In the second installment of what will now be a three-part feature to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tour de France, the winner of that race, Greg LeMond, picks up from where he left off in episode one, with the crisis of confidence only partly allayed by an encouraging end to the Giro d’Italia earlier that spring.
LeMond, as we all know, would go on to take the narrowest and most thrilling of Tour victories by eight seconds from French rival and former team-mate Laurent Fignon. Here, the American describes how he did it, for now glossing over the money troubles that dogged him and his team that year, and which will be the main subject matter for part three of LeMond’s exclusive account.
“After the Giro I felt better but I still didn’t have any real hopes for the Tour. No hopes, no expectations and no reserve of confidence like I’d had in 1986. All I knew was that my legs were better than they had been for a long time, probably since before my hunting accident in 1987.
I took a week of recovery after the Giro, then did a race in Spain and felt better again. I was like, ‘ah, okay…’ and started wondering whether I could finish Top 20 and win a stage in the Tour. Then, on stage 5, I won the time trial in Rennes and took the yellow jersey. I thought ‘wow!’, but I still hadn’t hit a climb yet. I said to myself ‘maybe Top Ten and a stage…’
The first mountain stage was to Cauterets in the Pyrenees. Miguel Indurain won and I didn’t get dropped. The next day I lost ten seconds and the yellow jersey to Fignon at Superbagnères, but it was another step in the right direction. Top Five and another stage win now didn’t seem unrealistic.
I’d had the jersey after Rennes, then Fignon took it, then I won it back on stage 15, a 39-kilometre time trial. But at that point, two weeks into the Tour, I was just happy being there after two nightmarish years. I also didn’t have a whole lot of help from my team. They did what they could; Eddy Planckaert gave me a wheel on one stage and Johan Lammerts helped me. They gave everything they had, but a lot of the time I was by myself.
I took a few more seconds off Fignon at Briançon, then at Alpe D’Huez I felt great until the last five kilometres, when I ran out of juice. Guimard was in Fignon’s team car, José de Cauwer in mine, and they both knew my mannerisms on the bike by then. They could both see my shoulders bouncing, which for Guimard was a sure sign that I was cracking. He was desperately trying to get up to Fignon in the car but José wouldn’t let him through. They were hitting bumpers, bits of car were dropping off. Eventually Guimard got through and told Fignon he had to attack, but Fignon said he couldn’t.
I look back now and think that I’d have been in trouble if we’d had intercom radios back then. It got to the point where I was really rocking and Guimard was screaming at Laurent that he couldn’t wait another second. Fignon finally attacked and I blew completely. That put Laurent back in the yellow jersey, and I was convinced that my only remaining chance was going to come in the final time trial.
I did some pretty amateurish riding in that Tour. At Superbagnères, instead of just keeping my pace, I tried to follow Fignon, thinking that I could then attack him. Moves like that were symptomatic of my lack of confidence; I was trying to prove that I was stronger than I really was. If you’re feeling bad you have to bluff sometimes.
The day after Alpe d’Huez I suffered horribly. My legs hadn’t recovered at all. But that can happen, and you come back the next day, because your body learns to adapt on a three-week Tour. That’s why I still maintain that what Floyd Landis did at Morzine in 2006 was certainly possible. I don’t know what he took, but it wasn’t synthetic testosterone that did that. He’d lost so much time the previous day, and no longer posed a threat, so they let him go. By the time they got organised behind it was too late. His average wattage that day was 380, which isn’t outrageous. I did 380 watts two years ago for six hours over five different climbs. So is it possible? Absolutely.
Anyway, all this to say that I had two bad days in 1989, but on the stage to Aix-Les-Bains I felt great. The problem was that I’d been through this trauma of continually getting dropped in 1988 and early in 1989, and, after the previous two days, I wasn’t confident that I could stay with the group. Somehow, though, I got over a couple of climbs and won the stage in a sprint.
The day before the time trial, my legs were great and it was like a rest-day. I felt better than when I’d started the Tour. Finally, then, we came to Versailles and the time trial. Of course everyone talks about the tri-bars, but I didn’t even know if they were going to make a difference or not. The first time I saw them was when (7-Eleven’s) Davis Phinney rode past me at the Tour de Trump that year. I thought, ‘Hmmm, He looks more aerodynamic than me…’ So I’d used them in that first time trial in Rennes and won.
Fignon and Guimard had the handlebars, but Guimard point-blank refused to use them. Two years ago I met Fignon at Briançon and he said, ‘This is where I lost the Tour!’ I told him that was bullshit. I told him he lost the race because Guimard, who’d been a pioneer in all things aerodynamics, for some reason said that the tri-bars didn’t make a difference, or that they impaired the rider’s breathing. I told Laurent that if he’d used those bars he probably would have beaten me.
With hindsight, now, it’s perhaps unfair to say that he definitely would have won with the tri-bars. Everyone can do these retrospective calculations and say ‘Oh, I lost the Tour by eight seconds, and I lost twelve at Briançon…’
Delgado said he maybe lost it because of the two minutes, forty seconds he lost when he showed up late for the prologue, but the tactics are played out according to how the general classification looks at any given moment, In other words, if a guy is five minutes down then you perhaps let him gain three minutes. In 1989, for example, I could talk about the the minute and a half I lost in the team time trial. Whoever’s the first across the line wins, and that’s the end of it.
I had dinner with Laurent last year and learned a lot about him then. He was an incredible talent. I heard how he started and trained twice a week, how he won his first race. He told me that he wasn’t too keen on training but he just used to be crazily aggressive. He turned pro at 21 years of age in 1982 and the next year he’d won his first Tour; that was genetics. He had real talent.
I was very fond of Laurent and still am. He really didn’t deserve what happened that day on the Champs-Elyseés. I’m not sure he ever really got over it either…”
Editor’s note: Fignon won the 1989 Milan-San Remo and Giro d’Italia. LeMond won the 1989 world road championships a few weeks after winning the Tour.
Tune in soon for Part 3 from LeMond on the 1989 Tour de France. Follow BikeRadar’s Twitter postings at twitter.com/bikeradar.