The 1976 Tour de France was the 63rd edition of the Tour de France, one of cycling's Grand Tours. It took between 24 June and 18 July, with 22 stages covering a distance of 4,017 km (2,496 mi).
It was won by mountain specialist Lucien Van Impe. The revelation of the Tour however was Freddy Maertens, who in his first Tour won eight stages and the points classification, and led the general classification for ten days.
Five-time winner Eddy Merckx did not join in the 1976 Tour de France because he was injured. 1975 winner Bernard Thévenet left the race in the 19th stage, but at that point it was already clear that Van Impe would win the race.
The mountains classification was won by Giancarlo Bellini with 170 points, only one point ahead of Lucien Van Impe. The young rider classification was won by Enrique Martínez Heredia. Heredia had already won the Tour de l'Avenir in 1974, but never broke through after this win.
The 1976 Tour started with 13 teams, each sent 10 cyclists, a total of 130.
The teams entering the race were:
Eddy Merckx, who already had won the Tour de France five times, had troubles to find his form in 1976, and suffered from saddle sores. He decided not to enter the 1976 Tour de France. The main favourite for the victory was now Joop Zoetemelk, who had never finished worse than fifth place in the Tour de France. The winner of the previous Tour, Bernard Thévenet, had a good spring season, winning the Dauphiné Libéré. The other former winner that was still racing, Luis Ocaña, had become second in the 1976 Vuelta a España, and was hoping to win again Also reigning world champion Hennie Kuiper was considered a pre-race favourite.
The 1976 Tour de France started on 24 June, and had two rest days, the first in Divonne-les-Bains the second at Le Barcarès. The 1976 Tour de France was divided into 22 stages and one prologue. Of the 22 stages, three were split stages: stages 5 and 22 were split into two half stages, and stage 18 was split into three smaller stages.
Stage 18a was originally scheduled to be 47 km longer, but after the 17th stage, the Tour direction saw that cyclists were exhausted, and shortened the stage.
The prologue was won by Maertens. He won some more stages in the first week, and was firmly leading the race. The contenders for the overall victory, thought to be Bernard Thévenet, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien Van Impe, were waiting for the mountains to start their battle.
The first mountain stage was stage 9, and there a group of 40 cyclists broke loose. Zoetemelk won the stage, but Van Impe took the lead in the general classification, with Zoetemelk only 8 seconds behind. In the next stage, Zoetemelk won the stage, but Thévenet and Van Impe were only one second behind him. The 11th stage did not see major changes in the top of the general classification, but it was remarkable as the stage with the biggest winning margin in post-World War II history. José-Luis Viejo won the stage, 22 minutes and 50 seconds ahead of the next cyclist. Then the Peugeot–Esso–Michelin team from Thévenet took control. Raymond Delisle sped away in the 12th stage, took a five-minute lead and won the stage, thereby taking the lead in the general classification.
After the 13th stage, won by Régis Ovion, Ovion failed the doping test. He was taken out of the results, and Teirlinck and Panizza, who originally were second and third, gained one place. In the official classification, the other cyclists were not upgraded, so the third place remains unoccupied. In the 14th stage, there was a group of attackers away, including Luis Ocaña. Van Impe was told by his team leader, Cyrille Guimard, that he should attack, but was reluctant to do so. Only after Guimard threatened to run Van Impe off the road by his car, Van Impe attacked. Zoetemelk waited for the Peugeot team to defend their position of leader in the general classification, but they were not able to. After a few kilometers, Zoetemelk noticed that his tactics did not work, and started chasing Van Impe by himself. Zoetemelk decreased the gap to 50 seconds, but then Van Impe reached the group of early attackers, and started to work together, especially with Ocaña. Ocaña and Zoetemelk had battled in the early 1970s against Merckx, and Ocaña remembered that Zoetemelk never helped him back then, so decided to work against Zoetemelk now. Zoetemelk could not follow them on his own, and lost three minutes in that stage. Van Impe and Zoetemelk had been going so fast, that 45 of the 93 cyclists finished outside the time limit, but the tour organisation decided to waive the elimination rule for that stage.
Van Impe won some more time in the time trial of stage 17, and Zoetemelk won a few seconds back in the 20th stage and in the time trial of the 22nd stage, but the Tour had been decided in the 14th stage at the moment when Zoetemelk decided to wait for the Peugeot team. The battle for the third place was between Raymond Delisle, Raymond Poulidor and Walter Riccomi. Poulidor, 40 years old, was racing his final Tour de France. After the 20th stage, they had exactly the same time in the general classification, and Riccomi was only 12 seconds behind them. In the time trial of stage 22a, Poulidor won a few seconds on Delisle and Riccomi, and was on the podium in Paris. At the end of the Tour de France, the combativity award was given to Raymond Delisle.
During the Tour de France, 110 doping tests were taken. Three cyclists tested positive. After the third stage, Jesús Manzaneque tested positive for doping. Manzaneque received a 10-minute penalty in the general classification and was suspended for one month. After the 13th stage, winner Régis Ovion failed the doping test. He was taken out of the results, and Teirlinck and Panizza, who originally were second and third, gained one place. In the official classification, the other cyclists were not upgraded, so the third place remains unoccupied. Bernard Labourdette was caught during the doping test, when he tried to cheat.
There were several classifications in the 1976 Tour de France, four 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. The prize for the winner of the Tour de France was not only money, but also an apartment in Merlin-Plage.
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. The calculation was changed, to make the competition more accessible for the non-sprinters. There were five types of stages, with respect to how many points could be earned:Normal stages: stages 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 16, 19, 21
Mountain stages: stages 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 20
Long time trials: stages 3 and 17
Team time trials: stage 5a
Short time trials: prologue and stage 22a
Half stages: stages 5b, 18a, 18b, 18c and 22b
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, and was identified with a polkadot jersey.
Another classification was the young rider classification. This was decided the same way as the general classification, but only neo-professionals were eligible, and the leader wore a 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 1976, this classification had no associated jersey.
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. There was also a team points classification. After each stage, the stage rankings of the best three cyclists per team were added, and the team with the least total lead this classification, and were identified by green caps.