What’s in a number?

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.

The day that Luis Ocaña sealed what would be his only Tour de France victory, wearing dossard 51. It was the first of six stage wins as the untouchable Spaniard sought to dominate on every terrain from the cobbles of the north, to the mountains of the south, even the race of truth could not resist Ocaña’s onslaught.

He finished the race more than 15 minutes ahead of a young Frenchman named Bernard Thevenet. It was Thevenet who would wear the number 51 in the 1975 Tour and deliver the coup de grace to Merckx that the Spaniard could never quite achieve. He would become the Merckx-killer. The assassination started on the climb of the fabled Puy de Dome, the great lost climb of the Tour de France. Thevenet had lurked at less than two minutes from the Cannibal for days and he attacked five kilometres from the finish, eating up the kilometres where Anquetil and Poulidor had duelled elbow to elbow eleven years before. The Frenchman had the incomparable Belgian climber Lucien Van Impe for company and it was Van Impe who surged for line to raise his arms aloft, Thevenet finishing 15 seconds later and crucially – 34 seconds ahead of Merckx.

The Belgian was 30, a little older, a lot wiser. 1975 hadn’t started badly and victories in the Milan– San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Amstel Gold Race would result in his seventh straight Super Prestige Pernod trophy the season-long competition to determine the best rider. But he’d faltered in Romandie, pulled out of the Giro and suffered a heavy defeat to Thevenet in the Dauphiné Libéré. Was the Tour about to be de-Merckxed?

He declared publicly that he wasn’t interested in winning a sixth Tour, but he started aggressively and by the end of the first time trial was once again in the yellow jersey. And he was still in yellow when Nello Breton stepped out of the crowd and punched him hard in the gut. Hard enough that Merckx was winded. Hard enough that he bruised badly. Hard enough that he called for painkillers on the next day’s stage from Nice to Pra-Loup, a dead end road to an unremarkable ski resort.

Merckx hit back on the descent of the Allos, descending at the limit of physical possibility. One of the Bianchi cars was not so lucky, plunging into the ravine, its occupants miraculously emerging unscathed. Merckx was flying, Thevenet was already over a minute down with only 6km left to race.

Any rider can crack, even on a dead end road to an unremarkable ski resort. In the space of a kilometre Merckx no longer had the force to turn the pedals. It was as if his bike was mired in the tarmac, his cadence no faster than a country postman out on his rounds. Thevenet’s deficit turned swiftly into a 1’52” advantage. Yellow was his. Merckx was history.

Hennie Kuiper wore 51 the following year, pinned to his rainbow jersey. But he had only an imperious stage win in Belgium and a handful of unlikely Maillots a Pois by the time the race finished in Paris. In 1977 it was the turn of Alain Meslet, leading a Gitane team much depleted after the departure of Van Impe. He finished 10th but he won alone on the Champs Elysees, the most beautiful victory of his career.

The 51 stayed with Gitane for the 1978 Tour. But this time it was pinned to the French national champion’s jersey of a cocky little bastard called Bernard Hinault.

It was Hinault’s first Tour de France. To prepare he’d ridden the Vuelta that April and won it, just for fun, taking the intermediate sprints classification jersey too. Then he took the tricolore and here he was, on the startline in Leiden with the ‘dossard anise’ on his back – though Hinault preferred his whisky, and a decent malt must be at least 51% malted barley. It was a changing of the guard. His principle adversaries were Hennie Kuiper (29), Bernard Thevenet (30) and Joop Zoetemelk (32). Kuiper crashed and broke his collarbone. Thevenet was a shadow of the rider who had slain the Cannibal hospitalised in 1977 after his second Tour win with acute failure of the renal glands, he had confessed in 1978 to using cortisone intensively for the previous three seasons. Michel Pollentier had hovered around the top five and might have threatened had he not been ejected from the race after winning on Alpe d’Huez, thanks to a little difficulty with a condom of clean urine and a complicated system of tubes. Pollentier says he looks back and laughs on the affair of ‘Pollentier’s pear’ but it potentially cost him a second Grand Tour win to add to his 1977 Giro triumph. And then there were two. The old and the new. The roads of Leiden were home turf to Zoetemelk, who had started his cycling career with the local club. But it was on the Puy de Dome on Bastille Day that Zoetemelk made his move, dropping Hinault on the slopes of the ancient volcanic conk with all the expertise of the old pro to move 47” ahead on GC. By the time the race hit the final time trial, the 72km between Metz and Nancy, the art nouveau jewel in northern France’s crown, just 14” separated the two adversaries.

“Age and treachery” pronounced Fausto Coppi, “will beat youth and skill.” But in the race of truth there’s nowhere to hide. By the time the day was over, Hinault would be in yellow, nearly four minutes ahead of Zoetemelk.

When he turned pro in 1975, ‘the Badger’ (as he became) declared that one day he would be French champion, win the Tour de France and become world champion in the same season. He’d have to wait for 1980 to win the rainbow jersey, but two out of three wasn’t bad.

And there it ends. Gianni Bugno would come close in 1991, finishing second behind Indurain who would dominate for five straight years. Greg Lemond never wore it, nor did Laurent Fignon though in a neat inversion he would win his debut Tour in 1983 in dossard 15, just as three other riders have done. And four riders have won wearing 21, the number reserved for the previous year’s third placed rider. There is, in the end, nothing unique about 51.

And yet, for that brief and brilliant period it blazed.

A glorious statistical anomaly worn by riders in their first, or only, Tour wins: the greatest rider to ever turn a pedal and his giant killer; the fragile, tragic Spaniard straight out of a Goya painting; and the sexy, arrogant Frenchman with his Ray-Bans and his attitude. Four riders of quite different styles and temperaments, united by a number.

In Chinese, the number 51 symbolises being without trouble, or carefree. Décontracté as they say in French, tranquilo in Italian. The ability to switch off from the circus of the Tour and stay relaxed yet focused on the goal of becoming a champion. The means to generate magic when the road rises inexorably upwards or the seconds tick the margins between triumph and defeat.

And this is where magic and superstition combine, in these simple prime digits. 51. The dossard that hardened Tour fans still search for in their copy of L’Equipe every July. The number that still carries with it the distant memory of myth.

By Suze Clemitson (Conquista Magazine)