In his book “We were young and carefree”, Laurent Fignon describes how he & Guimard decided not to use the triathlete aero bars in the 1989 Tour de france : “(…) One of our suppliers had offered to use such an equipement (…) but it wasn’t our style to play with rules & regulations, we had a zero risk policy : win by ourselves, without extra help, was of the highest value to us.(…)”.
Since then, Greg LeMond’s use of the tri-bars that year has been frequently described as an act of “cheating”. It wasn’t always like that. Before that book, the word “cheat” had never been used. Fignon himself had confessed in an interview (« La Légende », broadcasted on french TV during the 2005 TDF) that he & Guimard had probably missed that train : “At the time we weren’t convinced regarding the efficency of the device. We weren’t sure what it could bring. We didn’t know if we could adapt to it. We didn’t pay that much attention to it, really.”.
Things changed in the last years of Laurent Fignon’s life. I guess the frustration and feeling of injustice facing the illness (Laurent Fignon died of cancer at 50, in 2010) spread to other kinds of frustrations. Until his very last breath, Fignon himself was basically a gentleman. He never really pointed fingers. Critics came from people close to Laurent Fignon. Guimard, in particular, was very vocal about this. I also remember Lance Armstrong during his last Tour de France, in full « Cancer Shield » mode, standing right next to Fignon, on french TV, saying « one day, Greg LeMond will have to say the truth about the 1989 Tour de France. ». Class act, as usual, using a dying man to deal with his own personal vendetta. Things got kind of ugly, at times.
« Sport & Vie » is a french magazine. It should be named « Health & Sport », really, as it deals with those 2 things in general. Training methods, injuries, diet, doping, body & mind issues… It’s a good read. Journalists and doctors write in a humourous tone, making it worth your while.
Last summer, « Sport & Vie » issued a « Cheaters Special » magazine, with Ben Johnson on the cover. Perfect beach read, I thought. And it was. Except for a tiny little article telling the story of the 1989 Tour de france, naming it « the most well known act of cheating never punished in sport ». They were quoting FDJ riders trainer & sport scientist Fred Grappe, saying that LeMond had been stealing « minutes » during the 144km of ITT that year. I let you imagine how salty the air felt at that moment. And it wasn’t the sea.
It didn’t take very long for me to take my smartphone and write an e-mail to « Sport & Vie ». Journalist Gilles Goetghebuer promptly responded, saying that he agreed 100% with my mail and offered to publish it. Here goes :
« In your « cheaters » issue you briefly tell the story of Greg LeMond’s win in the 1989 Tour de France by 8 short seconds. An act of cheating, really ? I remind you that Greg LeMond did not break any rule that day. Nodody filed any kind of claim. The material he used had been officially allowed. In case you don’t know coach José de Cauwer and Greg LeMond had shown his bike to the officials the day following a late night party. They were counting on the incompetence of said officials in terms of aerodynamics. They were right ! More surprising was the lack of response from the rest of the peloton and Cyrille Guimard in particular, as their inability to seize the potential of the aero tri bars. When he was still working with Gitane, Guimard had been at the very edge of the aerodynamics innovations in the sport, using the tools provided by the team sponsor, Renault. Aero tubes, high rims, lycra skinsuits… In 1986, Cyrille Guimard had provided Thierry Marie with a bike equipped with an appendix on the saddle, allowing him to push harder. He had won the Tour de France prologue using this. Later, the « shark fin» saddle would be forbidden, then allowed again (Thierry Marie achieving another TDF prologue win like this in 1991), which shows that Guimard was not reluctant to play with regulations when he needed to. The peloton owes Greg LeMond a huge deal in terms of innovations : sunglasses, cyclo-computers, hard shell helmets, SRM and the aero tri bars. I discussed the latter with him last year. He told me that he had noticed the device in the 1989 Tour de Trump. He was in pretty bad shape in an ITT and was stunned by the efficiency of the device. Greg took the initiative of using this for the Tour de France. He did not use it in the prologue or the TTT. But prior to the last ITT he had already used it in the Dinard-Rennes ITT (and at Orcières-Merlette). How many seconds did Greg actually gain like this ? LeMond himself does not know. He had not properly tested it before and just trusted his guts. Later, scientists would test and try to answer the question. A team of american students even estimated Laurent Fignon’s aero loss due to his ponytail ! Truth is, no one denies the fact that, without the aero tri-bars, LeMond would not have won the Tour. He ackowledges that himself. That does not make him a cheater. »
Reaction of Nicolas published in Sport & Vie
As you can see, I did not mention Fignon being tested for amphetamines later in 1989, escaping a 2 years ban for just a matter of weeks (he had been caught for the same product in 1987 and a second strike in less than 2 years meant a 2 years ban). Nor did I mention that Andy Hampsten interview (click here to hear it) where he testifies he saw Fignon hanging to a motorcycle climbing le Tourmalet in that Tour de france. I just didn’t need to. I did leave Fred Grappe and his scientific measures behind. First because he did a sloppy job taking into account 144km, though the Orcières Merlette ITT took place in the Alpes, half of the 39km being 7% average climbs where Greg did not use the bars (and still managed to grab 47 seconds over Fignon). Secondly, because Fred Grappe did not see anything wrong with Lance Armstrong’s figures in 2001 (mind you, he’s saying the excact same thing about Chris Froome). I’m far from being as educated and competent as Mr grappe but…You make up your mind.
Now, who’s cheating ?
By Nicolas – @NL_LeMondFans
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