“Moments of pure happiness the richest man in the world can’t buy”
An in-depth interview with Greg LeMond team mate extraordinaire Eric Boyer.
Part I – “Greg is being naive if he thinks he is safe from Hinault”
This July is the 25th anniversary of Greg LeMond’s 3rd and last victory in the Tour de France. Quite an achievement in itself, it’s also an unusual victory for Greg. Because, whereas his previous wins were obtained on his own or inside a divided team (US teams at the worlds, ADR, La Vie Claire), the 1990 title is the result of collective work.
We’ve been wanting to meet with Eric Boyer for a long time. His insights and strong opinions are relevant on multiple levels. First, although a bit younger, he is a contemporary of Greg’s. He can testify of the habits and customs of his era. Greg & Eric wore the same jersey between 1990 and 1994. Second, He worked for both Cyrille Guimard and Roger Legeay who coached Greg LeMond at pivotal moments in his career. Third, he is quite the accomplished rider himself, having finished at 5th place in the 1988 Tour de France, 6th in the 1991 Giro d’Italia, winning stages there and taking the pink jersey for a day. Fourth, he is an articulate and passionate individual : he coached the Cofidis team for a few years and he is now consultant for “L’Equipe TV”, the only free sport broadcaster in France. This is in fact where we meet, at the “L’Equipe” headquarters in Boulogne, south west of Paris.
We expected Eric Boyer to be nice and interesting. We did not expect him to be so generous with his time. For half a day he took us on a Tour of the “L’Equipe” building, home of the newspaper & TV network, as well as Vélo Magazine. Eric Boyer talks a lot, as he has a message to deliver. He’s been on each side of the cycling business and he wants to share what he has learned. Expect no tongue in cheek. He’ll say all.
We came to talk about Greg LeMond and the 1990 Tour de France. We ended up being taught a valuable, genuine and undisputable cycling lesson. The discussion went way past this sole subject. It was too good not to be shared.
Eric fell in love with cycling very early on. Born in 1963, his family week-ends were spent watching his father race, having a picnic on the typical circuits in some remote but charming village, south of Paris. His brother and him were hooked on while they were young. When they asked to race themselves, their father instructed them to wait a few more years, so that they could build their bodies in order to endure the roughness of cycling. They also learned patience and strategy in the process. In his first year as a young rider, Eric was allowed to ride 8 races, 16 the second year, and so on. Progress was the keyword.
GLF: How did you become a pro?
EB: At the age of 17, I started to find that most races looked alike. I thought about which of them were the most challenging. The championships came up: county, region, nationals, worlds… You had to qualify for each one, in this order, be among the best each time to qualify for the next. I thought the worlds were inaccessible. I wanted to target those races, be prepared. At the time you had to buy books that were where the knowledge was. No internet. I bought Robert Leroux’s book. He was Hinault’s coach in his early years. That’s where I learned about interval training. We were in 1980 and it taught me to do some research. I wasn’t sure about what I was doing but it worked: I was 6th at the county race, 2nd at the region race and 3rd at the nationals. I was doing my stuff on my own, I was among the first ones to train like this but it worked. It didn’t work at the worlds because the french team staff planned some heavy lifting when I needed a rest. How could they have known? I wasn’t going to try and teach them a lesson.
GLF: They would have thought « Who does he think he is, this one? »
EB: Exactly. After this I insisted on racing the Ruban Granitier Breton. It was one of the toughest amateur races at the time (GLF: it is the same race where Greg LeMond was spotted by one Cyrille Guimard a few years earlier, actually). You could race against the Russians, East Germans, Polish… I wanted to evaluate my level, in order to progress. Everybody thought I was mad but they let me go anyway. I won the 2nd stage! I wore the leader’s jersey! The french team then took me to the Tour du Limousin where I reached 3rd place, the Tour de l’Avenir where I almost won a stage. Instantly, I had Bernard Thévenet (La Redoute), Paul Koechli (La Vie Claire), Cyrille Guimard (Renault), Boishardy (Wolber) trying to have me sign a contract. I was 19, going on 20… It was a no-brainer! Renault was the best team in the world! Guimard was the best coach in town.
GLF: It was a no-brainer all right.
EB: Hinault had just left, LeMond was leaving too (GLF: it was during the 1984/1985 winter) but Fignon had just won the Tour de France twice, there was Madiot and Mottet. They’d won 10 stages during the last Tour! Every rider on the team had won one except rookie Yvon Madiot and Greg LeMond… Funny story: I had applied at Renault. Not the team, but the company! I was looking for a part time job to help out my parents and keep training. But the human resources employee read that I was riding and hoping to make it to the pro level, so she sent it to… Cyrille Guimard! I’m at home with my parents, the phone rings, my mother picks it up and it’s Cyrille Guimard! I apologize and I tell him I don’t think I’m ready yet; I’m just looking for a part-time job. He goes like « This is great, this is absolutely what you should do! ». It was 6 months before the Ruban Granitier Breton. So, when he contacts me again during the Tour du Limousin, he says « Was it you, last winter, looking for a job at Renault? ». Life is full of surprises.
