Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch-Style: 1986

Since I'm only just barely paying attention to this year's Tour de France, I thought now would be a good time to drop back in the pack by 30 years and take a look at one of the most drama-filled races in Tour history: 1986, with its showdown between French legend Bernard Hinault and rising American star Greg LeMond.

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
combination jerseys
all in one day.
The opening stages of the '86 edition would be a good indication that the race would be dramatic. The prologue time trial was won by Fignon's teammate Thierry Marie, with Hinault just 2 seconds back. LeMond and Fignon both finished about 4 seconds behind Marie. The second day actually included two stages -- an 85 kilometer road race, followed by a team time trial in the afternoon. In the morning's race, 7-Eleven's Alex Stieda, of Canada, went on a solo breakaway and picked up so many time bonuses along the way that, even though he was eventually caught and finished 5th, he was shocked to be pulling on the race leader's Yellow Jersey (along with all the other prized jerseys) at the end of it. The celebrating wouldn't last long however, as the 7-Eleven team's performance in that afternoon's team time trial would mark them as Tour rookies. Eric Heiden crashed, several members suffered flat tires along the course, and Stieda, worn out from his earlier effort, had trouble finishing within the time limit. He was not only the first North American ever to wear the Yellow Jersey, but he narrowly missed having the unlikely distinction of being the first rider to win the Yellow Jersey and be disqualified in the same 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.
Tensions on the La Vie Claire team were high, and to some extent, spread throughout the peloton. Loyalties on La Vie Claire were divided along national lines, and riders like Hampsten and Bauer were caught in the middle. Across the race, it seemed many European riders weren't ready to see the young American win the Tour. According to the book and documentary Slaying the Badger, there were some thinly veiled threats against LeMond. Even in the Tour coverage of the day, Phil Liggett reported "80% of the riders want Hinault to win. There's a nasty hint that LeMond could be nobbled." Although they rode for different teams, LeMond was able to get emotional support from longtime racing friends and fellow Americans on the 7-Eleven team, along with teammates Hampsten and Bauer. LeMond's wife, Kathy, was also there as a major source of support. After Tour organizer Jacques Goddet told LeMond "Watch your food. Watch your water bottles," Kathy was the one reportedly buying groceries and preparing food for her husband.

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.
The difficult descents in that stage were an element that worked in LeMond's favor. By all accounts, LeMond was amazing at riding downhill, and on the descent from the Télégraphe, he dropped Zimmerman for the rest of the stage and caught up with Hinault. By the climb up Croix de Fer, Zimmerman worked hard but was unable to close the gap to the La Vie Clair leaders. On the descent of de Fer and the final climb of Alpe d'Huez, the duo of Hinault and LeMond buried all of the competition, and Hinault was moving himself past Zimmerman into second place in the overall standings. Reportedly on the climb of Alpe d'Huez, Hinault began feeling the heat and asked LeMond to slow up. LeMond, apparently taking it as a concession, stayed with Hinault to the finish. As they finished the climb arm in arm, right at the line, LeMond pushed Hinault ahead for the official stage win.
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.

On the final stage into Paris, LeMond once again crashed and needed a new bike. Luckily, any tensions that might have been in play during much of the Tour were set aside, and several La Vie Claire teammates, including Hinault, helped escort him back to the main field. Hinault contended for the final sprint on the Champs Elysées, and finished 4th in the stage.

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.


  1. I do not mean to boast when I say that I pedaled up Galibier, Telegraphe, Col d'Izoard, Alpe d'Huez, Peyresourde, Tourmalet and Aspin. Rather, I mention them because they showed me something that you mention in this post.

    Riding up them is not easy. But it's difficult (though not as) to descend them because, after tiring yourself on the climb, you have to keep your reflexes sharp through all of the twists and turns. Also, the weather can change very suddenly--even more so on the descents. A cloud can move through (Yes, I've pedaled through clouds), blocking the sun--or bringing sudden precipitation. Or the sun can come out. Or the wind can shift. Such changes can overheat or dehydrate you--or induce hypothermia, not to mention stiffness and soreness.

    Thus, as you point out, descending was indeed an invaluabe skill for LeMond. He was a great all-around rider, but that skill gave him an edge over most other riders--even including Hinault and Fignon.

  2. Hinault always rode to win. In this The Badger did LeMond a great service by pushing him to ride harder and prove that he was a worthy competitor.

  3. Slaying the Badger was very biased...book and show.

    Americans tend to forget, or downplay, the fact that Lemond attacked his wounded leader in 85. A BIG no no. Basically, that promise was never going to be totally respected. He should not have to be told that his leader is only 1mn back for him to stop the attack: he should have obeyed orders like the domestique he was.

    Beside,many of Hinault attacks were wild solo efforts...if Lemond could not beat that tactic he would not have deserved the win.

  4. > 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.

    You know, given the Hinault persona, I believe in what he states to this day. Be on this place anyone else, I'd definitely mark him a liar.

  5. Today was a crazy day on Mt.Ventoux, the Yellow Jersey's legend goes on !

    1. Actually - I did happen to see that. It was pretty crazy. Part of me was thinking they could have penalized Froome for running without his bike (definitely a rules violation) but he clearly wasn't gaining any advantage from it -- in fact, he was getting passed left and right by people who were well behind him. What a day.

  6. Assume that indeed Hinault promised to help Lemond. As it turned out that Lemond didn't need that help especially considering Greg's setbacks in the time trials. I would call Lemond giving Hinault the stage victory on Alpe d'Huez perfect payback - it was then that Hinault knew exactly who the better rider (and person) was.

  7. How about the second act of the 1986 season where both went head-to-head in the first professional version of the Coors Classic Stage Race. Starting in San Francisco, CA and finishing in Boulder, CO two & half weeks later. The short story is that Bernard won the National Tour of America and Greg was a poor loser & didn't show for the honors dinner afterwards. It was the first pro race I ever officiated (minor position) but very memorable. Had honor of being "holder" for men's time trial starts at Niwot. No rider was more steady & Focus than Bernard that day. Just 30 years ago.