Tour de France '93: Confronting the challenge of the mountains: The high ground can prove to be a great leveller on the climb to overall victory. Robin Nicholl reports

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The Independent Online
EIGHTY-THREE years ago Octave Lapize emerged from the Tour de France's first excursion into the Pyrenees and screamed at the organisers: 'You are murderers.' They had taken the Tour through the mountains for the first time with the awesome challenge of Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, ascents that are now renowned. The heat was suffocating, and a glassy-eyed Lapize, sometimes riding, sometimes walking, was almost dragging his bike over the unmade road surface when he spotted the men he regarded as his tormentors.

Lapize's anger drove him to win both Pyrenean stages, 615 kilometres through a region known to riders as the 'Circle of Death'. By Paris his rage was forgotten as he was lauded as the winner of the eighth Tour.

The Tour which starts today marks the diamond jubilee of the King of the Mountains award. Like the points competition, which rewards the most consistent stage finishers, the King of the Mountains is a race within a race, recognising the courage and skills of the men who make the ascent of some of France's highest mountains their speciality.

To win the Tour itself, a rider must be one of the best climbers. Along with the time trials, in which riders race alone against the clock, the mountain stages are almost invariably those in which the outcome of the Tour is decided. However, for those 'mountaineers' without the all- round skills of a rider like this year's clear favourite, Spain's Miguel Indurain, to be King of the Mountains is the prime ambition.

Sixty years ago Vicente Trueba, of Spain, was the first to be crowned, but Rene Pottier was the first to the top of a Tour mountain. The Ballon d'Alsace was the first peak to appear on a Tour map in 1905. A year later Pottier won the Tour by taking four of the first five stages.

The mountain passes make daunting climbs, but the descent on the far side can be just as challenging. In 1937 the race leader Gino Bartali plunged through the wooden parapet of a river bridge into the torrent below, and emerged to race on to keep his bedraggled colours for another day.

The next year he was triumphant in Paris via a remarkable solo ride through the mountains, but his next trip to the heights ended in a 1950 low for Italian cycling. Bartali was accused by French fans of causing a fall between himself and Jean Robic, and their intimidation forced the withdrawal of the Italian teams from the Tour, including that of the race leader, Fiorenzo Magni.

Wim van Est took his yellow jersey into a ravine, escaping with bruising, but Roger Riviere broke his back in a fall of 20 metres from the Col du Perjuret. He was crippled for the rest of his short life.

The mountains broke many, but were often the anvil on which Tour success was forged. Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, came to his first Tour in 1954 and with the coolness of a veteran stopped on a mountain descent to buy an ice- cream. Five years later he won the Tour, but it was his six enthronements as King of the Mountains that made his Tour reputation. Only the Belgian Lucien van Impe has matched that success rate.

Stephen Roche risked much to become Ireland's first Tour victor in 1987. His hard chase to claw back time in the climb to La Plagne ended dramatically when he collapsed at the finish and needed resuscitation. 'I went to the absolute limits. . .I was shattered. . .I stretched out for someone to take my hand but there was no one there,' he said.

Luis Ocana told of the mountain crash that cost him the Tour in 1971: 'Unconscious at the gates of death with the yellow jersey on my shoulders. . .this torn jersey had become, in my dreams, my reason for living and for competing; the strength of a man is the love that he brings to that which he does, and his willingness to overcome everything for an ideal.' Two years later he returned to become the first Spanish victor.

British riders have won and lost much in the mountains. The Scot Robert Millar was made for mountain-racing. Slightly built, he had little to haul against gravity, and in 1984 took the red polka dot jersey of the King of the Mountains, and also achieved Britain's best overall position, fourth.

In later years Millar was poised for another stage win in the Pyrenees, but an over-enthusiastic gendarme directed him and his co-leader into a car park just before the summit finish.

On the slopes of Ventoux mountain Tom Simpson gave everything for his sport in 1967. A memorial to the first and only Briton to wear the yellow jersey stands on the road where Simpson collapsed and died in hospital later that day. It is festooned with tokens of esteem. Racing caps and mitts lie amid withered posies and faded messages under the Provencal sun.

Success was in the air in 1986 when Bernard Hinault and the American Greg LeMond rode into the Alpine finish side by side, each holding the other's hand high in salute. Hinault took the stage victory and became only the sixth French King of the Mountains. A week later LeMond won the Tour.

The mountains are the great levellers, as LeMond discovered last year near Alpe d'Huez when, at the end of his physical tether, he quit after falling 15 kilometres behind the Tour.

A man leading a bear on a Pyrenean climb in searing heat was once berated by a Tour spectator: 'This is no place for that poor animal.' 'What about those poor animals on the bikes?' he responded. Lapize would have agreed.

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