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The Road to Alpe d’Huez – Part III

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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 3 of 3.

Part III : 1990-1991

For Greg LeMond, the 1990 Alpe d’Huez is all about team work. He is riding for Z. The yellow jersey is in the team and yet, Greg is wearing his rainbow world champion jersey. How could this be ? Fast rewind to the first stage of this Tour. A 4 riders break is allowed a 10’ margin. None of the leading teams has cared to pursue the fugitives. Nor the Castorama team who had won the yellow jersey the day before with Thierry Marie, nor the Z team of former winner Greg LeMond. How so ? For Greg, the answer is simple. Out of the 4 riders in the break, Greg has one teammate in Ronan Pensec and one of his best friends in Steve Bauer. This chase is definitely not his to engage. What’s really strange is the indifference of the other teams. Breukink’s PDM and Delgado’s Banesto fail to cooperate. The sprinters teams also let things go. They’ll say they didn’t want to ride ahead of a team time trial on the same day, in the afternoon. They do not realize how this move will shape the race for the 1990 Tour de France. A similar story had occured in 1984, but at the time, none of the escapees had any kind of Grand Tour general classification pedigree. Frans Maasen, winner that day, is no threat to anyone on GC. Not a climber by any means, he’ll vanish with the first mountain. It can’t be said of Ronan Pensec who was 6th in the 1986 Tour de France or Steve Bauer, 4th in the 1988 Tour. Letting them begin the race with a 10’ free powerup is dangerous. No one is really paying attention to the 4th guy, Claudio Chiappucci. He’s a decent climber but that’s it.
Steve Bauer wears the yellow jersey for a whole week, then Pensec takes it in the Alps, where Bauer starts to fade. Alpe d’Huez comes up on the 11th stage, on the 2nd day in the Alps. Greg LeMond is 8th at GC, Breukink is 10th, Delgado is even further. Alpe d’Huez is in fact the first true test for GC contenders.Greg LeMond crashes early in the stage but he doesn’t seem to be too badly hurt. He’s not letting anyone know, but in fact he dislocated one of his fingers. He’s putting it back in but still… That hurts.

The Z team is controlling the race. They’re at the front of the peloton. In the last few slopes of col du Glandon, Indurain and Delgado attack. Bugno catches them and Greg LeMond covers the break for the Z team. It’s a good scenario for Greg. He’s in the leading group but since his yellow jersey teammate is behind, he doesn’t have to contribute at the front. Indurain is in time trial mode and doing a lot of work for Delgado. They catch early attackers Eduardo Chozas and Thierry Claveyrolat in the valley. Further back in the peloton, the Z team can rest easy, as it’s not their job to chase LeMond. They let the PDM ride. It is indeed a good scenario.
As soon as the first ramps of Alpe d’Huez show up, Delgado takes the lead. But it appears he’s not as strong as he thought he was. LeMond and Bugno have no trouble following him. A little further down the road, Robert Millar is helping Ronan Pensec. Not only is Delgado not dropping anyone anymore but he has to slow down. Claveyrolat comes back from behind. Bugno attacks but Greg LeMond makes it clear he will not allow anyone to drop him. 5km from the top, the leading group is only 45” ahead of Pensec and losing pace. So much so that Erik Breukink is able to catch up with the leaders.

There is a point when it seems that it will be a 3 men sprint : Breukink, Bugno and LeMond, but Claveyrolat and Delgado make their way back on the flat portion of the last kilometer. Greg wants this stage badly. He has good legs. He had the means to attack but didn’t want to jeopardize Pensec’s journey in the yellow jersey. All he has to do is make a good sprint. Greg knows the place quite well. He also knows he has a good jump and wants to be the first outside the last curve. Greg is in 2nd place and turns his head left and right, checking behind him. Bugno tries to surprise Greg in the interior. Greg makes his move but that’s when his finger reminds him it’s not quite as good as it should be. Greg misses the brakes and his rear wheel slips. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but this little grip loss cuts Greg’s speed a lot and all of a sudden, he’s not in the right gear for this sprint. Gianni Bugno’s specialty being those kinds of hilly sprints, he seizes the opportunity and passes Greg just inches away from the line and wins.
After the stage, GC shows Ronan Pensec still in yellow but Greg LeMond is now 3rd, less than 8 minutes behind Chiappucci now in 2nd place. Breukink, Bugno and Delgado stay behind Greg. After this stage, the Z team will keep on displaying its tactics against Chiappucci, recovering more than 5 minutes two days later at St Etienne, then the rest (bar 5”) at Luz Ardiden. The final ITT will be the last nail on Chiappucci’s coffin and Greg will win his 3rd Tour de France. Greg’s climbing time for Alpe d’Huez in 1990 : 45’45”.

Greg LeMond is anxious when he enters the first few slopes of Alpe d’Huez in 1991. After a strong debut in the Tour which saw him wear the yellow jersey for 5 days, he receded abruptly on the Tourmalet on stage 13. The Val Louron climb that ended the stage looked like a calvary. For the first time since his first win in 1986, it seems Greg LeMond might not be able to win. But he’s not giving up without a fight. He attacks the day before Huez, en route to Gap and grabs a few seconds. Greg fails to win the stage but he has an important message to send “I’m not dead yet”.

Stage 17 starts with two category 2 climbs. It’s a fairly easy start that suggests Alpe d’Huez will be violent. An usually big peloton begins the climb and Greg is dropped quickly on the brutal first few grades. He fights bravely as his excellent time of 42’23” (his best yet) suggests but he is no match for the 1991 Tour de France leaders.  As he crosses the line 2 minutes after Gianni Bugno, Greg LeMond probably wonders what he did wrong within the last 12 months… In fact, he’ll think about it all night and the following day he’ll have a major failure. He’ll shed a few tears, realizing he’s unable to keep up and ride by his own standards. It is only the start of a long way down.

Alpe d’Huez is, maybe more than any other place, a symbol of Greg LeMond’s highs and lows. Let’s hope we will meet the former rather than the latter when we get there.


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