“It is a good day to die” – Old Lodge Skins in “Little Big Man”
When the 1989 Tour de France reaches the ski station of Superbagnères, it has a nice ring to it for Greg LeMond as it is where he won a TDF stage for the last time, back in 1986. But that was in another life.
On this very morning, things are a lot different. This is the 2nd of only 2 stages in the Pyrénées. It is stage 9, pretty early in the race. Greg is in yellow, but he is not confident. He did a great time trial in stage 5 which put him in that place but he knows the mountain is a whole other thing. In fact, he has not been any good in the climbs since the last time he came here, in july 1986. Another life all right.
Greg’s lead is short. 5 seconds. Yesterday’s stage, first round of the mountains battle, was quiet, luckily for Greg. Pedro Delgado attacked as expected but only took back 30”. He’s not a threat in the short term since he lost close to 9 minutes in the very first stages of the Tour. Greg LeMond finished in the top ten within a chasing group in the company of Fignon, Mottet and the PDM guys which is good enough at this point. However, that “quiet” stage was enough to make him realize that he cannot possibly rely on his team. The ADR cobblestone-eaters seem to vanish every time the road goes up for more than a mile. Greg LeMond is basically on his own. He needs a strategy and he doesn’t have that many options. But there is one that seems to work. His ex-team mates of the PDM team look strong, but they lack a real leader. Rooks, Theunisse, Kelly and Alcala share the workload but when it comes to finish the job, they struggle to send someone into orbit. These are the wheels to follow.
Laurent Fignon is hungry. He’s in one of his best years ever since he won Milan San Remo in march and the Giro d’Italia in may/june. For the 5th year in a row, since his 2nd TDF win in 1984, he is trying to prove the world he is the best rider around. Again. Yesterday’s stage was self-explanatory for him too. The PDM team is impressive but moves in one big fast flock. Delgado is aggressive. Greg LeMond won’t budge. “I’ll have to do it all myself”, Laurent thinks. Then he gets vocal about it. Having the yellow jersey is like being Spider-Man : with great power comes great responsibility. “With a 5 seconds split only, it’s like we both have the yellow jersey” Fignon says. “But I’m the only one working on it”.
A typical Pyrénées weather : the sky is cloudy with fog at the summits, as if it tried to depict the atmosphere of the race. Pretty soon, Delgado makes it clear he will not lose without a fight. He’s gone, along with Charly Mottet and Robert Millar. This breakaway has 2 of the “Big 4”, those supposed to have the best chance of winning the Tour. Greg LeMond knows he doesn’t stand a chance if he starts chasing them all by himself. He is once again relying on the PDMs. Fignon is having a rough day : frequently seen at the back of his group (if hardly seen at all), he’s struggling to keep up, helped by Pascal Simon. Things aren’t looking too good for our yellow duo.
There are many ways of surviving. But very few are efficient. One is to be clever and minimize the effort. That’s Greg. The other is to cease every opportunity. Every single one. That’s Laurent. The ponytailed rider is having a rough day. He’s doing a yo-yo. Dropped a few seconds, then comes back, then gets dropped again, then comes back. Again. At one point in the Tourmalet he goes “screw it” and just grabs a motorcycle passing by. For an instant. Buys himself a relief. Andy Hampsten sees him but does not comment.
On the col de Peyresourde, Charly Mottet can almost feel the delicate weight of a yellow jersey on his shoulders. He, Delgado & Millar are now 5’ ahead of the peloton. Mottet is “virtual leader” of the Tour. Delgado looks like he still has a shot at turning the race upside down. But that’s when the PDM engine starts. Rooks & Theunisse take over the chase. They mean business. Greg is trying to stay calm. The gap slowly diminishes.
In the valley leading to the foot of the last mountain, Laurent Fignon sends his team mate Pascal Simon to lead the pack. The gap goes down to 4’. The race is uncertain. Every rider needs to stay focused. Fignon seems to have recovered. Right on time.
The Superbagnères climb is quite irregular. The average steep is 6% but most of the time you’re between 7 & 9% which is not easy by any means. It’s nothing compared to the very last ramp, though, as it goes as hard as 13%. Today is a good day to die.
At mid climb, Rooks tries to get rid of the remnants of the peloton. Twice. Each time he is caught by none other than Greg LeMond. Then Fignon counter-attacks. Greg understands he won’t be able to chase just everyone. It’s time to let the Dutch go. Rooks & Theunisse are now gone.
Fignon does an impressive come back. He’s not able to keep up with the PDM duo but looks better than he has for the whole day. Greg bites his tongue. Gap is now 3’40”. 5km to go. There is clearly a shift in powers. Laurent Fignon is getting better by the mile while the breakaways struggle to keep the pace. Delgado & Millar eventually drop Mottet.
Millar outsprints Delgado for the win. But with all due respect… the race is elsewhere. The Fignon – LeMond group reaches the last wall. The Frenchman has a plan. Since Greg LeMond plays in defense, he figures he might as well take the yellow jersey. He lets himself go at the back of the group… Only to launch a last, violent surprise attack. Greg LeMond looks down in a “not again ?!?” kind of way but still, he jumps in Fignon’s wheel. But not for long. After a short while, Greg tries to stand up on his feet but his legs betray him, he falls back heavily on the saddle. No fuel. Gasping for air, LeMond looks back as if looking for the train to pass. Time stops. The noise of the crowd fades away. It’s a summer day on a lonely mountain. Today is a good day to die.
Photo Copyright John Pierce / PhotoSport International uk usa asia( no copying )
It’s always a bad sign when your bike goes sideways as you climb. It means you’re literally dying. In case you haven’t noticed yet. John Pierce, professional photographer, shoots to make this moment eternal. The picture says it all. Dead man riding. John realizes the magnitude of the event as the yellow jersey passes in front of him. John is a pro, he is supposed to be “detached”, somehow. But there he can’t help it. He just yells at Greg when he comes by : “it’s only 400 meters !”. This race is unbelievable.
Photo Copyright John Pierce / PhotoSport International uk usa asia( no copying )
At the end of the day, Laurent Fignon is back in yellow (for a mere 7 seconds), 5 years after his last triumph on the Tour. Another life. He’s adamant about the fact that only he is worthy of the yellow jersey as Greg LeMond is “letting (him) do all the work”. Later on, Greg has to remind him that Andy Hampsten saw him grab a motorcycle. “Well, then if I was so bad why didn’t he attack me ?” would be his response years later. This is hardly a denial.
For the time being, Delgado is back on track as he has demonstrated he’s able to take back valuable time (3’26” in just one stage). Greg LeMond just showed his present limitations. When the 1989 Tour de France peloton exits the Pyrénées, anything is possible.
Epilogue : “This isn’t flying, this is falling with style!” – Buzz Lightyear in “Toy Story”
It is believed that races are won when you take a significant advantage. But sometimes they are won when you just make it through barely alive. In 1989, Superbagnères was just about surviving for Greg LeMond, but it is as much a contribution to his General Classification win as the Champs Elysées are. In fact, you have to win everywhere you can. In the race more than ever, every second counts.
“This boy is no longer a boy. He’s a brave. He is little in body, but his heart is big. His name shall be “Little Big Man.” – Old Lodge Skins in “Little Big Man”
Very special thanks to John Pierce (48 x years Tour de France accredited photographer. (1967 to present inc)) for his nice contribution.
By Nicolas – NL_LeMondFans