1971…

Jacques Anquetil arrived in Doctor Bergès’ clinic in Saint-Gaudens
soon after Chico Pérez had gone running out. He went to room 15 and
looked at Josiane questioningly. Josiane hadn’t moved from the chair
next to the bedhead where Ocaña seemed to be having some sleep.
‘He’s ok, don’t worry Jacques; he’s only shocked and in despair. It’s
me who has been in shock. I was at home listening to the news in the
kitchen (the TV didn’t have the images yet), when I heard that radio
speaker with a hoarse voice saying: “Sur la route des Pyrenées…”,
and then changing his voice while he said, “Ocaná est tombé, Ocaña
est tombé!” Then he said the leader didn’t stand up and remained
apparently unconscious. It wasn’t even three o’clock and I’d managed
to put Sylvie down for a nap, but Jean-Luis was with me, as he liked
to listen to the Tour broadcast about his dad. I immediately phoned
Cescutti, who was also listening to the radio and he immediately picked
me up. We left the children with my mother and we rushed to Saint-
Gaudens. Well, in the end we decided to go to Saint-Gaudens because
the news was not clear. First they said he had been taken to Saint-Béat
by car and then to Saint-Gaudens by helicopter. And there we found
him, in the same village where he won a stage last year. The nurses
said they had to cut off his jersey with scissors. He was complaining
of pains in the chest and in the back. I was scared his spine might have
been broken, leaving him paralysed. But, as they said, he has nothing
broken. I hardly know how he fell, Jacques.’
‘I’ve also been trying to fnd out myself; there are not many pictures
either. Riders have told me that it was really sunny when they started the
climb up to the Col de Menté; but just when they were reaching the top
it got really dark, Josiane, just like Luis’s sad omens. Very dark clouds
gathered and immediately it started to rain violently and hail. The dust
on the sides of the road turned to mud and began to slide down on to
the tarmac. Nobody could brake because the wheel rims and brake
pads were soaking wet. Merckx was going down behind Fuentes, who
was ahead by a few minutes. Luis was on Merckx’s wheel. On the
frst hairpin bend to the left Merckx fell and so did Luis after him.
Guimard, who was third, managed to avoid them. Merckx fell on the
grass and he got up straight away. Luis took a bit longer because he
had hit a rock, and when he was fnally standing up Zoetemelk ran
into him. Then Agostinho crashed into both of them and went fying
over them. Most of the riders were coming down scraping their shoes
on the road to try and slow down. Many of them had them completely
torn apart by the fnishing line. “When Merckx and Ocaña fell I had
been left behind and I was riding as hard as I could to try and close
the gap, Jacques,” Zoetemelk explained to me. He was completely
devastated. “Suddenly I saw Ocaña’s yellow jersey appear in front of
me. The brakes didn’t work. I tried to skirt around them putting all
my weight on the other side, but I lost balance and, what’s more, my
front wheel had gone fat. I hit Ocaña. It was inevitable. Nobody could
have avoided it. I got back on the road and I even considered stopping
when I saw Ocaña was not getting up, but what good would that have
done, Jaques?”
‘Yes, we heard Zoetemelk on the radio saying something similar.’
‘But Luis’s bicycle wouldn’t have helped either, Josiane. The frame
was shorter and lighter than usual, which made it diffcult to control
on the descents. But what I fnd really diffcult to understand is why
Luis decided to ride so close to Eddie, following him everywhere…
He could have let him gain as much advantage as he wanted as he
would never have taken Ocaña’s yellow jersey. He was more than
seven minutes ahead….’
‘I did it for honour, Jacques.’ Josiane and Anquetil looked at Luis
in unison while he half sat up to take part in a conversation that he had
probably been following in silence.
‘Nothing is more important than honor. I followed Merckx downhill
on the Menté. I was very aware he wanted to take chances downhill
because he wasn’t able to do anything uphill. I followed him although
I knew it wasn’t my terrain and I was in a dangerous zone. I knew I
couldn’t back down there. A true champion never refuses a challenge.
This is what pride is about, to take part in a battle where you know
you can lose everything. This morning I woke up with a premonition.
