How many times did we have a conversation with another fellow cycling nut, arguing about who should have won this or that, according to a/our point of view (sharper than any other, of course), b/our personal taste (which is backed with facts, of course), c/our memory (100% accurate, of course) or d/all previous points ?
You got it, there are as many interpretations of a race than there are viewers or racers themselves. Riders make no exception. Read any rider’s autobiography and you will find a strong tendency to embellish victories while putting aside flaws or not-so-flattering episodes. It’s just a very human thing to do, really and he who has not sinned might throw the first “musette” at my face.
But let’s be honest, re-making history is, basically, a lot of fun. And the more you actually try and make sense, the better.
The 1985 and 1986 Tour de France are a turning point in Greg LeMond’s and Bernard Hinault’s careers. It would define how they would later go down in history, pure and simple, although for one of them it is a starting point whereas it is more of a finish line for the other.
You see, I have a problem. I am both a Hinault and a LeMond fan. Many people don’t get that. They see these two as antagonists, with a good guy and a bad guy. I don’t. How come I didn’t create a “Bernard Hinault fan” page ? you might ask. It is a fair question. I’ll try and explain this the best way I can. I always saw Hinault as a father figure. Kind of bad ass, aggressive, the type you don’t want to mess with. And, for having spent an afternoon with him, I’ll stand by this (although he softened a lot with age and is ALSO one of the nicest people I’ve met). It is all true. By way of consequence, as much as I admire the guy, I don’t relate to him. He is beyond reach. I could never behave like him. I just don’t have this in me. On the other hand, I always saw Greg LeMond as a big brother. I think that, as unbelievable his achievements are, Greg remains, oddly, within reach. Not in terms of scale, of course, but in terms of style, of core values. No matter what you do, the way you do it matters a lot. Greg is/was a nice chap from the start, warm and friendly, yet able to transcend himself. A mixture of heart-on-my-sleeve candor and survival instinct. In short, Hinault always kind of scared me, LeMond always did inspire me. Still does, really.
To come back to the matter of this article, the 1985-86 TDFs are highly controversial and your point of view often betrays the amount of affection you hold towards either LeMond or Hinault. Race facts are, most of the time, irrelevant.
What’s my point of view ? To me, the results are fair. Hinault had to win in 1985, LeMond had to win in 1986. It’s only because they were in the same team and mainly because Hinault tried to act like a puppeteer that some people tend to think results were not fair. But they were. Here’s why.
In 1985, Hinault is in tough shape. He just won the Giro. He is the boss. He is dominant. For those of you who might be in doubt, I’m just giving this : in the first individual time trials only, the badger takes an advantage of 4’18 over Greg LeMond. It’s practically game over, at this stage. Because in 1985 Hinault is not showing any sign of weakness in the mountains. He’s riding with Herrera ! In fact, from the start of this Tour, positions on the team are made clear. Greg is here to learn and to act as a security blanket, in case something goes wrong. And indeed it does, when Hinault crashes hard, breaking his nose in Saint-Etienne. Had he not suffer such injury, I believe he would have won the Tour without any fuzz. No discussions. But because he is injured, suddenly Hinault cannot keep up. But, mind you, it is not a major breakdown where you lose minutes by the dozen, it is “just” a bad day.
It is the Luz Ardiden stage. Our friend Thierry told you all about this. In short : Stephen Roche, then 3rd in general classification behind Hinault, attacks. Hinault can’t respond. Greg follows. He’s doing his job : making sure the yellow jersey stays within the team. If Hinault collapses, Greg takes the lead. It’s ok. Things are covered. The La Vie Claire team is in control.
I have a daily job. I teach young managers in retail stores how to manage their teams. One of the things I advise them to do is watch any medical TV series, say ER or Grey’s Anatomy. Apart from medical cases, what are the stories built on ? Communication. Or lack thereof : He told me this. She told me that. I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me. You should have told me before. You should have shared this with us.
You’re not telling the truth. You’re hiding the truth.
Make all characters communicate and these TV series become boring (or more boring). The same applies here. The La Vie Claire team management deliberately lies to Greg LeMond to make sure he will not attack and take the yellow jersey. But what if they had just asked him ? After all, by covering Stephen Roche, he was just doing his job. Hinault was in danger, but there was a chance he could come back. And he did. Job done. But if there is one thing most human beings do not like at work, it’s having the feeling they are being manipulated. Especially when it is not for their own benefit. I know I don’t. Do you ?
