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Exclusive book excerpt: 1986: The Alpe’s Greatest Duel, from The Tour is Won on the Alpe.

Excerpted with permission from: The Tour Is Won on the Alpe by Jean-Paul Vespini, translated by David V. Herlihy

The Tour is Won on L'Alpe
The Tour is Won on L’Alpe

Editor’s note: Excerpted with permission from: The Tour Is Won on the Alpe by Jean-Paul Vespini, translated by David V. Herlihy. The book is available from VeloPress. The 2011 Tour de France will climb Alpe d’Huez on Friday’s stage 19.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

1986: The Alpe’s Greatest Duel

The 1985 Tour featured a memorable milestone: Greg LeMond took his first Tour stage win at Lac de Vassivière, beating his teammate and race leader Bernard Hinault in the 45-kilometer time trial the day before the race finish on the Champs-Élysées. Hinault claimed his fifth Tour, of course, but that same day he announced to Jean-Paul Brouchon of Miroir du Cyclisme that the following year he would serve strictly as LeMond’s lieutenant. “I’ll stir things up to help Greg win, and I’ll have fun doing it,” Hinault declared. “That’s a promise!”

LeMond’s position as future team leader was consecrated in the contract he signed with La Vie Claire team owner Bernard Tapie in 1985, a magnificent $1 million over three years. The deal symbolized not only the hoped-for future of Tapie’s team but also the future of professional cycling. LeMond was the first cyclist ever to earn such a sum, and his astonishing salary reset expectations within the peloton. For the first time, cyclists could look forward to parity with the stars of other vaunted pro team sports such as soccer, baseball, and American football. LeMond, the American, brought a new sensibility to the quintessentially European sport of cycling, and his contract announcement would agitate the peloton for many years to come. Moreover, LeMond was, without a doubt, the anointed winner for 1986. Hinault had repeated the announcement several times since the finale of the ’85 Tour: “LeMond will be my successor.”

Hinault’s intentions seemed sincere. At the conclusion of the ’85 Tour, in a post-race meeting with the press moderated by the French author and journalist Jacques Chancel, the Badger was asked, “Next year will be your sixth victory?”

“No, no, that’s it,” he replied.

The Tour is won on L’Alpe

“What do you mean?” asked a surprised Chancel. “As six-time winner, you’d better Anquetil and Merckx.”

Hinault smiled, amused by Chancel’s insistence. In a voice tight with emotion, he murmured, “You need to share the experience you’ve gained. Greg will need me next year.”

“That’s too easy,” retorted Chancel, turning to his numerous guests, happy to put the Badger on the spot. “That way, if he loses, he will have called it ahead of time.”

Team boss Tapie, who had been chuckling up to that point, interrupted the flow of the interview and said, tapping his finger, “That’s not Hinault’s style. If he says at the start that it’s Greg who will win, then that means Greg will be leader next year.”

Promises, promises.

Curiously, a year later, Hinault’s declarations had been forgotten. LeMond, though soundly beaten at the Giro d’Italia in May by Roberto Visentini, showed up at the start of the Tour with one thing on his mind. But for the cycling press, interest lay elsewhere.

LeMond Forgotten

A legendary rivalry was on everyone’s minds at the start of the 1986 Tour in the western Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, but it was not a competition between Hinault and LeMond. Observers were looking forward to the epic duel that had divided France into two camps, one for Hinault and the other for Le Professeur, Laurent Fignon.

“On my left, Bernard Hinault, wearing the jersey of La Vie Claire, the team he had chosen after his divorce from Cyrille Guimard and team Renault. On my right, Laurent Fignon, wearing the jersey of Système U, the team he had chosen after his departure from Renault, along with . . . Cyrille Guimard.” That was how the battle of the titans was announced on the front page of the special issue Tour de Vélo in July 1986. There was not a word about LeMond. Miroir du Cyclisme ran a similar commentary under the headline “Hinault-Fignon: Legend and Glory.” The American was once again forgotten. Miroir focused its attention on the French duel, in conjunction with a series of photos titled “Hand-to-Hand,” featuring historic sepia photos evoking the battles between Anquetil and Poulidor, Merckx and Thévenet.

