With little left in the tank and my eyes glazed over with fatigue, I peeked back to see the chase group closing the gap. I had been up the road for hours and in truth, things were looking bleak. We were about to be caught by a quartet of fresh faced men who had sheltered in the main bunch for the day whilst we chose to toil away in the wind, rain & grit.
The finishing circuit contained a ‘wall’, a 1km steep hill that rose at an aggressive 16% gradient. I’d already struggled to stay with my breakaway companions on every lap. If the fresh new riders decided to force the pace I’d be faced with the embarrassment of finishing out the back and alone.
But I wasn’t going down without a fight. Between the top of the climb and the finish line were a series of 90 degree bends with some negative camber and uneven surface thrown in for good measure. The group had been treating the turns with the respect they deserved and with a cautionary approach.
If I could stay with the leaders over the hill, I’d only one option. To launch a violent attack in advance of the turns and achieve the near impossible. If I was still upright, conscious and had all my teeth I had only a 700m dash to the line and to victory.
This decision wasn’t based on gut feeling or desperation. It had been forged in dusty workshops with various frame builders over the years. Conversations about the implications of making minor head tube and fork trail adjustments. Small tweaks over the years. I had long accepted I wasn’t the strongest climber or the fastest sprinter so having the ability to regain lost ground on corners and descents became a valuable asset.
Many years later I found myself trading in the racing for the sale & distribution of bikes. I became familiar with everything; the best brands, the boldest designs and the more intricate components. But I also noticed a worrying trend. People were spending thousands on bikes that were factory made in bulk to a set size and shape. The necessity for streamlined processes had done away with the customer interaction and small details that can make such a big difference. The bikes were great, sure but they weren’t made with the rider in mind. They lacked the personality, the chemistry, the romance. I recalled the ultimatum in Brittany. The moment when I assaulted the final corner with a certainty and belief in my machine and the characteristics that had been built into it to ensure I not only came out alive but ahead.
With a flick of the hips the bike tore toward the apex of the corner and did what it was made to do. And for a brief moment, nothing else existed.
I didn’t win that race because of my ability. Nor was it due solely to the bikes handling. I won that battle because I was able to take those corners knowing that at that decisive moment, the bike and I were One.
Cycling is a unique sport, where it’s teams that compete, but individuals who win and lose. Every team has its designated winner. And the only way for the team to win is for every other member to sacrifice himself in the service of the one. So, when the team members receive their dossards, the leader’s always carries a number ending in ‘1’ – ‘11’, ’21, ‘31’ – a subtle sign to make him stand out from his team mates. First, but not among equals.
For over six decades of Tour de France history, dossard number ‘1’ – worn by the defending champion – was the most prized, and by far the most successful. But then, four times in nine years, the Tour de France was won by the rider wearing dossard number 51. And these were no ordinary Tours. Eddy Merckx rode to his first win, in his first Tour, in 1969. Merckx was absent in 1973 when outsider Luis Ocaña crushed the competition in both the mountains and the time trials, winning by over 15 minutes. Bernard Thévenet effectively ended the Merckx era, and took the Tour, with a dramatic attack on the Col d’Izoard on Bastille Day 1975.
1978 saw the arrival of a new era, as Bernard Hinault took the first of what would become five yellow jerseys. Four of the greatest stories, and the greatest champions, in Tour history.
Ever since, race number 51 has had a special mystique that sets its bearer apart. Awarding dossard 51 is a way for any race’s organiser to honour a special rider, a subtle sign to make him stand out from his colleagues.