Left: Boyer in 1985. Middle: Eric doing cyclocross. Right: Prologue Tour de France 1986
GLF: What is it like, at Renault?
EB: Well, you had to earn a spot, you know. Riders today say it’s hard, but… In THAT team? For the first training camp I stay in bed with a fever. That’s rough. I hang on the following months and I’m doing reasonably well. Guimard calls me up to help out Marc Madiot at Paris-Roubaix. He knew I’d been 2nd at a cyclocross championship. I say « No problem. ». It’s a hard race but I’m feeling good. I notice that Marc is standing behind the peloton and I offer to take him back up since we’re closing in on the cobblestones: « What are you doing here? », I say. I bring him back and try to catch my breath. At this very moment there is a huge crash! I lift up my head. I see Marc passing by. He and 20 other riders get away like that.
GLF: Mission accomplished.
EB: I do another 50km and I quit. At the hotel, I turn on the TV and Marc wins. (GLF: Renault team mate Bruno) Wojtinek is 2nd. I’m in.
GLF: When you’re in your first year at Renault, what do people say about Greg LeMond?
EB: There is a bit of nostalgia for people like Vincent Barteau. They liked him. Of course, it’s more convenient for Fignon to be the only leader in the team but there’s no animosity. Apparently, everyone was getting along with Greg, they weren’t speaking ill of him. I think Guimard regretted him. He blamed Bernard Tapie (GLF: La Vie Claire team sponsor) for having the salaries blown up. Every rider was better for it. My rookie salary went up although I had not won a race, only because the salaries of the big stars had gone up too. Guimard felt like being ripped off by Tapie. I think Guimard would have offered the same money to Greg if he had had the budget for it.
GLF: There were words too. Apparently, Guimard said something to Greg, like: « If you leave, you’ll never win the Tour! »
EB: That was Guimard’s strategy, to scare the riders. He had just won the Tour with Fignon. He had a big ego because he knew too well he was the best in this sport. He couldn’t imagine someone existing without him. That was his weakness. Greg was only the second, after Hinault, to dare and speak on the same tone as he did. « I’m not scared of you, we’ll see what happens. ». That was upsetting, for him. That was an issue.
GLF: You make your Tour de France debut in 1986. Renault is now Système U. Fignon is in good shape after a rather good Dauphiné. The French press is making headlines about a new Hinault/Fignon duel. The team time trial comes and… You beat the shit out of everyone.
EB: Everyone, including the Panasonic team. That’s my one and only stage win in the Tour de France. To be honest, we were perfect on that day. Relays were efficient; as soon as a rider felt good he was taking a longer relay, without accelerating. Of course we entered the red zone in the last 5 or 6km but it was linear, no timeout. Here’s a little story: we had gone warming up further up a hill and we got lost, somehow. Clock was ticking and we had to come back. We ended up on the highway with a long and fast descent on our way back to the starting line. Guimard and Quilfen had the team cars, one at the front and one behind us. People were taking pictures of us from their cars, as they were passing us. Because we were so late, we ended up going 100km/h!
Left: Eric Boyer leading the Système U team during the team time trial in the 1986 Tour de France. Right: Eric just after the team time trial.
GLF: With the Deltas?
EB: With the Deltas! The bikes were shaking… We arrived 10 minutes before the start, just grabbed a towel and off we went! We were very warm! We started very fast and managed to keep the rhythm until the end. This might be why we won. And not by a second, we won with a 2 minutes margin. We were so proud, showing off a bit. Thierry Marie already had the yellow jersey since he had won the prologue. I took the white jersey, the rookie jersey.
GLF: At that moment, do you think the team can win the Tour with Fignon? It’s looking good for him until the first ITT when he get crushed.
EB: I wasn’t supposed to ride the Tour. At the time there were 10 riders in each team and we had so many injured people in ours that we had to hire 2 extras just in time for the Tour: Biondi and Gavillet. We did a training camp in the Col de Mente but these 2 didn’t. They didn’t last for long. I had done the Vuelta in April. I had finished it completely exhausted. Guimard told me: « I’ve had to hire new guys for the Tour. Just come with us and do what you can. ». I was in my 2nd year as a pro, it was my first Tour, and he could as well have shot me dead. Anyway… I finished it, but at what price! I thought my career was over. Parenthesis closed… Yeah, we thought we had a good shot with Fignon. But then he had a bad day at the ITT. Not doing any good. He quit after the first mountain stage in Pau.
