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Bent but Not Broken: Niki Rüttimann’s Remarkable Ride at the ’86 Tour

By Bruce Hildenbrand

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There were a lot of firsts at the 1986 Tour de France. Greg LeMond was the first American winner; 7-Eleven was the first American team to compete; and Niki Rüttimann was the first rider to finish top 10 and win a stage with a broken ankle. Well, sort of….

Rüttimann, a third-year pro from Untereggen, Switzerland, was riding for the powerful La Vie Claire team of LeMond and Bernard Hinault when he crashed during stage 6 of the Tour de Suisse on a descent from Crans-Montana. It was only 17 days before the start of the Tour and the prognosis looked grim. Swiss doctors said Niki had a broken right ankle, which they encased in plaster. It was a huge blow for a team that was in the process of celebrating the emergence of Andy Hampsten, who went on to win that 1986 Tour de Suisse, with LeMond in third.

Rüttimann was an essential player at La Vie Claire. At the 1985 Tour, he was Hinault’s lieutenant in the mountains and was credited with saving the Badger’s fifth Tour victory by pacing the yellow jersey back into contention when he faltered in the Pyrénées. Hampsten remembers: “Hinault would have a bad day most Tours in the mountains. Niki was able to stick with him. He was really good at sniffing out when Hinault was going to have a bad day and ride at the right pace to be there. He could really tune into how Hinault was feeling and get him through it.”

Rüttimann joined La Vie Claire in 1984, the first year of its existence. French mega-millionaire Bernard Tapie owned several sports franchises and when he set his sights on a professional bike racing team he wanted the best. Then fourtime Tour champion Hinault found himself needing a new team when his young teammate at Renault-Gitane, Laurent Fignon, won the 1983 Tour. A year later, LeMond would also exit Renault-Gitane and join La Vie Claire.

Rüttimann proved his worth that first year, placing third overall in the Tour de Romandie, finishing the Tour in 11th and winning the Clásica San Sebastián. In 1985 he won Paris-Bourges and finished second in the Tour de Suisse, and then there was his famous pacing of Hinault back into the yellow jersey at the Tour. The best year of his career was 1986. He started it by winning the season-opening stage race, the Étoile de Bessèges, and followed that up with an overall victory at the Route du Sud stage race in the Pyrénées. And after placing ninth at the Giro d’Italia he started the Tour de Suisse a week later with high hopes—which all came crashing down on stage 6.

la vie claire
1986. Image: Blick/RDB/ullstein bild/Getty Images.
la vie claire knew how critical the swiss rider
L to R: Paul Köchli, Bernard Hinault, Niki Rüttimann and Daniel Gisiger in 1984. Image: Blick/RDB/ullstein bild/Getty Images.

With his ankle in a plaster cast and his participation in the Tour gone Rüttimann went home to rest and recover. A few days later he went to the hospital in Rorschach, near his home, and the diagnosis was dramatically different: “not broken, bad sprain.” The cast came off, but he had to rest for five more days—with the Tour then only a week away! When he did finally get on the bike he was far from recovered. “I couldn’t click into my pedals. I had to help with my hands and I couldn’t ride out of the saddle,” Rüttimann recalled.

La Vie Claire knew how critical the Swiss rider was to the team’s success at the Tour, but the state of his injury and his physical condition were huge unknowns after 10 days off the bike. Could he ride and would he be a factor? “I didn’t consult a doctor,” Rüttimann said. “Paul [Köchli, his Swiss directeur sportif] said I should decide if I felt capable, and I did.”

But was his decision more about desire than reality? “I couldn’t walk normally. I was limping, and when Bernard Hinault saw me he was shocked and asked me, ‘Is this going to work?’ During the prologue I couldn’t give my all because I couldn’t accelerate properly out of the saddle,” Rüttimann remembered.

Even with 10 days off the bike right before the start of the Tour Rüttimann wasn’t worried about his fitness. “Actually, in terms of fitness, it wasn’t so bad, because I had ridden all of the classics [Flanders, Paris–Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Frankfürt, Championship of Zürich], the Giro and part of the Tour de Suisse, and I was tired from that; so I was ‘forced’ to take a break, which was not a bad thing. I was worried about my foot, not my fitness,” Rüttimann said.

He recalled what it was like in those first few, hectic days of the Tour. “I had to ride extremely cleverly. I really had to use my brain and my wits. For example, on the first stage, it was, as usual, a very nervous situation. There were lots of crashes and I had to react quickly, meaning taking my foot out of the pedal—where I saw stars. And just generally speaking, every time a hill came I was forced to stay in my saddle and power through and normally my style of riding is to ride out of the saddle with big gears. So, every time things got a bit slower, I had to make sure I moved to the front of the peloton, so that I wouldn’t lose time when a hill came.

“And that’s not the worst thing that happened to me. On about the third day of the Tour I had stomach and intestinal problems, fever, chills, etcetera and couldn’t eat. It was a flat stage thankfully and I somehow made it—I was the very last one in the peloton who made it through. At that point in the Tour it was really important for me to not lose any time and that’s why I forced myself to keep with it. If I had lost time, my motivation would have been gone.”

The 1986 Tour is remembered for the epic battle between Hinault and LeMond; two teammates who were arguably the best riders in the peloton at the time and who both had designs on the yellow jersey. For Hinault, his sixth win would be the most ever and erase cycling gods Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil from the record books. For LeMond, it would not only be his first, but the first ever by an American.

andy hampsten
Niki Rüttimann bailing Bernard Hinault out at the 1985 Tour de France. Image: Welloffside.

“Niki bailed Hinault out on his bad day in the mountains, which happened in the Alps on the Col de Granon—ooh, that was hard!”

– Andy Hampsten

Hinault went into the early lead on the first mountain stage, but LeMond erased that deficit the next day. Amid all that drama, Rüttimann saw his chance and on stage 14, 154 kilometers from Luchon to Blagnac, he got into a four-man breakaway and with a perfectly timed solo attack 5 kilometers from the finish took his first Tour stage win a half-minute ahead of the other three in the break.

When the racing hit the Alps, the battle between Hinault and LeMond was renewed and on the first alpine stage, 180 kilometers from Gap to a summit finish on the Col de Granon, LeMond followed an attack by Swiss contender Urs Zimmermann and took the yellow jersey. Rüttimann was right there to help Hinault limit his losses. Hampsten, who placed seventh on the stage, remembered, “Niki bailed Hinault out on his bad day in the mountains, which happened in the Alps on the Col de Granon—ooh, that was hard!”

Within the team, two camps (one for Hinault, one for LeMond) started to form, but Rüttimann wasn’t fazed by that. Hampsten continued, “He[Niki] was good at winning races on his own but he really looked out for his teammates.

He helped me on and off the bike. He would look for people when they had a down day and bring them back up.”

And then there were some intangible factors. “Niki’s dad brought about five kilos of cherries from their farm to the Alpe d’Huez rest day. I remember eating cherries for about three hours straight with Niki and his fun family,” said Hampsten.

LeMond ultimately beat Hinault to win the Tour. But the much-publicized battle within the team didn’t seem to affect their Tour performances: La Vie Claire riders finished first (LeMond), second (Hinault), fourth (Hampsten), seventh (Rüttimann) and 12th (Jean-François Bernard). Four riders won stages and the team took all the major classifications, including Hampsten’s white jersey for best young rider.

Yeah, the guy with the supposed broken ankle who spent 10 days off the bike just before the start of the biggest bike race in the world not only won a stage but finished seventh overall. He may have been bent, but he wasn’t broken.

From issue 103, get your copy at pelotonshop.com