A Few Dramatic Tour de France Moments
Sudden, spectacular moments make the Tour de France what it is. Racing can change in an instant, whether from a rider’s quick acceleration, an unseen obstacle in the road, or a cyclist’s unscripted emotional finish-line reaction. Great Tour moments are etched in race lore, and they occur in an instant, year after year — always when least expected.
Countless epic battles, horrific crashes, furious sprint finishes, and curious split-second oddities have occurred in the race’s century-plus history. It’s impossible to choose the best moments, but here is our selection of ten dramatic Tour moments.
Assassins Among Us (1910)
Who could have known that the introduction of the first mountain in the Tour de France in 1905 would five years later lead to perhaps the race’s most famous quote? And who could have known some Tour peaks encountered for the first time nearly 100 years ago would become today’s race monoliths?
It was race founder Henri Desgrange, the person responsible for many Tour innovations, who added several climbs in the Pyrenees to the 1910 race. His goal was simple: increase race excitement to increase circulation of his daily newspaper, L’Auto, which gave vast coverage to the race.
During a two-day stretch, riders in Stage 8 in 1910 endured the rigors of climbing obscure, mountainous dirt roads. Ascents like Aspin, Tourmalet, Aubisque, and Peyresourde were included. Many riders walked with their bikes on some of the difficult sections. Octave Lapize of France got angry. As he progressed past the halfway point of the Col d’Aubisque, Lapize noticed race officials and he spoke his peace in their direction: “You’re assassins! All of you!” said Lapize en route to his overall race win.
Lapize’s abrupt words have stood the test of time as the race’s mountain mantra. Tour riders have a love-hate relationship with the famous and infamous race peaks, and nothing speaks to the severity of the climbs (and to the race directors who devise their ascents) like Lapize’s outburst.
A Tour First: Death in the Peloton (1935)
Progressing from Aix-les-Bains to Grenoble, the stage included ascents over Telegraphe, the Galibier, and the Lautaret. First, defending champion Antonin Magne of France was struck by a car on the Telegraphe, badly hurt, and transported to a hospital in a farmer’s cart, where he died from internal injuries. Soon after, on the descent of the Galibier, Spanish rider Francisco Cepeda crashed and fractured his skull. He died from his injuries three days later — the Tour’s first racing victim.
Poulider Versus Anquetil (1964)
Raymond Poulider of France may have been the most well-liked rider in Tour history. He won 189 races in his 18-year career, but he never won the Tour de France. Frenchman Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx of Belgium, both five-time Tour winners, dominated the race during Poulidor’s tenure, but because Poulidor kept trying in spite of injury and illness, he finished the Tour second or third overall a combined eight times. He was affectionately known as “Pou-Pou.”
Poulidor’s most memorable ride likely occurred when he and Anquetil rode side by side for the final stretch of the Puy de Dome, the final ascent of the 1964 Tour. Poulidor was the stronger climber, but Anquetil held a 56-second lead when he pulled next to Poulidor. The two riders stayed even for much of the final climb and occasionally bumped each other, a common occurrence in road race sprint finishes, but rare on mountaintops. Poulidor pulled away from Anquetil, the defending race titlist. But Anquetil knew what he was doing. He still had a 14-second margin for the final stage, a time trial — his specialty. Anquetil won the time trial easily and claimed his fifth Tour de France by 55 seconds over tough-luck Poulidor.
Merckx Attacked in the Mountains (1975)
As a five-time winner, Eddy Merckx of Belgium began the 1975 race as a surprisingly unknown factor. He was sick during the spring, missed the Tour of Italy, and didn’t claim the other early season races he usually dominated.
When the Tour began, Merckx wasn’t at his best, but he didn’t give up easy. He won two stages of the ’75 race — the last Tour stage wins of his career. But Merckx suffered often on climbs, crashed several times, and then faced the end of his Tour dominance because of a fan’s outburst.
A spectator suddenly jumped from the crowd and punched Merckx. Merckx lost time and stumbled across the line, vomiting. Despite his physical problems, Merckx rode down the hill after the race and identified his attacker to police. Merckx still had the race lead following the ordeal. But he lost more time in subsequent stages and ended up second overall.
