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With three days to go in the 1989 Tour de France, everyone was saying the race was as good as over. We were in the alpine village of Villard-de-Lans, a couple hours after race leader Laurent Fignon had won stage 18 in a solo breakaway and pushed his overall lead over Greg LeMond to 50 seconds. I’d arranged to interview LeMond after he had dinner with his family, so in view of Fignon’s latest demonstration I was expecting him to be somewhat despondent. Instead, when he sat down with me on a grassy bank overlooking the valley, a smiling LeMond said he was just so grateful to be competitive again, three years after he won the Tour for the first time, two years after he almost lost his life in a horrific hunting accident and a month after he battled his demons at the Giro d’Italia before ending it strongly in the closing time trial.
Time trialing was the subject he first wanted to talk about—namely, the Tour’s 73-kilometer time trial two weeks earlier, raced from Dinard to Rennes through rural Brittany. “I knew after my second place in the time trial at the Tour of Italy that I could win the Rennes time trial,” LeMond admitted. “I’d felt good since [finishing fourth in] the prologue. But I was so nervous the night before…. I wasn’t sure I was going to win because of the rain and wind [that didn’t affect the earlier starters]. I started really, really hard…and I wasn’t even in the first 25 after 20 kilometers. That shows that the storm played a big role. I tired a little between 35 and 40 kilometers, and then I got a bottle and drank some Coke, and felt better.
A lot of people forget to drink in long time trials. I knew when I came across the line that I had the best time.”
Moments after he finished that fifth stage in Rennes, and just before the TV cameras and radio microphones arrived, LeMond looked up from his bike with a small grin and whispered to me: “It’s the bars.” He was referring, of course, to his Scott clip-on tri bars that were first used by the 7-Eleven team at the earlier Tour de Trump, and made their European debut on this day at the Tour with LeMond and four members of the U.S. team. He indicated that the bars helped him win the stage, beating Fignon by a minute and taking the overall lead by five seconds, but his victory was also down to LeMond’s inherent ability, time-trial skills and fighter mentality. “I couldn’t believe I’d won the time trial and taken the yellow jersey,” he continued. “It was like winning the world championships [in 1993]. It was my best moment in many years…even better than 1966 when I won the Tour de France—because I had such bitter feelings with [Bernard] Hinault that I never could appreciate it.”
Besides Fignon, there was another potential rival, defending champion Pedro Delgado—who’d lost seven minutes on the opening weekend in Luxembourg but placed second in the Rennes time trial. That was partly thanks to his riding in dry, calm weather four hours before LeMond started his TT. “At the time, we didn’t think Delgado was dangerous [he was 28th on GC]. The main person I was concerned with was Fignon. But I still wasn’t really thinking I could go well overall. I was happy to have the jersey, and then to keep it. Then I started improving….”
LeMond’s modest ADR team helped him keep the jersey on the three days heading south to the Pyrénées. His friend and roommate, Dutchman Johan Lammerts, protected him from the wind, their veteran Belgian teammates Eddy Planckaert, Rene Martens, Frank Hoste and Ronny Van Holden were all experts in echelon riding, while the less-experienced Johan Museeuw and Philip Van Vooren were both prepared to ride to their limit. But none of them were climbers who’d be able to help their team leader in the mountains.
Besides limited help from his team, LeMond also had some personal problems. “Since winning the time trial, I slept only five to six hours a night,” he said. And besides taking a sleeping pill one night, he was suffering from swollen feet as the weather turned progressively hotter. The consensus was that the mountains would kill any chance LeMond had of keeping the yellow jersey. The experts pointed to his climbing problems at the Giro—even though he’d battled to finish within three minutes of the race leaders on the Giro’s final rugged mountain stage. That indicated that good form was on the horizon….
Talking in Villard-de-Lans, LeMond told me, “I haven’t really had a bad day in the Tour. I’ve lost time to Fignon, but the difference was he had a good day each time. And I’ve stayed basically constant. That’s the way I usually ride Tours.” Surprisingly, after winning the Giro, Fignon had shown some signs of weakness in the Tour’s first mountain stages. He even admitted that he would have been out of contention if his opponents had attacked him on the second Pyrenean stage, which had a mountaintop finish at Superbagnères. The Frenchman said he was on the point of disaster on the first of that stage’s four climbs, the Tourmalet. When I asked LeMond why he didn’t take advantage of Fignon’s bad day, he said, “I don’t think I could have ridden differently. I was by myself [by that point in the stage]…and he may have been alone too. But at the time there were a lot of people who were dangerous, even though Fignon turned out to be the most dangerous.
“The real problem was that I wasn’t confident in my ability. Fignon made some very mean remarks about the way I raced, and even Cyrille Guimard [Fignon’s directeur sportif] said afterwards: ‘Greg had no choice. He had no team. That’s the way he had to race.’ Also, that was only my second day in the mountains with the first group in three years. I raced the way I had to—as conservative as possible. What did he expect me to do? Lead the peloton up the climbs, so he could attack me on the final climb?”
