In a revolutionary finish in the bicentennial year, Greg LeMond of Wayzata, Minn., stormed into Paris on Sunday afternoon and snatched the Tour de France from the French pretender. From the start of the final day's 27-km time trial in Versailles, LeMond had approached the French capital like a lone soldier on a heroic mission. His goal: to make up the 50 seconds that separated him from the Tour's leader, Laurent Fignon of Paris, and then some.
Hunched tightly over his handlebars, his helmeted head lowered into an aerodynamically efficient position, LeMond rode all out, all the way, gaining precious seconds with each kilometer. So totally was he within himself that he had asked his support crew not to give him his splits during this final leg; he didn't want anything to break his concentration. He also didn't want to hear about the progress of the man he was chasing. LeMond would simply push himself to the limit.
In both of the previous individual time trials in the 23-day Tour, he had turned in a faster time than Fignon. And after each of them he had gained the yellow jersey emblematic of the race's overall leader. Still, LeMond wasn't given much of a chance of catching Fignon on this last day. The Frenchman's lead was considered almost insurmountable.
Fignon's strategy was entirely different. He was aware of his own time all along the course and was kept informed of LeMond's progress. With his blond ponytail streaming like a horse's mane, Fignon bore the yellow jersey into his native city in pursuit—in expectation, really—of his third Tour de France victory.
July 30, 1989
Because the field raced at two-minute intervals in reverse order of the standings, LeMond and Fignon were the last two riders on the course. Ahead of LeMond was Spain's Pedro Delgado, the star-crossed defending champion who was a distant third. As he approached the finish line near the Arc de Triomphe, LeMond almost caught Delgado. LeMond's time of 26:57 was the fastest of the day by 33 seconds. Now all that was left was the waiting. LeMond, who in 1986 became the first American to win the Tour, stood nervously on the Champs Elysèes, trying to listen on French radio as the last racer, Fignon, sped toward the closest denouement in the event's 86-year history.
Fignon knew his task. The jostling crowd cheered as he chugged through the Place de la Concorde, desperately pumping against the clock. But as he passed the Arc and turned for the finish line, it was too late. Eight seconds too late. Utterly exhausted, Fignon fell from his bike and collapsed. He had to be helped up. He then sat stonily, trying to recover, surrounded by people pressing in on him even as he remained alone.
A few seconds passed before LeMond and his team knew for sure that he had won. When victory was certain, he headed to the VIP enclosure, where his wife, Kathy, was waiting, and they held each other in a long, emotional embrace. "Nothing compares to this," he said, savoring his win.
It was, without question, the most stunning achievement of LeMond's remarkable career. No one, including LeMond himself, had picked him to be a contender. He had not competed in the race since 1986, when he won with the support of five-time champion Bernard Hinault and the magnificent French La Vie Claire team.
After that, great things were expected of LeMond, but a serious accident in 1987 nearly cost him his life. He was hunting wild turkey with his brother-in-law, Patrick Blades, when Blades mistook him for a bird in the bushes and shot him in the back. Some of the buckshot pellets are still in LeMond's body. "The doctors say there is no danger of leaving them there," said LeMond. "Your body forms scar tissue."
His slow recuperation was complicated by an emergency appendectomy four months later. In 1988, LeMond began anew with the premier Dutch team, PDM, but an inflamed shin forced him to drop out of the Giro d'Italia in June. A subsequent dispute over his salary prompted LeMond to switch to ADR, a weak Belgian team. There were rumors that the sponsor, a vehicle rental company, was beginning to think that, in taking on LeMond, it was paying too much for damaged goods. "The last two years have been the most humiliating of my life," said LeMond. "Riders and team managers thought I was through, and that made me more determined than ever to return."
But LeMond, 28, drew inspiration from Fignon, who had been dogged by illness and injury since winning the Tour de France in 1983 and '84. Achilles tendon surgery kept Fignon from defending his title in '85, and he dropped out of the race in '86 and again last year. He didn't regain top form until this year, when he won the Milan-San Remo Classic in the spring and the Giro d'Italia last month. LeMond finished 39th in the Giro, nearly an hour behind Fignon.
"It's been slow, so slow," he told a reporter during the first week of the Tour. "I'm not getting old. That's not the problem. I'm starting [from scratch]. Do you know how hard that is?"
Delgado practically kicked himself out of this year's Tour before it began. By arriving nearly three minutes late for the Prologue, the 7.8-km lap around the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg that began this year's Tour, he dug himself a hole that he spent the rest of the race trying to climb out of. It was a costly mistake that earned him the nickname lanterne rouge, given to the last-place rider in the 198-man field. In the team time trial the next day, a nervous stomach added four more minutes to Delgado's time. It was a measure of his fearsome power that he would finish third, just 3:34 behind LeMond.
LeMond, Fignon and Delgado dominated the '89 race. LeMond first donned the yellow jersey after a time-trial victory in the fifth stage on July 6. It was his biggest win since the 1986 Coors Classic. "This is the happiest day of my life," LeMond said after the stage. "It's even more emotional than winning the Tour in Paris three years ago."
