Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Retrogrouch TdF Coverage: 1989

It was 25 years ago . . .

At 3285 km, the '89 Tour was one of the shorter races in history
-- but the competition made it one of the most dramatic.
From the very beginning the 1989 Tour de France promised to be a serious competition. Four previous Tour winners lined up for the opening prologue: Laurent Fignon, winner in '83 and '84; Greg LeMond, winner in '86; Stephen Roche, winner in '87; and Pedro Delgado, winner in '88.

The '89 TdF marked the tremendous return-to-form for Fignon who had faltered due to tendonitis for the previous several seasons. Winning the Giro d'Italia the previous month, he was eager to join the very exclusive club of riders to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Future Tour winner, Bjarne Riis, was a strong supporting member of Fignon's Super U team that year.

Defending champion Pedro Delgado had placed 2nd in the TdF in '87 before winning it in '88. With his Tour victory overshadowed by a drug testing scandal (he was cleared on a technicality), he was certainly eager to prove himself a deserving champion. Early in the 1989 season, he had shown he was still in good form by winning the Vuelta a España. Also on Delgado's Reynolds/Banesto team was future 5-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain who would prove to be an important ally.

Stephen Roche had won the "Triple Crown" of cycling in '87, the Giro, Tour, and World Championships, though he did not appear to be performing at the same level in '89. Still, it would have been foolish to count him out.

Greg LeMond had lost most of the previous two racing seasons due largely to the shotgun wounds that nearly killed him in the Spring of '87. His relatively weak ADR team, and a mostly lackluster performance in the '89 Giro, meant long odds for a second LeMond TdF victory. People were wrong to underestimate him.

Delgado missed his time and left the start house 2:40 late.
When the opening prologue time trial began in Luxembourg, the Tour was already off to an unusual start. Defending champion Delgado, who had reportedly ridden off to warm up before his scheduled time as the last man to leave the start house, apparently got lost - or lost track of time - but arrived at the start house 2:40 late. He would end the day in last place. It was the first indication that the Tour could be entirely unpredictable.

On the other hand, Fignon finished the prologue in second place, just 6 seconds slower than winner Erik Breukink. Surprisingly, LeMond was fourth following Sean Kelly, and just a fraction of a fraction of a second slower than Fignon (they were all three credited with the same time). If not for the terrible mistake with the starting time, Delgado might have started the first stage only about 10 seconds behind Fignon and LeMond.

The first two stages, a normal road stage and a team time trial, were held on the same day. Fignon's Super U team won the time trial, though the ADR team with LeMond would manage a respectable 5th overall, 51 seconds slower. Delgado lost more time to the leaders as he was dropped by his Reynolds/Banesto team and finished last, well over 4 minutes behind. It was a stunning thing to see the defending champion wallowing in last place -- perhaps the worst case of being choked by nerves in the history of sports.

Fignon would later call LeMond's "tri-bars" illegal,
and regretted not raising a formal challenge.
The next big showcase in the '89 Tour would be the stage 5 individual time trial. Using the then-new aerodynamic "triathlon" bars, LeMond scorched to a stage win, catching five riders on the road who had started ahead of him. Delgado took 2nd in the stage, 24 seconds after LeMond, with Fignon coming in 3rd, 56 seconds down. With that win, LeMond captured the Yellow Jersey for the first time since 1986, leading Fignon by just 5 seconds. From that point forward, the battle for Yellow would be primarily challenged by LeMond and Fignon, with Delgado turning himself inside-out to make amends for his inauspicious start.

When the Tour got to the Pyrenees, Delgado used the mountains to try to make up for his previous miserable performances. In stage 9, Miguel Indurain won his first-ever TdF stage while leading teammate Delgado to a 3rd place finish. With that, Delgado took 29 seconds back from Fignon and LeMond. Stephen Roche, who had been hampered by knee problems, withdrew after the stage.

LeMond's ADR team wasn't much help in the mountains.
Fignon would express frustration with LeMond, calling him
a wheelsucker.
With four major climbs, stage 10, from Cauterets to Superbagnères, saw Delgado catch a breakaway with Robert Millar and Charly Mottet. Though Millar won the stage, Delgado won back another 3:26 from Fignon. LeMond finished another 12 seconds back, meaning that the Yellow Jersey would go to the Frenchman, now leading the Tour by just 7 seconds. Delgado leaped up to 4th overall.

The stage 15 mountain time trial at Gap in the Alps was won by Dutch rider Stephen Rooks, of the powerful PDM team. Delgado finished strong in 4th place, 12 seconds ahead of 5th place LeMond. Fignon finished in 10th, another 47 seconds back. Result: the Yellow would go back to LeMond, with a lead of 40 seconds. LeMond would gain another 13 seconds in stage 16, from Gap to Briançon. The 53-second gap between the those two challengers was the widest it would be for the entire Tour.