Hinault and Fignon? Until then it had been a duel interrupted, suspended—nothing but a dream. Fignon had won the 1984 Tour, handily beating Hinault, who had been recovering from his knee operation. Hinault had won the following year, but Fignon had been absent, recovering from an operation on his Achilles tendon. The rematch that had been highly anticipated since the end of 1984 had not yet materialized, so everyone hoped to see it in 1986. Even the latest addition to the canon of cycling publications, Cyclisme Internationale, asked the question on the cover of its fourth issue, which featured a photograph of Hinault in yellow: “On his way to a sixth victory?” Again, not a word about LeMond.

Strangely, everyone—or almost everyone—had forgotten Hinault’s public promise at the end of the 1985 Tour to LeMond, who had played the role of perfect teammate: “Next year, I’ll be at your service!” A seemingly clairvoyant Maurice Vidal wrote, “Do you really believe that? I still believe Hinault is sincere. Life is based on intentions but sometimes changes course. To such an extent that what will happen between the two racers (and their boss) is just another uncertainty.”

What a perfect assessment of reality! It was the terrible year of Chernobyl and the year of French governmental “cohabitation.”1 It was also the year of the difficult cohabitation of Hinault and LeMond within the La Vie Claire team over the course of this explosive Tour, the last for the Badger, who was more determined than ever to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with.

Hinault got things started in the time trial stage at Nantes (61.5 kilometers [38 miles]), affirming himself the stronger of the leaders by finishing 44 seconds faster than runner-up LeMond. Then Hinault wreaked havoc in the first Pyrenean stage from Bayonne to Pau. He broke away with Pedro Delgado (who would win the stage) on the Col de Marie-Blanque, pulling on the yellow jersey later that day with a lead in the overall standings of over 5 minutes to the second-place LeMond, who struggled as soon as things heated up. It was beginning to look as though the Badger had his sixth Tour in the bag.

Fignon’s poor form completely changed the face of the Tour. Trailing by 12:43 and running a fever, he abandoned the race in Pau. With the great French rivalry put off, probably forever, everyone now spoke of nothing but Hinault’s promise to LeMond in 1985. It was a good way to rekindle interest in a Tour that seemed over before it had really gotten started, thanks to an Hinault who was proving elusive in more ways than one. “Just try to take back 5 minutes from Hinault!” he exulted.

The Badger’s Fatal Error

Used with permission from The Tour is Won on the Alpe
LeMond and Hinault on L’Alpe d’Huez in the 1986 Tour

The next day, however, Hinault committed a critical error in a Tour he certainly could have won when he attacked once again, this time alone, on the descent of the Tourmalet. What guts — what panache! But it was a crazy breakaway, considering he had the leader’s jersey on his shoulders. This was a move à la Merckx: the yellow jersey, breaking away on his own in the Pyrénées, along the road to Luchon.

Though generally a savvy tactician, the Badger inexplicably attacked a long way from the finish and was caught before the final climb to Superbagnères. At the front, two Americans took the Tour by force as if taking the baton: LeMond, assisted by teammate Andy Hampsten, led the dance. By the end of the day, LeMond was within 40 seconds of Hinault.

All that effort had gotten the Frenchman nowhere in his quest for a sixth victory. In the caravan, everyone wanted to know what Hinault was thinking. He explained his conduct nonchalantly: “If I had succeeded in reaching Superbagnères, I would have won the Tour and everyone would have lavished praise on me. If I failed, I knew that Greg was behind me ready to counterattack and that I was tiring his adversaries. It was sound strategy.” Unbelievable: Hinault was claiming to have transformed himself into a super-domestique for LeMond.

No one, or almost no one, believed in the promise anymore, especially since Hinault had not hesitated to attack from the beginning of the Tour. Not even in transitional stages like Nîmes-Gap, where once again he had surprised LeMond, who had reprimanded him with angry gestures after catching up in a chase group.

