From the grueling ascents to the perilous descents, from breathtaking victories to heartbreaking losses, the Tour de France has provided the world with some of the most dramatic moments in sports history.
With the 2023 Tour de France on the horizon, we’re going to take you on a remarkable journey, filled with pivotal breakthroughs and legendary clashes, covering the 15 Most Iconic Moments in Tour de France History (in chronological order).
We’ll delve into memorable incidents, unfortunate disqualifications, epic rivalries, unforgettable battles, unspeakable tragedies, and extraordinary victories.
As we navigate through these moments, you’ll bear witness to the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that have shaped the Tour de France. It has grown into more than just a race; it’s a testament to human resilience and endurance.
So buckle up and join us on this exhilarating ride through history!
#1. Christophe’s Forks (1913)
Fast forward to 1913, a decade after the inception of the Tour. Eugène Christophe, a French favorite, aimed to surpass his second-place finish in 1912.
Unlike the previous year, which was decided by points, the 1913 race was decided by total time (as it is in the modern era), and Christophe was a strong contender.
Tragically, in his descent of the Col du Tourmalet, Christophe’s bike fork snapped, forcing him to carry his bicycle until he found a blacksmith’s workshop in Sainte-Marie-de-Campan for repairs.
Though he managed to mend his forks, he was handed a ten-minute penalty for receiving “external aid” from the blacksmith’s apprentice, wrecking any chances he might have had of his recovering his bid for glory.
#2. The Very First Yellow Jersey (1919)
The Tour would not be the same without the famed yellow jersey.
Responding to a media outcry to more clearly distinguish the race leader, event planners introduced the yellow jersey halfway through the 1919 race. The color symbolized a tribute to L’Auto, the French newspaper that owned the Tour at the time.
Who did the honor of wearing the first yellow jersey fall to?
Eugène Christophe, the very same man to have suffered such misfortune on the Tourmalet six years earlier.
#3. Anquetil and Poulidor’s Epic Clash (1964)
For years, Raymond Poulidor was Jacques Anquetil’s fiercest competitor.
In 1964, Poulidor came tantalizingly close to snatching a victory from the reigning champion. That year, the cyclists faced a grueling concluding climb stage at the volcanic Puy-de-Dôme in central France.
Anquetil began the ascent with a 56-second advantage over Poulidor, knowing his rival would push to overtake him. As Poulidor picked up his pace, Anquetil shadowed him, cycling beside him on the narrow road lined with excited spectators.
In the final 1,500 meters, Poulidor managed to break away, gaining ground on Anquetil. Regardless of his exhaustion, Anquetil persevered, striving to minimize his deficit. He crossed the finish line maintaining a slim 14-second lead.
A few days later, he solidified his status as the first five-time Tour winner, while Poulidor would never even get to wear the yellow jersey.
#4. The Untimely Death (1967)
The 1967 Tour de France was marred by the tragic death of British cyclist Tom Simpson on the Mont Ventoux climb.
His untimely passing highlighted the dangers of performance-enhancing substances in professional cycling.
Tom Simpson (30 November 1937 – 13 July 1967) was a leading British professional cyclist and one of the most successful in British history.
Simpson tragically died during the race’s 13th stage, while tackling the formidable ascent of Ventoux, known as “The Giant Of Provence”.
Earlier in the race, he had been troubled by diarrhea during the tenth stage, leaving him dehydrated. Against his teammates’ advice to withdraw, Simpson felt pressured by his personal manager to continue.
Near the peak, he fell off his bicycle but managed to get back on. Tragically, he collapsed again shortly after and was declared dead after being airlifted to a hospital.
The subsequent autopsy revealed that Simpson had consumed a lethal combination of amphetamines and alcohol, which, combined with extreme heat, the strenuous climb, and his stomach ailment, resulted in his death.
Around 5,000 mourners attended Simpson’s funeral. Today, a memorial near the spot where he collapsed serves as a poignant reminder of his life and legacy and is a pilgrimage site for cyclists worldwide.
#5. The Year Luis Ocana Challenged Merckx (1971)
After his initial Tour de France victory, Merckx seemed invincible. However, 1971 introduced a formidable opponent: Luis Ocana, a Spanish cyclist.
Ocana’s strategy of an early attack in the mountain stage towards Orcieres-Merlette left Merckx unable to respond.
Ocana’s tenacious performance during the solo breakaway gradually whittled down The Cannibal’s lead, and he won the stage by nearly 10 minutes, earning the yellow jersey.
For a moment, it looked like Merckx had met his match, but his opponent’s crash in the Pyrenees allowed him to reclaim the lead. Despite this setback, Ocana secured his Tour victory in 1973, the only year Merckx did not compete.
#6. The Unexpected Punch (1975)
Eddy Merckx, undoubtedly one of the greatest cyclists in history and the victor of the last five Tours he competed in, began the 1975 Tour as the clear favorite.
However, this was the year when his reign came to a dramatic end, facilitated by a series of unusual occurrences.
During the 14th stage, set to conclude at the Puy de Dôme, he was leading the overall race and was about to overtake other contenders when an unexpected incident occurred: a spectator lunged at Merckx from the crowd, landing a punch to his liver.
This unexpected assault resulted in Merckx losing valuable time, and he finished the race in a distressed state, vomiting as he crossed the line. In spite of the incident, Merckx still managed to descend the mountain to identify his assailant.
#7. The Battle at Alpe d’Huez (1986)
In 1985, Bernard Hinault, with the help of Greg LeMond, secured his fifth victory. In return, Hinault was expected to support LeMond’s campaign in the 1986 Tour.
