VN Archives: The 1994 Tour opens with a gruesome, high-speed crash

Stage 1 ends in disaster when Wilfried Nelissen hits a police officer at top speed in finishing sprint.


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Editor’s note: This is a report of the opening prologue and first three road stages of the 1994 Tour de France.

After the opening 10 days of the 81st Tour de France, a relaxed Miguel Indurain was well on his way to winning the world’s biggest bike race for the fourth consecutive year. The big Spaniard was constantly riding near the front and showing a more personable, playful side to his character.

As expected, the Banesto team leader’s greatest threat was Swiss star Tony Rominger (Mapei-CLAS), who trailed Indurain by 2:28 going into the first mountain stages. Rominger conceded that time over the first three time trials: the 7.2km prologue in Lille (won at a record speed by Olympic pursuit champion Chris Boardman); the 66.5km TTT at the Eurotunnel (taken by GB-MG-Bianchi, six seconds over a magnificent Motorola); and, most significantly, the 64km individual test in Perigord, where Indurain spreadeagled the field.

The opening phase of the 3978.2km race had a distinct British flavor: Neo-pro Boardman (GAN) held the yellow jersey for two days — the first Englishman since Tom Simpson in 1962; his compatriot Sean Yates gave Motorola its first tenure of the maillot jaune; and the two English stages drew an estimated three million Brits. But with the success came sadness: a first-stage crash put three of the best sprinters in the hospital; and all-time great Greg LeMond may have packed his Tour bags for the final time after quitting the race on stage six.

An errant gendarme cost Jalabert and Fontanelli the Tour. Neither would start stage 2.

Prologue

The Boardman bombshell

Chris Boardman is for real: That was the message blaring out from the Tour de France — just before 5:57 p.m., on a hot, humid July 2, in the northern French city of Lille. Until that point, 180 of the 189 starters had finished their completely flat, 7.2km prologue time trials, and the best time stood to French contender Armand De Las Cuevas (Castorama) — 8:13. In fact, De Las Cuevas’ effort was a record speed for a Tour de France prologue: 52.535 kph. And there were big smiles on the faces of the French race fans.

But those smiles turned to gasps, as Tour speaker Daniel Mangeas announced to the crowd at the finish that Boardman was entering the final kilometer… and was about to catch his minute man, former French national champion Luc Leblanc. Indeed, the GAN team’s Englishman was homing in on Leblanc like a human missile.

Not only did Boardman catch Leblanc, but he dropped the Frenchman for several seconds in the final straightaway — to cross the line in a time of 7:49, a stunning 24 seconds faster than then leader De Las Cuevas! Mangeas could barely believe what he was saying when he reported that Boardman’s speed was 55.182 kph — the fastest for any Tour time trial. We knew then that the GAN man was going to win this opening stage, and that he would thus become only the second Englishman — 32 years after Tom Simpson — to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey.

Immediately engulfed by a pushing, swaying mob of camera-wielding photographers and microphone-proffering reporters, Boardman was an oasis of calm. The 25-year-old Merseysider has become used to handling the media: He did it in August 1992 after winning Olympic gold in Barcelona; and in July last year, Boardman faced part of the Tour de France media after he broke the world hour record at the Bordeaux velodrome, prior to a Tour stage finish.

At that point in his career, Boardman had no intention of riding an event such as the Tour. But he was persuaded to turn professional last September by the GAN team… and when he won the two time trials and final road stage of the Dauphine-Libere in June, he was convinced that he could achieve something at the Tour itself.

It must still have been an awesome sight for Boardman to be sitting atop the starting ramp in Lille, knowing that he was the prologue favorite, and seeing fans stretched 10-deep on either side of Lille’s Rue Nationale as far as he could see… In describing the situation, the Englishman said, “I’ve been in a pressure situation before, when I won the gold medal in Barcelona…. but this is a different league.”

And he admitted that the pressure had somewhat affected his ride: “I could have gotten more out of the first few kilometers, but I didn’t want to blow up.”