In any event, the Badger lost the yellow jersey the next day during the unprecedented stage in sun and dust from Gap to Col du Granon, with a mountaintop finish at 2,400 meters (7,875 feet). The stage was marked by dramatic setbacks, most notably those of Joël Pellier, who fell victim to hypoglycemia, and Hinault, who suffered from a hematoma on his calf. LeMond thus became the first American to pull on the yellow jersey, which he would wear for the first time in the stage that led to Alpe d’Huez. The route promised to be long and difficult, heated by both sun and passion.

Some didn’t accept Hinault’s relegation to second fiddle, perceived to be the fault of an opportunistic American who had only found his form in the month of July. Hinault himself may have agreed with this assessment, as he decided to make things difficult for LeMond over the course of this legendary stage.

It would be a decisive stage with regard to overall victory (Hinault was in third place, down only 2:47 on the American), one in which the Swiss Urs Zimmermann (in second place overall, 2:24 behind LeMond) hoped to play a big role. He would be a tough adversary, having already won the Critérium International and the Dauphiné Libéré earlier in the season.

On the descent of the Galibier, Hinault attacked. Only two men were able to follow: the Canadian Steve Bauer (Hinault’s teammate) and the Spaniard Pello Ruiz-Cabestany. All along the interminable plunge toward Valloire (almost 20 kilometers [12.4 miles]), Hinault gave it his all—without LeMond, who was stuck farther back. The American began to realize that he could lose the Tour at any moment when he saw the Badger continue his charge up the Col du Télégraphe, before the Croix de Fer and the final climb up Alpe d’Huez.

Dejected, LeMond consulted his directeur sportif, Paul Koechli, and finally launched his own attack, a last-chance pursuit race. He devoured the slopes of the Télégraphe with no thought of the risk and was able to catch Hinault on the outskirts of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. He had just saved his Tour.

Who could still believe that Hinault had not truly gone for it between the summit of Galibier and the valley leading to the initial slopes of the Croix de Fer? And the main event at Alpe d’Huez was soon to come. Sporting the multicolored combination jersey (a short-lived innovation from the Tour organizers awarded from 1985 to 1989 to the best-placed rider in the combined time, points, climbing, and intermediary sprint classifications), Hinault set the rhythm from the start, ensuring the pace, with LeMond, the fragile and troubled wearer of the yellow jersey, by his side. In the furnace of the Alpe, Hinault’s name, shouted by his tens of thousands of rabid supporters, rang in LeMond’s ears. Over the deafening roar, LeMond confessed, “I’m afraid of the crowds,” and pushed the Badger forward to lead. The sea of fans amassed along the wall of L’Oisans left them only a narrow opening through which to scale the asphyxiating slope, one behind the other.

Meanwhile, their adversaries followed in the distance, with Zimmermann the most dangerous. At more than 3 minutes back, he was chasing in a group that had counterattacked. He would finish third, 5:15 back. Old Joop Zoetemelk would finish 14:21 back, Charly Mottet and Stephen Roche 15 minutes back, and Robert Millar, wearing the polka-dot jersey (which Hinault would take by the end of the Tour), 19 minutes back. Lucho Herrera, who went over the Galibier in the lead, faltered badly, went backward, and finished 26 minutes back!

Amidst the tumult of the Alpe, between the Breton flags fluttering like proud standards, the colors of La Vie Claire painted on the road, and the cries of “Hinault, Hinault” as they passed, Hinault and LeMond, the two leaders, made their way up the climb.

The closely followed duel suddenly ceased, right before the eyes of crazed fans, when the Badger transformed himself into a locomotive, protecting the American to whom he would “hand” his first Tour de France at the top. Not once did Hinault let the American take the lead. Nor did LeMond seek to take it.

A few meters before the finish, LeMond clapped Hinault on the shoulder to thank him. As the Italian journalist Tony Lo Schiavo wrote in Bici Sport, “Over the last meters, they joined hands. You would have thought it was a sign of affection. But it wasn’t that. In reality, the clasping of hands masked a secret agreement: Hinault promised not to attack LeMond, and the American thanked him by letting him take the stage.”

A Two-Headed Eagle

The two racers rolled in unity over the straight section where the road broadens, flanked by security barriers. They exchanged a long look of satisfaction and smiles of relief and mischievousness, congratulating one another with pats on the back like two schoolboys who had pulled off a good prank. Then they crossed the line together—although with Hinault in the lead—each raising a hand in victory.

