To this day the dossard 51 has a mythic status in cycling, but what happened all those years ago to create its aura of magic.
1969. Eddy Merckx enters the velodrome at la Cipale in Paris to take victory in the contrela montre and the final yellow jersey. He has won six individual stages, the yellow jersey, the green jersey, the white jersey (then awarded for the combined classification, not the young rider’s competition of more recent years), the Grand Prix de la Montagne, the trophy for the most aggressive rider and the team prize.He has beaten Roger Pingeon by 17’54”, the biggest winning margin since Coppi in 1952. He is wearing dossard 51.
Never before, not in all its 66 years, had a rider wearing the number 51 stood on top of the podium in Paris. Blondin dubbed Merckx the ‘Yellow Mao’ so implacable was his domination. Merckx would win again in 1970, 1971 and 1972 and 1974 but this time with the number 1 on his back.
And it’s thanks to Merckx, and all the other multiple Tour de France winners that dossard 1 has been carried to victory twenty four times. But it is 51 that continues to carry the weight of expectation.
Merckx didn’t ride the Tour in 1973. He’d already won the Vuelta and the Giro, and opted for a hat trick of wins at the Worlds instead narrowly beating ‘eternal second’, Raymond Poulidor, in a two-man sprint. It left the road wide open for Luis Ocaña.
Ocaña had inflicted the heaviest defeat Merckx had ever suffered on the stage to Orcières-Merlette in the 1971 Tour. Like the matador flirting with his bull, Ocaña had teased out a slender lead into a dance of death that put him in the yellow jersey and left Merckx floundering over 8’ behind. But even wounded bulls can turn on their tormentors. Four days later, provoked by a brutal Merckx attack on a day of torrential rain in the Pyrenees, Ocaña overcooked a bend on the descent of the Col de Menté. His Tour ended there, hunched in pain, the matador gored. Ottavio Crepaldi, wearing 51, would finish the race 25th, more than an hour behind Eddy Merckx.
It takes about 25 seconds to count from 1 to 51. That’s half the gap that existed between Ocaña and Mariano Martinez at the finish in Aspro- Gaillard on the afternoon of 7 July 1973.
It was Antoine Blondin, that great myth-maker of the Tour de France, who dubbed it the ‘dossard anise’ after the French aperitif Pastis 51. A number like any other, perhaps infused with a whiff of the flanneur, to be pinned to a race jersey and carried like a badge of honour, the membership to an exclusive club.