He wore the jersey through the sunflower fields of Poitiers, the rolling vineyards of Bordeaux and into the Dumasian countryside of D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. Fignon took it from him five days later, on July 11, after the last climb up the Pyrenees. LeMond had fought tenaciously to keep his five-second lead as he chased the Frenchman along the mountain roads, but he broke down as soon as he caught Fignon and slipped seven seconds behind.
"I made LeMond explode," said Fignon, referring to how a racer feels when his legs become en compote ("like applesauce") and his bike gets as wobbly as a tourist's dollar. "I showed him I was the strongest. If he wants the yellow jersey, he'll have to walk over my body."
The 28-year-old Fignon is a willful, enigmatic intellectual whose literary taste runs the gamut from Balzac to Stephen King. A former veterinary student, Fignon is nicknamed le Professeur. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a discomfited scholar's smile. He has a cool, brusque air, and he shuns the spotlight. Still, L'Humanitè, the Communist daily, found him endearing enough to print ALLEZ FIGNON under the bills of the caps the paper sold along the Tour's route.
LeMond had his supporters, too. "I love the story of a man who's close to being dead and comes back as champion," said Jean-Michel Espinasse, the director of an art gallery in Brètigny-sur-Orge. Espinasse urged LeMond on during the 15th-stage time trial, from Gap to Orcières-Merlette, a 39-km mountain climb of 5,633 feet. "Audace, audace, toujours de l'audace!" Espinasse shouted, echoing Danton's revolutionary rallying cry. Boldness, boldness and even more boldness.
Fignon held a seven-second lead at the beginning of the stage, but LeMond soon closed the gap. He had the fifth best time of the day to Fignon's 10th best, and with that, on July 16, the American regained the yellow jersey with a 40-second advantage. "Before I started I would have been happy with a spot in the top 20." LeMond said. "Now I feel I have a real shot at [winning]."
"The Yankee is some kind of genius wise guy," Fignon said after the stage. "He plays the role of the weak chicken who suddenly gets back into shape and surprises everybody. It's almost like he planned it. He's very smart, but I'm not going to let him get into my wheel in the Alps."
Fignon blasted LeMond for tracking him instead of attacking. But LeMond had little choice. His ADR team had already lost four of its nine riders to injury or exhaustion, so he was without support or protection. If Fignon or Delgado took off on a breakaway, riders from other teams might go after them—to keep them from extending their lead—but LeMond couldn't depend on that. "What does Fignon expect?" LeMond said. "The truth is, he's as scared of me as he is of Delgado."
By this point, Delgado had climbed back brilliantly, recouping five minutes and his composure. He had the best team, Reynolds of Spain, a complete squad of nine climbers and a reputation for demolishing rivals in the mountains. He gave LeMond a 60% chance of winning and himself 40%. And Fignon?
"Make that LeMond 60, me 40 and Fignon 25," he said.
However you add it up, the trio's most daunting opponents were Col de l'Izoard and L'Alpe d'Huez, the impossibly steep alpine peaks they had to scale on July 18 and 19. Buoyed by banners proclaiming HUP, HUP HOLLAND, ARRIBA COLOMBIA and, inexplicably, I KNOW PINK, BUT WHAT is FLOYD?, the leaders ground up Izoard in a six-man pack. One by one, the riders attacked LeMond, trying to make him crack. He fought off each skirmisher. When Delgado made a break near the Izoard's summit, LeMond not only drafted him to the top but also led the descent, swooping down to Briancon at 60 mph. Delgado fought back, but Fignon struggled and lost 13 seconds. "The guy I was really worried about was Delgado," said LeMond, "and I never let him get away."
The road to L'Alpe d'Huez wriggles up 21 switchbacks, climbing to 5,725 feet above sea level. Delgado, who was 2:38 off the pace in third place, needed to thump LeMond and Fignon decisively, but he seemed unable or unwilling to challenge. With four kilometers to go in the 161.5-km stage, Fignon saw LeMond's shoulders begin to rock, and he unleashed a brutal assault. Delgado bolted and LeMond faded; for a moment he appeared to be drifting backward. By the time LeMond finished the stage, he had lost 1:19 and the yellow jersey. Fignon was the leader again, by 26 seconds.
In the next afternoon's 91.5-km stretch Fignon pulled another daring break on the C‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•te de St. Nizier de Moucherotte. He rode the final 24 kilometers alone against the clock and the wind, building his overall lead to a seemingly comfortable 50 seconds. The last days of the Tour were filled with obligatory attacks and counterattacks. LeMond outsprinted Fignon at last Friday's finish, but gained no time. Nor did he make any inroads in the 118-km stage on Saturday. So he came into Sunday's final time trial still trailing by 50 seconds after more than 87 hours and 3,200 kms (2,000 miles) of racing.
No one doubted that LeMond could win the so-called "race of truth" from Versailles to the Tuileries; he has become a master of time trials. But few thought he could make up enough time to win. Paul Koechli, LeMond's coach during his '86 victory, pronounced his eulogy the night before the final stage: "It's possible for Greg to grab a second a kilometer, but two? Unthinkable."
LeMond was more optimistic. "It's going to be difficult to win," he said on Sunday morning, "but I think it's still possible."
"De l'audace, LeMond, de l'audace!" yelled the Parisian rabble, and boldly, boldly, he shot down the same path that Louis XVI took in 1789. "I never stopped believing that I could do it," said LeMond.
Unlike Louis, he kept his head.