Ironically, Fignon did attack at the very end of the final climb to take the yellow jersey at Superbagnères by seven seconds. How did that happen? “I was already hurting a little,” LeMond said. “I made a big mistake in trying to come back to him too fast. I tried to bluff him, tried to get back on his wheel so he’d think that he couldn’t get away from me. Then I blew up myself. I should have just approached him slowly and let him stay that little distance ahead, and then gone hard with 200 or 300 meters to go. Hindsight is 20/20. When it’s over you think you could’ve done better…but it actually worked out better, because I was very close to the yellow jersey and I didn’t have to control the race.”
Indeed, it was a bonus that Fignon’s Super U team now had to take charge, especially as LeMond had only five remaining teammates. Alert to his vulnerability, LeMond tried to ride with the first 15 riders in the peloton on the four flat stages between the Pyrénées and the Alps. As a result, when there was a sharp acceleration in the feed zone during stage 13 on Bastille Day, the American was in the first echelon of 16 riders, along with four riders from LeMond’s former team, PDM. But the situation became dangerous when Fignon attacked from that front group with third-placed Charly Mottet.
“He didn’t really attack,” LeMond noted. “Somebody let a gap open [in the echelon], and Fignon just rode away behind the cars and paced himself off the front. The cars were sometimes 10 inches in front of him—I was mad that day! The PDM guys were all yelling at me to ride, but only [Sean] Kelly was riding a little, and they had others like [Steven] Rooks and [Gert-Jan] Theunisse just sitting on the back. I could say a whole mouthful about that team.” At one point, LeMond chased with Delgado, who was up to fourth on GC after strong rides in the Pyrénées. Luckily for LeMond, a change in wind direction hobbled the breakaway riders—but only after Fignon and Mottet had raced 40 kilometers together in just 50 minutes!
Two days later came a tough 39-kilometer time trial that featured two category 1 climbs, including an uphill finale from Orcières to the alpine ski station of Merlette, on a blazing-hot day. LeMond, who again used his tri bars, knew there was a good chance of regaining the yellow jersey. But he said he decided to ride conservatively: “I’m afraid of going too hard on the climbs because I’m a heavier rider than they are. Fignon and Delgado are four kilos (nine pounds) lighter than me. And I’m always afraid on a hill time trial to really dig deep in my reserves. In a flat or rolling time trial you can recuperate if you go overboard, not in a hill time trial.”
In placing fifth in that TT, LeMond conceded just eight seconds to Delgado, while beating Fignon by 47 seconds and Mottet by 1:27. That result put the American back in the lead, with a 40-second advantage over Fignon, 2:17 on Mottet and 2:48 on Delgado. It was a strong position to be in prior to four stages in the high Alps, but knowing he had no teammates able to stay with him on the climbs, it was still a precarious position for LeMond.
His ADR team made the best of its resources on the first of the Alps stages, which crossed the Vars and Izoard passes on the road to Briançon. LeMond had a scare when he flatted just as the race was splitting apart at the foot of the Vars, but sprinter Planckaert was still in the peloton and passed a wheel to his leader. Then, when he needed help on the valley road between the two mountains, roommate Lammerts dropped back from the day’s early breakaway and rode tempo before the steeper gradients kicked in. So LeMond was in a good position when Delgado and Mottet made the key attack just before the Izoard summit—where he made a big effort, dropped Fignon and joined the leaders before accelerating into the steep, switchback descent. Mottet went with LeMond—who was helped by Canadian friend Steve Bauer, then on a different team, who’d been in the early break and let a big gap develop behind LeMond and Mottet, allowing them to pursue their attack and force Fignon to chase.
“But what happened is that Delgado’s young teammate Miguel Induráin rejoined and did all the chasing,” LeMond said. “If he hadn’t been there, Delgado would’ve stopped riding and made Fignon do the work. I was taking a chance because I knew Fignon was off. Any time I could take out was time gained, but I was probably the most tired that day of any day. I was cramping on the short hill up to the finish, because we were spinning so fast on the downhill. I didn’t even anticipate that last hill, not that steep. I put out a big effort, and I think I paid for it the next day.”
That “big effort” had netted LeMond another 13 seconds, giving him a 53-second buffer over Fignon—but in this electrifying Tour that advantage was completely wiped out on the “next day.” This was the toughest stage of the Tour, with the massive climbs of the Galibier, Croix-de-Fer and Alpe d’Huez in just 161 kilometers. Three years earlier, this is the stage on which LeMond, at the height of his power, dominated with his La Vie Claire teammate Hinault—their long-distance, two-man breakaway seeing them finish the stage more than five minutes clear of their closest rivals. That performance clinched LeMond’s first Tour victory. Lots had changed since then, including Hinault’s retirement, LeMond’s near-fatal hunting accident and Fignon’s return to the form he enjoyed at the 1983 and ’84 Tours—in both of which he won the yellow jersey at L’Alpe d’Huez and kept it till the end.
