I sometimes wonder how many hours or even days I have spent over the years staring at the TV watching the parts of bicycle races where nothing is happening. The break has formed, the peloton is cruising along and the only thing happening is the riders are going from A to B. Thankfully there is usually some beautiful scenery to look at and my mind can be occupied by thoughts of having an idyllic life on the continent. It’s the same escapism I get into when going for a ride on my own. There is one day at the Tour every year though that gets my full attention from the start of the broadcast to the end, and that falls on the 14th of July.
The atmosphere on the roadside during Bastille Day is absolutely fantastic. It seems that the whole of France watches the race during la Fête nationale and the high spirits make the race a joy to watch back home. However, when there is the chance of a French victory things reach fever pitch.
The first time I witnessed this happen was in 1995. There hadn’t been a French Bastille day win for six years, the longest such gap since the Second World War but the hosts were having a decent Tour. Jacky Durand and Laurent Jalabert had both worn the Yellow Jersey in the first week and going into stage 12 Jalabert was now in Green and Richard Virenque was leading the mountains classification.
Of those two in-form French riders it was Jalabert who most suited the terrain, rolling hills through the Massif Central with a steep 8 km climb at the finish to an airfield in Mendé. He didn’t wait long to make his move and attacked after 20 km, meaning he and the other five escapees would have to survive over 200 km if they were to win the stage.
Jalabert had planned things perfectly though as half the breakaway riders were in his ONCE team. First he used his loyal domestique Neil Stephens to carve out a decent lead. The advantage over the peloton rose to over 10 minutes at one stage and put Jalabert in the virtual Maillot Jaune with the other ONCE rider in the break, Melcior Mauri, up to second overall.
With Miguel Indurain seeing his race lead in jeopardy he called up his Banesto team to reduce the deficit but entering the final stages of the day it seemed certain that the stage winner would come from the break. And it was clear who the fans at the roadside wanted to win.
Approaching the foot of the climb up to the finish Stephens had done his days work and would soon get swallowed up by the pack so it was Mauri’s turn to set the tempo at the front for Jalabert. As soon as Mauri started to tire Jalabert attacked, though it took the commentators David Duffield and Stephen Roche a while to realise this. From that point, even though his lead over the rest was never unassailable, it was obvious the Jaja was going to be the winner that day as the enthusiasm, and what ever else, lifted him to the finish line.
Jalabert repeated his victory by winning a Bastille Day stage in 2001. Four years later in 2005 David Moncoutié became the last French winner of a Tour stage on the French National Day. Tomorrow the country will be hoping someone can end the record equaling 12 year drought.