Anyhow, rather than get too engrossed in this year's big bicycle race in France, let's do the Retro-groucy thing and go back 30 years to re-live a great one from the past.
1987 was a year without any clear favorite. It should have been Greg LeMond's year to defend his '86 Tour title, but that was not to be. His near-fatal hunting accident earlier that year kept him sidelined. The great Bernard Hinault had retired at the end of the previous season, so that generation-defining racer was gone. One could say it was "anybody's Tour." Two-time champion Laurent Fignon was a likely contender -- he was showing improvement after knee surgery, but was still not quite at the same level he'd been a few years earlier. Among the other likely possibilities were Stephen Roche, who had won that year's Giro d'Italia, the Spanish climber Pedro Delgado of the powerful PDM team, and Hinault's heir-apparent Jean François Bernard. Andy Hampsten, who had finished 4th in '86, was something of a wildcard, having won that year's Tour of Switzerland. Hampsten was riding with the 7-Eleven team for '87 - back for their second TdF. And Luis Herrera, the strong climber from Colombia, could not be discounted either.
The '87 Tour was exceptionally tough - a climber's tour for certain - and extra long at 26 stages. The race started that year in West Berlin (Remember that? Re-unification was still a couple of years away) with a short 6.1km Prologue time trial. All the serious contenders finished it within about 13 seconds of one another. As often happens, the first week's stages found the main GC contenders holding back and staying safe while sprinters led the standings. The Yellow Jersey changed hands a couple of times among riders who in all likelihood would not be wearing it after the race reached the mountains.
The first real standings-shaking stage was a difficult 87.5km time trial in Stage 10. Stephen Roche won the stage but Laurent Fignon's Systeme U teammate Charly Mottet came in second and took the Yellow Jersey. Roche had moved up to 6th overall, up from 26th.
|Davis Phinney takes a stage win in Bordeaux.|
Stage 13 was the first mountain test in the Pyrenees with four big climbs, and Jean François Bernard rode strong - finishing a close 2nd in the stage behind Panasonic's Erik Breukink, and moving up to 2nd overall. Roche was up to 3rd place, and Charly Mottet managed to hold on to Yellow. On Stage 14, a difficult race from Pau to Luz-Ardiden, 7-Eleven's Dag-Otto Lauritzen brought the American team their second stage win, and all the real contenders were starting to move to the fore. Bernard was in 2nd, Roche 3rd, Delgado 4th, Herrera 9th, and Hampsten 10th in the GC. A fun surprise was the young climber from Mexico, Raul Alcala with 7-Eleven, who had moved up to 8th place overall.
|Jean François Bernard, briefly in Yellow.|
Bernard's time in Yellow would be short-lived, as Stage 19 was another big test in the mountains. Attacks by Delgado and Roche kept Bernard on the defensive - along with some bad luck. Bernard suffered a flat at the top of the first big climb, and by the time he was able to get it changed, the other leaders were out of sight. Later, an attack by Mottet and the Systeme U team in the feed zone kept Bernard bottled up behind the slow-down of riders grabbing their lunches. Delgado and Roche were able to join in with the attackers and take more time out of Bernard - and the pair later managed to drop Mottet as well. Delgado won the stage and moved up to 3rd overall, while Roche pulled on the Yellow Jersey. Mottet was in 2nd in the GC, and Bernard dropped to 4th.
|Pedro Delgado takes a turn in Yellow.|
|Stephen Roche turned himself inside out on La Plagne.|
After Roche's heroic effort, Delgado still wore Yellow, but Roche was well within closing distance. The last Alpine stage saw Roche come back from his hospital visit as strong as if his collapse on the top of La Plagne never happened. He finished second in the stage and took more time out of his gap to Delgado.
At that point, it all came down to a 38km time trial on the penultimate day of the Tour. Roche trailed Delgado by 21 seconds, while Bernard was in 3rd overall, more than four minutes back. Bernard won the time trial in Dijon by 1:44 over 2nd place Roche (which makes a person wonder what the race might have looked like had Bernard not had such lousy luck back in Stage 19) - but just as Roche had predicted, he was able to beat 3rd place Delgado by a minute, putting him back into the Yellow Jersey with 40 seconds over the Spaniard.
The final stage into Paris was not a showdown for the Yellow Jersey (as is usually the case - 1989 being a rare exception), but it did have another surprise for the 7-Eleven team's excellent second Tour -- Jeff Pierce, who'd gone out on a breakaway, managed to hold off the peloton for a rare solo win on the Champs Élysées. Not only that, but Raul Alcala came into Paris in 9th place overall, getting the White Jersey for Best Young Rider.
In the end, Stephen Roche pulled on the final Yellow Jersey - the first Irishman (and 2nd English-speaker) to win the Tour de France. Pedro Delgado was 2nd at 40 seconds, and Jean François Bernard was 3rd at 2:13 back. Roche entered the history books as only the fifth rider to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year (after Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault). Later that year, he would become the only rider apart from Eddy Merckx to pull off the "Triple Crown" by also winning the World Championships in the same season.
1987 was good example of what happens when there is a field of strong talent but no clear favorite. The Yellow Jersey went back and forth between eight different men, at least half of whom probably could have worn it into Paris had certain key moments gone just a little differently.