In 1974, young Dutch rider Henk Poppe beat the top sprinters to claim the first ever Tour stage run in Britain.
That year Merckx Mania was in full swing. It was hard to see who could deny Eddy his fifth overall win, especially with Luis Ocaña and Joop Zoetemelk injured and out of the race.
The 61st edition of the Tour broke new ground, sending the peloton to British shores for the first time. Plymouth had the honour of hosting this historic stage. The powerful Molteni team had seized the reins of the race, first with Merckx after the prologue in Brest and then with Joseph Bruyère, who had gained time from a breakaway in the following stage. ‘The Cannibal’ was as voracious as ever after the short boat trip, featuring in all the moves and battling for bonus seconds on the 14 laps of a circuit that included a road bypass.
While Merckx’s rivals for the overall refrained from challenging him during this stage, a fierce battle raged on among the sprinters. Barry Hoban, eager to impress in the first British outing of the Tour, was expected to take the fight to Patrick Sercu.
Few people were watching the small Frisol team, a newcomer to the peloton that featured mainly Dutch rouleurs such as Fedor den Hertog and Cees Priem, but also a 22-year-old sprinter who flew under the radar despite his big frame: 1.87 m and 81 kg. It was the first Tour de France for Henk Poppe, but he was racing without any inhibitions.
The young lad, a product of the Dutch cycling school, was able to go toe-to-toe with the Belgian veterans of a thousand critériums, kermesses and village races. Merckx opened the final sprint, but it was Poppe who surged to beat Jacques Esclassan and Patrick Sercu.
The birth of a star? Sercu handily regained control in the next few stages, with the young talent failing to finish higher than 14th, only to bow out in the Alpine stage to Serre-Chevalier. That was the end of his short Tour career… but that one victory will always be his.