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Tour de France

Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson:When LeMond reached the Tour podium

Last week, I left you with a thought from Greg LeMond after Frenchman Laurent Fignon won the 1983 Tour de France: “We all thought it was kind of a fluke.” Had LeMond, then 22, started that Tour, he might well have won it. He was two months older than Fignon, who was his teammate, and LeMond would have gone into the race with much better results, including victories at the 1982 Tour de l’Avenir and 1983 Dauphiné Libéré. Backing up that theory was the manner in which LeMond continued the 1983 season, winning the world championship and then the Super Prestige Pernod title (see “Inside Cycling,”

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Fignon wins the '83 Tour

Fignon wins the ’83 Tour

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Last week, I left you with a thought from Greg LeMond after Frenchman Laurent Fignon won the 1983 Tour de France: “We all thought it was kind of a fluke.” Had LeMond, then 22, started that Tour, he might well have won it. He was two months older than Fignon, who was his teammate, and LeMond would have gone into the race with much better results, including victories at the 1982 Tour de l’Avenir and 1983 Dauphiné Libéré.

Backing up that theory was the manner in which LeMond continued the 1983 season, winning the world championship and then the Super Prestige Pernod title (see “Inside Cycling,” October 14). Instead, the circumstances were very different when Renault-Elf directeur sportif Cyrille Guimard decided it was time for LeMond to ride the Tour the following year.

To start with, four-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault had left Guimard’s roster in a huff and formed a new team for French businessman Bernard Tapie, The title sponsor was one of Tapie’s companies, a chain of health food stores, La Vie Claire. And the men signed to help Hinault were a mixture of former teammates and domestiques from other teams.

Meanwhile, Fignon was enjoying a break-out season, having won stages at Colombia’s Clasico RCN, Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie and the Giro d’Italia — in which he finished second overall after a race-long duel with Italian Francesco Moser. And a week before the Tour, Fignon won the French national championship. He was on a roll.

LeMond though was in and out of good health that spring, but managed third place at April’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège (beaten in the sprint by Sean Kelly and Phil Anderson), and then won the final time trial of June’s Dauphiné (placing third overall behind Colombian Martin Ramirez and Hinault).

As for Hinault, his form, too, was erratic. He had just returned from knee surgery, and was still getting used to leading a brand new team. Before his second place at the Dauphiné, Hinault finished third in Paris-Nice and won the Four Days of Dunkirk, results that were far below the high-profile victories he was taking for many years prior to the tendinitis injury sustained at the 1983 Vuelta a España.

With the Peugeot team again supporting Pascal Simon’s bid at the Tour, its former team leader Anderson had moved to Dutch squad Panasonic-Raleigh. Anderson’s spring included wins in the Frankfurt and Zürich classics and the Setmana Catalana stage race.

Another former Peugeot standout, Stephen Roche, was now heading the La Redoute team. Roche won the Tour de Romandie in his buildup to the Tour, while his fellow Irishman Kelly racked up 16 wins before July, including Paris-Nice, the Critérium International, Tour of the Basque Country, Tour of Switzerland, Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Kelly, who started his career as a sprinter, says that the six-week period between his 1984 Paris-Nice and Liège wins was “the best of my career.” Besides the wins listed above, he placed second at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, and picked up eight stage wins in the various races. The French press was starting to call him le cannibal (or the Irish Merckx), but by racing every race to win Kelly was close to burnout by the time the Tour came around each July. Even so, the lean Irishman had worn the yellow jersey (for a day) at the previous year’s Tour, in which he placed seventh overall.

Break-through ’84 Tour
Going into the 1984 Tour, the best showing by an “Anglo” still belonged to Anderson, who placed fifth in 1982. Only two years later, there were five riders capable of beating that performance, or even becoming the first Anglo to climb on the Tour podium: Irishmen Kelly and Roche, Scottish climber Robert Millar (still with Peugeot), Australia’s Anderson and, the only Tour rookie of the five, LeMond.

It was a tough Tour, with its 4021km divided into a prologue and 23 stages, with only one rest day. Besides the prologue there were three other time trials (a flat 67km at Le Mans, an uphill 22km at La Ruchère, and a rolling 51km in Burgundy the penultimate day). There were also three mountaintop finishes (at Guzet-Neige in the Pyénées, L’Alpe d’Huez, and Crans-Montana in the Swiss Alps).

The favorites for the overall victory were the Frenchmen Fignon and Hinault, the two previous Tour winners. Their rivalry and the Anglo opposition were emphasized at the prologue in the Paris suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois. In a very close 5.4km time trial, Hinault won from Fignon, followed by three Anglos, Aussies Allan Peiper and Anderson and Brit Sean Yates, with Roche (seventh), LeMond (ninth) and Kelly (14th) also finishing within 16 seconds of Hinault.

Fignon’s and LeMond’s Renault-Elf team took revenge three days later by winning the 51km team time trial at Valenciennes. In another close finish, the French squad put four seconds on Anderson’s Panasonic team, 32 seconds on the Peugeot team of Simon, Millar, Peiper and Yates, 55 seconds on Hinault’s La Vie Claire men, 1:22 on Kelly’s Skil-Reydel team, and 1:41 on Roche’s La Redoute squad.

While the yellow jersey was kidnapped for 11 days by Renault’s young French rider Vincent Barteau after he and two others took almost 18 minutes out of the peloton on the rolling stage 5 to Pontoise, the “real” race continued at the stage 7 Alençon-Le Mans TT and on the only Pyrenean stage, stage 11 from Pau to Guzet-Neige.