LeMond Rides into History (1989)
Greg LeMond had a singular focus during the final stage of the 1989 Tour. He didn’t wear a watch and told his handlers not to tell him his time during his ride; he then went on to ride the race of his Tour career. Riding in a tuck position provided by aerodynamically configured handlebars (like the tuck of an alpine skier), LeMond overcame a 50-second deficit to Frenchman Laurent Fignon and claimed his second Tour title by 8 seconds, the closest margin of victory in race history.
LeMond knew he had ridden spectacularly, and it was quickly confirmed when his finishing time showed an average speed of 54.5 kph (33.8 mph), the fastest stage in Tour history. But LeMond still had to wait for Fignon, the last rider on course, to finish. But Fignon couldn’t make up the deficit. When he knew he had won, LeMond leaped into the air, mouth agape, and then hugged his wife. Fignon, the 1983 and ’84 Tour winner, collapsed near the finish, defeated in his quest for a third title by just 8 seconds.
Armstrong Salutes Fallen Fabio (1995)
Lance Armstrong and Fabio Casartelli of Italy were young teammates and good friends, and they both were part of the U.S.-based Motorola squad competing in the 1995 Tour. Casartelli won the 1992 Olympic Road Race; Armstrong claimed the 1993 World Championship Road Race.
But something went terribly wrong in Stage 15 of the 1995 Tour. Frenchman climbing specialist Richard Virenque of France was at the front of the group pedaling toward a stage win. Well behind the stage leader, a helmetless Casartelli crashed with several other riders on the descent of the Portet d’Aspet.
While racing at approximately 50 mph, Casartelli hit his head hard against a cement railing and died en route to the hospital. The next day’s stage was nullified out of respect to the deceased rider. Near the stage finish, the entire remaining Motorola team was allowed to come to the front of the peloton and cross the line together to honor its fallen teammate. Two days later at Stage 18, which finished in Limoges, Armstrong got into a small breakaway group and then powered to a solo win. As he approached the finish line, Armstrong raised both index fingers toward the sky, acknowledging Casartelli. He later dedicated the win to his deceased teammate and friend.
Sitting Down on the Job (1998)
Willy Voet was a soigneur for the French team Festina. When he was stopped in his car en route to a cross-channel ferry headed for the start of the 1998 Tour in Dublin, it marked the beginning of the end of the most tumultuous Tour in history.
Part of Voet’s cargo was vials of EPO, the human growth hormone. Voet was arrested and subsequently revealed his team’s doping practices to law enforcement officials. As the Tour progressed, other teams’ hotel rooms were raided and other riders were arrested, including the entire Festina team. The race was in jeopardy.
Riders felt their rights were infringed upon, and during Stage 9, they began a series of protests by dismounting their bikes and sitting down on the road for two hours. The peloton eventually resumed racing, and there was much discussion with race officials. Protests continued throughout the race, and tempers flared. By the time Italian Marco Pantani claimed the title in Paris, less than half the field remained, and the Tour was in the midst of a huge identity crisis and massive drug controversy.
Riding through Hay Fields (2003)
Lance Armstrong’s tenure at the Tour has included many exhilarating moments. Perhaps the most dramatic occurred in 2003 in Stage 9 from Bourg d’Osians to Gap.
French roads are often resurfaced for Tour stages. But in the nearly omnipresent heat of the 100th anniversary Tour edition, a slight downhill section melted while Spain’s Joseba Beloki and Armstrong began to furiously chase stage leader Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan.
With Beloki slightly ahead of Armstrong, the duo accelerated to an estimated 40 mph (65 kph). Beloki’s rear wheel suddenly spun out in the melting tar. He swung back and forth for a few seconds, then hit the pavement hard.
Armstrong reacted instantly and swerved to the left. He exited the pavement and rode across a recently plowed field of hay and back toward the race course. Armstrong dismounted his bike, jumped with it across an irrigation ditch and joined a group of riders, just arriving in another chasing pack. Beloki was escorted to a local hospital with several broken bones, lacerations, and other injuries. Armstrong finished second in the stage and went on to claim his record-tying fifth consecutive Tour de France.