In today's race, the most prized sprint stage is the final stage into Paris. But for years, even decades, before the Tour de France started finishing in the centre of Paris, sprinters found their Champs-Élysées in the wine capital of Bordeaux. Surrounded by flatlands, this southwestern city on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean was always reserved for the sprint stars of the peloton. Every self-respecting sprinter from André Darrigade to Rik Van Looy to Freddy Maertens to Mark Cavendish have all won here.
But in many ways, the sprinter most associated with the Bordeaux stage in the Tour is local hero Darrigade, one of the most popular French riders in the history of the sport. When the Tour finally returns to Bordeaux for the 82nd time on stage seven after a 13-year hiatus, Darrigade will be watching with keen interest.
Born in Dax – home to the start of stage four in the 2023 Tour de France – Darrigade has always lived in the French southwest. Close friends and teammates with Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil, Darrigade never won the race himself, but he did win 22 Tour stages, more than either of the two Tour legends. He also won the green points jersey twice.
In France, cyclists from the 1950s and 1960s are still fondly remembered. With WWII edging into the past, bicycle racing was the nation’s preferred sport. Bike races, big and small, were ubiquitous and, in many ways, united the country. In France, they refer to the period as Les Trente Glorieuses –the 30 golden years after the war when the French economy was on the rise. And for cycling, this was nothing short of a golden era, producing its greatest champions.
A pillar of the prestigious French national team that dominated the Tour de France, Darrigade – now 94 – was a favoured teammate to Louison Bobet and Jacques Anquetil. But while he rode in support of the Tour legends, he was a constant winner himself.
“You have to remember that I won 22 stages while working for the team,” he said in a conversation from his home in Biarritz. “And I won the opening stage five times. I had a little more freedom to ride for myself at the start of the Tour, so I made the most of it. And that was also a good way to get the yellow jersey!”
First earning his reputation on the track in the 1940s, he turned professional in 1951 and quickly formed what would be a lifelong friendship with Bobet. The two, in fact, would be neighbours in Biarritz until Bobet’s death in 1983. “We would often go out for an 80-kilometre ride on Sundays,” Darrigade remembers. “Bobet was so generous. All of his teammates loved him. We were often adversaries, but we were friends.”
In many ways, however, Darrigade is remembered more for his years with Anquetil, where the two formed a sort of dynamic duo. “Anquetil was very different from Bobet,” he says. “Anquetil had to be the boss. But I was sort of his right-hand man. He didn’t like to tell his teammates what to do, so I was the one that did that. He didn’t like talking to the press. Instead, he was the one who spoke to the press in the hotel at night. There was a sort of hierarchy on the team. Bobet had a lot more personality.”
While Darrigade never won the Tour de France, he did win the World Championships in 1959, a race that he says today was his greatest memory. “I always loved racing the Worlds and I always dreamed of winning it. And what’s more, I think was the only rider to finish on the podium at the World Championships for three consecutive years, at least until Peter Sagan won it three straight times.”
It comes as little surprise that Sagan, as well as Mark Cavendish, are two of his favourite riders today.
“I’ve met Darrigade a couple of times,” Cavendish said before the start of stage six in Tarbes. “Obviously, he was before my time, but as a sprinter, I wanted to know about all the great sprinters. It’s funny, everyone is talking about the Merckx record, but for me, the goal was matching Darrigade because he was a sprinter like me. He’s a super nice guy and still really follows the sport.”
Of course, all eyes will be on Cavendish on stage seven as the Tour races into Bordeaux as the British rider has another chance to break Eddy Merckx’s record. And what better place than Bordeaux, where Cavendish won the last time the Tour finished here in 2010.
“The Bordeaux stage still really means something to me. I don’t know about the others today, but for me, it is special. I can’t believe it has been 13 years since we have been there. It's just a beautiful finish.”