The backstory to the '86 Tour is very familiar, but let me give a quick synopsis. In 1985, Hinault was the undisputed leader of the powerful La Vie Claire team, and offered Greg LeMond a $1 million contract to join the team and help Hinault win his 5th Tour de France. The plan, with LeMond as top domestique, came unravelled when Hinault crashed in stage 14, breaking his nose. In the next big mountain stage, on the Col du Tourmalet, Hinault was suffering and in danger of being dropped by the peloton, while LeMond was well ahead with a breakaway group. LeMond was gaining time on his leader, while Hinault was faced with the possibility of losing the Tour. At that point, a team car pulled up next to LeMond, with orders from team director Paul Koechli to slow down and wait for Hinault. LeMond was reportedly told that Hinault was less than a minute behind, but in reality he was more than 4 minutes back. By the end of the stage, Hinault was still the race leader, but it was clear that LeMond had sacrificed his own chance at victory for his leader. Hinault, recognizing the sacrifice, promised to help LeMond win his first Tour in '86. Whether Hinault actually made the promise is hardly disputable. But would he, or could he, keep it?
With or without the backstory, the 1986 Tour promised to be a special one as the race would be the first to include the participation of an American team, the 7-Eleven squad. It would also mark the return of 2-time winner Laurent Fignon, who had missed the '85 race due to Achilles tendon surgery. Another change included two new additions to the La Vie Claire team -- American climber Andy Hampsten, and Canadian sprinter Steve Bauer. The addition of so many English-speaking riders in the Tour would prove to be a turning point in the race's history. The '86 Tour would also be a very difficult one, with more climbs than previous years, including four major summit finishes, four time trials (3 individual, 1 team), and only one rest day.
|Stieda won yellow, white,|
sprinters, mountains and
all in one day.
The third stage would mark a redemption for 7-Eleven, as Davis Phinney would win after being involved in a breakaway for most of the day on the roads of Northern France. He would be the first on that team to win a TdF stage.
With several days of mostly flat stages, time gaps between the General Classification favorites stayed close until the individual time trial of stage 9. Bernard Hinault won the TT, and LeMond finished second, 44 seconds back. However, LeMond's performance was better than his time would indicate, as he had flatted on the course and some estimated that he lost nearly a minute as a result. Fignon was struggling with his post-surgery form and lost more than 3 minutes to Hinault.
With his win in the TT, Hinault must have decided that he didn't need to hold to his promise to help LeMond. If he could prove himself to be the strongest on the team, who would blame him for racing to win? So over the next stages, it was like internal warfare on the La Vie Claire team. In stage 12, with four major climbs in the Pyrenees, Hinault took French teammate Jean-Francois Bernard with him on a breakaway attack, leaving LeMond stuck in the peloton. By the end of that stage, Hinault was in 1st place, with more than 5 minutes on 2nd place LeMond. The day's temperature and the pace were both so hot that many riders (including two from 7-Eleven) abandoned before the end. Even Laurent Fignon abandoned the race the next morning.
In stage 13, with another 4 major climbs including the Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde, and a mountaintop finish at Superbagnères, Hinault again went on the offensive, attacking on the first major descent, leaving LeMond in the difficult position of not being able to attack his own teammate. Though the group managed to catch Hinault, the offensive wasn't over, as he attacked again and again. Gradually, the five-time champion showed signs of weakening, though the good news for LeMond was that most of the rest of the field was also weakening. On the final climb of the day LeMond, with the help of the young climber Hampsten, was able to take off and win the stage, also gaining back much of the time he'd previously lost to Hinault. The French champion was still in 1st, but now only 40 sec. ahead of LeMond.
The next few stages continued with little change in the overall standings until stage 17 in the Alps. On the descent of the 2nd climb of the day, the Hors Category Col d'Izoard, Swiss rider Urs Zimmerman got a gap on the other favorites -- except for LeMond who managed to latch onto his wheel. Zimmerman pushed hard up the final climb up the Col de Granon, while LeMond hung on for the ride. Together, they gained time on nearly everyone, including Hinault who continued to attack but could not reduce the deficit on the road. The stage was won by Spanish climber Eduardo Chozas, who had gone off in a breakaway earlier and managed to stay away even from LeMond and Zimmerman -- but Chozas was not a contender for the overall lead, and LeMond had moved himself into the Yellow Jersey. Zimmerman had moved into 2nd, with Hinault now in 3rd.
|LeMond and Hinault destroying the field|
on Alpe d'Huez. Nobody else stood a chance.