Once into his rhythm, however, there was no holding Boardman. The GAN rider used the latest road version of the Lotus “superbike” that he’d first ridden at the Barcelona Olympics. His upper body perfectly flat and his arms stretched out on his narrow aero bars, Boardman actually rode this prologue like a pursuit: He immediately clicked into a 53×12 gear, and never shifted from it, despite a gusting southwest breeze.

The C-shaped, out-and-back course was also ideally made for the other power riders: Indurain, Rominger, and Zülle — but they fell respectively 15, 19, and 22 seconds short of Boardman’s benchmark time. There hadn’t been as wide a victory margin since Bernard Hinault poleaxed the field at the Basel prologue in 1982.

“It’s only normal that a specialist should win the prologue,” remarked Indurain. But not winning, after doing so in the past two Tour prologues, must have put a small dent in Indurain’s psyche — particularly as he beat rival Rominger by only four seconds, compared to 14 seconds at the Puy-de-Fou prologue a year ago.

Of the other pre-race favorites, Claudio Chiappucci (Carrera-Tassoni) raced to a fine ninth place (only 18 seconds behind Indurain); Piotr Ugrumov (Gewiss-Ballan) was 11th (at 20 seconds); and Alvaro Mejia (Motorola) was a disappointing 71st (at 40 seconds). Still the most popular rider in the Tour, Greg LeMond came in 26 seconds behind Indurain.

Like his teammates Boardman and seventh-placed Eddy Seigneur, LeMond decided to use the Lotus superbike but, he was slowed by a loose seat. He estimated that the problem cost him at least 10 seconds, without which the three-time Tour winner would almost certainly have finished in the top 10. Nonetheless, his time of 8:30 was still good enough for 22nd spot — two seconds and four places behind Lance Armstrong, who was much happier with this prologue ride than the one he did in 1993.

On this day, however, the focus was on another young man: Boardman. Wearing the yellow jersey, the confident Brit remarked, “With the race going to England this year, it was a bonus for me. It probably won’t go back to England in my career, so this was a unique opportunity.” He took it with more aplomb than anyone expected. Boardman had finally arrived…

Stage notes

  • Armstrong began the race after signing a contract to stay with the Motorola team through the end of 1996.
  • Another late change in the roster was the omission of promising Spanish hope Mikel Zarrabeitia, who injured his back a few days before the Tour, and Maarten den Baker of TVM-Bison.
  • French sprinter Frederic Moncassin had to be replaced on the WordPerfect team roster at the last minute by his Dutch teammate Leon Van Bon. Moncassin was on the team that attended a televised presentation the night before. On stepping down from the stage, Moncassin caught a cleat between two steps, stumbled, and fell. An X-ray later showed that he’d broken a bone in his ankle. It was put in a cast, and his Tour was over before it had even started.
A loose seat may have cost LeMond a top-10 prologue placing.

Stage 1

The giants tumble

How quickly things can change. Prior to the finale of this opening road stage of the Tour, journalists were reflecting on the day’s themes: massive crowds throughout the flat, looping course around French Flanders; traditionally dressed, stuffed medieval “giants” standing outside the churches in every town; and a controlled race that only tested yellow jersey Boardman’s team when a three-man break evolved in the final hour.

And until its dying moments, the stage looked like being a battle between the race’s two best sprinters, Wilfried Nelissen and Djamolidin Abdujaparov. Then, a horrendous crash destroyed many expectations, and left Nelissen and the race organizers reflecting on why their efforts had suddenly soured.

After all, Nelissen’s Novemail-Laser team had controlled to perfection the stage’s closing kilometers, to set up the Belgian champion for the sprint. And the organizers thought they’d made conditions safer than ever for such a finish: barriers for the final five kilometers around the city of Armentieres; metal covers over the projecting feet of the barriers in the last 300 meters, with recesses for the fiber-glass Coke “cans” that caused the spectacular Abdujaparov crash in Paris three years ago; and gendarmes patrolling the finish area…

Unfortunately, neither Novemail-Laser nor race director Jean-Marie Leblanc could have anticipated for the actions of one of those police officers standing about 60 meters from the finish line. Instead of standing in one of the barrier recesses doing his crowd-control duties, the local policeman was three feet out into the street, with a camera up to his face, taking a snapshot of the Tour! Squinting through the small viewfinder, the gendarme clearly didn’t realize that Nelissen — head down and standing on his pedals — was sprinting straight toward him.

