Tour de France 2020

Remembering the last great Tour de France upset: LeMond’s spectacular 1989 turnaround

Greg LeMond turned the tables on Laurent Fignon in the final time trial in 1989. 31 years later, Tadej Pogačar did the same to Primož Roglic.

I remember where I was standing in 1989, when Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in the final time trial. And I likely won’t forget where I was standing when Tadej Pogačar turned the tables on Primož Roglič in the final time trial this year.

The 1989 Tour is impossible for me to forget as it was the last Tour that I did not cover in some way, shape or form as a journalist here in France.

I remember the day well, as I was racing bikes somewhere up in Wisconsin at the annual SuperWeek event. Back then of course there were no mobile telephones, no internet and no social media. News came from the race announcer over the loudspeakers near the start/finish line while I was watching another race that day. And the news came tentatively, as it was hard to verify sources.

On Saturday I was again standing near a finish line, but this time the finish line of the Tour de France time trial on La Planche des Belles Filles.

I arrived early — well before the publicity caravan arrived — to get my spot on the final climb, as La Planche is always logistically complicated. For hours I sat on the roadside with several Dutch photographer friends. All seemed confident that Roglič, who rides for the Dutch Jumbo-Visma team, would clinch his first Tour de France victory.

But as soon as Roglič took the start, it became clear that nothing was a given in this race against the clock, and that one minute in a three-week Tour de France can still evaporate very quickly, as it did in 1989 and as it did yesterday.

Back in 1989, LeMond made up a 50-second deficit to win the yellow jersey by just eight seconds over the 24.5-kilometer stage from Versailles to Paris. Yesterday, Pogačar made up nearly a one-minute deficit to win the 36.2-kilometer and take over the race lead by 59 seconds.

Comparisons of course are obvious and will be made for some time to come. Like LeMond, Pogačar could not rely on a strong team and had to play off of the strengths of Jumbo-Visma. And he did so perfectly, displaying an uncanny sense of cool and tactical prowess for a rider who is not yet 22 years old.

Pogačar raced into yellow on the Belles Filles. Photo: James Startt

Greg LeMond, who watched the race on television in Tennessee, said, “I was screaming in front of the television, and so was my wife [i.e., Kathy LeMond], like when I won on the Champs-Elysées in 1989.”

Speaking with the French sports daily, l’Equipe, he added, “I’m still very excited. It was so beautiful, fantastic. It’s the birth of a great, great champion. I’m a bit sad for Roglic, but to see Pogačar beat him by nearly two minutes, oh la la! He never thought about winning the Tour at the start, but he just got stronger and stronger.”

But while LeMond’s observations are correct, they are also from a winner’s perspective, and one who won the Tour in a similar fashion.

So I called up my friend Alain Gallopin upon returning to Paris this morning. Gallopin, a longtime director sportif, was Fignon’s soigneur back in 1989.

“Oh that was a day I will never forget,” Gallopin said while stopping on his Sunday morning bike ride. “When Fignon hit the Champs-Elysées with a 35-second deficit, I told my collegue in the car, ‘That’s it, we’re going to lose the Tour.’”

And Gallopin had the same impressions Saturday as news came in regarding the first time splits.

“I was returning from the Tour of Luxembourg with Tony [i.e. his nephew Tony Gallopin who races with the AG2R – La Mondiale team]. And as soon as I saw that Roglič was trailing by 15 seconds at the first time split, I knew he had lost it.”

But while Pogačar’s impressive victory surprised many, Gallopin was anything but surprised.

“Roglič, like a lot of the French riders, was simply too good in August. And already in the Tour, I could tell that he didn’t have the jump that he had in races like the Tour de l’Ain. And to win the Tour you have to be good until the last day. Pogačar did what in August? He got fourth in the Critérium du Dauphiné and that’s it.”

But beyond this year’s Tour, which finishes with it’s traditional circuits around the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, Gallopin is concerned how Roglič handle what can only be a stunning defeat.

“For Laurent, his career essentially ended on the Champs-Élysées that day. He never got back to that level. I only hope Roglič can bounce back. He’s got a good team around him, but it’s not going to be easy.”