The 18th stage was another monster in the mountains with four big climbs: the Galibier, the Télégraphe, the Croix de Fer, and the summit finish on Alpe d'Huez. Hinault went on the offensive, attacking again and again, but always being caught. Just as in the Pyrenees, those attacks weakened everyone except LeMond.
|It's one of those unforgettable moments from the Tour.|
|Hinault: "The Tour is not finished."|
If LeMond was thinking that conceding the prestigious stage win meant that Hinault was going to honor his promise from '85, he was mistaken. In an interview following the stage, Hinault told reporters "The Tour is not finished yet . . . it's a sporting war . . . we'll let the time trial decide." The look of disbelief on LeMond's face could not be concealed. In any case, at this point in the Tour, LeMond was in Yellow, with Hinault in second, 2 min. 45 sec. back, and Zimmerman in third, well over 7 minutes back and essentially out of contention. As another bit of good news for the Americans, Andy Hampsten was fourth, but over 16 minutes behind LeMond.
The stage 20 time trial at St. Étienne was another contest between the two La Vie Claire teammates. Hinault rode a perfect race and won the stage. LeMond had another bout of horrible luck, with a crash that required a bike change and finished second, 25 seconds down from Hinault.
Stage 21 was another mountain stage with a summit finish on Puy de Dome. On the final climb, Zimmerman managed to gain back a small amount of time against Hinault, but LeMond extended his lead over both men and had an overall margin of more than 3 minutes. There were just two more stages to go.
When all the dust had settled, it was official. Greg LeMond had won the Tour de France. He was not only the first American to win it, but the first rider from any English-speaking country. The final standings were LeMond at 110 hours, 35 minutes, 19 seconds; Hinault @ 3 min. 10 sec; Zimmerman @ 10 min. 54 sec; and Hampsten @ 18 min. 44 sec.
La Vie Claire had three of the top four spots, and not surprisingly won the teams competition. In addition, Hinault won the Polka Dot Jersey for King of the Mountains, and Andy Hampsten took the White Jersey for the Best Young Rider competition. Rarely had any one team so overwhelmingly dominated the race.
For their first Tour, the 7-Eleven team had a brief stint with the Yellow Jersey and a notable stage win to feel good about. On the other hand, half of the team's roster ended up abandoning due to injuries, illnesses, or flat-out exhaustion. Bob Roll, who would become a commentator for American television coverage of the Tour, was the team's highest placed finisher in 63rd place - despite a punishing stomach flu. Other finishers for the team included future stage winner Jeff Pierce (80), Ron Kiefel (96), Raul Alcala (114), and Alex Stieda (120). Still, the Americans had arrived.
The 1986 Tour de France proved to be an incredibly tough race, with only 131 riders finishing out of the 210 who started. It's still a race that generates a lot of discussion and even some arguments after all these years. For instance - the "promise." To this day, Bernard Hinault insists that he always intended to honor his promise, even as he continually attacked LeMond. In fact, he has at times made the claim that by attacking continually, he was actually helping. In an interview in the documentary Slaying the Badger, he says "He won. So I kept my word. If I had not wanted to keep my promise, it would have been easy for me to race for victory." I think he may even believe that.
I, for one, believe Hinault was racing to win, despite whatever he may have said then or now. Still, I wouldn't vilify him for doing so. Hinault was an era-defining racer - the best of a generation. He was an amazing competitor, and when he felt he had a chance to become the only person to get 6 Tour de France victories, how could he ride for anyone else? I think he went into the race - particularly the individual time trials - thinking that if he could prove himself the stronger rider, then there was no reason for him to ride for LeMond, regardless of what he might have said a year earlier.
Not only that, but what kind of victory would it have been for LeMond if Hinault wasn't giving his all to win? Or if he appeared to truly be helping his younger teammate? Considering how many people weren't ready to embrace an American Tour winner, imagine how people would dismiss a LeMond victory as nothing more than a gift from a great champion to an undeserving outsider. Greg LeMond clearly didn't get the help he was hoping for, or that he felt was promised to him, and I don't know if he is bitter about it, or if he truly feels betrayed, but when all is said and done, he proved he really was the best and deserved victory by his effort, not as a gift. It makes the win all that much better.
1986 was an unforgettable Tour de France - and to think it all happened 30 years ago.