Sisteron > Orcières-Merlette

Some places hold a special mystique in the Tour de France. While the peloton will whoosh through countless picturesque villages and towns this month, cross numerous cols that even most French people have never heard of, some place names stand out because of the weight of their history. Orcières-Merlette is once such name.

All the talk ahead of yesterday’s stage, the 2020 Tour de France’s first summit finish, was of Luis Ocańa and his daring raid in 1971. The Spaniard’s long-range attack saw him finish the stage 8’42” ahead of ‘the Cannibal’, Eddy Merckx, claiming the yellow jersey in the process and prompting Tour director Jacques Goddet to say, “Things will never be the same again.” The exciting thing was not that the Spaniard had won, per se, it was that the Belgian had been proven human.

Attacks of that scale are – almost – a thing of the past these days, and so nobody really expected a repeat of 1971 when the Tour went to Orcières-Merlette. The way the climb played out this year was not so much epoch-shattering, as Goddet had believed Ocaña’s win to be, more eye-opening. We got to see who the key riders in the GC race will be, the protagonists of this year’s drama, the young guns shooting for victory and the more experienced old hands.

Primož Roglič won the stage, powering past the daring and opportunistic attack of Frenchman Guillaume Martin in a surging, seated style that is fast becoming familiar. Roglič’s compatriot, the 21-year-old Tadej Pogačar, rode in on his wheel to take second place and secured the white jersey in the process. Martin settled for a podium place.

Egan Bernal was left with no team mates with a couple of kilometres remaining of the climb and seemed to be struggling hard to keep in touch with the chasing pack by the time they crossed the line. Nairo Quintana, meanwhile, looked back to his best as he danced around yellow jersey wearer Julian Alaphilippe to take fourth. Other big names like Mikel Landa of Bahrain McLaren and Thibaut Pinot finished safely with the leaders, creating a group of 11 riders all on the same time. Your ‘elite selection’ for the next 17 days.

Bernal and his Ineos Grenadiers have shown little sign of the team that dominated the Tour de France throughout the 2010s so far in this year’s edition. There has been a half-baked look to them, with the long-familiar, controversial ‘mountain train’ failing to leave the station on the first time of asking. The race is long, though, and the Tour is won in the third week, not the first.

In the end, Goddet was wrong about that Ocaña win. It was not the end of Merckx’ dominance of the Tour, far from it. The Belgian recovered to win the race that year and the next, and finally again in 1974 to make it a magical five victories. Rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

As fans of cycling we crave drama. Dominance by one team turns us off. We want to see a race with multiple candidates for victory, new names duking it out with the old. In 2020, we have just such a race on our hands.

The Tour is dead, long live the Tour.

Thanks go to Russ Ellis and Chris Auld for capturing the race. See more of their work by following them on Instagram, at @cyclingimages & @cauldphoto.