With Abdujaparov (Polti) to his left, and Jalabert (ONCE) and Fabio Fontanelli (ZG-Selle Italia) just behind him, Nelissen appeared to be headed for a well-deserved victory. But while moving at his probably maximum sprinting speed of 70 kph, Nelissen collided with the bulky policeman. As a result, the Belgian champion’s Look bike snapped at the fork crown, sending him head first onto the tarmac. Fontanelli careened right into Nelissen, and Jalabert veered right, clipping one of those Coke “cans” to land face first on the pavement.

Meanwhile, as the next gendarme leaped clean over the barriers, the first policeman bounced off the fence and brought down two more riders: Alexander Gontchenkov (Lampre-Panaria) and Johan Capiot (TVM-Bison) And they tumbled with the gendarme into the pile.

When the dust cleared, Abdujaparov had easily won the stage, ahead of Olaf Ludwig (Telekom) and Johan Museeuw (GB-MG-Bianchi)… and Jalabert, Nelissen, Fontanelli, and Gontchenkov were still lying on the road.

Nelissen was unconscious, his face covered with multiple contusions; Jalabert was conscious, but had lost or broken several upper teeth and cracked his jawbone, which would necessitate three-and-a-half hours of surgery the next day; and Gontchenkov had a broken scapular. None of them would start the race the next day.

Given the intensity of the day’s concluding drama, we had half-forgotten the earlier happenings. These included two intermediate sprint wins for Abdujaparov — giving him enough time bonuses to move into seventh overall, 27 seconds behind race leader Boardman; KoM wins for flatlanders Peter De Clercq (Lotto) and Jean-Paul Van Poppel (Festina); and the 33km-long break by Van Poppel, Herman Frison (Lotto) and Rob Mulders (WordPerfect), who gained 1:50 before the GAN, Polti, and finally Novemail-Laser teams brought them to heel at the 9km-to-go mark.

Stage note

  • Motorola’s Andreu reported that he had just missed being involved in the crash: “I was in the center of the road, toward the right, about 15 back… when I had to slam my brakes on (to avoid the crash).” The American still crossed the line in 11th place.
Motorola's impressive second in the TTT was nonetheless frustrating - it so easily could have been a victory.

Stage 2

Van Poppel nips Ludwig

The brutal departure from the race of Jalabert and Nelissen gave an unexpected (and probably unwanted) opportunity for the other sprinters. That was clear on the sun-splashed Boulevard Gambetta at the port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, where the second stage ended in a tire-width victory for sprintdom’s prodigal son Jean-Paul Van Poppel.

Back in the 1987 and 1988 Tours, Van Poppel won a total of six stages — just because he was so much faster than everyone else. Today, at 31 years old, he races against faster, younger legs than his. “I have to use my cunning now,” he told reporters at the finish. “I position myself better than I used to.”

In this finish — when the pack only reformed a kilometer from the line, after being split by the final climb — Van Poppel keyed off the previous stage’s runner-up Ludwig, who was being led out by two teammates. At first, Abdujaparov was challenging Ludwig, but with 50 meters left, the colorful Polti rider suddenly decided that the couldn’t win… and sat up. One explanation for his action could have been that he had only a 12 sprocket, whereas both Van Poppel and Ludwig fitted an 11.

Winding up his huge gear, Van Poppel gradually inched closer to Ludwig… until he threw his bike at the line to gain his ninth-ever Tour stage win. He and Ludwig were many lengths clear of third-placed Martinello. Despite freewheeling the last 30 meters, Abdujaparov finished sixth…

Prior to its exciting conclusion, the 203.5km stage had seen four distinct phases. The first was a blitzkrieg by the Lotto team, on three short climbs that rose out of the flat, green countryside of Flanders. The Belgian riders’ efforts propelled De Clercq to three KoM wins: finishing ahead of Chiappucci on the Mont Rouge; ahead of Rominger on the steeper Mont des Cats; and in front of his teammates Herman Frison and Andrei Tchmil on the cobbled climb of Mont Cassel.

