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VN Archives: How Greg LeMond almost lost the 1990 Tour de France

A poorly timed flat nearly costs Greg LeMond the 1990 Tour de France and his third yellow jersey in this report from our 1990 archive.

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The last half century has produced countless amazing moments in pro cycling, and VeloNews has been there for almost all of them. This year we celebrate our 50th birthday, and with half a century’s worth of archives, we want to present some of the more memorable VeloNews covers, feature stories, and interviews from our past. Our hope is these curated snippets will help motivate you to pursue your passion for the sport you love.

After his brilliant performance at Luz-Ardiden, LeMond said he “might take Chiappucci out” on the next day, the last mountain stage of the Tour. But the race turned out very differently from what he expected when a badly timed puncture caused LeMond many minutes of anxiety in his intense battle for the yellow jersey.

Although at the end of the day the two leaders were still separated by those five seconds, at the moment of his rear wheel flat, LeMond felt that he was about to lose the Tour. The puncture occurred at the only point in the stage when the race leaders decided to flex their muscles, approaching the top of the Marie-Blanque climb. Two thrusting attacks by Delgado took him, LeMond, Chiappucci, and another dozen riders a minute or so clear of the next group.

Just then, as Hampsten described, “Everyone heard a big explosion, and we knew that the blown tire was Greg’s.”

At that moment, LeMond had no teammates with him, nor were there any support cars behind his group — due to the sudden acceleration by Delgado. The world champion was left standing at the side of the road. He removed his rear wheel and hurled it into the trees in frustration. (In fact, he threw the wheel so hard that he awoke in the night with back pains that required attention from a chiropractor.)

Expressing how he then felt, LeMond later reported, “I looked left and right to see if there were any cyclists there to give me a wheel. What was the worst was not knowing whether Roger (Legeay, the Z team directeur sportif) was one … or three minutes behind.”

LeMond finally received a spare wheel, but in his haste, the Z team mechanic didn’t tighten the skewer enough, and after 200 meters, the wheel pulled over in the frame. Again, the American star stopped, and this time was given a spare bike, on which he crossed the 3,400-foot summit of the Marie-Blanque, an enormous 1:27 behind the group containing Chiappucci and Delgado.

Two of LeMond’s French teammates, Boyer and Simon, were now with him; and Legeay was arranging for two others, Duclos-Lassalle and Kvalsvoll — who were seven minutes ahead in a breakaway group — to stop and wait in the valley.

Taking tremendous risks, LeMond raced down the steep, curving descent at 100kph, narrowing the gap to 1:06 near the foot of the pass, and to 0:56 as he turned sharp right in the narrow streets of rural Escot. The pursuit continued on a bumpy, rolling backroad, with Simon and Boyer riding as hard as they could to pull their leader back to Chiappucci.

Ahead, the race leader had five Carrera teammates with him to share the pace … but an incensed LeMond was gradually closing. The gap was down to 0:32, when Duclos-Lassalle and Kvalsvoll joined the Z trio. And the day was saved after a chase lasting 21km.

LeMond was understandably infuriated by the actions of Chiappucci. There is an unwritten rule in pro cycling: You never attack a rider who has been stopped by a crash or a puncture. LeMond angrily commented, “I said that Chiappucci did honor to his yellow jersey at Luz-Ardiden; but today, he was unsporting. He’ll pay for it one day.”

Meanwhile, the battle for the stage win was being played out among 13 riders, who were now only five minutes ahead. They had been part of a large group that had been allowed to break clear as soon as the flag dropped on leaving the pilgrim-packed streets of Lourdes. None of them were a danger on overall time.

From an original group of 19, only 13 were left in front after crossing the day’s two main climbs — the Col d’Aubisque and the Marie-Blanque — and it was from this group that an attack was made on a short hill, 27km from the finish, by Lotto-Superclub’s Peter De Clercq. He was brought back by an alert Bauer, but the 7-Eleven rider couldn’t respond when the other Lotto rider in the break, Bruyneel, counterattacked on the next climb. Bruyneel was quickly joined by Konyshev, the leader of the first Soviet team to participate in the Tour.

The two leaders took a 25-second lead, before Bauer found his second wind and started a solo chase, five kilometers from the finish. The Canadian came within 100 meters of closing on Bruyneel and Konyshev, but they then began to wind up their finishing sprint in the streets of Pau.

Not surprisingly, the winner was Konyshev, who thus became the first Soviet cyclist to win a stage of the Tour, almost a year after he became the first rider from his country to earn a medal at the world professional road racing championship.

More than five minutes later, the previous day’s stage winner, Indurain, sprinted home — ahead of Chiappucci and LeMond — to earn a special $40,000 prize as the best-placed rider over the two stages in the Pyrénées. LeMond wasn’t too upset about missing the bonus prize; he was just relieved that his puncture didn’t cost him the chance of winning his third Tour de France.