Monday, July 17, 2017

Tour de France Coverage, Retrogrouch Style: 1987

I have a hard time taking professional bike racing seriously these days. I find it only slightly more credible than pro wrestling. So even though the Tour de France is going on as we speak (or read, or write), I'm only half paying attention. Here's what I know: Peter Sagan is out - disqualified for supposedly pushing Mark Cavendish into the barriers in a messy final sprint on Stage 4. I also know that there was a renewed round of criticism and debate about whether the rest of the peloton should have to stop racing when the racer in Yellow has a mechanical problem - a debate that seems to repeat every year nowadays. There were penalties for slapping (yes, slapping). And Chris Froome is in good position to win his fourth tour, though he's in no position to get overly confident about it. Oh - and today is a rest day.

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.
The 7-Eleven team saw a welcome stage win with Davis Phinney on the road to Bordeaux in stage 12. A crash in that stage forced Sean Kelly to abandon due to injuries. A grand tour win would continue to remain out of his grasp.

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.
The next shakeup would come in Stage 18 with an individual time trial up Mount Ventoux. Jean François Bernard rode powerfully - winning the stage by 1:39 over the Colombian Luis Herrera. Pedro Delgado was 3rd in the stage at 1:51, and Roche was 5th at 2:19 (Roche was a strong time-triallist, but only a "good" not "great" climber). In the overall standings, Bernard took the Yellow Jersey away from Mottet, while Roche moved up to 2nd.

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.
Stage 20 featured the famed climb up Alpe d'Huez and saw Delgado take the lead from Roche. By the end of the stage at the summit, riders were coming in one at a time. Spanish climber Federico Echave won the stage, but the first GC contenders to finish were Herrera in 5th, Laurent Fignon (finally finding his legs) in 6th, and Delgado right behind in 7th. Roche finished 15th that day, 1:46 after Delgado. So the overall standings had another shakeup. Delgado had the Yellow, followed by Roche at 0:25, and Bernard in 3rd at 2:02. Fignon broke into the top 10 for the first time, taking 8th overall. Raul Alcala was 7-Eleven's best-placed rider in 7th, while Hampsten dropped down to 13th.

Stephen Roche turned himself inside out on La Plagne.
Stage 21 was another crazy-intense race with three major climbs including the Galibier, the Madeleine, and the uphill finish to La Plagne -- it would be a pivotal stage for the Tour. Fignon would win the stage, and Delgado would climb strongly as expected, but it was Roche who would become the legend of the '87 Tour. Roche was trying hard to limit his losses to Delgado, believing that if he could keep the overall time gap between them to under a minute, he would be able to make it up in the final time trial. Roche attacked on the descent from the Galibier to the Madeleine to get some distance on Delgado but couldn't stay away to the end. At the foot of the final climb to La Plagne he was caught and passed by Delgado and his PDM team. Roche knew he was not as good of a climber as Delgado and feared that he was seeing his chance of winning the Tour ride off in the distance up the mountain. When Delgado opened up a gap of more than a minute or perhaps a minute-and-a-half on the road, Roche got desperate and dug as deep as possible - he shifted up to his big ring. Yep. The Big Ring. It took a helluva lot of effort to get it turning on the third Hors Categorie climb of the day, but he got it going and rode himself inside out. As he neared the finish line, he could see Delgado crossing the line just a few seconds ahead of him. Roche's efforts were so extraordinary that he had to be helped off the bike and laid out on the ground while medics gave him oxygen. He was taken away in an ambulance, but returned the next day to put in another powerful ride.

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.


  1. If you get a chance listen to last Saturday's documentary on one (RTE player). Its a documentary on that faithful year in Stephen Roaches career and talks specifically about that climb and the the atmosphere at breakfast the following morning. Worth a listen

  2. i shake my head at the idea of the peloton having to slow down for the Yellow Jersey's mechanical woes. i seem to remember Ocana attacking Merckx in the mountains when The Eddy had some distress. No one complained (except perhaps some sports commentators.) It's a bicycle race, and devil take the hindmost. If the leader has a problem, it's up to his domestiques and his D.S. to bail him out, not the charity of the rest of the pack

  3. Nice recap.

    But just a friendly reminder. As I recall, you've mentioned Luis ("Lucho") Herrera on a previous post: he is from Colombia, this little country in South America - not from Columbia, the U.S. state. Don't worry, that happens quite often.

    That was it. Cheers from Colombia, with an O. :)

    1. Auugghhh. Thanks for the catch. It will be fixed.

  4. This has actually been a surprisingly fun tour to watch. Sunday was especially fun with constant break aways and challenges...

  5. A bit of trivia: That excellent picture of Jeff Pierce was taken by Ron Kiefels wife, Darcy

  6. If you're interested in a fun retro-spoof, check out HBO's Tour de Pharmacy. SO FUNNY.

  7. If you're interested in a retro spoof, check out HBO's Tour de Pharmacy: So funny.