Mountains. When I heard that word in my childhood, it made me think of snow, of inaccessible places. Then I heard about these cols, the tough, narrow roads where the most significant dramas of the Tour de France play out.
There are no big climbs in my native Bourgogne, just short, sharp hills. I tried to take my training up the longest ones to improve my qualities as a climber. The local col was the Echarmeaux, which went up steadily for eight kilometres at three per cent. When I started taking cycling seriously at the age of 18, I was doing it practically every day. Riding up there, I would imagine myself as a racer in the Tour de France.
But when you become an amateur, among stronger and more experienced riders, you realise that’s a dream because it’s very hard to even be selected for the Tour. They only asked me to do my first one in 1970 because my Peugeot team-mates Gerben Karstens and Ferdinand Bracke were sick. I was a 22-year-old neo-professional, I was afraid, not ready at all. It was the Wednesday before the Tour when I got the call and I had to be at the start in Limoges for the next day. [Being based three hours away] I think I was picked for geographical reasons!
That first year, there was a lot of apprehension and stress. You ask yourself ‘can I really be a racing cyclist? Can I make a career out of this for ten years?’ Because when you turn pro, you don’t know. I badly needed a good Tour.
The mountains made me suffer a lot, but they allowed me to prove myself too. Finishing fifth on Mont Ventoux gave me confidence, then I won a stage on La Mongie, in the Pyrénées. That was when I knew I could make it work. My soigneur told me “Bernard, you’re a Tour de France rider because you’re better now than you were at the beginning.” Normally after 15 days, you get more and more tired whereas I was in better physical condition.
Climbing is a question of psychology. To say that one col is harder than another is difficult. Because ultimately, what’s tougher? It’s not the mountain, it’s the man, the adversary. With my rivals, I’d look at them, consider how they were, compare myself to them, think about their breathing. If you’re stronger than your opponent, a col is not too difficult. Doing the same climb in different years, you can go over it and say to yourself ‘wow, it wasn’t as bad as two seasons ago’. Cycling is a sport of relativity.
I prefer the Alps over the Pyrenees because it’s often hot and I like that weather, plus there’s a fair few climbs over 2,000 metres. The Col d’Izoard is my favourite because that’s the one that helped me to win my first Tour de France in 1975. I was away in the lead and had a race motorbike just in front of me, prising open the crowds. I felt so encouraged, so close to the people. It was magical. And the barren scree slopes of the Casse Déserte, with its big rocks, is like nothing else on this planet.
I was bringing the crowd a lot of joy and they wanted to help and encourage me the best they could, so there was this exchange, a communion between the public and me. It’s really a path to the same life in some way. I wanted to win the Tour de France and they also wanted that to happen. It had been eight years since a Frenchman had won the Tour, which back then felt like a long time – now it’s been 35. There was also a feeling that they wanted a new winner; Eddy Merckx had won the last five Tours but he’d became boring to them because he won everything. I think that combination made it momentous.
Beating Merckx was a bit strange because before I turned pro, I admired him, as many young riders did. I had already put time into him at St-Lary-Soulan and the Puy-de-Dôme earlier in the race. But the penny really dropped at the Dauphiné Libéré four weeks earlier. Merckx was only there because he had gotten ill a few days before the Giro and didn’t do it. Beforehand, I had the impression he was unbeatable. I got the better of him there and saw he was weaker.
I was still under a bit of pressure, even on the last day in Paris. It wasn’t like it is now: Eddy attacked three times, so I had to have my wits about me. And afterwards, it was pretty hectic, pushed and pulled between jostling journalists. But we were euphoric: we had beaten Merckx and Molteni, the super team built around him. We were little guys, nobody had the experience of defending the maillot jaune at the Tour before that.
I found that for my second Tour win, in ’77, the battle with Kuiper for victory was more intense than it had been with Merckx. But that edition didn’t excite the press as much because you only had two wearers of the yellow jersey: Thurau and me.
The happiest moment of the race is that Monday morning when you wake up, there are no more stages left and the Tour is really over. I had realised my dream of winning it. The yellow jersey was in my suitcase: my wife took it back home because I had criteriums to go to all over France.
I rode up the Col d’Izoard again six or seven years ago with a friend, a cor des Alpes player. It’s a musical instrument that’s three metres long, like a big trumpet. I went a bit slower than before, that’s for sure. I had put on a few kilos since ’75 – the bike was a bit lighter, but the rider certainly was not. The roads might be better and the races even quicker nowadays, but the effort doesn’t change. You have to dig deep inside yourself exactly the same.