Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Lucien van Impe
Lucien van Impe was one of the better cyclists of his generation, with five Tour de France podium appearances including one win at the 1976 Tour de France. Van Impe, known as a gifted climber who excelled in long, grueling mountain stages, won six Tour de France mountain classifications in addition to his overall race successes.
Van Impe was born in Mere, Belgium in October, 1946. He became a professional cyclist largely due to the help of Federico Bahamontes, himself an expert climber who had won the Tour de France in 1959. Van Impe would repay Bahamontes’ faith in him by eventually tying his record for most polka dot jerseys, with six.
Bahamontes helped van Impe get his first professional contract, and van Impe raced his first Tour de France in 1969, finishing 12th overall. The next year, van Impe raced again in the Tour de France, this time finishing in the top handful of cyclists, in the sixth position.
The year 1971 was when van Impe started to break out on his own and earn a reputation as a rider to be reckoned with, especially in mountain stages. Van Impe earned his first podium finish at the Tour de France, also winning his first of six polka dot jerseys as best climber of the Tour de France in the process.
In the 1972 and 1973 editions of the Tour de France, van Impe would reach a personal milestone by winning a stage in each of the races, although he finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and wasn’t on the podium following the races. He did add another of his six polka dot jerseys in 1972. The 1974 Tour de France held only frustration and disappointment for van Impe, however, as he finished at 18th.
Luckily, the next year, van Impe proved that his 18th place finish was a fluke, as he again earned a podium finish with a third place performance in the 1975 Tour de France. It was also the race where van Impe earned another polka dot jersey as well as his first time winning two stages in the same Tour de France. It appeared that van Impe was primed to claim the title of Tour de France champion.
The 1976 Tour de France saw van Impe do exactly that, as he won the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, while winning another stage victory along the way. Colorful stories have emerged to help explain van Impe’s victory, including one that Cyrille Guimard shouted to van Impe to attack leader Joop Zoetemelk, unless he wanted to be run off the road by Guimard’s car. Of course, van Impe denies that it happened that way.
Try as he might, van Impe was never able to reach that level again. He did finish 3rd in the 1977 Tour de France and 2nd in 1981, and he also added four more stage victories and three more polka dot jerseys, but he could never win a second Tour de France. His successes were peppered with some disappointing finishes, including a 27th place finish in 1985 that marked the end of his participation in the Tour de France.
Nevertheless, Lucien van Impe’s Tour de France win in 1976, along with his other podium finishes and his reputation as one of the best climbers of all time, have reserved him a special place in cycling history. Van Impe is also notable for being second only to Joop Zoetemelk for the amount of times he finished the complete Tour de France race (fifteen times, in fifteen attempts).
In 1987, van Impe retired for good, leaving behind a legacy as a tenacious competitor whose strength and perseverance in the climbing stages is still envied by those who race in the Tour de France year after year. His drive and determination helped make him one of the more notable cyclists of all time.