As part of our June 2016 pilgrimage in the Alps, we will tell you the tale of Greg’s adventures on the most famous mountain of the Tour de France : Alpe d’Huez. This is part 1 of 3.
Part I : 1984-1986
In 1984, Greg LeMond is a rookie. This is his first ever Tour de France and he has never finished a 3 weeks race before. His previous attempt, the 1983 Vuelta, back when the Vuelta took place in April, saw him quit on stage 17, sick. However, his overall qualities and reigning world champion status make him a serious contender. Many journalists even consider him their favorite. Hinault is still recovering from a knee surgery the year before. He has a big question mark on his forehead. Laurent Fignon, Tour de France winner in 1983, is seen as a bit too soft to last.
The first week of the Tour sets the tone : LeMond and Fignon’s Renault team makes a hold up. This is payback for Hinault’s desertion (he left the team in 1983). Marc Madiot wins stage 2, the bee-like jerseys win the team time trial on stage 3, Vincent Barteau takes the yellow jersey with a 17 minutes margin on stage 5… Then Fignon hammers down the first individual time trial (stage 7), before his buddy Pascal Jules steals the show on stage 8.
Where is Greg LeMond ? After a brief interlude with the red jersey (now gone, the red jersey stood for in-race sprints classification), Greg is struggling with bronchitis. On stage 11, stunned by heat and unable to breathe, he tears his jersey apart to ease the pain. Greg is down 4 and a half minutes on Fignon and half as much on Hinault. He’s barely in the top 10 and losing time a little bit every day.
Week 2 sees the Renault team grab stages 12 (Poisson), 13 (Menthéour) and 16 (Fignon, for another ITT). Stage 17 is Alpe d’Huez. This is where Greg LeMond starts making his way back up the classification. He’s wearing the white jersey, the “best young rookie” jersey, but only because his teammate Vincent Barteau cannot wear both the yellow and the white jersey at the same time. Colombian « pocket climber » Luis Herrera throws himself in an heroic and lonely breakaway. Behind him, all hell breaks loose. Hinault, being already 3 minutes down on Fignon, senses he doesn’t stand a chance at breaking him if he attacks in a conventional way. Everyone underestimated the blonde Parisian. When Hinault surprises the riders with an attack in the valley, Fignon smiles… He knows the Badger is bluffing. At the foot of Alpe d’Huez, Fignon calmly passes Hinault as if he weren’t there. Checkmate.
Just seconds behind this duo, Greg LeMond stands in a chasing group. The more they climb, the better he feels. He lets the pure climbers go but as far as general classification goes, he’s the toughest behind Fignon (unreachable that year). On top of the mountain, Laurent Fignon does as he had done in 1983, he takes the yellow jersey at Alpe d’Huez. He’s on his way to won the Tour. Greg crosses the line in 6th place with a sigh of relief. He’s back on track. His white jersey is once again ripped off on the chest. It was hard but Alpe d’Huez has given him his strength back. 8th at GC in the morning, LeMond leaves Huez in the top 5, eventually reaching the 3rd spot of the podium in Paris, thanks to a very strong 3rd week. He’s confident he can do better than this.
When Greg LeMond reaches Alpe d’Huez for a second time, in 1986, he is wearing the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. And boy, was it hard to take it off Bernard Hinault’s shoulders ! It’s the Badger’s last Tour and he’s not giving up without a fight. Greg and Bernard are once again in the same team but things are not going as well as Greg had foreseen. The team is doing great in terms of results but it’s torn apart. There is Greg’s camp. There is Hinault’s camp. There are 2 swiss riders in the middle, trying to remain neutral. At the start of stage 17 of the 1986 Tour de France, Greg LeMond is in the lead. Hinault is 3rd at 2’47’’. In between stands tall climber Urs Zimmermann from Switzerland. He’s doing good but he is very isolated. He stands at 2’24’’. It’s the last mountain stage of the Tour. It won’t be long, now. As he had done in 1984, Hinault attacks when no-one expects him to. He’ll say he did it to get Zimmermann out of the woods. He wants his opponents to chase him. But in 1986, the peloton knows better than to go after the mighty Badger. It all looks too familiar for Greg LeMond. That’s exactly how Hinault took the yellow jersey with a 5 minutes lead earlier in the Tour. Taking Zimmermann by surprise at the feed zone, LeMond catches Hinault. Both leaders can proceed and crush the Swiss. It’s them Vs Urs. In the Col de Croix de Fer, they maintain a average pace. They want Zimmermann to believe he can come back and spend a lot of energy. Once it’s done they use the boosters. They reach the top at a steady pace and throw themselves in a solid descent. At the foot of Alpe d’Huez, Urs Zimmermann is 5 minutes behind the duo. He’s done.
It becomes clear that not only the stage but also the Tour will be decided on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez. Greg LeMond is almost 3’ ahead of Hinault at GC. He’s happy with how things turn out, confident he can keep the Badger under his foot. He’s also concerned the crowd would not be happy to see him drop a french legend. Things ain’t too bad for Hinault, either. He’s had a rough week, losing time a little bit every day since his initial hold up. Leading LeMond up Alpe d’Huez is a nice symbol and gives the impression he’s still on top of things.
The last few hundred meters of the stage are historical. Never in the past had we seen the 2 strongest riders of the Tour arrive hand in hand as a sign of truce. It’s unexpected and could only have happened with true champions. Some will say that gesture lacks sincerity. I strongly disagree. In an ocean of bitterness, this might be the most genuine and affectionate gesture of that whole race. Hinault and LeMond were not meant to coexist. They were different on a lot of levels and core values, but… They both recognized each other’s strength and respected it. The victory at Alpe d’Huez is a celebration of that mutual respect. Everything that comes before or after that is irrelevant.
For the record, after Huez, Zimmermann is set back 7’41’’ from LeMond at GC. He manages to climb Alpe d’Huez roughly at the same pace as the La Vie Claire duo who does a 48 minutes climb. That relatively slow performance proves that no battle occurred on that climb. It had already been done on Croix de Fer. Greg LeMond wins the 1986 Tour de France and fulfils his destiny, confirming he is indeed one of cycling’s finest.
For more details on what happened within the La Vie Claire team in the years 1985-1986, we suggest you read those earlier entries :