The 1971 Tour de France was the 58th edition of the Tour de France, one of cycling's Grand Tours. It took place between 26 June and 18 July, with 22 stages covering a distance of 3,608 km (2,242 mi).
The race was won by Eddy Merckx, his third consecutive victory. It was no easy win; after the 11th stage, Merckx was more than eight minutes behind Luis Ocaña in the general classification. In the 14th stage, Ocaña crashed in the descent of the Col de Menté and had to leave the race, what is named the most famous fall in Tour de France history.
From this year's race the second, third and fourth place finishers, Joop Zoetemelk, Lucien Van Impe and Bernard Thevenet would each win at least one TDF during their careers and Ocana would win the 1973 Tour de France.
The 1971 Tour started with 13 teams, each with 10 cyclists, a total of 130.
The teams entering the race were:
Eddy Merckx, who had won the 1969 and 1970 Tours, was the big favourite. Pre-race predictions were certain that if he would not become ill or crash, Merckx would be the winner, and were speculating whether he would be able to lead the race from start to end.
The 1970 Tour, with fewer flat stages, fewer time trials and more mountain stages, was thought to be a route that suited climbing specialists. There were five split stages, and cyclists had complained about it. Nevertheless, the 1971 Tour again used split stages; one reason was that the UCI rules did not allow long stages to prevent the use of doping, another reason was that split stages generated more income.
There were two rest days, in Le Touquet and Orcières, and during the first rest day, the cyclists were transferred by airplane, the first time this happened during the Tour.
The race started with a team time trial as prologue, won by Merckx' team, which gave them a 20 seconds bonification for the general classification. After the first part of the first stage, Merckx' team mate Wagtmans briefly took over the leading position in the general classification, only to lose it to Merckx in the second part.
In the second stage, Zoetemelk attacked early in the stage. Some cyclists, including Merckx, followed him, and soon a group of 15 cyclists was away. At the end, the margin to the rest of the field was almost 10 minutes. Merckx beat Roger de Vlaeminck in the sprint, and everybody not in the first group was no longer a threat for Merckx.
In the seventh stage, the leader in the points classification, Roger de Vlaeminck, crashed and had to leave the race. Merckx was expecting a dangerous sprint so he chose not to participate. While Merckx took part in intermediate sprints and final sprints, Ocana had been saving his energy on the advice of Jacques Anquetil, and waited for the mountains to come.
The eight stage saw the first attack by Ocana. Merckx was not able to chase him, and Ocana got away. Zoetemelk and Agostinho also got away from Merckx, and gained some time on him. After that stage, Merckx was still leading, but only 36 seconds before Zoetemelk and 37 seconds before Ocana. In the end of the tenth stage, Merckx lost contact after a flat tire, and lost time on Zoetemelk and Ocana. Zoetemelk took over the lead, one second ahead of Ocana. In the eleventh stage, Ocana attacked. At first, Zoetemelk, Van Impe and Agostinho were able to stay with him, but Ocana left them and soloed to the victory, more than six minutes ahead of Van Impe. Merckx and Zoetemelk finished in third and fourth place, almost nine minutes behind. Ocana had set such a pace, that 61 cyclists finished outside the original time limit, leaving only 39 in the race. The time limit was consequently extended such that 58 more were allowed to start the next day. Ocana seemed so strong, that Merckx abandoned the idea to win his third Tour.
In the twelfth stage, Merckx organised an attack, and won back two minutes. This could have been more, had it not been for a mistake of an assistant team leader of Molteni, Merckx' team: when Bruyere had a flat tire in the chasing peloton, the assistant team leader called for the remaining members of Merckx' team to help Bruyere to get back to the peloton. The rival teams in the peloton were now without Molteni cyclists, and could organise the chase. The group with Bruyere was unable to get back into the peloton. Because of the high pace of Merckx in the first group, the group with Bruyere almost did not make the time cut, in which case they would have been eliminated. The average velocity of the winner was a new record, and the cyclists arrived one hour ahead of the earliest time schedule, and the preparations at the finish line had not been completed yet. The mayor of Marseille, where the stage ended, was so upset that he refused to let the race visit Marseille again.
In the thirteenth stage, a time trial, Merckx was the strongest and won back more seconds.
In the fourteenth stage, there was heavy rain. On the way up to the Col de Mente, Merckx attacked several times, but each time Ocana was coming back. During the descent, Ocana fell. Zoetemelk punctured and was unable to avoid him, and hit him at high speed. Ocana was hit, injured his shoulder and had to give up.
Merckx became the new leader, but out of respect for Ocana, he refused to go to the ceremony at the end of the stage, and refused wear the yellow jersey the next stage. Merckx considered to leave the race, because he did not want to win because of Ocana's bad luck. Tour directors Levitan and Goddet convinced him to continue the race. The fifteenth stage was the shortest mass-start stage in the history in the Tour, at only 19.6 kilometres (12.2 mi).
The decision was expected to fall in the first part of the sixteenth stage, when four mountains were scheduled. Van Impe, in second place, was expected to challenge the leader Merckx, and third-placed Zoetemelk could profit from their struggle. But although Van Impe tried to attack, Merckx was able to stay with him, and the three cyclists stayed together.
In the seventeenth stage, Merckx surprised Van Impe and Zoetemelk with attack, won the stage and increased his margin with more than two minutes. By winning the stage, Merckx solified his lead in the points classification.
The time trial that closed the race was an easy win for Merckx. The battle for the second place was won by Zoetemelk.
In total, 100 doping tests were done during the 1971 Tour de France, from which 2 returned positive:Yves Ravaleu, after the thirteenth stage;
Jean-Claude Daunat, after the eighteenth stage.
Both received the customary punishment: a fine of 1200 Francs; being set back to the last place in the stage's results and getting ten minutes penalty time in the general classification.
There were several classifications in the 1971 Tour de France, three of them awarding jerseys to their leaders. The most important was the general classification, calculated by adding each cyclist's finishing times on each stage. The cyclist with the least accumulated time was the race leader, identified by the yellow jersey; the winner of this classification is considered the winner of the Tour.
Additionally, there was a points classification, where cyclists got points for finishing among the best in a stage finish, or in intermediate sprints. The cyclist with the most points lead the classification, and was identified with a green jersey.
There was also a mountains classification. The organisation had categorized some climbs as either first, second, third, or fourth-category; points for this classification were won by the first cyclists that reached the top of these climbs first, with more points available for the higher-categorized climbs. The cyclist with the most points lead the classification, but was not identified with a jersey in 1971.
Another classification was the combination classification. This classification was calculated as a combination of the other classifications, its leader wore the white jersey.
The fifth individual classification was the intermediate sprints classification. This classification had similar rules as the points classification, but only points were awarded on intermediate sprints. In 1971, this classification had no associated jersey. 1971 saw the introduction of bonus seconds for sprints in the intermediate sprints classification.
For the team classification, the times of the best three cyclists per team on each stage were added; the leading team was the team with the lowest total time. The riders in the team that lead this classification wore yellow caps.
The combativity award was given to Luis Ocana. The new rider classification was won by Zoetemelk.
This Tour de France was considered the most exciting in recent years. Ocana fully recovered from his injuries, and would win the 1973 Tour de France.