Big engines that could

From issue 78 • Words by John Wilcockson with images from Horton Collection, Graham Watson & Chris Auld

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Chris Froome said it was “one of the most amazing things I’ve done on the bike.” His Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford added, “There are very few people who put it all on the line and try something like that.” What they were talking about was Froome’s sensational 80-kilometer solo breakaway through the Alps to win the Giro d’Italia in May. It made him the defending champion at the sport’s three grand Tours: Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Giro—now confirmed after he was cleared in July by the World Anti-Doping Agency of any infraction regarding his asthma drug, salbutamol, at the 2017 Vuelta.

As a four-time Tour winner, the Kenyan-born Briton has shown time and again that he is a rare athlete, one that the Italians call fuoriclasse, an “undisputed champion.” As such he is one of “those very few people who [can] try something like that.” Reporters at the Giro who witnessed Froome’s extraordinary ride compared it with breakaways made in a bygone age, like something Fausto Coppi, another Tour champion, was capable of doing seven decades ago. But other Tour winners since Coppi have also accomplished similar feats.

Besides the successful solo breakaways through the mountains detailed on the following pages, some other grand tour champions displayed their class in different ways:

• In the Coppi era, Swiss legend Hugo Koblet, who won the Giro in 1950, was one of the favorites for the Tour in ’51. A terrific time trialist, Koblet was favored by two extreme TTs, 85 and 97 kilometers long, where he gained a combined 19 minutes over eventual runner-up Raphaël Géminiani. Time-wise, those two TT rides overshadowed Koblet’s famous solo breakaway on the rolling stage 11 from Brive to Agen when he sustained a solo break of 135 kilometers against a peloton led by all-time greats Coppi, Géminiani, Gino Bartali and Louison Bobet, winning the stage by three minutes.

• At the 1971 Tour, Luis Ocaña (who would win the Tour two years later) pulled off a stunning 60-kilometer solo break on a short, but extremely hot alpine stage to Orcières-Merlette, finishing almost six minutes ahead of second-place Lucien Van Impe and almost nine on a small chase group led by Eddy Merckx—who said, “What Luis just did was extraordinary. He was superior to everyone.” But the Spanish climber’s big gains proved fruitless when he crashed out of the Tour four days later.

• Five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault won the 1980 Giro on stage 20 thanks to attacking race leader Wladimiro Panizza on the race’s final mountain, the Stelvio, joining up with teammate Jean-René Bernaudeau who’d been in the early break, and racing the final 90 mostly downhill kilometers together to finish four minutes ahead of Panizza’s chase group. Hinault was successful with similar long-distance, two-man breakaways at the Tour: with Colombian climber Lucho Herrera in 1985 and American teammate Greg LeMond in 1986.

Those three grand tour winners all had what it takes to excel in all sorts of weather on any type of course, just like Froome and the following champions have done in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta over the past 70 years.

(200km solo breakaway, stage 17, 1949 Giro)

It’s true that Fausto Coppi raced in what is now seen as a bygone era. But the Italian campionissimo—who won his first Giro in 1940, at age 20, survived World War II as a prisoner of war in North Africa and then continued his career—was the first of the “modern” racers. Besides making good nutrition a priority, Coppi also used interval training and motor pacing in his preparations. He won a second Giro in 1948 and planned to become the first rider to do the Giro-Tour double in 1949. With three stages remaining of that year’s Giro, he was in second place, less than a minute behind longtime race leader Adolfo Leoni and already 10 minutes ahead of his main rival, Gino Bartali. Bartali, at age 34, had won the Giro three times and the Tour twice, and he was still considered a threat before the biggest stage of the race: a 254-kilometer mountain marathon from Cuneo to Pinerolo via five alpine passes. What Coppi achieved that day was one of the sport’s greatest athletic performances.

With the prospect of a stage that might take 10 hours to complete, combined with a morose morning of steady rain, the peloton made slow progress leading to the opening climb, the Maddalena. As the slope steepened toward the first switchbacks on the dirt road, the solid Primo Volpi was the first to pull clear, hoping others would join him. What he didn’t expect was to see Coppi, his back arched, come pedaling up to him. Within a few hairpins, Coppi dropped Volpi, while Bartali emerged from the pack to chase his old rival. There were still 200 kilometers left to race. Coppi, in his elegant style, raced solo over the remaining climbs, the Vars, Izoard, Montgenèvre and Sestriere, to arrive in Pinerolo almost 12 minutes ahead of second-place Bartali and more than 22 minutes clear of Leoni’s small chase group. He’d won the Giro for a third time, and a few weeks later completed the first Giro-Tour double.

