By Nicolas Lelièvre and Thierry Mertens
The Tour de France is the biggest cycling event in the world. That’s for sure. No other race can be compared with the 3 week circus that is being held in the most beautiful regions in and right by the borders of France. The sun-like yellow jersey is an icon for every cycling fan. The History of the Tour, filled with twisted events, myths, heroic figures and treacherous villains. This is legendary.
Believe it or not, it actually took quite a while before the Tour de France became really popular in some European countries, even those who have a big cycling tradition. Belgium, Holland and of course France were the biggest TDF audience for television in the 70’s and 80’s, but Italy and Spain weren’t that much into it. Somehow Italian and Spanish newspapers weren’t paying that much attention to “La Grande Boucle”. I remember the 1989 Tour de France. The most exciting ever. La Gazetta dello Sport, Italy’s number 1 sports newspaper, wasn’t making a big coverage. One, sometimes two pages a day. Even the final time trial in Paris was only granted a small portion of the front page, nothing more. Why? Well, first there were more popular sports in those countries like football (soccer) and basketball. But also… both Spain and Italy already had their own “Grand Tour”. In Spain twas the Vuelta, in Italy was the Giro. Reading La Gazetta dello Sport during the Giro could make you feel like there was no other sport than cycling in Italy. A very different feel than july. La Gazetta was also the main sponsor of the Giro back in the 80’s and 90’s. The pink used for the leader’s jersey was the same as the Gazetta’s pages. Just like the French yellow had been picked after the color of “L’Auto”, ancestor of “L’Equipe”, historical founding organization of the Tour de France.
The Giro is popular in Italy, and it is big in the peloton too. Riders like Hinault, Bugno, Saronni, Merkcx, Moser, Indurain… won the Giro several times. It’s a hard and beautiful race with even steeper and more spectacular mountains than at the Tour de France. What decent cycling nut has not heard about the Stelvio, Gavia, Mortirolo or Tre Cime de Lavaredo?
Greg LeMond rode the Giro several times. He just loved racing in Italy. He felt a strong affinity for the tiny roads, postcard landscapes, the passion of fans. There were other races too, like Milan San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia, Tirreno Adriatico or the Sicilian cycling week.
Greg first went to the Giro in 1985. He was riding for the French La Vie Claire team at the time, supporting team leader Bernard Hinault. At the time it was not unreasonable to attempt winning both the Tour and the Giro in the same season. That was Hinault’s goal, as he had done it in 1982 already.
His biggest obstacle was the title defendant : Italian champion Francesco Moser who had won the race in 1984. The Italians wanted their hero to win at any cost and in 84 Italian chief organizer, Mr Torriani, had made sure he would… cancelling a mountain stage for no good reason, sending the Rai TV choppers in front of his French opponent Laurent Fignon… Moser was an awesome time trialist (he was holding the hour record at the time) but not the best of climbers and, well… Not the best sport, either. Consequently, the 3 weeks trip in Lo Stivale(the Boot) the nickname for the Italian peninsula, was flatter than ever and offered 3 time trials. Race was in fact tailor-made for Lo sceriffo, the Sherrif as Moser was called.
The dynamic La Vie Claire duo had a tough first week. Moser went fast in the prologue and became the pink leader for the first weekend. And when Moser lost his jersey it was only for yet another Italian to take. Giuseppe Sarronni took the lead after winning the team time trial with his Del Tongo squad. But soon the pink story of Saronni was over, right after the first mountain stage to Val Gardena. A young Italian playboy, Roberto Visentini, made for a new pinky favorite. The La Vie Claire camp wasn’t impressed as Hinault and LeMond were taking back time on Moser with each climb. The badger set things clear in the first time trial by beating Moser by almost a minute. He was no Fignon, he was quite the time trialist himself. Greg was right behind Moser. As a result, Hinault was now in pink, Moser 2nd place and Greg 3rdin the general classification. A Moser sandwich.
