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Exclusive book excerpt: 1986: The Alpe’s Greatest Duel, from The Tour is Won on the Alpe.

The Badger’s Fatal Error

Used with permission from The Tour is Won on the Alpe
LeMond and Hinault on L’Alpe d’Huez in the 1986 Tour

The next day, however, Hinault committed a critical error in a Tour he certainly could have won when he attacked once again, this time alone, on the descent of the Tourmalet. What guts — what panache! But it was a crazy breakaway, considering he had the leader’s jersey on his shoulders. This was a move à la Merckx: the yellow jersey, breaking away on his own in the Pyrénées, along the road to Luchon.

Though generally a savvy tactician, the Badger inexplicably attacked a long way from the finish and was caught before the final climb to Superbagnères. At the front, two Americans took the Tour by force as if taking the baton: LeMond, assisted by teammate Andy Hampsten, led the dance. By the end of the day, LeMond was within 40 seconds of Hinault.

All that effort had gotten the Frenchman nowhere in his quest for a sixth victory. In the caravan, everyone wanted to know what Hinault was thinking. He explained his conduct nonchalantly: “If I had succeeded in reaching Superbagnères, I would have won the Tour and everyone would have lavished praise on me. If I failed, I knew that Greg was behind me ready to counterattack and that I was tiring his adversaries. It was sound strategy.” Unbelievable: Hinault was claiming to have transformed himself into a super-domestique for LeMond.

No one, or almost no one, believed in the promise anymore, especially since Hinault had not hesitated to attack from the beginning of the Tour. Not even in transitional stages like Nîmes-Gap, where once again he had surprised LeMond, who had reprimanded him with angry gestures after catching up in a chase group.

In any event, the Badger lost the yellow jersey the next day during the unprecedented stage in sun and dust from Gap to Col du Granon, with a mountaintop finish at 2,400 meters (7,875 feet). The stage was marked by dramatic setbacks, most notably those of Joël Pellier, who fell victim to hypoglycemia, and Hinault, who suffered from a hematoma on his calf. LeMond thus became the first American to pull on the yellow jersey, which he would wear for the first time in the stage that led to Alpe d’Huez. The route promised to be long and difficult, heated by both sun and passion.

Some didn’t accept Hinault’s relegation to second fiddle, perceived to be the fault of an opportunistic American who had only found his form in the month of July. Hinault himself may have agreed with this assessment, as he decided to make things difficult for LeMond over the course of this legendary stage.

It would be a decisive stage with regard to overall victory (Hinault was in third place, down only 2:47 on the American), one in which the Swiss Urs Zimmermann (in second place overall, 2:24 behind LeMond) hoped to play a big role. He would be a tough adversary, having already won the Critérium International and the Dauphiné Libéré earlier in the season.

On the descent of the Galibier, Hinault attacked. Only two men were able to follow: the Canadian Steve Bauer (Hinault’s teammate) and the Spaniard Pello Ruiz-Cabestany. All along the interminable plunge toward Valloire (almost 20 kilometers [12.4 miles]), Hinault gave it his all—without LeMond, who was stuck farther back. The American began to realize that he could lose the Tour at any moment when he saw the Badger continue his charge up the Col du Télégraphe, before the Croix de Fer and the final climb up Alpe d’Huez.

Dejected, LeMond consulted his directeur sportif, Paul Koechli, and finally launched his own attack, a last-chance pursuit race. He devoured the slopes of the Télégraphe with no thought of the risk and was able to catch Hinault on the outskirts of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. He had just saved his Tour.

Who could still believe that Hinault had not truly gone for it between the summit of Galibier and the valley leading to the initial slopes of the Croix de Fer? And the main event at Alpe d’Huez was soon to come. Sporting the multicolored combination jersey (a short-lived innovation from the Tour organizers awarded from 1985 to 1989 to the best-placed rider in the combined time, points, climbing, and intermediary sprint classifications), Hinault set the rhythm from the start, ensuring the pace, with LeMond, the fragile and troubled wearer of the yellow jersey, by his side. In the furnace of the Alpe, Hinault’s name, shouted by his tens of thousands of rabid supporters, rang in LeMond’s ears. Over the deafening roar, LeMond confessed, “I’m afraid of the crowds,” and pushed the Badger forward to lead. The sea of fans amassed along the wall of L’Oisans left them only a narrow opening through which to scale the asphyxiating slope, one behind the other.

Meanwhile, their adversaries followed in the distance, with Zimmermann the most dangerous. At more than 3 minutes back, he was chasing in a group that had counterattacked. He would finish third, 5:15 back. Old Joop Zoetemelk would finish 14:21 back, Charly Mottet and Stephen Roche 15 minutes back, and Robert Millar, wearing the polka-dot jersey (which Hinault would take by the end of the Tour), 19 minutes back. Lucho Herrera, who went over the Galibier in the lead, faltered badly, went backward, and finished 26 minutes back!

Amidst the tumult of the Alpe, between the Breton flags fluttering like proud standards, the colors of La Vie Claire painted on the road, and the cries of “Hinault, Hinault” as they passed, Hinault and LeMond, the two leaders, made their way up the climb.

