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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Dauphiné with an English accent

When Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis labored up Mont Ventoux on Friday, battling for the leader’s jersey at this year’s Dauphiné Libéré, their presence emphasized how far American cycling has come in this sport once dominated by Europeans. But the current generation of English-speaking riders is not the first one to produce contenders at the Continent’s leading stage races, especially the Dauphiné. In the early 1980s, America’s Greg LeMond, Australia’s Phil Anderson, Britain’s Robert Millar and Ireland’s Sean Kelly all won stages or challenged for overall victory at the

By John Wilcockson

When Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis labored up Mont Ventoux on Friday, battling for the leader’s jersey at this year’s Dauphiné Libéré, their presence emphasized how far American cycling has come in this sport once dominated by Europeans. But the current generation of English-speaking riders is not the first one to produce contenders at the Continent’s leading stage races, especially the Dauphiné.

In the early 1980s, America’s Greg LeMond, Australia’s Phil Anderson, Britain’s Robert Millar and Ireland’s Sean Kelly all won stages or challenged for overall victory at the Dauphiné. For LeMond, the Dauphiné helped shape his career, because in his rookie season (1981), he lined up for the race at age 19, the event’s youngest ever competitor. He didn’t win that race, but he learned a lot, riding in support of his Renault team leader, Bernard Hinault — who was the overall winner, while LeMond finished an amazing fourth overall!

That was a remarkable debut, and when he returned to the Dauphiné two years later at age 21, LeMond was one of the pre-race favorites, especially after his domination of the previous fall’s Tour de l’Avenir. The prologue of the 1983 Dauphiné was in Sallanches, where this year’s race ends. Anderson won the 4.5km time trial to take the leader’s yellow jersey, while LeMond placed fifth, six seconds back.

LeMond took over the lead the next day after he won the opening, hilly road stage of 186km with a late, solo break. He finished the stage into Oyonnax 17 seconds ahead of a small chase group led home by Kelly and Anderson. LeMond lost the jersey the next morning, though, in a 54km half-stage, partly due to tactical considerations. The American had Renault teammate Marc Madiot in the breakaway group; Anderson’s Peugeot team was represented by Pascal Simon; and Frenchman Jacques Michaud of the Coop-Mercier squad took over the race lead. (Today, Madiot is the team director of Française des Jeux while Michaud is one of Phonak��s directeurs sportif.)

Michaud was still in the yellow jersey starting stage 5, the first day with major climbs. But the Frenchman was a long way behind at the end of the seven-hour trek through the Alps over the Grand-Cucheron, Glandon and Lautaret passes. The uphill sprint finish into Briançon was contested by the five men who would eventually take the top five places on GC, with LeMond winning his second stage ahead of three French riders, Simon, Robert Alban and Eric Salomon, with Millar in fifth.

Thanks to being in the short half-stage break three days earlier, Simon took over the race lead, with LeMond in second, going into what looked like being the decisive stage — over Mont Ventoux to a finish in Carpentras. There was a spectacular fight on the bleak, sun-baked 21km climb to the top of the Ventoux mountain, where four men went clear: LeMond of Renault, Simon and Millar of Peugeot, and French climber Thierry Claveyrolat of Sem-Reydel. The two Peugeot riders outmaneuvered the youthful American, and Simon eventually rode away to win the stage by three minutes on Claveyrolat, Millar and LeMond, with the next group six minutes back.

With just one day remaining and with an overall lead of almost four minutes on LeMond, it looked as though Simon had the Dauphiné win wrapped up. The race ended with a hilly 33km time trial from Montelimar to Pierrelatte, which LeMond took for his third stage win of the week. But on overall time Simon held on to take the final yellow jersey by 2:12 on LeMond, with Millar next at 5:05.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Two weeks later, it was announced that Simon had been found positive in the drug control after the final time trial. The French rider didn’t deny using micorene, a mild stimulant that improves breathing, and under the regulations of the time he was penalized 10 minutes. That dropped Simon to fourth in the final standings, giving the victory to LeMond from Millar.

It was an unsatisfactory way for LeMond to become the first American to win the Dauphiné; but his three stage wins in three different types of racing (hilly road stage, mountain stage and time trial) and his three-minute margin over Millar — all at age 21 — proved that his victory was far from being a gift. A month after the 1983 Dauphiné, Simon took the yellow jersey at the Tour de France after a rugged stage through the Pyrénées. It looked as though he would go on to win that ’84 Tour until he fractured his shoulder blade in a crash and a young Laurent Fignon came through to win when Simon was forced to pull out. Bad karma, for sure.

Simon never again was in contention to win a major race, while LeMond, of course, went on to confirm his great showing in the ’83 Dauphiné at races all over the Continent. Anderson (in 1985) and Millar (1990) both went on to win the Dauphiné, among many other races, while they and Kelly would still be among the world’s top riders into the early-90s.

Without their pioneering efforts, the elevated position held today by English-speaking racers in European professional cycling wouldn’t exist. That’s worth remembering when you next see Armstrong, Landis and Leipheimer racing together toward the summit of another mountaintop in France.