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Tour de France history: Greg LeMond snatches the closest Tour ever

1 Oct 2021

In 1989 American Greg LeMond took 58 seconds out of Laurent Fignon on the final day to record the narrowest victory in Tour history

Words: Giles Belbin Photography: L'Equipe

Early in the morning of the fifth stage of the 1989 edition of the Tour de France, José De Cauwer, the sports director of Greg LeMond’s ADR team, could be found pushing a bicycle through the corridors of a hotel in Brittany.

De Cauwer was looking for the room of Claude Jacquat, the head of the Tour’s race jury. Jacquat had barely woken when he heard De Cauwer knocking on his door and angrily answered while still wearing his dressing gown. ‘What are you doing here?’ he barked. ‘Are you crazy?’

De Cauwer was not crazy. In fact, he had a very good reason for risking the wrath of Jacquat so early in the morning. Months before the Tour, LeMond had ridden a practice time-trial with some new aero bars fitted to his bike.

The results were remarkable. ‘You could see [the impact] on the speedo and you could see it on the heart rate monitor,’ De Cauwer recalled in 2019. Quickly the decision was made to try to use them at the Tour.

De Cauwer knew the rules stated that the handlebar had to be one piece, so he had to check there was no risk of any penalties. That meant checking it first with Jacquat. De Cauwer apologised for the early-morning call before explaining he had LeMond’s bike with him.

‘We have to put this thing on the front, he has a problem with his back,’ he said. Jacquat looked at the bike, said it was OK, and told an inwardly delighted De Cauwer to go.

Nearly eight hours later LeMond rolled down the start ramp of the 73km time-trial from Dinard to Rennes. The bars had already caused a bit of a stir behind the scenes – Panasonic’s director, Peter Post, saying to his mechanic: ‘Look, José has something new.’ LeMond stormed to the stage win, his first victory of any kind since 1986, and took the yellow jersey.

The wrestle for yellow

LeMond had signed with ADR for the 1989 season after spending two years recovering from a hunting accident – hence the long gap between wins. Nobody knew if the American could ever return to the heights that brought him the rainbow jersey in 1983 and victory at the Tour in 1986.

Slowly he worked his way back, trust building between LeMond and De Cauwer over time, and by the final week of the Giro, a race won by Laurent Fignon, LeMond looked to be getting back to something like his former level. Still, even after he took yellow in Rennes, few thought he was a real contender.

Fignon was also at the Tour, looking to add a third title to his 1983 and 1984 wins, and sat just five seconds off LeMond after the time-trial to Rennes. Over the course of the next 15 stages the lead switched three times between the two men. LeMond’s ADR team was fairly weak, and could offer the American little in the way of rider support. De Cauwer had to play it smart.

‘[Other teams] were fighting against each other and we could swim a little bit in between,’ he recalled. ‘Everybody knew our team was not good enough, so there was no question of people looking into my car and saying, “José, are you going to ride?”’

On the stage to Alpe d’Huez, Fignon could have put the Tour out of LeMond’s reach. First LeMond was stranded in the second group on the road, only to get a free tow when a rider from his group broke away to join a teammate up the road. Then, on the famous climb itself, LeMond struggled.

His shoulders were rolling and Fignon’s sports director, Cyrille Guimard, who had managed LeMond at Renault, recognised the sign that his former charge was in trouble. With no team radio, Guimard needed to get to Fignon to tell him to attack. But between Guimard and his rider was the ADR car. De Cauwer made sure he made it sufficiently difficult for Guimard to overtake, delaying delivery of the message.

‘If there had been team radios I think it would have been difficult for LeMond to win the Tour,’ De Cauwer reflected in 2019.

Even so, the day of the most famous final stage in Tour history dawned with Fignon in yellow with a lead of 50 seconds. It was conceivable that LeMond would gain enough time during the 24.5km time-trial onto the Champs-Élysées and take the win, but few truly expected it.

LeMond again used his aero bars and wore a streamlined helmet; Fignon had his blond ponytail flapping in the wind, looking decidedly old-fashioned in comparison. It was the perfect juxtaposition of innovation against tradition.

As Fignon laboured to the line LeMond looked on, as pictured here, surrounded by reporters, wide-eyed in disbelief as he slowly realised he was about to win the Tour. The end result was the narrowest Tour victory recorded to date: only eight seconds after 4,021km of racing. LeMond had pulled off a spectacular coup to record his second Tour win. Fignon, meanwhile, was distraught.

The result represented ADR’s high point. The team was beset by financial problems and LeMond left at the end of season having also secured his second World Championships. He joined the Z team and defended his Tour title the following year, the final major win of a celebrated career.

As for Fignon, the quote on the back cover of his excellent autobiography, We Were Young And Carefree, perhaps best sums up how he is remembered today: ‘Ah, I remember you,’ runs the quote. ‘You’re the guy who lost the Tour de France by eight seconds!’ ‘No monsieur,’ comes the reply. ‘I’m the guy who won it twice.’

Giles Belbin is the author of Tour de France Champions: an A to Z (