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 II : 1989
The 1989 Tour de France is the story of two come-backs. After winning the Tour twice, in 1983 and 1984, Laurent Fignon underwent surgery on his ankle. He was never the same after that. For 4 years he’s been able to win on and off but unable to sustain a constant form. 1989 sees him win both Milan-San Remo and the Giro. Fignon is back. Big time.
Greg LeMond is coming back from injury too. He was accidentally shot in the back by his brother in law in a turkey hunt in april 1987. His chest remains riddled with lead pellets. 30 of them. Since then, he’s been struggling to be his former self again, to no avail. So far.
Greg is once again wearing the yellow jersey when the peloton presents itself at the start of stage 17. Competition is fierce. Both he and Fignon are in opposition of styles. Greg is the time trialist. His team is non-existing. He took the jersey after both the Rennes and the Orcières-Merlette time trials. In between stood the Pyrénées. That’s where Laurent Fignon figured he could attack and grab the yellow jersey back. And he did, at Superbagnères. Only for LeMond to take it back again on the climbing ITT at Orcières-Merlette. At this point,, LeMond and Fignon are 53 seconds apart. That’s the maximum they’ve been since the start of the race. There’s only 3 more mountain stages, in the Alps, and then a final ITT in Paris. For both riders, things have to happen sooner rather than later. Alpe d’Huez should be where the decisive move takes place.
Laurent Fignon is determined. He wants to fight. Greg LeMond is cautious. He’s still unsure about his ability to sustain a 3 weeks effort. He has not been able to do so since his winning 1986 Tour. “If I can manage to follow Fignon until the foot of Alpe d’Huez, I should be fine. I can afford to lose 1 minute at the top. I’m confident I can take some time in the last ITT.”.
The foot of Alpe d’Huez is precisely where Laurent Fignon decides to get rid of Greg LeMond. He’s had enough of him. He considers him a wheelsucker. He wants to show him who truly deserves the yellow jersey. “I attacked as if the finish line was just up the corner” he would say later on. The effects are devastating. Instantly, the two dozen riders that were in the group are all over the place. Legs are burning. But as soon as Fignon thinks he’s put a major hit in Greg LeMond’s face, the American counter attacks. This is brutal. Soon, both riders stand exhausted in the middle of the road, each of them trying to catch his breath. This is not gonna work. None of them seems to be on a higher ground.
So they wait. Most of the climb is done in a small group : LeMond, Fignon, Delgado and his aide Rondon. The pace is steady. Nobody dares to attack, fearing a counter-attack. In fact, the struggle is taking place just a few meters behind. The team cars are right behind the group. Inside are Greg’s coach, José de Cauwer and Laurent’s coach, Cyrille Guimard. Guimard knows LeMond really well since he coached team in his first few years as a pro. And he can tell Greg is not well. There’s something in his body language… Signs. It sets an alarm in Guimard’s brain. He has to tell Laurent. But in order to do so, he must get in front of De Cauwer’s car. Team cars are placed in the order of the rider’s GC position. Greg is #1, Fignon #2. It’s not easy to pass a car on Alpe d’Huez. The crowd is everywhere. The path is narrow. De Cauwer is not helping. The belgian has seen Greg is about to turn the lights off. They spend a few minutes like this, bumper to bumper. Guimard finally reaches Fignon. There are 6km left. “You have to attack, he’s cooked !” yells Cyrille. “I’m cooked as well !” is Fignon’s desperate answer.
The “5km” sign passes… Soon they will be 4km from the top. It’s better to attack when the grades are high if you want to make a difference, and there is a flat in the last kilometer. Soon it will be too late. Greg LeMond is on the verge of collapsing. He’s more than happy to be standing in this group at this point. He’s trying to hide his loss of power. Barely. “It’s now or never !” shouts Guimard one last time.
Fignon attacks under the “4km” banner. He still has some juice left. Delgado is having a hard time keeping up. Greg is… Glued to the tarmac. For a few seconds he can barely stand on the bike. This is not a pretty sight.
When he realizes he has left LeMond behind, Fignon feels his strengths coming back him, as if he had begged some bike god to answer his prayers. He seems to be flying. In pain, but flying nonetheless.
Left for dead, Greg LeMond gathers his very last coins to buy a few powerups. It’s not game over yet. He knows he can make it to the top and limit his losses if he holds together. Greg can barely hold his chin up and watch in front of him. Every movement seems to be putting him in an enormous pain. It’s there, when he’s so close to be put out of the race for GC that he has to have faith. Keep pushing, no matter what.
When he finally reaches the finish line, Greg LeMond is 1’19” down of Fignon. This is the biggest gap of the whole race between the two. The last few hundred meters were agony. Greg kept lifting his butt off the saddle, only to sit back down… And up again. Never giving up.
Alpe d’Huez 1989 is Laurent Fignon at his finest. His attack not only leaves LeMond behind, but he nearly drops Pedro Delgado as well. That day is the 3rd time Fignon takes the yellow jersey at Alpe d’Huez. He remembers that and sees it as a sign. He won the Tour twice this way. It could be his 3rd. Laurent Fignon is now 26” ahead of Greg LeMond at GC. He feels confident it should be enough for a 24km ITT but he wants to try and make the best out of the last few stages.
In the following stage at Villard de Lans, Fignon will indeed take 24” more and win the stage. Both he and Greg will sprint for the win at Aix les Bains the day after that, the American claiming the stage. Of course, by now you probably know about how Greg won that Tour for 8 seconds. What I find most noticeable about that small gap is that it proves a 3 weeks race is won a little bit everyday. Had he snapped a tad more on Alpe d’Huez, Greg LeMond would not have won the Tour. The day he lost 1’19” is in fact the day he did not lose more… And contributed the most to his big win. You know that saying about losing a battle, but not the war ? Right.