And that leads us to 1986. Because, on the very evening of the Luz Ardiden stage, when Greg LeMond expresses his anger and bitterness for the lack of trust the team has placed in him, Hinault Koechli and Bernard Tapie know they are in danger. You might not know this, but very early on in his career, Hinault had set a date for the end of his pro-cycling days. His 32nd birthday. As a young rider, the badger had ridden against Eddy Merckx. But in his last few years, 76-78, the cannibal was a shadow of his former self. Hinault was kind of shocked to see the « best cyclist of all times » struggling to get a decent result. That image stuck in the mind of the young breton. « I’ll never put myself in that position ». Hinault leaving in 1986, the La Vie Claire team cannot afford to lose its best asset for the future of the team, Greg LeMond. A negociation occurs. And, as a thank you for his loyalty to the team, Greg LeMond is offered to be a rightful leader for the 1986 Tour de France. Hinault will serve as a captain, guiding the young american to victory. Except he can’t.
Wishful thinking, I guess.
To be totally honest, I think that Greg LeMond lost the 1985 Tour de France when he left the Renault team. Of course, the decision at the time seemed clever as it looked easier to assume co-leadership with a soon-retiring champion (Hinault) rather than a young, agressive and dominant winner of the last Tour de France, (Fignon, in 1984 had won by a 10′ margin). But that was before Fignon hurt his ankle and decided not to race the Tour in 1985. Just imagine Hinault/Koechli Vs LeMond/Guimard. That would have been an amazing race, but Hinault’s superiority in ITTs would have made LeMond’s task very hard, no matter what.
1986 is definitely not the same story. As I said, by way of his ITT superiority in the 1985 TDF, Hinault already had the Tour in the bag. 4’18. It is quite a gap. But in 1986 that gap has melted like snow under the sun. Only 65 seconds, all in all. Hinault is definitely not in the same position. Greg LeMond is much stronger. The badger, probably not as sharp as he was the year before. He was hardly seen during the spring. How come so many people think Hinault would have won the 1986 Tour if he wanted to ? Because of the stage leading to Pau. Bernie attacks without warning his « co-leader ». Opposition is very weak. The badger takes 5 minutes. Remember that afternoon I spent with the Badger ? It was on december 5, 2008. I asked him how he saw the return of Armstrong in the Astana team for the 2009, sharing leadership with Contador, Kloden, Leipheimer… Hinault told me this : “It’s pretty simple, really. Make a good ITT, then take the yellow jersey on the first opportunity, no matter what. Once you have the jersey on your shoulders, the other guys can’t attack you. That would make them look bad.”. I couldn’t resist. “Is that what you did with LeMond ?” I asked. “No, it was always 100% for Greg”. That’s his motto. But the Astana scenario is also precisely what happens en route to Pau. Greg LeMond’s hands are tied because he rides for the same team. He’s losing minutes. Adversaries are weak. They won’t budge. It’s 1985 all over again. No communication means Hinault can do whatever he wants. Had he discussed this with LeMond, there is no way he would have taken those 5 minutes, he would never have agreed to such a strategy. Had LeMond been in another team, there’s no way he would have let Bernard get away. Again, the badger takes advantage of the fact that he and Greg LeMond are wearing the same jersey. For his own benefit. He has nothing to lose. If he wins, he’s a french hero in french territory. If he loses, he is the heroic loser. You have to understand one thing about Hinault. If he sees an opportunity to attack, he will grab it, no matter what. His mistake was to make a promise he could not keep, by his very nature.
The day after, Hinault attacks again. 100%. For LeMond, remember ? Again : nothing to lose, if it’s a hit, it’s a 6th Tour win. If not, it’s a heroic sacrifice. Even his team mates are convinced that, in the back of his mind, Hinault was going for the knock-out. Only he couldn’t. For his legs wouldn’t follow. Greg eventually takes back most of those 5 minutes, winning the stage. And then some, a few days later. Yellow is his, he wins the Tour, but at what cost ? Hinault made everyone believe he had the race in the bag and gave it away. Nice.
To sum up : in 1985, Hinault was far superior in ITTs and did not show any weakness in the mountain before his crash. And even when he did, it wasn’t a major breakdown. He was able to manage his losses. That’s game over for LeMond. Lies spoiled the fun. In 1986, different story. Hinault grabs a few crumbs from ITTs, steals minutes in just one stage (Pau) and then loses time every day (Except for the Alpe d’Huez truce) Superbagnères, Serre-Chevalier, Puy de Dôme… He takes 25” back on the last ITT, but only because Greg crashes, has to change his bike and has a slow puncture near the end. That’s game over for Hinault, this time. Had they not been in the same team, he would have had absolutely no freedom of movement. In fact, I don’t believe Greg LeMond was ever as strong as in the 1986 Tour de France.
Both Tours were frustrating for Greg, that’s for sure. But to me, he learned one very important thing, the hard way. Handle pressure. Keep calm. Both Fignon and Chiappucci would agree LeMond certainly beat them from that point of view. So, maybe, in a way, Hinault was right. He wanted Greg LeMond to earn the Tour, by his own merits. Too bad he made it look different.
Morality : Communicate. Talk to each other. It will spare you lots of trouble.
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By Nicolas – NL_LeMondFans