As soon as the pack snaked through the hilltop town of Cassel, Armstrong — who crossed the KoM line in sixth — shot to the front to lead a helter-skelter attack down the winding descent. A dozen riders came with him, including yellow jersey Boardman and green jersey Abdujaparov. The acceleration triggered a lively bout of racing, with the peloton being split into several echelons as the race headed across the coastal plain toward Dunkirk. After about 15 minutes of this, when 17 riders were dropped from the rear, calm was restored — and Motorola’s Stephen Swart launched a well-timed attack, followed by French champion Jacky Durand (Castorama).

This two-man break remained center-stage for the next 105km, as the France-New Zealand alliance was allowed to gain a quick five-minute lead. Swart and Durand then battled a fierce coastal breeze on the flat roads, with the GAN team steadily closing the gap to about a minute… and then leaving the pair dangling in front, to ensure that the major time bonuses at the remaining intermediate sprints were taken, before the dangerous Abdujaparov was able to gobble up more of his 21-second deficit on Boardman. For their joint enterprise — which Durand ended by shaking Swart’s hand — the two breakaways shared the bulk of a $9000 sprint prime entering Dunkirk, as well as points and time bonuses.

When the break was caught — about 22km out of Boulogne — Motorola continued to provoke the pace. The team had trained on this rolling finish just prior to the Tour, and Armstrong said before leaving Roubaix, “I’m motivated for this stage.”

In this final phase — mostly on narrow, winding back roads — it was Steve Bauer who instigated one break, accompanied by Guido Bontempi (Carrera-Tassoni), Leon Van Bon (WordPerfect), Stefano Colage (ZG-Selle Italia), and Pascal Chanteur (Chazal-MBK). Then Phil Anderson worked hard to power a seven-man move that included Van Poppel and De Clercq. But neither attack could gain more than 10 seconds, and the pack was still fairly intact when it reached Boulogne. There, a steep one-kilometer climb to a massive dome-shaped basilica saw successive attacks by Frenchmen De Las Cuevas and Richard Virenque (Festina), before Italian veteran Massimo Ghirotto (ZG-Selle Italia) jumped away to reach the summit — 50 meters clear of Chiappucci and Armstrong.

On the following plateau, Ghirotto was joined by Andrea Peron (Polti) and Jesper Skibby (TVM-Bison), while on the fast descent to the coast, they were joined by a small group that included Chiappucci, Armstrong and Rolf Sørensen (GB-MG-Bianchi). It appeared to be a great move… but the last hill hadn’t been long enough to split the pack, and a downhill solo break by Chiappucci was neutralized by the chasing Telekom men, just 1500 meters from the line.

Nelissen and Jalabert may have been absent, but Van Poppel was waiting…

Stage 3

Motorola so near, yet…

Every year, Jim Ochowicz’s American team has honed its technique in the Tour’s team time trial: As 7-Eleven, the squad placed last in its 1986 Tour debut; and as Motorola, it has steadily improved, going up to sixth in 1992, 29 seconds behind the winning Panasonic squad; third in 1993, 26 seconds behind GB-MG-Bianchi… and an amazing second this year, only six seconds behind GB-MG-Bianchi — whose Johan Museeuw took over the yellow jersey.

But Motorola’s loss was a frustrating one, because it could so easily have been a win. The official time checks showed that over the last 44.5km of the hilly 66.5km course, the U.S. formation was 12 seconds faster than GB-MG-Bianchi, after passing through the 22km mark 18 seconds behind the Italian squadra. However, most of that early deficit was accumulated when Motorola’s Belgian domestique Michel Dernies was dropped near the summit of a long climb after just 16km: The other eight riders waited for Dernies, who still took three kilometers to rejoin. “My legs were bad there,” Dernies admitted later. “Armstrong was just going too hard for me.”

Over the hill’s summit, Ochowicz told his riders to ease up. Was it an order he regretted? “No,” the Motorola team director later replied. “We made a decision before the start that we’d wait for anyone who was dropped before the second hill (at half-distance), because they could have finished outside the time limit. We may have lost 10 to 12 seconds waiting for Michel… but he was taking pulls at the end, and probably helped us take that time back again.”