The long time trial proved to be a close battle between Fignon and Kelly, with the Frenchman eventually taking the stage win by just 16 seconds. Hinault, clearly not at his best, came in third, 49 seconds back. Of the other Anglo challengers, Roche came in fourth (at 1:07), Anderson sixth (1:24), a still-below-par LeMond 10th (2:08), and Millar 46th (at 4:34).

Millar’s ride was significant as he finished 26 seconds ahead of his Peugeot team leader, Simon. The British rider’s position was reinforced when he won the Guzet-Neige stage in a brilliant solo attack, 41 seconds ahead of the runner-up, Colombian climber Lucho Herrera. Fignon was 2:13 back, Kelly and Hinault at 3:05, LeMond at 3:42, and Anderson at 4:01. Simon placed 20th, 4:14 behind teammate Millar.

In the General Classification, Fignon was up to third place, 2:05 ahead of Hinault (in fifth), followed by Anderson (2:56 behind Fignon), Millar (3:51), Kelly (3:58) and LeMond (4:02). “I wasn’t feeling good,” LeMond recalls. “I had bronchitis, I was not healthy in ’84.” Also, LeMond was suffering from the heat; after the stage to Guzet-Neige he immediately took off his shoes and poured ice-cold Perrier water over his swollen feet.

The overall positions were roughly the same when the 140 survivors (from 170 starters) arrived in Grenoble for the rest day, with the prospect of five mountain stages in the Alps to tackle in the next five days. Anderson was in fifth overall, ahead of LeMond and Kelly, but the Aussie had crashed hard on the descent into Grenoble and cracked his sternum. He would carry on to finish the Tour in 10th, but the injury stopped him from making a bid for the podium.

Even though Fignon was still 10 minutes behind his teammate Barteau on overall time at Grenoble, being in second place had enabled the Renault team leader to ride the first two weeks of the Tour without any real pressure. He was relaxed and ready to prove that his 1983 Tour victory was not a fluke.

Fignon won the uphill time trial to La Ruchère, with Hinault in fourth (at 33 seconds), Kelly seventh (1:21), Millar eighth (1:26), Anderson ninth (1:30) and LeMond 17th (1:54). Despite that TT win, which put him much closer to the yellow jersey, Fignon was still being criticized in the French media for his lack of panache in the regular mountain stages.

While the ambitious young Frenchman was stung by the criticism and determined to prove himself in the upcoming alpine stages, Hinault was even more fed up with playing second fiddle to his former junior teammate. Stage 17, which took the race over the steep Côte de Laffrey before the finish up to L’Alpe d’Huez, would provide the showdown.

When Colombia’s Herrera rode away from the field on the short Laffrey climb, only Fignon could hold his wheel. When the pair gained a minute before the hilltop. Hinault’s reaction was to make a solo pursuit on the narrow, serpentine descent; he then raced straight past the two leaders on the valley approach to L’Alpe d’Huez. Insolently, Fignon ignored Hinault’s attack and waited for the final climb.

Up the Alpe’s initially steep pitches, Herrera quickly cut Hinault’s lead, while Fignon followed in the Colombian’s wake alongside Millar, the Spanish climber Angel Arroyo and a second Colombian, Rafael Acevedo. Kelly, Roche and the injured Anderson were all having bad days; but LeMond was turning things around. “I was getting dropped the whole day in the climbs,” LeMond remembers. “And in the final climb, Alpe d’Huez, I all of a sudden felt better.”

While Herrera rode away to a historic stage victory (the first by a South American in Tour history), Fignon was the strongest of the rest, taking second (and the yellow jersey), followed by Arroyo, Millar and Acevedo. And just behind the Colombian, after passing Simon and Hinault in the last few switchbacks, LeMond swept home in sixth place.

LeMond did even better the next day — a giant stage over the Galibier and Madeleine passes before a mountaintop finish at La Plagne. Fignon answered his critics by finally winning a true mountain stage, with teammate LeMond, in third (at 1:07), Millar fifth (1:44), Kelly seventh (2:30) and Hinault 10th (at 2:58). Overall, the 1-2-3 was Fignon-Hinault-LeMond, and that would be the final podium.

“No fluke” Fignon won the last mountain stage at Crans-Montana, and then put an exclamation point on his second Tour victory by taking the final time trial. But this was no slam-dunk.

Anderson (then lying 11th overall) gamely set the fastest time of 1:08:43 on the 51km TT through the Beaujolais vineyards from Villié-Morgon to Villefranche. The Aussie’s time was still fastest when an inspired Kelly, who had caught and passed Simon, steamed home in 1:07:19.

Kelly, not wearing a helmet or gloves, and riding his regular aluminum road bike with drop bars, looked like becoming the first Anglo to win a Tour time trial. Especially when neither LeMond (1:08:00) nor Hinault (1:07:55) could get within a half-minute of the Irishman.

Just Fignon remained, and he looked like he was slightly slower than Kelly when he crossed the line. “My time was 1:07.19.283, Laurent Fignon’s was 1:07:19.215” Kelly recalls in his “A Man for All Seasons,” a book published in 1991. “At the finish different people told me the electronic timing wasn’t working and that we were hand-timed. Because of that I couldn’t believe they would divide us when the difference was [seven] hundredths of a second.”

Some impartial observers even said that the French timekeepers “gave” Fignon the win. Despite that disappointment, Kelly came in fifth overall (equaling the best Tour finish by an Anglo), while Millar placed fourth (and became the first, and still the only Anglo to win the King of the Mountains title), and LeMond was third (the first Anglo on the podium).

LeMond, then 23, was well on the way to fulfilling his fifth (and final) “yellow pad” goals set down when he was still in high school. Perhaps that ultimate ambition would be achieved in 1985. I’ll write about that Tour next time.