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A legend returns to the Tour de France, 35 years later

The Tour heads to the Puy de Dôme for the first time since 1988, and 59 years after an iconic battle.

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On Thursday, Tour de France organisers revealed a climber-friendly route for the 2023 edition of the men’s race. After a lumpy start in the Spanish Basque Country, the riders will visit all five of France’s mountain ranges, including a visit to the high Pyrenees as early as stage 6.

But the headliner for the 2023 men’s Tour is a return to the fabled Puy de Dôme. The Massif Central volcano will host a summit finish for the first time in 35 years.

As the race’s press guide reads: “In much the same way that travellers can clearly see [the Puy de Dôme’s] contours from a hundred kilometres away on a clear day, the Auvergne’s highest volcano stands out on the 2023 Tour map due to its geographical position, and also in the hearts of cycling fans due to its evocative power.”

The Puy de Dôme is a climb with a long history at the Tour. The legendary Fausto Coppi won there at the race’s first visit in 1952. The greatest-ever, Eddy Merckx, was punched in the kidneys by a spectator on the climb while leading the 1975 edition (see video below). He slipped out of the maillot jaune that day and ultimately fell short of winning a record-breaking sixth Tour de France.

But undoubtedly the Tour’s most iconic moment on the Puy de Dôme came on stage 19 of the 1964 edition: a head-to-head GC battle between two Frenchmen: Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor.

Anquetil had won the past three Tours and a total of four for his career. He came into that stage in yellow, 56 seconds ahead of Poulidor in second. While Spain’s Julio Jiménez and Federico Bahamontes surged up the volcano to contest the stage win – with Jiménez taking the spoils – it was the battle for yellow, between Anquetil and Poulidor, that still resonates nearly six decades later.

Images of the two riding side-by-side up the steep final kilometres, sometimes bumping elbows, are among the Tour’s most iconic photos. In those images we can see a fierce battle between two riders who shared a home nation, but with contrasting stories. Anquetil, a prolific winner but not massively popular; Poulidor, the younger underdog, taking it to his more-fancied opponent.

Anquetil (left) and Poulidor (right) battle it out on the Puy de Dôme in 1964. (Photo by STAFF/AFP via Getty Images)

On that day in 1964, Poulidor would get the better of Anquetil, dropping his older rival in the final kilometre and taking 42 seconds by the finish line. He’d narrowed the gap to 14 seconds on GC but it wouldn’t be enough. A few days later, Anquetil won his fifth Tour de France, giving him a spot at the top of the all-time list where he remains to this day with Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain.

Poulidor’s second overall would be his second podium finish in three years. By the end of his career in 1977, “Pou Pou” had managed a staggering eight Tour de France podiums without a win, and without spending a single day in yellow.

The Tour’s last finish atop Puy de Dôme came in 1988 when Denmark’s Johnny Weltz won solo. Pedro Delgado took third that day on his way to overall victory. And while the lower slopes played host to stage 13 of the delayed 2020 Tour – a stage to Pas de Peyrol won by Dani Martínez – it’s in 2023 that the narrow final kilometres to the summit will be used for the first time in three and a half decades.

It had been thought that summit finishes at the Puy de Dôme were no longer possible, the narrow roadway and lack of space at the summit offering less room than the modern Tour circus requires. That difficulty was only compounded in 2012 when a rail line to the summit was constructed, further narrowing the road. But somehow Tour organisers have made it happen for 2023 and the race is set to get its 14th summit finish atop the Puy de Dôme.

It’s not just a mythical climb – it’s also a brutally tough one. Perhaps the hardest finish of the 2023 Tour de France. The entirety of the ascent is 13.3 km at an average of 7.7% but it’s the final 4 km to the summit that make this such a challenging climb. As the road circles the top of the volcano, it averages a painful 11.7%, ensuring only the best climbers will be in with a shot of victory come July 9 next year.

And as race director Christian Prudhomme notes, it’s not just the final climb that will make stage 9 of the 2023 Tour a tough one. There’s a total of 3,600 metres of climbing on the menu. “The rugged Auvergne terrain will have sapped the juice from the legs of the contenders long before they tackle this formidable and majestic summit,” Prudhomme said.

Could we see Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard in a side-by-side tustle on the Puy de Dôme in July 2023, just like Anquetil and Poulidor 59 years earlier? Could that be the latest stanza in the pair’s ongoing battle for Tour supremacy? Could other climbers be in frame on those tough final kilometres to the volcano’s summit, earning themselves a place in cycling folklore?

Sadly, we’ll have to wait until July to find out.

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