With each team’s time being taken on its fifth rider, every man was of value on this particularly tough course. Besides the 5km-long ascent that came after 12km of flat, there were four other significant hills, including the last, steep winding climb to Cap Blanc Nez, 13km from the finish. And adding to the difficulties was a fierce wind blowing off the English Channel — conditions that Motorola had experienced on a reconnaissance.

The circuit’s second leg — from 20km to 40km — was directly into the wind, and this is where Motorola showed its all-around strength. Yates, Anderson, and Steve Bauer (riding with a leg wound) were particularly strong on the downhill and flat sections, while Armstrong, Alcalá, and Yates (again) provided the driving force on the uphills. But even Motorola experienced some problems here:

  • Swart, 24 hours after his long breakaway, dropped off the pace at 51km, and finished five minutes behind the others.
  • Alcalá fell back at the foot of the last climb, to lose almost four minutes. “I ran out of sugar,” he explained. “I felt dizzy and had no strength in my legs.”
  • And Mejia — the team’s major G.C. hope, who had spent most of the time trial sitting at the back of the line — lost his balance on a tight turn 3km from the line, crashed, changed bikes, and lost 49 seconds.

Meanwhile, as Motorola and GB-MG-Bianchi contended for the stage victory, two other equally enthralling contests were taking place. One was the battle for supremacy between the respective teams of Indurain and Rominger. And the other was the attempt by GAN to keep Boardman in the yellow jersey for that evening’s trip through the brand-new Eurotunnel into England.

Yates hugs his mother when the Tour came to England.

Indurain’s Banesto team and Rominger’s Mapei-CLAS squad were much more evenly matched than last year — when Rominger conceded 2:44 (including a one-minute penalty) to his Spanish rival. This time, Rominger’s men were only eight seconds behind at the 45km checkpoint… and appeared to be challenging Banesto for third place when, down to five riders, its Fernando Escartin flatted on the final descent. Mapei-CLAS directeur sportif Juan Fernandez estimated that waiting for Escartin after his wheel change cost his riders about 20 seconds, which was the bulk of their eventual 24-second loss. Even so, the slim deficit still pleased Rominger, who noted, “Last year, I’d lost the Tour by now. Now, I’m only 28 seconds back. There’s no need to panic.”

As for Boardman, he was easily the strongest rider on the GAN team, but his long, strong pulls prematurely killed off his weaker teammates. The Englishman’s biggest ally was LeMond, who felt that the French formation could have performed much better than its eight-place finish, 1:16 behind GB-MG-Bianchi.

Boardman desperately wanted to keep the yellow jersey, and his American teammate was dedicated to helping. “But,” LeMond reported, “the young guys on the team wouldn’t listen. I kept telling them to go easy on the climbs — but they would go easy on the flats, then race up the hills as though it were the finish of a road race.”

The result was that GAN was already 39 seconds behind GB-MG-Bianchi after 22km. However, they rallied during the next 23km, losing only an additional 10 seconds. Then, the team’s problems started multiplying. Jean-Philippe Dojwa — who came in 15th at the 1993 Tour — flatted and was left behind. And next, the stem bolt on Boardman’s Lotus bike worked loose.

“I called up the team car for a spanner [wrench],” the race leader later noted. “But with all the crowd noise, Roger (Legeay) thought I wanted to change bikes.” Eventually, Boardman did get his wrench, and the team slowed to a crawl while he tightened the bolt.

A final problem for the French team came on the Cap Blanc Nez climb, where LeMond twice dropped his chain, as the remaining four riders on the team waited for him. The five rallied strongly over the last flat kilometers around the sprawling Eurotunnel complex, with Boardman towing his teammates at the very end. It was an impressive effort… but that yellow jersey would travel under the channel on the back of a Belgian, not an Englishman

Stage note

  • Most of the top teams used a big chainring of 54 and eight-speed freewheels of 12-19. The Motorola riders had a top gear of 53×11, which allowed them to use the “smaller” 53 on the climbs.