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Tour de France

VN Archives: An emotional rollercoaster of a Tour de France time trial

Pensec falls as Chiappucci rises on stage 12 of the 1990 Tour de France.

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The extreme emotions engendered by the Tour were never more real than in the moments following this 12th stage — a 33.5km uphill time trial. Ronan Pensec, the last man to ride by virtue of his overall leadership, had just finished his effort. He’d raced himself into the ground, and his body was covered in sweat on this broiling hot, humid afternoon. But his best effort was not good enough.

After zipping a Z team jersey over his saturated yellow skinsuit, Pensec sat on a folded tarpaulin behind the winner’s podium, his body bent over and his head in his hands. His dream had been shattered.

No more than five meters away, up on the stage, Claudio Chiappucci had just donned the magic maillot jaune. He waved to the crowd, kissed the formally dressed Credit Lyonnais hostesses, and adopted a captivating grin on his tanned, round face. His dream was just starting.

Yes, this year’s topsy turvy Tour had taken another turn. Just when it seemed that the race had found its definitive character, it changed again. Until stage 10, Steve Bauer had looked secure in the yellow jersey. Then, Pensec took over, pulled 1:28 ahead of Chiappucci, and was hailed as the new French hope — following the abandonments of Laurent Fignon and Jean-François Bernard, and the poor showing of Charly Mottet.

But on this time trial — from the outskirts of noisy Grenoble to the verdant pastures of the Vercors plateau — Pensec had to struggle to make 49th place. He lost almost three minutes to Chiappucci, who finished eighth, becoming the first Italian to wear the yellow jersey since Francesco Moser, 15 years ago.

The stage itself was won by Erik Breukink, who finally put together a faultless performance and moved into third place overall, over Greg LeMond. Asked if he now had a chance of winning the Tour, Breukink replied, “The Tour de France is very long. I wasn’t feeling good in the first week, but I’ve now reached my best level, and I was very motivated after doing so well at Alpe d’Huez. I came to the Tour thinking I might finish in the top five; now my goal is the top three.”

Chiappucci was again a contender, but in a Tour where yesterday’s hero became today’s failure, the balance of power was returning to the former race winners, LeMond and Pedro Delgado.

In the time trial, Delgado almost repeated his victory in a similar stage in 1988, but a change of bikes in the last kilometer and his choice of using a rear disc instead of a spoked wheel probably cost him the 30 seconds by which Breukink beat him.

LeMond, also using a rear disc, appeared to struggle on the first, longer climb. At the 15.5km checkpoint, he was already 33 seconds down on Breukink, and 18 seconds behind Delgado. The American continued to lose time to his principal rivals, but energetically fought his way to the top of the short, final hill to record the fifth best time, 0:56 slower than Breukink. Coincidentally, LeMond finished fifth in last year’s uphill time trial, at Orcieres-Merlette… and went on to win the Tour.

Although LeMond was still six minutes behind teammate Pensec on overall time, the Frenchman’s poor performance revealed his inherent weakness in a race as long as the Tour de France. However, with Pensec now out of the jersey, LeMond could at last plan his own race.

Two men to whom LeMond now had to play close attention were the Italians, Chiappucci and Bugno. The Italian race followers were euphoric about Chiappucci’s excellent eighth place (only nine seconds slower than LeMond) that gave him the yellow jersey; but they were upset by the poor showing of Gianni Bugno, who finished only 22nd, and dropped to seventh overall, four minutes behind LeMond.

Among the other surprises were the excellent performances of the Spanish and Colombian riders, who reveled in the 90-degree temperatures.

Delgado’s lieutenant, Miguel Indurain, came in third, only 13 seconds slower than his team leader; while Marino Lejarreta, fourth, moved into the top 10 overall… and looked to be on target to repeat his overall fifth place of last year.