(115km solo break, stage 21, 1958 Tour)

After 20 stages of the 1958 Tour de France, the situation looked grim for Charly Gaul—even more “impossible” than Froome’s at this year’s Giro. The Luxembourg climber, who’d won the Giro two years earlier, was down in sixth place overall more than 16 minutes behind race leader Raphaël Geminiani—who led runner-up Vito Favero by 3:47, with Jacques Anquetil in third at 7:52. When the peloton set out from Briançon on stage 21, dark clouds were massing, the temperature was dropping and a fine rain was starting to fall. Ahead lay 219 kilometers over the Lautaret, Luitel, Porte, Cucheron and Granier mountain passes.

Gaul, who felt at home in cold, wet conditions, said before the start that he would try his luck on the Luitel, a climb he’d attacked on at a previous Tour. He duly went to the front of the pack as that climb started, and Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes was quick to take his wheel. The Luitel is steep and nasty, with a 9-percent grade for 10 kilometers, zigzagging up a pine-forested mountainside. Gaul soon left Bahamontes behind before catching two Belgians from the morning’s breakaway. When they tried to stay with him, Gaul turned and said, “You’re going to die, little guys!” There were 115 kilometers left to race.

On the descent to Grenoble, with a solo Gaul two minutes clear, a desperate Geminiani passed a frozen Bahamontes, while Favero had stopped with a flat. Gaul was making time on everyone…but it was the weather that was causing Gaul’s rivals the most problems. And after more than three hours alone, even Gaul was struggling. Suffering from hunger knock, he was happy to see a spectator holding up a banana—which turned out to be a baguette. Eating bread was enough to get him to Aix-les-Bains to win the stage more than 10 minutes ahead of Favero (in third place) and almost 15 minutes before Geminiani (in seventh). Gaul moved up to third overall. Two days later, he clinched the overall victory by dominating a 74-kilometer time trial into Dijon, three minutes faster than Geminiani and Favero.

(130km solo break, stage 17, 1969 Tour)

The 24-year-old Eddy Merckx was already leading his first Tour by eight minutes before he started stage 17 in the Pyrénées, so he had no need to make any more breakaways. But when he sprinted to the top of the day’s third climb, the Col du Tourmalet, just ahead of Faema teammate Martin Van den Bossche and a small lead group, he continued his effort on the steep downhill. The stage finish in Mourenx was still 130 kilometers away, but Merckx slalomed his way down the long, technical descent as if the stage ended in the valley, gaining two minutes on the chasers.

It was a day of burning heat and Merckx still faced three hours of effort, including a couple more mountains, the Soulor and Aubisque, followed by a rolling 50-kilometer run-in to Mourenx. But the young Belgian paced himself as well as a Coppi or Gaul to arrive at the finish eight minutes ahead of seven chasers. An exhausted but exhilarated Merckx told reporters: “I already suffered on the last switchbacks of the Aubisque…and the last 20 kilometers were truly painful…but I’m pleased to have accomplished something that will, I believe, be remembered.”

(70km, mostly solo, break, stage 14, 1976 Tour)

It was decision time at the 1976 Tour. With 13 stages completed and the toughest (but shortest) Pyrenean stage ahead, Frenchman Raymond Delisle was in the yellow jersey, almost three minutes ahead of his nearest challengers Lucien Van Impe and Joop Zoetemelk. Stage 14 was only 139 kilometers long but contained four stiff climbs: the Menté, Portillon, Peyresourde and the ascent to the finish at Pla d’Adet. Van Impe’s directeur sportif Cyrille Guimard knew that it would need some bold tactics to unseat Delisle—and distance Zoetemelk.

A dozen or so riders moved clear on the first big climb, with 1973 Tour winner Luis Ocaña, who was far back on GC, chasing them. After the twisting descent, Guimard drove up to Van Impe’s group and shouted at his leader: “Don’t you see that all the others are on their knees? Attack!” That jolt was what the hesitant Van Impe needed and he jumped away at the foot of the short but steep Portillon, with 70 kilometers left to race. The breakaway group, now including Ocaña, was more than six minutes clear.

No one responded to Van Impe’s acceleration, but he wasn’t convinced it was a great move. So Guimard shouted again: “You may not be convinced, but you’ve already taken 1:50 on Delisle and Zoetemelk.” Van Impe continued alone up the Peyresourde, picking off one by one the dropped riders before catching Ocaña. Zoetemelk finally took off, chasing alone, but on the next 30 kilometers of valley roads, Ocaña, who had a grudge with Zoetemelk, pulled hard and often to keep the Dutchman two minutes back.

Ocaña was spent by the time they reached the start of the climb to Pla d’Adet. Van Impe sprinted clear and won the stage by 3:12 over Zoetemelk, with Ocaña at 3:50 and Delisle at 12 minutes. That 70-kilometer effort was enough for Van Impe to win the Tour—with some thanks to Guimard and Ocaña.