Sometimes I wonder if I am not a toy in a beautiful dream that’s
beyond my control. That is exactly what I told Labourdette, however
corny it might sound. It was he who opened the window in the room
this morning. He was dazzled by the splendid sunlight refected on
the yellow jersey that I had laid out on the back of the chair. “You
have to settle the Tour today,” Bernard told me with a laugh. I was
afraid of taking for granted something I wasn’t sure was going to
happen. I know the Portillon by heart, of course, because it is the col
that separated me from France when I lived in Arán, and I had made
up my mind to attack there, in front of all the Spanish supporters who
had probably painted my name on the tarmac. I would have attacked
Merckx there and I would have nailed him. It would have been my
most complete victory, for sure. I couldn’t say this to Bernard because
of my superstition. But I did phone Cescutti because I tell him all my
plans every night before I go to sleep. I couldn’t tell anybody else,
though. What’s more, I was annoyed with Merckx because of what
happened on the evening of the Albi time trial, on the Séquestre circuit,
where a scorching sun burned the back of our necks. Merckx beat me
by 11 seconds, which wasn’t very serious considering the lead I had on
him overall. But what I didn’t like was the inelegant way he claimed
he would have taken back more time if the TV car hadn’t protected me
against the sidewind, whereas the motorbikes hampered him when he
was overtaking Zoetemelk.
‘For all this, for my honour, I felt I had to teach Merckx a lesson on
the Portillon. And I had to do it for myself, of course. And for De Muer,
who had come up with a very funny pun that he repeated over and over
between drags on his cigarette. He used to tell me all the time: “You’re
going to slaughter Merckx on Portillon, automatically.” [‘Portillon’
means ‘gate’ in French, and De Muer was surely referring to electric
garage gates, which are automatically activated by a photoelectric
cell]. I was the leader of the tour and I had to demonstrate it. I was
certainly very strong. After having breakfast, before heading for the
start line, I went to Bebel’s church with Labourdette. There, I prayed
and thought about my father. I could picture myself entering Spain
and reaching Paris wearing the yellow jersey. “At last I am lucky,” I
thought, unaware of what was awaiting me. Behind dark clouds, an
evil eye seemed to be lurking.
‘We climbed the Portet d’Aspet in line, keeping an eye on Merckx,
who was pedalling in an inscrutable manner. We climbed Menté under
a scorching sun. Merckx attacked me seven times, and seven times
I easily slipped in behind him, all the while thinking: “Wait till the
Portillon. You’ll see there….”. Then the sky turned black and I barely
remember myself waking up, on the ground, with a killing pain and
terribly distressed as I couldn’t breathe; the image of Rivière’s similar
accident, where he was paralysed, came to my mind, and then I think
I fainted. That was my destiny. When I crashed, I had already lost
because I would never have caught Merckx, even if I had stood up
quickly. This is the story of my life, where golden pages alternate with
black ones.’
‘Merckx did have a very hard time on the Portillon, if you wish to
know,’ Anquetil told him. ‘All the Spanish supporters blamed him for
your crash; they threw stones, spat and insulted him,. But you know
him; he proudly coped with it and at the end of the stage refused to put
on the yellow jersey. He said he wouldn’t wear it tomorrow either.’
‘It’s a nice gesture; I am very grateful,’ said Ocaña. ‘But he
shouldn’t overdo it. The Tour must go on and he’s the leader so he
must wear the yellow jersey.’
‘And when a journalist asked him if he had won the Tour today
Merckx, looked very sad, or so he seemed on the television. He said,
“No, just the opposite: I lost it today.” I understand him. He knows it
will always be remembered that he was going to be defeated and only
your crash gave him the victory. But he says that now; later on he will
justify it saying that, after all, crashing is part and parcel of cycling;
that, in the end, if you crash it’s because you’ve made a mistake, and
that champions are successful because they ride more carefully and
they know how to avoid risks.’
‘Or provoke them,’ said Ocaña, who didn’t like the tone in his
friend, Jacques. ‘By the way, who won the stage?’
‘Unfortunately, it was Fuente, although he also crashed descending
the Menté. Suddenly, he disappeared off the road and everyone thought
he had fallen down the ravine, but he reappeared as if nothing had
happened. He was very angry at the fnishing line because nobody
paid any attention to him; everyone was talking about you.’
That night the Tour issued a press realease: ‘The Tour organisers
have been informed by Eddy Merckx that as homage to the bravery of
the unfortunate Luis Ocaña, who had to withdraw from the Tour while
he was still the leader, he wishes to refrain from wearing the yellow
jersey in the Luchon-Superbagnères stage. The jury of commissaires, in
agreement with the directors of the race, understanding the chivalrous
nature of this gesture, agreed to revoke the regulations of the article 14
paragraph 2, and to authorise the rider Merckx not to wear the yellow
jersey at the start of stage 15.’
Monday 12 July 1971
Tragedy in the TOUR de FRANCE
On this road transformed into
a torrent of mud by an apocalyptic
thunderstorm
Luis OCAÑA, maillot jaune
abandoned all his hopes
against this rock