The climb to Alpe d'Huez in stage 17 would prove to be another turning point in the closely-matched Tour. Mountains leader Gert-Jan Theunisse of the PDM team went with an early break and eventually won the stage alone, locking in his hold on the Polka Dot Jersey. The pace of the climb was wearing out both LeMond and Fignon, and LeMond's teammates were nowhere to be found as the final climb heated up. Exhausted, but sensing weakness, Fignon attacked his rivals with 4 km to go, and only Delgado could stay with him, moving into 3rd place overall. LeMond finished more than a minute after Fignon, giving back the Yellow Jersey and a 26-sec. lead. Fignon extended the lead to 50 seconds the next day with a solo stage victory at Villard de Lans. Many people believed that the Tour had been decided at Alpe d'Huez.

LeMond's spirits were bolstered with a stage 19 win at Aix-les-Bains, but Fignon was right behind and credited with the same finishing time. The 50 second gap still held, and LeMond's best and only hope was the final time trial -- the final stage -- from Versailles to Paris.

LeMond had beaten, or at least matched, Fignon in each of the Tour's individual time trials that year. Still, with only 24.5 km, it was going to take an unprecedented performance to get back more than 50 seconds in that kind of distance. Fignon was confident it couldn't be done. LeMond held on to the belief that it was possible.

LeMond was second-to-last to leave the start house, equipped with his aero helmet and triathlon bars. He was so intent on his mental performance that he refused to hear any split times along the course. He rode flat-out as hard as he could, making his own odds, and turning in one of the fastest time trial results in history.

Watching the clock, LeMond
realizes he's won.
Like many great, historic events -- whether uplifting, or tragic -- people who witnessed the event never forget where they were or what they were doing when it happened. I was with my then-girlfriend/now-wife, clinging to the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the television, ears tuned to the note of excitement in the voice of Phil Liggett, ready to burst, and forgetting to breathe. I believe anyone watching knew they were seeing something special that day -- something they'd never forget. When LeMond crossed the finish line, there was nothing left to do but wait and watch the clocks. The ride was spectacular, but would it be enough? When Fignon finally crossed the line 58 seconds slower it was pandemonium. LeMond had won by just 8 seconds -- the narrowest result in the history of the Tour.
"You never stop grieving," Fignon would
later write.

I remember watching Fignon collapse at the finish, both from exhaustion and disbelief. Likewise, I'll never forget the disconsolate look on his face as he stood on the podium beside LeMond -- his one-time teammate, and now rival -- spoiler of fortunes. LeMond, Fignon, Delgado. Three TdF champions, stood on the podium First, Second, and Third.

Though overshadowed by the Yellow Jersey competition, it should also be noted that Irish rider, Sean Kelly, won his fourth Green Jersey for Points Leader in the '89 Tour, and also won the Red Jersey for Intermediate Sprints -- a category and jersey that are no longer awarded ('89 was the last year). Kelly's four Green Jerseys were a record that would only be broken by Eric Zabel, who would earn six between 1996 - 2001. It's also worth pointing out that Kelly's PDM team (which had very briefly been LeMond's team) took four stages and won the Team Competition with one of the most dominant team performances ever. Gert-Jan Theunisse took the previously mentioned Polka Dot Jersey, and Steven Rooks took the multi-color "Combination" jersey -- the last year that category was awarded. One could say they won everything except everything.

Many people still talk about the 1989 Tour for its importance in changing bike racing technology. Old vs. new. Consider the use of aerodynamics -- LeMond with his triathlon bars, goggles, and aero helmet versus Fignon with his thinning hair pulled into a ponytail, his wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose. Though basically the same age, it was almost as though they represented different generations. Fignon would later write in his autobiography, We Were Young and Carefree, that he regretted not raising a formal challenge to LeMond's tri-bars, which he believed violated the rules. "The idle commissaries shut their eyes. The rules were being bent, and the consequences would be way beyond anything I could have imagined." Of course, the bars were not struck down, and one never sees a time-trial bike in the Tour today without some kind of modern descendent of them. As a Retrogrouch, I can understand and sympathize with Fignon, who died of cancer in 2010. Then again, I don't race for a living. If my job was racing bikes, and my main job requirement was to win races, and my competition was getting an advantage over me by using a wind tunnel, then I'd probably think it was important enough for my job security to consider it. In any case, it was reported in Winning magazine (Oct. '89) that Fignon was seen at the Tour trying out a similar set of aero bars, but for whatever reason, chose not to use them. Not only that, but aero helmets were in use before '89 -- and any helmet, aero or not, would have to have been better than a head of hair and a trailing ponytail flipping around. So, who knows why Fignon made the choices he did?

A disconsolate Fignon. A podium of Champions.
If you ask bicycle racing fans and journalists to rank the best, most exciting Tours de France over the race's 100+ year history, the 1989 edition often comes in at the top of the list. With the epic battle between former Tour champions, closely matched and trading the Yellow Jersey back and forth throughout the race, and culminating in the spectacular time trial on the Champs Elysées, the race was unpredictable and suspenseful to the last seconds. Eight seconds, to be exact.

And it all concluded 25 years ago. . . Today.

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