(50km, mostly solo, break, stage 15, 1998 Tour)

The 1998 Tour has its place in sports history for many reasons, not the least of which was the Festina team doping scandal that brought the Tour to its knees. What’s often forgotten is that this was the last time a rider did the Giro-Tour double. That double hadn’t been planned by Marco Pantani, who fought a close battle to win the Giro by 93 seconds, but he was persuaded to go to the Tour. Pantani raced only once in his monthlong break and his lack of form showed when he placed a distant 181st in the prologue! Then, on stage 7’s 58-kilometer time trial he conceded more than four minutes to race leader Jan Ullrich. On reaching the first mountain stages, Pantani was in 47th overall, more than five minutes back. He clawed back some time with a stage win in the Pyrénées, but he was still three minutes down, in fourth overall, heading into stage 15, a 189-kilometer stage over three alpine giants with a mountaintop finish at Les Deux-Alpes.

Thunderclouds rolled in when the GC leaders were 5 kilometers from the top of the day’s third climb, the Col du Galibier. Cold rain and gusting winds added to the difficulties when Pantani grabbed the hoods, stood on his pedals and sped clear. It was a gamble to attack so far from the finish, so Ullrich and second-placed Bobby Julich didn’t (or couldn’t) respond.

By the Galibier summit, Pantani had closed a two-minute gap to an early breakaway, then stopped to don a rain jacket, which allowed fellow Italian Rodolfo Massi to re-join him. Together, they added to their lead before the climbing started again, while Ullrich, suffering in the glacial conditions, stopped to change a flat tire and took a long time to get going again. By the finish, a triumphant Pantani was two minutes ahead of Massi, almost six minutes in front of Julich and nine minutes up on Ullrich. Pantani now had the yellow jersey and defended it all the way to Paris.

(130km solo breakaway, stage 17, 2006 Tour)

(The asterisk is because Floyd Landis was crowned the winner of the ’06 Tour, though his title was revoked a few days later when his urine sample from stage 17 tested positive for artificial testosterone.) The situation looked impossible for Landis after he bonked badly 11 kilometers from the mountaintop finish of stage 16, losing his yellow jersey and plunging to 11th overall, eight minutes down on new race leader Oscar Pereiro. There was one mountain stage left, along with a later time trial, where the American could make up time.

No one predicted that Landis would make a “suicide” attack on the opening climb of five alpine passes on the 200-kilometer stage 17 to Morzine. After his Phonak teammates set a ferocious pace on the early slopes of the Col des Saisies, only five riders were left with Landis when he made his move. None of them could (or wanted) to follow him with 130 kilometers still to race. Like Van Impe and Pantani before him, Landis picked off the men in the day’s early breakaway, until just one rider was left in his wake, their lead almost nine minutes with 50 kilometers to go. Landis dropped his “passenger” on the final climb to win the stage by almost six minutes, lifting him into third only 30 seconds behind Pereiro. It was the most dramatic 24-hour turnaround in Tour history. Pereiro lost the jersey to Landis in the time trial—only to have it reinstated after the Landis positive was announced.

(63km, mostly solo, break, stage 18, 2011 Tour)

When the 2011 Tour reached it toughest stage in the Alps, four days from the finish, defending champion Andy Schleck was in fourth place, 2:26 behind longtime yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler, and 68 seconds behind second-place Cadel Evans. And with a time trial coming up the day before the finish, the Luxembourg climber needed to do something drastic. He had an advantage in that his brother and teammate Fränk Schleck was sitting in third place, so when Andy made an unexpected attack on the Col d’Izoard, the second of the day’s three giant climbs, his rivals stayed with Fränk rather than try to follow the attack, especially as there were 63 kilometers to race.

Over the Izoard summit, Schleck linked up with a teammate in an earlier breakaway and set about building a big lead. In the distance was the long haul to the finish line atop the mighty Col du Galibier, the highest-ever stage finish at the Tour. As the gradient steepened into a strong headwind, Evans reached the front of the small peloton and looked around for help. No one reacted. His BMC team director Lelangue later said: “We had two options. Let Andy Schleck continue on and accept second place in Paris, or take responsibility for the chase and risk losing everything later. We chose the latter.”

The Aussie threw himself into a desperate duel with the by-now solo leader. The gap to Schleck was 4:25 with 11.5 kilometers remaining. Every kilometer up the climb, Evans was hacking seconds from Schleck’s lead. He climbed so fast that his adversaries fell back one by one. Race leader Voeckler, paced by his teammate Pierre Roland, was hanging in, while Fränk Schleck grimly followed. At the line, which the leaders crossed one by one, most of them in a state of utter exhaustion, Andy Schleck successfully completed his epic, two-hour breakaway, but failed by fifteen seconds to take the yellow jersey after Voeckler summoned up his last dregs of energy to place fifth on the stage.