GLF: In retrospect, do you think Hinault actually let LeMond win that year?
EB: No, absolutely not. I remember Bernard blowing up the race in Pau. Delgado wins the stage; Hinault takes the yellow jersey with a 5-6 minutes lead. He has won the Tour. He just has to follow, there’s still an ITT in St Etienne. At Pau, in the evening, everybody thinks the race is over, Hinault’s gonna win the Tour. The following day, the whole peloton is on its way to the start of the race, we’re riding. Hinault stands 10m before the rest of us and says: « When the race starts, I attack ». We laugh. And when the race starts, he attacks! A bunch of guys go with him. In the Tourmalet, there’s only one left (GLF: ex team mate) Dominique Arnaud. He says to Hinault: « Be careful, you have a 5 minutes lead, maybe you don’t need to do this? ». Hinault replies « Don’t worry; I’m a strong guy… », and all that. Typical Bernard. We pass Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde… Comes Superbagnères and Bernard is stuck. Zimmermann does all the work to catch him. We don’t have earpieces. Greg & Zimmermann catch Hinault, they pass him. There’s no way Greg is gonna wait on Bernard after that. He then rides for himself.
GLF: And he wins at Superbagnères.
EB: The way I see it, Bernard wins the Tour in Pau and loses it the following day. I’ve never seen Greg riding against Bernard. Never. Between the Pyrénées and the Alps there’s not much going on, but then there is the Granon stage. I feel very good on that day! I’m in the col d’Izoard in a 15 people strong group, including Greg LeMond and Zimmermann. Zimmermann pushes hard. Hinault is 2 or 3 minutes behind. The swiss wants to isolate Greg. Greg stays on his wheel. He never helps Zimmermann. I am dropped at the foot of the Granon and I am caught by Hinault. I stay with him for 1km. You can look at the footage: you can never see Greg riding against Hinault. Never. The day after that is l’Alpe d’Huez where Greg and Bernard end up arm in arm. Bernard sets the pace and Greg stays beside him. Greg always said to me he could have attacked but Hinault told him: « Stay behind, I set the pace and we win together. ». Knowing Greg, he’s an honest man and he admires Hinault. He just says Ok. You get the feeling Hinault is dragging Greg, but it is in fact Greg staying put, because he was told they’d stay together. Greg is smart. He’s thinking « Why attack? Zimmermann is out, I won, might as well stay with Hinault. ». He offers the stage win to Hinault, which is fair. Tour de France is over. But then, in front of the cameras, 5 times Tour winner Hinault won’t admit this is over. He says « You know, I stayed with Greg… ». Everyone suggests he could have dropped him. He doesn’t deny. He doesn’t say he could have, but he doesn’t deny. He implies he was the strongest. We’re dealing with strong egos, there. Hinault suggests he « offered » the Tour to Greg, well (he laughs)… I always thought Hinault lost the Tour at Superbagnères.
Left: Eric Boyer riding just in front of Greg.
GLF: That’s also what Jean-François Bernard thinks. He thinks Hinault wanted to go on a last big bang, being his last Tour and all…
EB: Maybe he was influenced by Bernard Tapie too. But if Cyrille Guimard had been his coach on that day, in Pau, he would never have done that. He would have won his 6th Tour.
GLF: Except… If Guimard had been LeMond’s coach, he would never have let Hinault go in the first place.
EB: That too, yeah.
GLF: When Hinault attacks, Greg doesn’t know about it. They didn’t communicate about it. Maybe this is where the scam lies.
EB: At this point, this is where the race starts. I don’t see anything wrong. The first to draw wins.
GLF: That’s true.
EB: Greg is trapped by his own naivety. Bernard is experienced. Greg is being naive if he thinks he is safe from Hinault. You can’t blame Bernard. He makes sure he’s taking the lead. It’s not a scam. It’s a good trap.
GLF: I talked with Hinault in 2008. It was just when it was announced Armstrong would come back to ride the Tour in the Astana team, with Contador. When I asked him about that, his reply was instant. He said: « It’s simple; you have to be the first of the team to take the yellow jersey. After this, anyone from the team attacking you is a traitor. ». Then I asked him if that was what he did with LeMond, he said: « Nooooooooo…. » (laughs)
EB: Although that’s precisely what he did. Greg learned a hard lesson in Pau. It’s fair game. I can see why Greg would think it’s not fair but I think it is.
To be continued in Part II.