By Thierry Mertens
April 1992. It hasn’t been raining the whole week. The roads in the North of France are dry. The sun is hidden behind the clouds but there’s no rain. Everybody is talking about 1 thing. The Hell of the North, Paris – Roubaix.
The cobblestones, better known as “pavés”. The forest of Wallers-Arenberg. The flats, the crashes. The heroes struggling to get to the velodrome of Roubaix. Newspapers are full of it. One of those heroes is Greg LeMond. He looks motivated. He always is for Paris – Roubaix. Remember 1985 where he got 4th place and posed with his mud covered face for the cameras ?
Circumstances were different that day. There was no sun. Only rain and mud. The Mondrian pattern of the La Vie Claire jersey was wiped out with brown mud. It was hard to sort out the different teams. Especially when cameras were filming them from the front. After his forced abandon in 1984 due to several mechanical problems Greg LeMond completed the Hell of the Norh for the first time in 1985. And how did he. He became 4th after an heroic battle between the leaders of the peloton. A small group was chasing Marc Madiot, his former teammate for Renault. The Frenchman had taken advantage of the others looking at eachother to respond his attack. With only 20 kilmeters to go, the chasers : Sean Kelly, Eddy Planckaert, Rudy Dhaenens, Jef Lieckens, Greg LeMond and Madiot’s teammate Bruno Wojtinek were trying to get back on the former French champion. Only they couldn’t. Madiot eventually won and his teammate, Wojtinek, took the opportunity to become 2nd in an historical 1-2 for the Renault team after he attacked the chasers. Again it was Kelly who outsprinted Greg in the sprint for 3rd place, despite a crash entering the velodrome. It was Greg’s best result ever in Paris-Roubaix. It was also the muddiest he ever participated in. But he was happy. He loved the race and said later he couldn’t go faster that day.
Cameras are rolling. The French television is broadcasting. The live images are on the air. We’re back in 1992. There’s a lot of Z jerseys in front of the peloton. I can’t see who it is, but there’s 3 or 4 of them. There’s a lot of dust from the dry roads. Then … a glimpse. I don’t need more to know what I see. The Scott drop-ins, the style, the expression. It’s Greg. He’s riding in front of the peloton. A closer look tells me he’s riding a special bike today fitted with the Rockshox front fork suspension helping him to ride more comfortably on these hard cobblestones. Always the innovator, Greg had introduced the technology the previous year, allowing him to ride the Arenberg trench without holding his handlebars. True story, check out this video about the suspension and watch him doing it at 1:16. http://www.ina.fr/video/CAB91017643/paris-roubaix-les-trucs-video.html
Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, loyal teammate of Greg, is also riding with this suspension. But he’s not in the peloton. He’s in front of the race with names as Fignon and Ludwig. The peloton is chasing them. Only 45 kilometers to go. The peloton is closing down the gap. On the next sector of “pavés” Duclos-Lassalle attacks. Nobody is able to react. He’s gone.
Not much later the rest of the leading group is caught by the peloton. With only their French teammate in front the Z’s are disturbing the chase. As a result, there’s no organisation in the peloton anymore and the gap is not closing down. Jean-Claude Colotti and Greg LeMond are the main reason for that. Each attempt to attack is countered by Duclos-Lassalle’s teammates. Greg is toying with his pedals. He’s strong today. I have the feeling he’s able to attack but he won’t. He’s loyal to Duclos-Lassalle and does everything to help him win the race.
Roubaix is nearing. I’m getting more nervous. In some way I want Greg to attack and go for this victory but on the other hand I also want Duclos-Lassalle to win the race. Another attack. Another reaction from the Z team. There’s Greg. He’s following another rider trying to attack. They have a small gap, but Greg refuses to help. He’s loyal. The peloton comes back. There’s no way anyone can escape from the Z brigade. Or is there ? All of a sudden a Panasonic rider is alone. It’s Ludwig, the German sprinter who was in the leading group before. The Z’s know he’s too tired to catch Duclos so they let him go preventing others to attack, meaning the race is over. Greg and Colloti are still controlling the peloton. Or what’s left of it. Its size has been reduced to an elite group with some strong Z riders in it.
The final kilometers are a true Z Vêtements show. Roger Zannier, boss of the Z team, must be happy with all this publicity. When Duclos-Lassalle enters the Velodrome the crowd is chearing his name. “Duclos !, Duclos !”. When he crosses the line the French commentators are losing it. He deserves it after hunting this victory for years. Second places in 1980 and 1983. 4th in 1989, 6th in 1990… Decibels are rising and when Ludwig arrives the almost 38 years old Duclos-Lassalle is already celebrating since about 34 seconds.
The chasing group is on its way now. Greg’s in a good position. The French commentator is supporting him and Colloti to get 3rd place but a 9th place is the result. His second best performance in Paris-Roubaix since his 4th place in 1985. The best results of a former Tour de France winner in Paris-Roubaix for a long time. Every edition he participated resulted in some nice pictures of Greg. He was a gift for the photographers. In 1991 the famous black and white picture in the bathroom of Roubaix was awarded at World Press Photo with the first prize in the sports category.
Cameras are searching for Duclos-Lassalle. It’s not the Frenchman they find. They find 3 Z riders celebrating. It’s Colloti, Duclos-Lassale and Greg. Greg shouts “We’ll drink champagne tonight”. (http://www.ina.fr/video/CAB92023299/cyclisme-reactions-apres-victoire-duclos-lassalle-video.html). He’s happy. Maybe more happy for his teammate than for himself. “He deserves this. He’s always there for me when I need him in the race”. It’s true, remember Duclos-Lassalle waiting for Greg in the 1990 Tour de France stage to Pau where he got flat and Chiappucci attacked ? Duclos was in front, but waited to help his leader. “I’m happy I could give him something in return. I was strong. If Duclos-Lassalle was not in front I centainly would have attacked. This feels like a victory to me”.
The next day the newspapers show a huge picture of the winner of Paris-Roubaix on the front page. But inside it’s about Greg. All positive news. He’s in good shape. The Hell of the North became a heaven that day. Not just for Duclos-Lassalle but for the whole team, including Greg LeMond.
Watch the race here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7t5SFiknMM