Yet, the Frenchman, known for his tenacity, saw an opportunity to secure a record-breaking sixth title and did not shy away from the challenge. The pivotal moment came at Alpe d’Huez, where it became clear that Hinault had finally met his match in the young American.
LeMond and Hinault battled up the notorious 21-bend climb, eventually crossing the finish line together. Still, Hinault managed to cross first to officially claim the stage victory.
Even if Hinault won the stage, LeMond continued to expand his overall lead, securing his first Tour title.
#8. LeMond’s Miraculous Eight-Second Win (1989)
After a near-fatal hunting accident, Greg LeMond made an extraordinary comeback in 1989 to challenge two-time champion Laurent Fignon.
The lead changed hands multiple times, but Fignon held the advantage going into the final stage, a solo time trial through the heart of Paris.
Starting the day 50 seconds behind Fignon, LeMond managed to outpace his rival by 58 seconds, not only winning the stage but the entire competition.
The astonishing eight-second margin remains the smallest in Tour history.
#9. Armstrong’s Tribute (1995)
Regardless of the controversies surrounding Lance Armstrong’s career, there are certain moments of profound significance.
One such occasion occurred during the 1995 Tour de France, following a tragic accident in which his Motorola teammate, Fabio Casartelli, lost his life on a descent on Stage 15.
The subsequent stage was run in a spirit of respect, with the Motorola team leading the pack in a touching tribute to their fallen comrade. Armstrong, however, had more to give.
Two days later, in the 18th stage to Limoges, Armstrong made a bold move, leaving the rest of the breakaway riders behind to cross the finish line alone, his victorious gesture to the sky a silent salute to Casartelli.
#10. Pantani’s Record (1997)
In the 1997 edition, Italian cyclist Marco Pantani showcased his exceptional prowess as a climber. He made history by setting a record time at the challenging Alpe d’Huez.
This formidable climb, located towards the end of the race, saw Pantani achieve an unprecedented ascent time of 37 minutes and 35 seconds to the mountaintop ski resort.
To this day, his record remains unmatched – though some consider it ought to come with an asterisk given the reputation for doping in the era (and allegations against Pantani himself).
Pantani’s stellar performance cemented his status in Tour history, despite his subsequent 1998 victory being overshadowed by doping allegations that abruptly ended his career in 1999.
#11. The Festina Incident (1998)
The 1998 Tour de France became infamous as one of the most chaotic events in the race’s history, due primarily to the scandal known as the “Festina Affair“.
This began when a doctor from the French team, Festina, was caught with vials of EPO, a type of human growth hormone.
The incident led to law enforcement intervention, including several hotel raids, and resulted in multiple arrests, including all the members of the Festina team.
The scandal shone a spotlight on the deeply ingrained problem of doping within professional cycling and prompted significant changes in anti-doping policies.
#12. Armstrong’s Impromptu Cross-Country Ride (2003)
The ninth stage of the 2003 Tour de France is remembered for a remarkable incident involving Lance Armstrong, who was leading the race at that time.
As he was navigating the descent of the Côte de la Rochette, Spanish cyclist Joseba Beloki lost control on a patch of melting tarmac and crashed onto the asphalt. Armstrong, trailing closely behind, had no room to avoid the fallen cyclist.
While Armstrong’s victories in the Tour have since been rescinded, this act of quick thinking and agility remains an unforgettable moment in the event’s history.
#13. Unleashed Chaos on the Tracks (2007)
Cycling entails encountering a variety of challenges, such as other cyclists, cars, motorcycles, and potholes. However, one would seldom expect a dog to be among them.
In a notable incident during the 2007 Tour, a loose Labrador retriever found its way onto the path of the oncoming peloton. German cyclist Marcus Burghardt was unable to avoid the unsuspecting pet and crashed into the dog, catapulting him over his bike’s handlebars.
Remarkably, both Burghardt and the dog emerged from this unusual crash without any serious injuries.
#14. The Unplanned Marathon of Froome (2016)
Stage 12 of the 2016 Tour de France stands out due to one unusual event.
The race was set to conclude at the peak of Mont Ventoux, but strong winds necessitated a change of plans, moving the finish further down the mountain.
While Thomas de Gendt of Belgium was the victor from an early breakaway, the spotlight fell on Chris Froome. During a race up the mountain with Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema, Froome was involved in a crash when Porte collided with a suddenly halted motorbike.
Stranded without a working bike, Froome remarkably took to his feet, sprinting up the mountain, until a spare bike was provided by a neutral service car. This display of resilience and determination added a memorable moment to the Tour’s history.
#15. Pogačar’s Dramatic Victory (2020)
Many had dismissed the possibility of a heated contest for the yellow jersey at the end of the 2020 Tour de France given Primoz Roglič’s considerable lead of 57 seconds over Tadej Pogačar, which seemed insurmountable.
Roglič’s stellar performance in the Alps stage only reinforced this belief, while Pogačar appeared to be weakening as the race neared its conclusion.
Still, as the race unfolded, the impossible suddenly appeared possible. Pogačar managed to trim Roglič’s lead to a mere 13 seconds at the first intermediate time check and continued to significantly close the gap as the race advanced.
As the race neared its climax, Pogačar took the lead on the ascent of Planche des Belles Filles, demonstrating exceptional strength and endurance.
It became clear that the momentum had shifted toward Pogačar, and soon there was no doubt – he was about to win.
Now You’ve Heard Our Pick of the Most Iconic Tour de France Moments…
These 15 iconic moments have shaped the Tour de France, making it an event that transcends sports.
It reflects life’s cyclical nature, a journey filled with peaks, valleys, breathtaking surprises, and poignant tragedies.
Just like a ride through the French countryside, the story of the Tour is beautiful, challenging, and unforgettable.