• Slaying the Cannibal... Frenchman Bernard Thévenet (L) sits behind race leader Eddy Merckx on Stage 15 of the 1975 Tour de France. (AFP/Getty Images)
Forty years after the Tour last came to Pra Loup where onlookers paid witness to a scene of self-imposed mass destruction by a cannibalistic maillot jaune, asks race director Christian Prudhomme, "Who will be the next Bernard Thévenet?"
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22 Jul 2015 - 3:59 PM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2015 - 4:06 PM

Today's start and finish towns must bring polarised emotions for Eddy Merckx, "the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known," French magazine Vélo once said of the now 70-year-old Belgian.

In 1969, aged 24 and riding his first Tour de France, the Cannibal won a 198 kilometre mountain stage to Digne while wearing the maillot jaune, which he took five days previous after he conquered the sixth stage to the Ballon d'Alsace.

Such was the Belgian's dominance - and no doubt anger, too; while in the race lead, he was ejected from that year's Giro d'Italia for a failed doping test - not only did he win by a cavernous eighteen-minute margin from second-placed Roger Pingeon, he claimed the points and mountains classifications, the combination classification, the combativity award, and, if that wasn't enough, his Faema team also rode away with the teams' prize.

A none-too-subtle sign of things to come...

"It's one of those descents where a good descender can put non-descenders into a lot of trouble - and then you've only got a little climb up to the finish from the bottom." - Matt White, Orica-GreenEDGE head sports director

Six years on and with five titles already in the bag from five starts, Merckx, the race leader heading into the final eight days, was on song for a sixth in the 1975 edition. The then 30-year-old had shown a few signs of mortality, however. The tenth stage in the Pyrénées, he was dropped by Bernard Thévenet and Joop Zoetemelk. And the stage before the fifteenth leg to Pra Loup, en route to the finish atop the Puy de Dôme, a French spectator punched Merckx in the stomach just as he was about to catch Zoetemelk.

The rest day that followed appeared to revitalise the Cannibal. In quintessential fashion, he broke away from his adversaries in attempt to quash his rivals' hearts - but on the road to Pra Loup (a new addition to the race), the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known ran out of steam, largely a victim of his own undoing, allowing Thévenet to claim the stage and the maillot jaune to boot.

Merckx would not wear yellow in the race he once owned ever again.

Two days after his self-immolation at Pra Loup, things went from bad to worse when he collided with Danish cyclist Ole Ritter (he of the 1968 Hour Record) and broke his cheekbone. Ignoring advice from the Tour doctor to abandon, to his credit - and quite literally, his teammates', for unlike Merckx they needed the money - he soldiered on for five days more to finish second overall, 2'47 behind Thévenet. In an interview with Cycling Weekly published in 2010, Merckx said his decision to stay in the Tour after breaking his cheekbone was stupid and felt it truncated his career, which ended in 1978.

Will this relatively innocuous 9.4km Alpine ski station climb that rises 1,630 above the sea pay pay witness to the unseating of the maillot jaune incumbent once again, or at least unsettle the so far unflappable Froome?

Christian Prudhomme, Directeur du Tour de France, says:

"Eddy Merckx can attest to this: the climbs up to the Col d'Allos followed by the one to Pra Loup are fearsome and can really trouble the established hierarchy. Like in 1975, the intense battle should start as soon as the climb up to the Col d'Allos. Forty years later, who will be the next Bernard Thévenet?"

Matt White, Orica-GreenEDGE head sports director, says:

"This is a stage they did on Stage 5 of this year's (Critérium du) Dauphiné. It's a pretty solid stage; the last climb (of the Col d'Allos) is very open and exposed. When (Romain) Bardet won (on Stage 5 at the Dauphiné), he clipped off the front on the descent and won on his own.

"I didn't arrive at the Dauphiné till a little bit later, but the guys were saying it's a very technical, tricky descent (from the top of the Col d'Allos) with a few off-camber roads, so (it will be) very treacherous. It's one of those days where, depending on who's got the yellow jersey, they might be happy for the break to take the stage - or it could be another battle between the GC guys.

"In fact, just because of the descent, it'll be a battle between the GC guys regardless. It's one of those descents where a good descender can put non-descenders into a lot of trouble - and then you've only got a little climb up to the finish from the bottom (of the Col d'Allos). It doesn't matter who your team-mates are - it'll be mano-a-mano. Whether the breakaway's gone and got 10 minutes or it's a battle between the GC guys, that descent will be a crucial one, so, no matter what happens, I'm sure it will be an eventful day."

"I didn't see what happened at the Route du Sud (when Contador rode away from Quintana on the descent of the Port de Balès) but I wouldn't be reading too much into it; Quintana's pretty handy.

"But Contador and Nibali are some of the best descenders we've got in the sport - they're very skillful. And all of those (GC) guys, they want to dig the ol' knife in when they can… if they see any weaknesses in their rivals, they'll be givin' it to them, don't worry about that!"

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