The closely followed duel suddenly ceased, right before the eyes of crazed fans, when the Badger transformed himself into a locomotive, protecting the American to whom he would “hand” his first Tour de France at the top. Not once did Hinault let the American take the lead. Nor did LeMond seek to take it.

A few meters before the finish, LeMond clapped Hinault on the shoulder to thank him. As the Italian journalist Tony Lo Schiavo wrote in Bici Sport, “Over the last meters, they joined hands. You would have thought it was a sign of affection. But it wasn’t that. In reality, the clasping of hands masked a secret agreement: Hinault promised not to attack LeMond, and the American thanked him by letting him take the stage.”

A Two-Headed Eagle

The two racers rolled in unity over the straight section where the road broadens, flanked by security barriers. They exchanged a long look of satisfaction and smiles of relief and mischievousness, congratulating one another with pats on the back like two schoolboys who had pulled off a good prank. Then they crossed the line together—although with Hinault in the lead—each raising a hand in victory.

The next day, the sports daily L’Équipe ran the headline “A Two-Headed Eagle” on its front page, followed by an eight-column article. In the presence of the French minister of sport, Christian Bergelin, a delighted Hinault collected prizes for combativeness (sponsored by the bank BNP), best teammate (sponsored by Rocagraf ), and best rouleur.2 Above all, he had won his 26th Tour stage, surpassing André Leducq’s palmarès of 25 stage victories.

Jean Amadou, speaking of Hinault, wrote in L’Équipe, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a racer smile at the end of this climb. He looked like a kid who had just gotten himself a toy he had been dreaming about. Hinault had already won everything, or almost everything, but what he lacked was Alpe d’Huez. Starting tomorrow, LeMond will be praying that the Breton doesn’t decide to give himself one last gift: his sixth Tour.”

Their sincere hug and beaming smiles on the podium seemingly ended the war of nerves between the teammates. At least that was what everyone thought. Despite appearances, though, Hinault declared that very evening, just as Amadou had suspected, “The Tour is not over—I’m still racing to win it.” It sent a shiver down LeMond’s spine. In the end, however, the American would win his first Tour.

“I Could Have Taken 5 Minutes out of Him”

The real story of what had happened on that climb, if it hadn’t come to a head on Alpe d’Huez, broke a short time later in the form of shattering declarations. Today they shed light on the battle for that Tour and offer perspective on the duel at the Alpe.

The first to draw was the American, who vented his anger in an interview with the French journalist Henri Haget, declaring, “Hinault is not the man I knew at the start of my career. He’s obsessed with winning his sixth Tour, as if he’s forgotten that, without me, he never would have won his fifth. I gave him the 1985 Tour. He should remember that, but instead he’s created a terrible environment. The worst was the finish at L’Alpe d’Huez, when we crossed the line hand in hand. It was all a big show. I let myself get played like a novice. I had the yellow jersey, and at the foot of the climb, Hinault swore to me that it was all over, that he wouldn’t attack me again on the way to Paris. He knew that I could drop him at the first turn, but he asked me to let him lead on the climb to win the stage.

I could have taken 5 minutes out of him by the top. I shouldn’t have had any qualms about doing so.” The embittered Badger responded much later, in his memoirs.4 He wrote, “It wasn’t my fault if LeMond didn’t understand how I was conducting my race. I did what I did to benefit him, and him alone. I had told him that I would help him, give him a hand in winning the race. At Alpe d’Huez, I could have buried him. I think I could have put a lot of time on him that day, if I had thrown down the gauntlet. At no point was I trying to beat him. After Alpe d’Huez, I only waged a small psychological war to see exactly what he was made of.”

The big show had been nothing but a facade. In fact, the two teammates had only pretended to bury the hatchet for the sole purpose of preserving the brand image of team La Vie Claire, by order of the boss, Tapie, who in a later interview with L’Équipe remembered, “The first great moment of my career in sports was not my soccer team’s victory over Milan but rather Hinault and LeMond at Alpe d’Huez. It wasn’t winning that Tour; it was the stage victory. The morning before, they were at each other’s throats. I took my plane that evening and, after arriving, spent from two to four o’clock in the morning with them. Hours later, I watched them arrive at the summit of the Alpe together. It was more wonderful than any other experience.” Hinault, who ended his career that year, as he had always said he would, confided later, “I had fun at that Tour!”

What a masterful exit. Imagine Bernard Hinault, who would finish second in the 1986 Tour, 2:45 behind the new American top rider, Greg LeMond, announcing at L’Alpe d’Huez, “Today was my last day of competition.” He did so as the grand winner of the world’s most prestigious mountain stage. For lack of a more theatrical exit, the Badger climbed the last great col of his career at almost 2,000 meters (6,562 feet). In retrospect, his conduct was that of a pugnacious former champion, with the victory high atop the Alpe compensating for the absence of a final victory in Paris. That was why everyone — in France, at least — thought the 1986 Tour also belonged to him, in some small way.

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