(52km, mostly solo, break, stage 17, 2012 Vuelta)

Alberto Contador needed to do something dramatic if he wanted to win the 2012 Vuelta. It was the final week and even though he was only 28 seconds behind race leader Joaquim Rodriguez, so far he’d been unable to match the specialist climber on the many ultra-steep hilltop finishes. Then came stage 17 from Santander to the ski station of Fuente Dé, which was constantly up and down, with three significant climbs in the final 70 kilometers, including the 17-kilometer-long ascent to the finish.

Rodriguez and the other two still in contention, Alejandro Valverde and Chris Froome, thought that Contador would wait for the final climb to make his challenge. Instead, after putting two Saxo-Tinkoff teammates in an earlier move, Contador made one of his trademark kicks on the shorter and steeper Collado La Hoz, with 52 kilometer to go. His acceleration split the peloton, with Froome getting dropped, while Rodriguez and Valverde lost 20 seconds by the summit. Contador linked up with his teammates on the descent, then put them to work in the valley until the road began climbing again. On the long drag to the finish that got progressively steeper, Contador pressed on alone, just holding off a strong chase led by Valverde but taking almost three minutes out of Rodriguez to earn (and keep!) the leader’s red jersey.

(80km solo break, stage 19, 2018 Giro)

In winning his previous grand tours, Chris Froome always gained the time he needed with solo efforts, whether it was uphill (Ax 3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux, 2013 Tour, and La Pierre-Saint-Martin, 2015 Tour); downhill (Peyresourde to Luchon, 2016 Tour); or individual time trials (Megève, 2016 Tour, and Logroño, 2017 Vuelta). The longest of those efforts were the 7 kilometers of climbing to Pierre-Saint Martin, the 15-kilometer descent to Luchon and the 40-kilometer Logroño TT. So what he faced two days from the finish of this year’s Giro was a challenge of a much different magnitude.

After 18 stages, Froome was in fourth place, 3:22 behind his countryman, race leader Simon Yates, and 2:56 down on runner-up Tom Dumoulin, the defending champion. There were many reasons for Froome’s deficit, including a crash at top speed while pre-riding the TT course on Day 1, another fall when making a slick uphill turn on stage 8, and struggles on all the summit finishes of the first two weeks.

The first sign of a “normal” Froome form came on the much-feared ascent to Monte Zoncolan, where he spun his lowest gears up the 10-kilometer “wall” to win stage 14 and climb to fifth on GC. But when he faltered the next day and then placed only fifth in the stage 16 time trial, his spectacular Zoncolan show looked like a blip. That was the background to what Froome (and his Sky team) achieved on the 185-kilometer stage 19 to Bardonecchia.

The facts sound simple. Team Sky rode so hard up the first half of the longest, toughest climb of the race, the 2,178-meter (7,145-foot) Colle delle Finestre, that a tiring Yates was dropped and only a handful of other team leaders was left with Froome. His last teammate, Kenny Elissonde, then made a lengthy, inspired surge: “I was absolutely on my knees, on the limit,” said the French climber later. His effort saw that only Dumoulin and three others were left when Froome zoomed clear some 13 kilometers into the climb, which continued for another 5 kilometers on a dirt road with a 10-percent grade. He was 41 seconds clear by the Finestre summit, then descended with alacrity, gaining another 53 seconds on the 10 kilometers of steep downhill. That gap of 1:34 became 2:41 after 17 kilometers of gradual uphill to Sestriere, and increased to 3:20 on valley roads where it was essentially a two-way battle: Froome versus Dumoulin. Froome won the stage by three minutes and took over the race lead over Dumoulin by 40 seconds.

This successful breakaway was a far cry from the instinctive attacks made by Coppi, Gaul and Merckx half a century ago. It was revealed that Team Sky’s head of athlete performance Tim Kerrison had divided the stage into segments, calculating what wattage Froome would produce in each section and how many carbs he needed to do that. And, to help make his initial attack successful, Froome didn’t carry a full water bottle, weighing half a kilo, but instead the team stationed personnel every 10 minutes up the Finestre to hand him a drink.

In view of Froome’s then ongoing episode with his anti-doping procedure, Kerrison told The Guardian: “I can absolutely guarantee that there was no illegal performance enhancement. We’re well aware of the history and that people have trouble believing what they’re seeing at times. … A lot of the performances from a decade ago were enhanced but they were also neglected in other ways. Resources were spent in one area and not in legitimate performance enhancement. Now they are.”

From issue 78. Buy it here.

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