t manage to break free. Then we hit the Col d’Allos and I was starting to feel the fatigue. I think Eddy sensed that I wasn’t 100 percent and all of a sudden he attacked in the last kilometer. Suddenly I was in trouble. I felt like I was bonking. So on the descent I just ate everything I could. But lost a full minute to Eddy on the descent. By the time I hit the foot of the final climb to Pra-Loup, I had gotten my strength back. But I was furious to have lost a minute to Eddy on the descent and I just attacked Pra-Loup with all I had. I could tell I was gaining back time, but to be honest, at that point, I was just hoping to catch Eddy and finish on the same time, as the climb isn’t that long. Finally I saw Eddy’s Molteni car, but I couldn’t really see what Eddy looked like.

It’s funny, people always ask me if I could see that Eddy was faltering and I just tell them: “Eddy Merckx faltering simply didn’t exist.” We’d never seen him falter once until that day, so I didn’t pick up on it to be honest. But I was really hammering, and we came up on a turn with a bunch of gravel in the middle. Eddy was on the inside and I attacked on the outside because I just didn’t think he would ride across the gravel to get my wheel—and it worked. I gapped him instantly.

So you dropped Merckx, but there was still Felice Gimondi up the road? Absolutely, there was still Felice in front. There were only about 2 kilometers left but I kept hammering. I had yet to win a stage and wanted to win. I caught Felice and attacked immediately. But it almost killed me. That last kilometer was just so, so long. I’ll never forget! When I was at the finish I couldn’t hear anything. I was just gasping for breath. I couldn’t hear the speaker announcing the results and when my mechanic told me that I had the yellow jersey, I couldn’t believe it. I mean I had just passed Eddy two kilometers from the summit. How could it be that he lost so much time in just two kilometers? It just didn’t seem possible. But in the end Eddy lost nearly two minutes in those two kilometers—because I started the day 58 seconds down on him, but finished the day 58 seconds up! Eddy just totally cracked.

What was it like to be the guy that beat Eddy Merckx? Well, in the heat of the race, I can tell you that I was trembling all the way to the Champs-Élysées. Until then, I wasn’t the guy that beat Merckx, not until we finished in Paris. And I knew that until Paris I had no margin for error. I knew that Eddy would exploit the slightest error. And I had the image of Luis Ocaña in the 1971 Tour in my head. Luis of course had managed to drop Eddy and get the yellow jersey. But Eddy attacked all of the descents and Luis crashed trying to follow him in the Pyrénées. As a result, Eddy often gapped me in the descents. I would have to really chase in the valley, but at least I didn’t end up on the side of the road.

Well, you made it to Paris in yellow. What’s more, that was the first year that the Tour finished on the Champs-Élysées. That must have been really something! Well, that first year on the Champs was a bit strange really. We actually started and finished on the Champs, so it was like a big criterium. I think we did 27 laps, and the riders were like: “What kind of a way is this to end the Tour de France?” But it was a big success. And I’ll never forget that even on that last day, Eddy attacked from the gun! Oh là là, Eddy!

Did it mean more to you to win the Tour de France or to be the first guy to beat Merckx? Oh, to win the Tour de France was what counted the most. I know that a lot of my reputation has been built on the fact that I was the guy to beat Merckx, but for me the most important thing is simply having my name on that list of Tour de France winners. That said, I understand that for people of my generation, beating Eddy was really something. In the grand tours he was just unbeatable. I wouldn’t say that we accepted getting beat by Eddy. But it almost was because he was just so dominant. We were scared of Merckx when it came to the Tour.

From issue 88. Buy it here.