It looked like history was repeating itself in 1989. Fignon made two spectacular attacks at the foot of the Alpe, to which LeMond and Delgado responded, while Mottet fell back and would lose four minutes. Then, 4 kilometers from the top, Fignon attacked again with an all-out sprint from behind his two rivals. LeMond couldn’t respond this time, and he’d lose a minute and a half by the finish line, where Fignon took back the yellow jersey with a 26-second margin. “I was low in liquids, with sugar in it,” LeMond explained. “And on L’Alpe d’Huez I think I lacked that extra bottle. That’s part of athletics. Some people keep the energy, and some people run out of it at certain points in a race. And that’s what happened.”
Twenty-four hours later, Fignon again went on the attack, this time on the more gentle slopes of the climb above Grenoble to St. Nizier-de-Moucherotte. He made his move 3.5 kilometers from the top, and 24 kilometers from the stage finish in Villard-de-Lans. “I knew he was going to try something to get more time, because he’s not confident enough for the [Paris] time trial,” LeMond confided in our interview that evening. “He just took off and no one could stay with him. He was impressive.
“When he was only 15 seconds ahead at the top, I thought surely we’d catch him. But I think he had the advantage of something breaking the wind. On the descent, cars can never go fast enough…but that’s part of being at the front. That’s the advantage of being there. He put out a big effort. Behind, there was only Delgado and me riding [in the six-man chase]. As for the three PDM riders there, they rode so I would lose. I know it. Mainly because I know the PDM bosses Jan Gisbers and Manfred Krikke absolutely insisted on not letting me win the race. It would look terrible for them: Pedro Delgado leaves PDM and wins the Tour de France [in 1988]; I leave and….”
LeMond left the words hanging. After all, there were only two stages before the Paris time trial. For the second day running, Fignon had just taken time out of him, and he was now 50 seconds behind the Frenchman. Everyone assumed that LeMond had lost the race—and lesser riders might have believed the consensus. Not Greg. During our interview that evening, as the shadows of pine trees lengthened across the hillside below us, he showed no pessimism. In his mind, the Tour was still there to be won. He told me he was praying a lot to gain the inner strength needed to withstand the huge psychological pressure. If he was to win his second Tour, it would be won on morale, he believed.
LeMond’s morale had also been boosted by the arrival of his wife Kathy and both sets of their parents, along with close friend and early sponsor Fred Mengoni, who’d be celebrating his 65th birthday the next day. LeMond promised to win the stage for Fred…. It was the final mountain stage, a classic one across the Chartreuse Massif via the Cols de Porte, Cucheron and Granier. The top five on GC went clear over the first climb. And they were still together 65 kilometers later as they headed into Aix-les-Bains for a sprint finish. “I knew if I took Fignon’s wheel I’d win the sprint,” said LeMond, who kept his promise to Mengoni. “Afterwards, Fignon came alongside me and said, ‘Congratulations, thanks for a good race.’”
Those words could be interpreted two ways. One, Fignon felt that the Tour was as good as over and he was heading to Paris as the winner for a third time. Or, two, the words reflected Fignon’s lack of confidence for the final time trial—and that’s what LeMond thought. “Fignon’s gonna have some sleepless nights before Sunday,” he said.
But the world still believed the Tour was as good as over, that there was no way the American could make up 50 seconds on the Frenchman in the closing 24.5-kilometer time trial. After all, even with his tri bars, LeMond beat Fignon by only 56 seconds over 73 kilometers at Rennes. If they both performed at those levels on this final-day test over one third that distance, the best LeMond could hope for would be beating his rival by about 19 seconds—way short of what he needed. Even LeMond was pessimistic beforehand. “When I rode over the course this morning, I thought it wasn’t difficult enough for me to beat Fignon by more than 20 or 30 seconds. There was a lot of downhill and a strong tailwind. But I felt very, very strong. I thought I could win the stage, but it would be tough to win the Tour.”
Just how tough, we would find out by the end of a nailbitingly dramatic battle between the two protagonists. As we now know, LeMond time-trialed at an average speed of 54.545 kph—the fastest ever for a Tour TT of longer than 10 kilometers, and a speed that would not be bettered until 24 years later when Rohan Dennis averaged 55.446 kph in a 13.8-kilometer stage with vastly superior equipment. It took such an effort by LeMond to take that 1989 Tour stage from Versailles to Paris, 58 seconds faster than Fignon, to win the race by its closest-ever margin, just eight seconds!
So LeMond’s confident mood in our Villard-de-Lans interview had indeed been genuine. And he’d won a Tour de France that everyone thought he would lose.
(The complete story of that Tour’s final time trial will have to wait until a future edition of Peloton.)
This story originally appeared in issue 87.