The cards were on the table, the rules of the La Vie Claire team were simple. Hinault to control Moser and LeMond to control the rest. And so it happened. Both riders took command of the whole race and Hinault’s lead was never threatened. The French-American coalition had done it together for the first time.
The next year Greg came back to Italy. He was a stronger rider and ready to win the race for himself, as Hinault wasn’t there. But competition was fierce. The Italian champions, Moser and Visentini, had ticked the Giro as the most important race of the season in their agenda. Greg was the leader of the team for the first time, with a lot of pressure on his shoulders. A good test on his way to win the Tour de France.
The Corsa Rosa ended up as being a big Italian pasta party. From stage 3 and on, only Italian riders were to dress in pink. Baronchelli, Saronni and eventual winner of this Giro, Visentini took over after one another. The podium ended up being 100% made in Italy. The first non-Italian rider was Greg LeMond, finishing 4th in the G.C. Greg, who was obviously not strong enough to beat the Italians on their turf, had a relatively good Giro with a stage win on day 5 in Cosenza. He also had some bad luck being involved in a massive crash where he got an nose injury and a time loss he would never be able to recover from. No “maglia rosa” for the American, but the “maillot jaune”, the most important of all prizes, was not too far ahead.
After his hunting accident in 1987, Greg returned to the Giro in 1988 with the Dutch PDM team. No real ambition this time. Greg was still on the way back, hoping to be the rider he had been 2 years before. But in the 5th stage half of his team crashed (!) in a major incident and LeMond, already suffering from a crash at the E3 Harelbeke, had to drop the race.
1989 was one of the most dramatic Giri in LeMond’s career. Riding for the Belgian ADR team, Greg was almost invisible during the race. He lost a lot of time early on in the 2nd stage to Mount Etna. Greg was getting worse every day. The worst of the worst came in stage 13 at Tre Cime de Laveredo. It was snowing and the uphill finish was terrible. Herrera crossed the line beating pink jersey Fignon by a minute. When Greg LeMond arrived, the podium ceremony was already over. People were heading home and no one was interested in the race anymore. A pale and tired LeMond crossed the line gazing desperately at… nothing. He had the face of death. That night he decided it was his last race as a pro rider. Then he called his wife, Kathy, to warn her. She just said “It’s ok if you quit. But don’t quit before giving it all.”. As a result, it put a lot less pressure on Greg who started to improve. He gained in confidence. At the same time, Greg’s blood was tested and showed an alarming iron deficiency, which could explain in part his lack of results. It was decided to treat the trouble with a simple iron supplement. A new goal was set : give it all in the last time trial. Eventually, Lech Piasecki was the only one beating Greg in that final time trial and pretty soon champagne was poured in the airplane. “I’m back ! I’m back !” echoed at 30 000 feet between Italy and Belgium.
The Giro would never become a total success for Greg. After his second Tour de France win, he would end up handling spring as a training course. Not much more, except maybe for Paris-Roubaix in 1992. In 1990 Greg started the Giro as the perfect race to lose some weight and get back in the game. The world champion “trained” almost 3 hours more than winner Gianni Bugno raced. In 1991, despite a super bonus promised by Gelati Sanson, the occasional Z team sponsor in Italian races, for winning the Giro, Greg didn’t do any better and left the race before the end. “Ten years ago, the Giro was a quiet race, with off days. I remember finishing 3rd and 4th in 1985/86 without really trying. At that time I could race it after 4 weeks of training in the US after leaving Europe after Liège. It was a race of February level. For the last 2-3 years it’s become like the Tour. To make a top 20 you have to peak for it.”. When Greg quit the Giro in 1993 it would be for good.
The pink jersey was maybe never a real ambition, but I really wanted to see LeMond someday riding in that nice pink jersey. It would have looked really good on him. Pretty in pink, don’t you think?
(Edited by Thierry in Photoshop)