The next day, the sports daily L’Équipe ran the headline “A Two-Headed Eagle” on its front page, followed by an eight-column article. In the presence of the French minister of sport, Christian Bergelin, a delighted Hinault collected prizes for combativeness (sponsored by the bank BNP), best teammate (sponsored by Rocagraf ), and best rouleur.2 Above all, he had won his 26th Tour stage, surpassing André Leducq’s palmarès of 25 stage victories.

Jean Amadou, speaking of Hinault, wrote in L’Équipe, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a racer smile at the end of this climb. He looked like a kid who had just gotten himself a toy he had been dreaming about. Hinault had already won everything, or almost everything, but what he lacked was Alpe d’Huez. Starting tomorrow, LeMond will be praying that the Breton doesn’t decide to give himself one last gift: his sixth Tour.”

Their sincere hug and beaming smiles on the podium seemingly ended the war of nerves between the teammates. At least that was what everyone thought. Despite appearances, though, Hinault declared that very evening, just as Amadou had suspected, “The Tour is not over—I’m still racing to win it.” It sent a shiver down LeMond’s spine. In the end, however, the American would win his first Tour.

“I Could Have Taken 5 Minutes out of Him”

The real story of what had happened on that climb, if it hadn’t come to a head on Alpe d’Huez, broke a short time later in the form of shattering declarations. Today they shed light on the battle for that Tour and offer perspective on the duel at the Alpe.

The first to draw was the American, who vented his anger in an interview with the French journalist Henri Haget, declaring, “Hinault is not the man I knew at the start of my career. He’s obsessed with winning his sixth Tour, as if he’s forgotten that, without me, he never would have won his fifth. I gave him the 1985 Tour. He should remember that, but instead he’s created a terrible environment. The worst was the finish at L’Alpe d’Huez, when we crossed the line hand in hand. It was all a big show. I let myself get played like a novice. I had the yellow jersey, and at the foot of the climb, Hinault swore to me that it was all over, that he wouldn’t attack me again on the way to Paris. He knew that I could drop him at the first turn, but he asked me to let him lead on the climb to win the stage.

I could have taken 5 minutes out of him by the top. I shouldn’t have had any qualms about doing so.” The embittered Badger responded much later, in his memoirs.4 He wrote, “It wasn’t my fault if LeMond didn’t understand how I was conducting my race. I did what I did to benefit him, and him alone. I had told him that I would help him, give him a hand in winning the race. At Alpe d’Huez, I could have buried him. I think I could have put a lot of time on him that day, if I had thrown down the gauntlet. At no point was I trying to beat him. After Alpe d’Huez, I only waged a small psychological war to see exactly what he was made of.”

The big show had been nothing but a facade. In fact, the two teammates had only pretended to bury the hatchet for the sole purpose of preserving the brand image of team La Vie Claire, by order of the boss, Tapie, who in a later interview with L’Équipe remembered, “The first great moment of my career in sports was not my soccer team’s victory over Milan but rather Hinault and LeMond at Alpe d’Huez. It wasn’t winning that Tour; it was the stage victory. The morning before, they were at each other’s throats. I took my plane that evening and, after arriving, spent from two to four o’clock in the morning with them. Hours later, I watched them arrive at the summit of the Alpe together. It was more wonderful than any other experience.” Hinault, who ended his career that year, as he had always said he would, confided later, “I had fun at that Tour!”

What a masterful exit. Imagine Bernard Hinault, who would finish second in the 1986 Tour, 2:45 behind the new American top rider, Greg LeMond, announcing at L’Alpe d’Huez, “Today was my last day of competition.” He did so as the grand winner of the world’s most prestigious mountain stage. For lack of a more theatrical exit, the Badger climbed the last great col of his career at almost 2,000 meters (6,562 feet). In retrospect, his conduct was that of a pugnacious former champion, with the victory high atop the Alpe compensating for the absence of a final victory in Paris. That was why everyone — in France, at least — thought the 1986 Tour also belonged to him, in some small way.