Friday, January 20, 2012

Cyrille Guimard The Rider: 1972 Tour de France

Today is the birthday of Cyrille Guimard. The genius of Cyrille Guimard as a team manager and directeur sportif is well-known. Here is the man who turned Lucien Van Impe into a Tour de France winner, guided the early career of Bernard Hinault, discovered Greg LeMond, nurtured Laurent Fignon, and arguably hired a younger Lance Armstrong  into Cofidis. At least, before Guimard was sentenced for credit card fraud. More recently, he managed the junior team Velo Club Roubaix that counted Andy Schleck in its roster.

What is less-known to English-speaking readers is Guimard the Rider. This is a story of the 1972 Tour de France, and more precisely the battle of Eddy Merckx and Cyrille Guimard that will lead to the picture shown below.

Eddy Merckx and Cyrille Guimard at the TdF final podium in Paris, 1972.
Why is Merckx  in a cycling kit but Guimard is in a suit?

If that photograph had been in color, you will have seen that Merckx was wearing yellow and Guimard was holding onto a green-colored jersey.

The 1972 TdF started with great expectations, as it will have been Merckx' fourth consecutive victory in the race to equal Jacques Anquetil's record. The previous year saw a very strong Luis Ocaña injured following a crash on a descent and pull out of race while in the lead. But such was Ocaña's performance that many believed 1972 to be the year that Merckx would be beaten, even though by this point he had won his usual harvest of Milano-Sanremo,  Flèche Wallonne, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and Giro d'ItaliaOcaña arrived with a win in the Dauphiné Libéré. The stage seemed to have been set for another Merckx-Ocaña  showdown.

Merckx' plan was simple: force a hard race each day, every day, such that Ocaña the climber would be exhausted by the time the race reached the high mountains. 

Imagine Merckx' surprise and displease when the first flat stage were won by a 25-year old Cyrille Guimard, a sprinter for team Gan-Mercier who had finished 7th the year before, and who was so effective in collecting intermediate time bonuses that he landed himself in the maillot jaune for a few days. Merckx had to push his team hard in order to win the team time trial time bonuses to put himself back in yellow.

The following day was to have been the revelation of Merckx' hard-racing strategy. On a flat and windy stage 4, he pushed the tempo at the front and split the field, setting himself up for a long-range attack in order to win the stage and put time to all his rivals. Recognizing danger, Ocaña pulled the chasing group back to Merckx, and in the finale Guimard was able to win the stage and steal the yellow jersey back from Merckx. No matter that his own team's GC leader, the venerable Raymond Poulidor, had missed the crucial break and lost minutes. From now own, Gan-Mercier will ride for Guimard.

Indeed, Merckx the rouleur won the individual time trial stage a few days after, but so wily was Guimard in collecting intermediate time bonuses that he stayed in yellow. It took Merckx two mountain stages in the Pyrenees and a battle royale against Ocaña (complete with media spat about unsportsmanlike conduct) to wrest the yellow jersey off Guimard's back.

The next few mountain stages in the southern Alps pushed Guimard further lower the GC. On stage 13 to Briançon, Merckx' team set a furious pace climbing up the last climb such that Merckx was able to gap everybody and scream down the descent to win the stage. If there was doubt that Merckx' plan was too ambitious, this stage win quieted all critics.

The following day was a split stage. The first half, stage 14a, was won by Merckx with a trouncing of Joop Zoetemelk's frantic bid for victory. The second half, stage 14b, ended in an 8-way sprint won narrowly by .... Guimard over Merckx!

Surely Merckx wasn't pleased about being upstaged by Guimard. The following day on stage 15 he set out to win the uphill finish, only to be pipped at the line by Guimard when Merckx raised one hand too early! By this point Guimard was still a serious GC threat, second only to Merckx even if by over 6 minutes. At the same time, he had amassed a large haul of points such that he has basically secured the Green Jersey all to himself. There was only one more climbing stage now in the northern Alps, up the Ballon d'Alsace. Barring calamities, the outcome seemed evident: Merckx in yellow and Guimard in green.

Unfortunately for Guimard, he had been riding with knee issues in the past few days. The short respite of a flat stage prior to Alsace didn't do much good: as soon as climbing started, he had to twice dismount and receive medical treatment. Still, he soldiered on and finished the stage 2 minutes behind winner Thevenet, who had been let go as he was not a GC threat. The following day, with only a few flat stages and a time trial remaining, the pain was so great that he climbed off the bike and quit the race.

A green jersey win and a podium place in Paris would have been a great boost to Guimard's rising career. He had captured the imagination of fans, with his valiant never-say-die battles up the highest mountains against Merckx. Plus, his wife was heavily pregnant then, due to deliver only days after the finish in Paris.

Such was the impression he made that Eddy Merckx invited Guimard to the final podium, and gave Guimard the green jersey off of his back. Merckx told a weeping Guimard that the jersey truly was Guimard's.

So here was the story of how that photo came about. And of Guimard the rider, and of the career he may have had if not for his knee injury, the injury that forced his retirement only a few years afterwards at a young age. Arguably, his early retirement contributed to his being the great manager and directeur sportif that we know, but we wonder if the cycling world was deprived of Guimard the Indefatigable Rider.

If you look closely at the photo, the green jersey in Guimard's hand says "Molteni." And now you know why.

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