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.
I became a fan of professional cycling in the early 90’s and being from Britain this meant watching Tour de France highlights on Channel 4 at home or occasionally Eurosport if I was at a sports club. The Tour was the gateway drug and it was only later that I hit the harder stuff like the Giro or the classics. So watching cycling in this restricted manner at that particular time meant witnessing Miguel Indurain’s dominance. It was very impressive and as I enjoyed a Time Trial I didn’t find the era as boring as others. There were also more flamboyant riders such as Claudio Chiappucci to add some colour to the race but when his team mate Marco Pantani came on the scene my enjoyment of the sport reached a new level. He was different from everyone else, everything about him was striking from his looks to his climbing style, out of his saddle but still in the drops. He quickly became my favourite rider. I was so fond of him I even liked his Carrera Jeans kit with the denim cycling shorts.
He turned pro in 1992 and completed his first Grand Tours in 19994, he was 2nd at the Giro and finished 3rd and won the White Jersy in his Tour debut. During that Tour he had beat the record for the ascent of Alpe d’Huez but missed out on the stage victory as Roberto Conti had triumphed from a break. The climb was to be used again in 1995 and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a stage win slip him by again.
Approaching the mountain there was a break just like the previous year but Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team were racing well and keeping those ahead at a manageable gap. The riders in the break were of a good caliber (Richard Virenque and Ivan Gotti among others) but it looked like they would be caught. On the lower slopes of the Alpe Banesto start riding hard but Gerard Rue tells them to slow down, has he concerns about the form of his leader Indurain? Pantani decides to find out and flies off. He passes by members of the break one by one and after passing Gotti he has the lead. After that his victory is never in doubt and the top riders of a generation such as Indurain, Riis and Zuelle are left fighting for second.